Steve Streatch

Let us now insult Steve Streatch and impugn his integrity, and while we’re at it, let’s do the same to some of his councillor colleagues.

Streatch represents District 1, a sprawling, suburban-rural Waverley-Fall River-Musquodoboit Valley constituency. It is far from central Halifax. Central Halifax is where Armco Capital Inc., one of the city’s biggest developers, proposes to erect a hugely high-rising condo tower overlooking the Common.

Despite that, for reasons that may become clear, Streatch was in high dudgeon last week about the Armco project and the controversy that swirls around it like a wind tunnel.

The latest twist? The Willow Tree Group, a citizens’ lobby that opposes both the developer’s original 29-storey proposal and also city staff’s slightly modified 20-storey variation on the same theme, politely asked councillors who had accepted donations from the developer (many of them) to recuse themselves from further discussion of the project.

That, declared a suitably chagrined, shocked and appalled Streatch, “was an insult not only to my integrity but to that of my colleagues and to the process.” Flushed with his own indignation, he continued: “When you are elected and when you take your oath of office,  you swear allegiance not only to the municipality but also to the Queen.”

To the Queen!

“I take that very seriously and to have anyone suggest otherwise is a real affront to my integrity.”

Fair enough.

But let us remember that the offended aforementioned Mr. Stretch accepted $1,000 from Armco to feed and clothe his 2016 municipal election campaign, and willingly received a similar sum in his losing effort in 2012. (In that race, his equally pro-developer opponent also scored $1,000 from the equal opportunity Armco. In fact,  Armco contributed $16,500 to 14 candidates, including mayor Mike Savage that year.)

And then let us connect the dots between the voices of some other councillors still stridently supporting the long since discredited 29-storey version of Armco’s proposal at last week’s council meeting and Armco’s previous largesse to them.

David Hendsbee

“If you ask me,” District 2 councillor David Hendsbee declared of the staff report recommending the project be capped at 20 storeys, “this is a disservice to the opportunity for the developer. I would not handicap this at 20 storeys.”

In 2016, Armco gave the developer-cuddly councillor $500; in 2012, $1,000. In fact, according to a CBC investigation, Hendsbee scored 41 per cent of his total campaign donations from developers in 2016, a whopping 61 per cent in 2012.

Bill Karsten, the councillor for District 3, demonstrated his convoluted mathematical reasoning by claiming that, “if the step up and the setback is accurate and correct, there is no difference between a 20-storey building and a 29-storey building.”

Bill Karsten

Karsten received nothing from Armco in 2016, but that’s because he won by acclamation. In the contested race in 2012, when more than half of his campaign contributions came from developers, Armco contributed $1,000.

This could, of course, all be just another convenient collision of self-interest and public interest. There is no evidence of any play-for-pay collusion in any of this. But there is… well, a whiff and a waft of… je ne sais quoi.

What can be done to clear this fetid air?

“I think if they weren’t accepting donations [from developers], no one would be questioning their integrity,” Janet Stevenson, a member of  the Willow Tree Group, quite logically told Canadian Press. “It’s a very easy fix — don’t accept donations.”

But that, of course, seems easier said than done.

Consider that, back in November 2014, Mayor Mike Savage — himself the beneficiary of many developer dollars during this record-setting 2012 election fundraising — called for a staff report on municipal campaign finance reform, including donation and spending limits.

In May 2016, the provincial government, which controls such municipal matters, actually passed legislation giving the city power to create its own campaign funding rules. But, for some reason, city council couldn’t get its act together in time to change anything in time for the 2016 election.

So all that was required — again — was a post-election disclosure form, showing who gave each candidate how much money over $50. No limits on who gave, or how much they contributed. No auditing of the filings. No penalties for failure to comply.

Developers gave and gave until it hurt… the integrity of the election.

In February of this year, council tried again. A staff report was presented to the city’s executive committee suggesting “extensive public consultation” on new rules governing campaign spending limits, maximum contribution limits, disclosure requirements and “eligibility to contribute.”

Will those rules be in place in time for the next election in 2020?

