Town responds to criticism from former mayor

PORT HAWKESBURY: After a four-year hiatus, the former mayor, has re-entered the political fray.

On August 14, former Port Hawkesbury Mayor Billy Joe MacLean issued a public statement that he will not run in the municipal election this October.

In the statement, MacLean said he considered running and expressed his frustration with the current direction of the town.

Specifically, the former mayor is taking issue with what he called “a severe lack of transparency with the towns’ taxpayers,” the first example of which was the new management contract for the local airport. MacLean said he was denied access to the new agreement.

“Throughout my time in office, taxpayers were never denied access to documents for projects paid for on their dime,” MacLean stated. “This is simply not acceptable. This is one of several examples of denial of access to public documents based on stated ‘confidentiality.’ Documents for publicly funded projects are, by their very nature, not confidential.”

MacLean also pointed to what he termed the “unethical distribution of taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” and as an example pointed to infrastructure provided for a new dog-grooming establishment.

“There was a 1,500-foot sewer/water system that, to my understanding, cost $30,000 of the taxpayers’ money,” MacLean asserted. “In my 50 years involved in public life, it would be viewed as highly unethical for the town’s taxpayers to pay such a bill.”

The former mayor then called the reconfiguration of Reeves Street “a big mistake” which he said led to disputes over its financial viability and impact on safety. Again MacLean claimed that he was denied access to the project files.

“Since the project’s completion, there has been ample evidence that reducing the lanes from four to two has actually increased the risk of accident, not to mention drastically and negatively altering our citizens’ daily commute,” MacLean wrote. “The Reeves Street redesign was a terrible mistake that must be rectified. The utterly confusing road markings are difficult to navigate at this time of year – so how is safety expected to improve in the winter months when they are covered by snow?”

In addition to taking issue with distribution of façade funds, MacLean said the current council has failed to provide affordable housing for seniors.

After the town received the former property of the vocational school from the provincial government, MacLean claims the town negotiated with Shannex to build a multi-purpose facility with 50 assisted care beds, 30 affordable housing units for seniors and 30 condos for rent or sale.

“The complex would have been massive for the town, the largest project since the nautical school,” MacLean said. “In the minds of the current council, this project was deemed impossible and dropped in favour of pursuing companies to invest in our town in the form of a new hotel. With the existence of a large hotel already in town, The Maritime Inn – which employs roughly 65 people and pays the highest taxes in the town – I believe this to be an unjust pursuit.”

After endorsing incumbent town councillors Hughie MacDougall, Mark MacIver and Blaine MacQuarrie, MacLean implored residents to run.

“I am calling on responsible people in business and in industry, who have not yet done so, to put their names forward for election,” MacLean added. “The Town of Port Hawkesbury is a business that needs to be administered in a proper manor. New, enthusiastic and genuine voices are needed.”

Port Hawkesbury Chief Administrative Officer Terry Doyle refuted the mayor’s allegations.

With respect to the airport, Doyle said this is a lease/service agreement with Celtic Air Services Ltd. that is subject to confidentiality.

“At the time of negotiation, there was some real concern about competition, with respect to airports, that’s why that was signed,” Doyle said. “I have no recollection of our former mayor asking for that.”

Unless the town signs a personal agreement, Doyle said contract documentation, financial statements and project information are all available.

“We’ve taken significant steps to increase openness and transparency, with respect to how we conduct our council meetings, the committee-of-the-whole, how we report on what we post,” the CAO explained.

As for sewer and water upgrades for a pet care business in the town, Doyle said this business was treated like every other in the town, and has helped to contribute to the local economy.

“I don’t know where he gets the dollar figure of $30,000,” Doyle told The Reporter. “With respect to specifically doing something for that business more than what we would do for any other business is simply not correct.”

On the topic of Reeves Street, the CAO responded that a committee of council – with Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal engineers, the volunteer fire department, Emergency Health Services, and the RCMP – is evaluating the effectiveness of the street based on traffic volumes, speeds and other data.

“There’s been significant reduction in the speeding issue since the changes have been put in the place,” Doyle noted. “There’s absolutely no evidence that would suggest, from RCMP and fire hall information, that there’s more accidents on Reeves Street.”

In response to charges that the town chose a hotel development rather than pursuing an affordable housing project, Doyle said the town did not ignore that proposed project with Shannex.

“That development idea came up quite some time ago. It wasn’t followed through. That wasn’t something that happened in the last four years or even the last eight years. That’s a project that’s been on the go for quite some time,” Doyle noted. “We certainly, certainly did not ignore a request from Joe Shannon or anyone else to build housing or senior’s housing.”

To fill the need for accommodations in Port Hawkesbury so the town could host larger events, Doyle said a hotel development was proposed.

The Point Tupper Industrial Park does have a lot of potential, Doyle said, and he acknowledged that more can be done to maximize that potential.

Despite some disagreements with the Municipality of the County of Richmond, Doyle said the two municipal units have a good relationship, citing their new governance model for Landrie Lake, a partnership to hire an economic development officer, and the existence of joint groups like the Strait-Richmond Housing Coalition and the Cape Breton South Recruiting for Health Committee.

“I think we’ve made tremendous progress, specifically between staff, but also very much between council,” Doyle said. “I think we’ve moved things along quite well.”