Richard Butts
Richard Butts. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Today, Halifax CAO Richard Butts abruptly announced he is resigning from City Hall. Butts will stick around for a few weeks as the job “transitions,” but effective immediately City Solicitor John Traves “will assume the authority and responsibilities of the CAO Office,” said city spokesperson Breton Murphy in a press release.

Mike Labrecque
Mike Labrecque

The choice of Traves — and not Deputy CAO Mike Labrecque — as Interim CAO speaks to ill will between Butts and Labrecque. Before Butts was hired in 2011, Labrecque was a rising star in the city bureaucracy, but in October he unexpectedly announced his resignation, effective in May. My City Hall sources tell me that Labrecque was forced out by Butts.

But the most disturbing part of today’s announcement is that Butts is reportedly going to work as President of Clayton Developments, the largest development company in HRM. Clayton has billions of dollars worth of projects in the works, each at various stages of bureaucratic approval at City Hall.

Clayton’s largest active development file is The Parks at Bedford West, a $1.5 billion project being built by West Bedford Holdings, a partnership between Clayton and Cresco Homes. The Parks at Bedford West is a residential development on 526 hectares; it will eventually house 20,000 people.

Development issues are always contested, and are the subject of considerable industry and citizen lobbying. But it’s simply not true that Halifax council or the City Hall bureaucracy is “anti-development,” and especially so since Butts has been heading the bureaucracy. The proliferation of construction cranes throughout the municipality attest to the lack of any significant check on developers.

If there’s an exception to the free reign given to developers, it’s the mild restrictions imposed by the 2008 regional plan. The plan opened up enough geography to permit three times the expected residential growth over the next 25 years, but it held the line there: any potentially developable land outside those areas was held in abeyance, not to be zoned for development until after the lifetime of the plan.

Developers saw that entirely reasonable curb on sprawl — I’d argue it’s far too weak of a restriction — as an assault on their business and potential profits. For example, when council rejected a Clayton Development proposal to allow development on the Purcells Cove backlands, the company got councillor Steve Adams to try to get the city to buy the property outright. The full city council ended up rejecting that proposal, but it gets to the chutzpah of the company.

Butts jumping from City Hall right into the presidential office at Clayton Developments raises serious questions of conflict of interest and undue influence.

“Come on, isn’t there some sort of cooling off period, like provincial ministers have?” asks Raymond Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre. “This guy [Butts] knows where all the bodies are buried, but more importantly, he knows all the short cuts. The way the top civil servant in the municipal government would go to the work for the biggest developer… he knows all the ins and outs and has great contacts.”

In fact, there is no restriction on municipal employees taking jobs at companies they regulated at City Hall. It’s a recipe for corruption, or at least ineffective regulation: if bureaucrats know they can go to work for the developer whose application they’re considering, the incentive is to cut corners, give favours, and stamp approvals with a wink and a nod.

And Clayton Developments has raided the bureaucracy before: Before he went to work as Clayton’s senior vice-president and general manager, Mike Hanusiak was a planner at City Hall.

When Butts goes to work for Clayton, he will be the best-funded and most-connected lobbyist in Halifax.

The provincial government has a lobbyist registry. Anyone who lobbies the provincial government must identify their employer, describe what their lobbying work consists of, what department is being lobbied, and what actions were taken to lobby. Some 897 people are registered as lobbyists.

But there is no lobbyist registry at City Hall.

When lobbyists do get identified, sometimes by mistake, it’s considered rude. As Chris Benjamin reported for the Examiner, when a staffer named m5 Communications VP Jamie MacNeil as the person who had been lobbying City Hall to hire its client, Lake Management Services, to put herbicides in Dartmouth’s lakes, councillor Lorelei Nicoll upbraided the staffer:

Councillor Lorelei Nicoll expressed dismay that the name of Jamie MacNeil —the m5 VP who recommended using herbicides — was made public in the staff briefing. MacNeil lives in Nicoll’s district. “It was very unfortunate to see the individual from District 4 identified in this briefing note,” she said. “When he asked to understand the process I did not say ‘are you OK with having your name made public?’ … I hope that never happens again.”

The fact is, we don’t know who is lobbying City Hall, who the lobbyists’ employers are, what they want, or what kind of behind-the-scenes communications happen.

There are a lot of things wrong with Butts going to work for Clayton, but perhaps the conflict of interest is so obvious we can finally get meaningful regulation of lobbyists.

We need two things:

  1. a law preventing municipal staffers from going to work for the companies they regulate; and
  2. the creation of a municipal lobbyist registry

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Re: Butts
    At the first opportunity, many councillors will fall all over each other to praise the wonderful work done by Mr. Butts. Mayor Savage has already done so. Even the councillors who don’t praise him to high heaven will be silent about the quick, unprofessional manner of his departure. To leave such an important job with such short notice – particularly since his second in command is also leaving – and to move to Clayton without even a hint of embarrassment, shows a level of disrespect for the citizens of Halifax that is astounding even for someone like Butts.

    Voters in the city need to make note of which councillors participate in the farewell love fest and vote their asses out in the next municipal election so they don’t have a chance to acquiesce to every request made by Butts and Co.

    The message being sent to a potential new CAOs is pretty simple. Sure it’s a backwater (witness the stupidity of donair debates, $700 jay walking fines, death of film industry etc.), but you can clean up there without even moving your family down. The politicians are so dumb you can pretty much do and get whatever you want. The corollary of course is true: If a serious, professional administrator with a modicum of integrity is asked to apply, I would expect them to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

  2. A cooling off period and a registry is pretty standard. The periods I am aware of are in the 1 year range, or you can be employed by said company but not work on a project or lobby that involves your former employer. This lets the company hire you for whatever skills they want and you can’t go hit up your friends as a lobbyist/marketer for whatever the period is.

  3. 1. a law preventing municipal staffers from going to work for the companies they regulate; and

    2. the creation of a municipal lobbyist registry

    Sounds like amendments (with appropriate cooling periods for local opportunities) should be placed in the HRM Charter; this as a minimum could fit the Bill.

  4. Clayton Developments has obviously observed and understood the fraught, convoluted planning approval process and identified the best in-house person to penetrate and navigate it. Who knows why this was an offer Butts couldn’t/wouldn’t refuse? Butts’ chutzpah in going straight from Council CAO to Clayton is stunning and nauseating. A resounding “yes” to both your suggestions, Tim! Hopefully, a fine legal mind is already drafting a future binding document.

  5. Butts has been a short-sighted pragmatist in a job designed for a visionary. And this venal move just confirms that he does not have the heart of a public servant. This better draw an outcry, because it sure deserves it. Surely this deserves at least the same amount of attention we slathered on our municipal sandwich choice.

  6. I hope it is clear with this move that public service means nothing to many ‘public servants’.

    This has been a hallmark of Butts’ tenure. Enrich himself and his inside buddies. The extra savings account for high earners comes to mind.

    Above this though the municipality will be much better off without the bureaucratic leeches. It is now up to council to hire someone who respects the public, government employees and knows that public service goes beyond self interest and money.

  7. “A law preventing municipal staffers from going to work for the companies they regulate” would effectively prohibit planners from leaving their municipal jobs and working for any architect, contractor, developer, or planning firm in the city, and many across Canada, ever. Surely this isn’t what you mean?

    1. Sure it is… at least for some period of time. This is regular practice in the civilized world.

      1. They could also go do the same job in a different city. If it was really about qualifications and not about connections this would be fine.

    2. I’m always amazed that people take issue with the suggestion of requirements like this for our civil service. Simply having the requirement in place in the first place speaks to the character and motivations of applicants for jobs like this one.