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Public delusions

The concert scandal brings together everything that’s wrong with public life in Halifax.


Last week, Halifax councillors did something remarkable: they held a public conversation about a controversial topic. And you know what? Nothing terrible happened.

At issue was the resolution of the bill for the concert scandal---the last $359,550 of secret loans of taxpayer money to promoter Harold MacKay that was not repaid. City solicitor Martin Ward urged council to discuss the bill in secret, but smarting from criticism about too many secret meetings, council rejected that advice, and had the discussion in open session, before the public, the press and on TV.

It was the right thing to do. The concert scandal has greatly interested the public, and for good reason: we should all be concerned when public funds are used as a private bank account for the connected few. More than that, the scandal brings together, in an almost poetic fashion, the multiple failures of our public life: our pathetic provincial mindset and its need for civic validation at any cost; the absurd notion created out of whole cloth by the Chronicle-Herald that Halifax has a “rivalry” with Moncton, and we’re somehow losing it; the wince-inducing over-the-top adulation among many, including city councillors, for aging rock stars; the acceptance that our public affairs can be left to an elite but incompetent managerial class running Trade Centre Limited with no oversight beyond that provided by fictional financial projections; the almost ritualistic verbal stoning of those who question the collective mythology as “nay-sayers,” “anti-progress” and “Halifax haters”; a mayor who figured out a finely crafted image as bumbler will win elections and serve as cover for secretly shifting millions of dollars in public funds in utter violation of the city charter, normal financial controls and, well, democracy; and above all, the complete and utter lack of public accountability---through this scandal, none of the responsible conspirators have suffered any real consequences to their reputations, careers or criminal records. It’s like a lazy, low-budget version of The Wire, without any appealing characters or a serial-killing Omar to provide moral clarity.

Where was I? Oh yeah, secrecy. For the first time ever, councillors rejected the legal advice to talk in secret. This is proper: lawyers will always urge secrecy---that’s what lawyers do---but councillors are the boss here, and sometimes the responsibilities of public office call for rejecting the advice of lawyers.

So last Tuesday council had a two-hour discussion, the first hour devoted to arguing over the merits of talking in public or not, the second hour devoted to the actual issue at hand, the money. The discussion was long, convoluted, took many digressions. But so what? That’s what public debate is for; I’ve never understood the criticism of council for taking time to debate stuff---most of our problems unfold precisely because we don’t talk enough about them. In any event, the discussion was for the most part intelligent, and anyone watching came away from it with a better understanding of why council ultimately paid the bill.

I disagree with council’s decision, but this is a judgement call: reasonable people can disagree on this point. I explained the complicated financial arrangements in detail at, but in short, I think council should’ve sued Trade Centre Limited for the lost funds, where Ward argued, and council agreed, that it was unlikely to win such a suit.

The decision is complicated, I think, because council has agreed to enter into a $300 million-plus financing scheme with the province for jointly running Trade Centre Limited, which will in turn run the proposed new convention centre. It’d be a messy can of worms to have the city in effect be suing itself.

And the concert scandal isn’t over. Auditor general Larry Munroe will soon issue a report detailing TCL’s unauthorized takeover of the Metro Centre box office in 2006, which ultimately made the concert scandal possible. The details are too complex to go into here, but it’s just another instance of un-democratic use of public money, a see-no-evil council and, again, lack of accountability. Hopefully Munroe will tell us exactly how many millions of dollars the city has lost because of it. Stay tuned.

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