“We don’t build buildings because of public opinion.
We build them for good planning…
And so I think this is a good thing for us…
In terms of the design, I think we’ve mitigated most of the concerns…”

Councillor Shawn Cleary
June 19, 2018

Shawn Cleary’s suitcase of sophistry requires a little unpacking.

Councillor Cleary is correct. Halifax city council doesn’t OK new buildings on the basis of public opinion. More often than not, it approves new developments in spite of thoughtful, articulately expressed public opposition to them.

That was certainly the flashing-neon case last week when council again said yes-sir-how-high to Armco’s latest proposal to erect a 25-storey tower at the Willow Tree corner of Quinpool Road and Robie Street.

Shawn Cleary

But that doesn’t, ipso facto, make Cleary’s next sentence — “we build them for good planning” — true.

Far from it.

In fact, council’s decisions often run counter to good civic planning. That’s why councillors so frequently have to torture logic to explain their one more one-off exceptions to existing planning regulations. And why they must now regularly twist themselves into air-filled balloon animals just to explain away each additional exception-to-the-last-exception decision they made. See, for example, Cleary’s own developer-favourable, Centre Plan-contrary calculation of how many affordable housing units Armco would need to include in the Willow Tree project to win council’s blessing to add more-than-the-permitted number of storeys to its looming tower. Hint: not nearly as many as the Centre Plan would require of it.

Memo to Shawn Cleary: professional city planners have consistently recommended against Armco’s various applications to build higher and higher.

“And so I think this is a good thing for us,” Cleary continues.

Define “good.”

Define “us.”

Cleary might also want to seek a second, third, even one-hundredth opinion on his bold assertion council has now “mitigated most of the concerns” citizens had about the wisdom of approving the Armco proposal.

So, if it wasn’t about public opinion and it wasn’t about good planning, why did Shawn Cleary and nine fellow councillors — Steve Streatch, David Hensebee, Bill Karsten, Tony Mancini, Russell Walker, Steve Adams, Richard Zurawski, Matt Whitman and Steve Craig — vote to support a development proposal so many citizens oppose? Including, of course, many of the residents in the neighbourhood Shawn Cleary represents, which is where the tower is slated to rise.

The easy answer might be to look at who donated how much to whom in the last municipal election. Hendsbee, Mancini, Streatch, Walker and Whitman all received donations from Armco Capital. Hendsbee and Walker received additional campaign funding from Geosam Capital, another developer-connected company.

But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Mayor Mike Savage, whose campaign received $2,500 from Geosam, voted against the Armco proposal. And Cleary — council’s most vocal proponent of the Willow Tree Tower development and its developer — made a public point during the last election of not accepting donations from any developers.

“When those councillors are picking a contractor, should the contractor be allowed to donate?” he had asked rhetorically at the time, adding that the lack of campaign finance laws made politics in Halifax “like the wild west.”

Cleary is now among those pushing for a campaign finance bylaw — Halifax currently has none — that would set out candidate spending limits, determine who is eligible to contribute and how much, and require transparency about who gives what to whom.

Although city spokesperson Brendan Elliott tells me “it’s our hope to have a proposed bylaw in front of the executive standing committee, a subcommittee of regional council, in the fall [and] fully our intent to have [a new campaign finance bylaw] in place before the 2020 election,” the timeline in a May 2017 staff report shows the getting-to-an-actual-bylaw process is already a year behind schedule — with the clock tick-tocking inexorably toward a next municipal election in 2020.

We shall see.

Although the CBC calculated that 17 per cent of all campaign donations in the last election came from developers — with more than 10 per cent  of that total donated by Armco-related companies alone —  it isn’t just about who contributes to election campaigns.

There is also the issue of whose voice gets heard — and listened to.

As is the case with campaign financing, Halifax conveniently has no rules governing lobbyists’ activities.

Consider Joachim Stroink, the former Liberal MLA who now carries the lofty title of director of government relations and stakeholder engagement for Armco Capital. Which makes him a lobbyist. He isn’t registered — there is no registry — and he isn’t required to report his meetings with council or staff. Yet part of his job has been to convince city councillors they should ignore the city’s existing height restrictions and forget demanding the more expensive height-for-affordable-housing trade-offs in the draft Centre Plan — and just say yes to the Armco dress.

One of the councillors Stroink lobbied, of course, was Shawn Cleary. Cleary and Stroink have a long personal friendship — and a history. In 2013, Cleary served as Stroink’s campaign manager in his successful bid to become an MLA.

Could he…? Did that…?

“In Halifax, it’s one-and-a-half degrees of separation,” Cleary dismissively dismissed any suggestion of a conflict to The Coast.  “Everybody knows everybody.”

Ironically — or perhaps not, given those one-and-a-half degrees of separation — Cleary is also the key councillor pushing for the “creation and maintenance of a municipal lobbyist registry.” A follow-up staff report to his 2017 motion on the matter is expected to land on the desk of council’s executive standing committee sometime this summer.

Our Coun. Cleary is clearly a complicated, sometimes contradictory fellow. Like the rest of us.

It will be interesting to see how his constituents parse all those contradictions when they are asked to mark their ballot in the 2020 municipal election.

