Chain of Lakes Trail Association says Coast reporting is "incorrect"

But that claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

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One characteristic of the Chain of Lakes Trail sewage issue is that accurate reporting by The Coast is characterized as inaccurate by the people we have been reporting on.

We first saw this in August, when I reported that the entire $20-to-25 million cost of the sewage project would be financed by Halifax Water ratepayers. That reporting accurately reflected an exchange—captured on an online video (at the 37:55 mark)—between councillor Gloria McCluskey and Halifax Water acting general manager John Sheppard. "So all the taxpayers are paying for this?" asked McCluskey. "All the ratepayers of Halifax Water, that’s correct," responded Sheppard.

Now, it's possible that Sheppard "misspoke," as the euphemism goes, or that Halifax Water later pulled some re-jigged financing formula out of its collective ass (I suspect the latter, but won't know for certain until I get records through a Freedom of Information request). Still, that doesn't change the reality that at a public meeting Sheppard told McCluskey the ratepayers were paying all the costs of the sewage project.

But rather than simply say, "whoops, we misspoke," and correct the record, Halifax Water went on the offensive, first posting a comment on our online article that accused my reporting of having "a couple of errors," then sending an email to councillors "clarifying" the cost burden of the project, without ever coming out and admitting that Sheppard had said something completely different.

This is how it goes in some circles: When they don't like accurate reporting that reflects badly on them, they accuse the report of being in error. This is annoying. We reporters take our jobs seriously, and try to get the fact of the issues right. We're human and make mistakes, sure, so we try to correct those mistakes. But simply to say an article is "in error" because you don't like its content, well, that's an unfair attack on the reporter.

Beyond that, it's unfair to the public, who Halifax Water nominally works for. The public deserves an honest answer, not spun or obfuscated.

COLTA says Coast got it wrong

Now it's the Chain of Lakes Trail Association's turn. Last week, COLTA sent me a letter saying that my reporting is "incorrect" and "requiri[es] some clarification." Here's the letter, in whole:
September 12, 2013

Dear Mr. Bousquet:

On August 27, 2013 you published two editorials requiring some clarification (Three councillors and Halifax Water representative failed to tell citizens' group about sewer proposal; and Most COLT users don’t know of sewer project). In your first editorial, you state that “Councillors Linda Mosher, Russell Walker and Reg Rankin and Halifax Water manager Barry Geddes all knew about the project but failed to tell the Chain of Lakes Trail Association (COLTA).” This is incorrect. COLTA was aware of the possibility that the Chain of Lakes Trail would be used for the sewer – we had been given a presentation and notified, for instance of bore hole testing. However, it made sense to wait until HRM Council approved the recommendation before going public.

You had also stated that the “Halifax Water manager” was merely “a liaison to the citizens’ group.” Barry Geddes has been an ex-officio member of COLTA since 2009. Our by-laws do not preclude members who do not “…live in the immediate vicinity of the trail, defined as within the former council districts the trail travels through.” People living outside of this area can serve on the Board if approved by COLTA.

It is not true that “COLTA is an on-again/off-again group first created in 2009…” Since inception, we have met regularly and have never disbanded. However, it is true that a “default for non-payment” to Joint Registry of Stocks occurred in May, 2012 and we are listed as “reactivated in October, 2012”. As a new group with a number of personnel changes, we have had our share of growing pains but have been a continuous presence, despite the impression given by the rath [sic] bylaw changes er [sic] cryptic legal record kept by Joint Stocks.

Contrary to your claim, organizational changes were made in the prescribed manner, at our annual general meeting of June 6, 2013. Since then, our capital, maintenance and events committees have been active and met on a number of occasions. We also have trail patrol wardens, trained by the Nova Scotia Trails Federation, who do regular trail patrols.

As for your second editorial, a number of efforts have been made to inform the public and more are being planned. COLTA representatives are meeting regularly with Halifax Water in order to plan and execute stakeholder involvement, which will include open houses and other means of communication.

Thank you for your interest in the Chain of Lakes Trail Association.

Lorne Logan
President, Chain of Lakes Trail Association
[emphasis in original]

The tone of the letter is accusatory: The Coast got it wrong. But when we review the specifics, we'll see that in nearly each case, if "clarifications" are required, the "incorrect" information (if that's what it is) is due to COLTA's own statements, or to documentary evidence COLTA itself submitted to the province. Let's go through them one at a time.

When did COLTA know about the sewage project?
Writes Logan: In your first editorial, you state that "Councillors Linda Mosher, Russell Walker and Reg Rankin and Halifax Water manager Barry Geddes all knew about the project but failed to tell the Chain of Lakes Trail Association (COLTA)." This is incorrect. COLTA was aware of the possibility that the Chain of Lakes Trail would be used for the sewer – we had been given a presentation and notified, for instance of bore hole testing. However, it made sense to wait until HRM Council approved the recommendation before going public.

So where did I come up with the "incorrect" fact that no one told COLTA about the project? From COLTA itself.

Because I couldn't find a phone number to call, on August 13 I sent the COLTA email address an email asking simply: "Is there someone I can talk to about the sewage pipe project?"

On August 25 I got the following reply:

Dear Mr. Bousquet,

We apologize for such a tardy reply to your query but we are a volunteer organization and most of us have been away from our volunteer efforts during August. Our organization does not know any more than what has been reported at city council and in news reports. However, there will be a public meeting sponsored by Halifax Water where anyone can attend and ask their questions. We don't have the date of this yet but it will be publicized. Perhaps you will find out what you need to know when that happens.

