Selling our municipal soul: council monetizes The Oval and the Christmas Tree Lighting celebration

Teachers are now ordered to help increase the profits of Dreamworks, inc.

As I was writing the below commentary, a reader emailed the pictures above to me. These are the front and back of a flyer delivered to elementary school children in the Halifax area---and apparently to each and every child, directly, by their teachers, who, it appears, were ordered to distribute the flyers. The incident fits in nicely with the point I’m trying to make below, so I’ll return to it at the end of this commentary.

Tuesday, Halifax council met in secret for four hours and 15 minutes to discuss, then agree to, something related to naming rights for The Oval on the Halifax Common. What exactly that decision was, we have no idea; the name of the corporation and at least some of the other details of the deal will be made public at an unspecified later date.

Here’s what council didn’t do Tuesday, or any other time: hold a public discussion and vote about whether selling naming rights to part of the Common was an appropriate thing for the city to do in the first place.

I realize that many people think selling naming rights is a no-brainer; I disagree, and will get to that in a moment. For now, however, let me just say the question of whether selling naming rights is appropriate is a separate and distinct issue from how much those rights should be sold for, and to whom. While arguably (again, I disagree), the matter of negotiating the details of a sale of naming rights is subject to the rules of council secrecy, the broader philosophical discussion of selling naming rights in the first place is something that absolutely, without question, should have been held in public. That philosophical point is not a contractual matter. It is not a personnel matter. It is a public policy matter: should we sell our municipal soul, or not?

The broader community is split on the question. Many agree with me. Many others don’t. Councillors tell me council is split on the question. It’s a worthy discussion for public discussion and debate.

Probably people with my views would lose that debate. That’s the way democracy goes. But this wasn’t democracy: At no point did pro-naming rights councillors stand up before the public, make their case, and vote for all the world to see. Instead, they made that decision behind closed doors, without a recorded vote. There’s no way for the public to reward or punish councillors for their votes, because the public is completely in the dark on this.

What were councillors who support selling naming rights afraid of? Why couldn’t they stand up and announce their views in public?

The money issue

There’s something else council didn’t do Tuesday, and that’s tell us the dollar amount they sold out the Common for. For all we know, council sold naming rights to The Oval for eight bucks and 20 cents.

Maybe the dollar amount will be made public the same time as the corporate name for The Oval is announced, but I doubt it: We still don’t know, 14 months after the fact, how much BMO paid to put its corporate logo on the four-pad arena in Hammond Plains. We also don’t know, 30 months after the contract was awarded, how much the city is paying Nustadia to manage operations at the same four-pad arena---and we never will; my Freedom of Information request for the dollar amount was sloughed off into the parallel universe of FOI review, never to be seen from again. See, in the upside-down world of Halifax “democracy,” contracts between the city and corporations are top-secret, and no taxpayer has the right to see them. Ever.

Council justified its secret meeting Tuesday by noting that naming rights to The Oval are a “contractual matter,” just like the Nustadia contract and the BMO contract, so there’s no reason to expect we’ll be told how much The Oval naming contract is for.

Even if by some miracle the dollar amount is released at a future date, there is still no conceivable reason why it wasn’t released Tuesday. Council keeps stuff secret, because that’s what council does.

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