We shall see.

In the meantime, development goes on. Last Tuesday, council voted to send Armco’s 20-storey proposal — which still “disregards” 10 city bylaws, according to the Willow Tree Group — to a public hearing.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Tim – two things re: Mr. Kimber’s piece:

    a) “There is no evidence of any play-for-pay collusion in any of this.” – Move on. Time to stop smearing people who have not been found in violation of ANYTHING (I get it, appearance of conflict, yada, yada, yada);

    b) “No penalties for failure to comply.” – Incorrect –

    Campaign Contributions
    49A (8) Within sixty days after regular polling day in an election, every candidate and agent of an association shall file with the clerk of a municipality or the secretary of a school board a disclosure statement showing the full name and residential or business address, other than a post office box unless that is the only address available, of each contributor whose contributions received during the period since the previous election exceed fifty dollars in total and the amount of the total contributions by that contributor.

    (12) … every candidate who fails to file a disclosure statement within sixty days after ordinary polling day, or who files a false disclosure statement, is guilty of an offence.

    On summary conviction, violations of the Municipal Elections Act are liable to a fine of not more than two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500), and in default of payment to imprisonment for a term of not more than six months.

    I know, the rules are almost non-existent and I agree with the basis for the article – there needs to be campaign reform, but, come on…time for a new story. I thought this was a rerun from last year. I guess I’ll see it every election year until council is lobbied hard enough to change.

    Whatever will we do when finally there is campaign finance reform, developer donations are eliminated, and we STILL see tall building getting erected in HRM where some people don’t want them?

  2. Those archival photos are fascinating. While it’s sad that many interesting, attractive and viable-looking buildings were lost, and replaced with pretty ugly shit, it’s clear that a lot of Halifax was a real dump.

  3. Should a councillor meet with a developer to discuss a proposed building in her/his district ?
    Should a councillor meet with residents to discuss or hear views of residents regarding a proposed development prior to a public hearing ?

    1. I firmly believe that nobody and no organization (business, union, church, special interest group) should be allowed to donate cash or valuable in kind to any political party or candidate running for elected office. I can’t honestly say that any of the Councillors were influenced by such payments, but in the Armco matter cited, it’s easy to see how that impression might be conveyed.

      All candidates for public office should be publicly funded, period. We all end up paying for it one way or another as things stand.

      Under such conditions, the opportunities for a developer to influence a Councillor would be greatly diminished.

      1. Any contribution to a municipal candidate, successful or otherwise can only perceived as a bid to influence. It doesn’t matter what righteous indignation comes from the elected person about their integrity, loyalty to the Queen or anyone else. Whether it influences a decision or not the perception is that it does and perception is everything.

        1. Imagine no Mulroney era “Mister Five Percent” extortionists skimming money from bidders for government contracts. Imagine where the Liberal Party might be today had there been no Quebec sponsorship scandal. Imagine the USA without Presidents, Congressmen, Senators, Judges and Governors being purchased by big bucks lobbies.

          Government – all levels of it – is supposed to be for the people, not corporate interests.

  4. Well, an oath to the Queen. That settles it. It would surely be imputing the grossest treason to suggest that a man who swore such an oath should ever be questioned on anything related to his conduct. Off with the heads of this impudent rabble, impale them on pikepoles on London Bridge for the ravens to peck at.

    Feel lucky. In NB we have no way of knowing who donated what to municipal politicians. Then people wonder why the same Old Boys are getting all the municipal work. And when you ask, you get exactly this kind of response. I’d rather be one step up like you guys are, ie, at least know who made the donation, to whom, and for how much, and knowing that, get my sputtering indignant response. At least I’d know what they were sputtering about.

  5. If one really believes $1,000 is enough to entice a councillor to vote in favour of a development, what does that say about belief in the integrity of the whole system? I mean, what is stopping councillors from accepting money outside the campaign period, or during the campaign period and not declaring it?

    1. Nothing, but presumably that would be an offence at law and whoever took the money would be taking the risk of being found out. And tax implications too, I’m sure, if not declared.