Sincerely,
The Chain of Lakes Trail Association
[emphasis added]

Reading this, it would be reasonable conclude that COLTA was getting all its info from news reports, and had no prior knowledge of the project. But I went one step further: I finally managed to speak with a COLTA board member, Madeline Berrigan, and asked her when and if COLTA had been informed about the sewage project. Berrigan told me directly that COLTA did not know of the project until they read about council's approval of it in the newspapers.

So, I reported that COLTA hadn't been informed of the project before council voted on it. That may be incorrect, but if so, the reason it's incorrect is because COLTA itself said as much.

Who can be a COLTA member?
Writes Logan: You had also stated that the "Halifax Water manager" was merely "a liaison to the citizens’ group." Barry Geddes has been an ex-officio member of COLTA since 2009. Our by-laws do not preclude members who do not "…live in the immediate vicinity of the trail, defined as within the former council districts the trail travels through." People living outside of this area can serve on the Board if approved by COLTA.

I may have misinterpreted COLTA's bylaws. Here's the relevant portion:

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When I first read this, I assumed that all of the conditions must be met, but I see how it could be read that any of them can be met. If that's the case, fair enough, I could be entirely wrong on this point. But again, in my defence, I went to great lengths to contact COLTA, I asked for an interview and got nothing but an unsigned email. I also contacted Geddes directly, both by leaving a message on his voice mail and through his Halifax Water email, to discuss his relationship with COLTA. He did not respond.

All of this could've been cleared up, had Logan or Geddes simply picked up the phone and called me back. Without that conversation, I went with what at the time seemed to me like a reasonable interpretation of the bylaws, informed by my conversation with Berrigan.

Is COLTA an on-and-off organization or not?
Writes Logan: It is not true that "COLTA is an on-again/off-again group first created in 2009…" Since inception, we have met regularly and have never disbanded. However, it is true that a "default for non-payment" to Joint Registry of Stocks occurred in May, 2012 and we are listed as "reactivated in October, 2012". As a new group with a number of personnel changes, we have had our share of growing pains but have been a continuous presence, despite the impression given by the rath [sic] bylaw changes er [sic] cryptic legal record kept by Joint Stocks.

Well, I'll take Logan's word on it, that COLTA has been meeting "regularly." But there's nothing cryptic about the Joint Stocks records at all: they're plain as day:

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Here's what I wrote:
But even though the city website highlights the importance of COLTA since 2009, documents at the Joint Registry of Stocks show that COLTA was not organized as a legal society until March 7, 2011, and folded a year later. The documents note that COLTA defaulted—failed to pay its annual registration fee and therefore lost its legal standing—on May 4, 2012.

These kinds of difficulties face many such citizens’ groups: interests wane, people have other priorities and the society languishes. But soon after it defaulted, COLTA president Lorne Logan put out a call for volunteers, and COLTA was reinstated with the Registry, with a new board of directors.

The document naming the new board of directors is dated June 21, 2012, but was not received by the Registry until October 9, 2012—the day after a new council was elected. The new directors included newly reelected councillors Linda Mosher and Russell Walker, as well as Mary Wile, who lost her bid for reelection to Reg Rankin. Eleven other people were also named or reappointed to the board.

That incarnation of the COLTA board existed through the spring of 2013, when according to Berrigan, COLTA had its last meeting. Still, even though Berrigan says the board has not met since “April or May,” a set of documents dated June 6, 2013 outline several changes to the organization: the bylaws were changed, apparently allowing Geddes to be named to the board of directors, Wile and another member were taken off the board and Rankin was put on. The documents don’t say how these changes could be made without board approval, but they are signed by Logan. Logan did not respond to a request for an interview.

Now, while the Joint Stocks documents speak for themselves, it could be that Berrigan is simply wrong. I find it odd, however, that at no point has Logan said, "oh, sorry, Madeline Berrigan has that wrong." Moreover, she told me directly that after media reports of council's July 30 decision, the collective COLTA group was surprised by the news, and knew nothing of the sewage project.

Is it right to criticize me for correctly reporting what a COLTA board member told me?

Did COLTA meet in the summer?
Writes Logan: Contrary to your claim, organizational changes were made in the prescribed manner, at our annual general meeting of June 6, 2013.

All I can say is that COLTA board member Berrigan told me the group did not meet during the summer.

It's worth pointing out that I went to great lengths to try to get comment from COLTA. Besides the email exchange cited above, where I specifically asked for a conversation with someone from COLTA, I also contacted the provincial trails federation and asked them for help in locating a COLTA spokesperson. If there's any confusion here, it's COLTA's own fault, for not simply picking up the phone and calling me back.

I'm sorry for the long blog post, but it has long bothered me how people try to spin the media. I'm remembering what Karl Rove told reporter Robert Suskind:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
No one in Halifax is as good at denying reality as is Karl Rove, but there are recurring attempts to discredit media reports simply by declaring that they're incorrect, facts be damned. This is especially the case among city councillors, who very often stand up in council chambers and accuse "the media" of "incorrect" reporting, without spelling out which media outlet they're talking about, or which report, and without giving the reporter the opportunity to respond. It's just: "the media is wrong."

Facts matter. Reality exists. Sometimes, "the media" does get it wrong, but far more often in Halifax, it's people not liking factual and accurate reporting.

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