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. It’s clear that HRM has ‘exceptional’ developers. There’s not a planning rule or bylaw that they don’t want their latest development to be an exception from.

    And this is the group that before the HRM by Design chicanery began said: “All we need is to know what the rules of development are.”

    They didn’t add that they needed to know the rules not so they could comply, but so they could scheme around them with some precision.

  2. Waye Mason received a donation in 2016 from a major central Halifax developer …….Jim Spatz.
    George Armoyan has been good for low income home owners for more than 30 years, his developments in what was Halifax County enabled tens of thousands of people to buy a home. Most other developers want you to buy or rent a condo/apartment.

    1. -a poll showed an overwhelming amount of Halifax residents opposed the building

      I was at the meeting and was overwhelmed by the extreme hubris of the truly mediocre white middle class male councillors who believe they are:
      -smarter & wiser than our educated city staff
      -more “visionary” than constituents
      -responsible for Armco’s profit margin
      -willing to accept favours beyond donations from developers.
      Bold.

  3. So Lindell Smith and Waye Mason voted against the proposal? These are the only two councillors whose districts are wholly on the Peninsula, Sean Cleary only has the western edge of the city. He won’t be voted in again.

    He is a liar and has misinformed voters about this Willow Tree idiocy. Cleary says he won’t respect the views of the city population who want to remain a low density, residential city. The vast majority of city residents don’t like his brand of high density development. Cleary worked for the conservative party all his life , and now teaches a business class at the Mount. He has no work or planning experience.His planning ‘visions’ of a highly dense Peninsula are tainted with corruption.

  4. Can you imagine anyone who ISNT a white Middle Aged white male getting away with telling us they know better than both the public and the professional planners?

    Halifax we have some work to do.

  5. “Including, of course, many of the residents in the neighbourhood Shawn Cleary represents, which is where the tower is slated to rise.”

    I can see a way to read this sentence so that it’s true, but on it’s face it’s very misleading. Cleary reps district 9, which ends at Oxford, nearly a kilometre away from the Willow Tree.

    1. Yeah, I think it’s a pretty crucial distinction – When the councillor representing the district (in this case, Lindell Smith) AND the councillor who represents the district literally across the street (Waye Mason – Quinpool’s the boundary) express directly contrary views, it takes a fair bit of “I know better than you” hubris to go against their, and their constituents’, wishes.

      1. Naive. When I was a member of Dartmouth council a colleague strongly opposed a proposed residential development in his district and when I quietly asked him if he wanted me to vote against the proposal. he said ‘Oh no, vote for it. I have to oppose it because some of the residents oppose it. Besides, we need the revenue from the development’.
        Out of the 62,000 people who live on the peninsula fewer than 200 opposed the Armco proposal.

        1. Colin – you’re contradicting yourself.

          Only one of these two thing can be true:

          a) There are very few people on the peninsula who support this (your “…fewer than 200…” comment.) If that’s the case, then Smith and Mason made the politically *unpopular* choice by voting against it.

          b) Alternately, I’m naive, and the councillors are cynically voting against it for purely electoral-popularity reasons when they actually know that it’s good for the city. If THAT’S the case, then clearly it’s an electorally UNpopular proposal – ergo a pretty large number of people don’t like it. If that’s the case, then your comment about 200 people is just wrong, and demonstrated as such by your first paragraph.

          Of course, the other possibility is that, in fact, it’s not good for the city, the councillors know that, the majority of the residents of their districts know that, and so their votes were both the correct ones for the city and the popular ones with their constituents. Call me naive if you will, but that sure seems to fit the evidence better than any other argument I’ve seen.

  6. “Everybody knows everybody.”

    A true insider’s view. I’ve lived here over 10 years and run in “middle class” (and up) social circles, but I don’t know a single developer and I’m pretty certain I’ve not even met one…..and I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone who even works for a developer.

    I’m very tired of council constantly over-turning development limits for arbitrary, and often insignificant, reasons. It’s unlike any other place that I’ve lived in that regard.

  7. “As is the case with campaign financing, Halifax conveniently has no rules governing lobbyists’ activities.”

    That is the key now isn’t it. Also and in what private forum, behind closed doors not unlike the closed door discussions regarding our forthcming stadium.

    It all erodes public confidence in our electoral system. Sure you can vote from the comfort of your own home but if the public believes decisions are being made behind closed doors, despite public opinion, then we are one step from Putinesque oligarchy.

    1. It may or may not be true but Councilors accepting campaign money from developers and their unregistered lobbyists who get closed session Council meetings which repeatedly lead to case by case violation of tepid planning guidelines certainly conveys the appearance of developer-council corruption in H/\LIF/\X. When exactly does the Center Plan get implemented? After everybody’s big bucks towers are already underway perhaps? Surely not.

      I see no contradiction in Councilor Cleary positioning himself as the point man in advocating overdue and necessary reforms. If he controls the process he can portray himself to his voters as flying with the angels by not accepting direct campaign donations from developers while steering these reforms to his liking. Maybe his payment might come after his Council career, maybe with a plumb job with the Armoyans or WM Fares? Someone with his experience and connections would be a valuable asset in steering development proposals through a future City Council, and he wouldn’t even have to register as a lobbyist.

      Look, if we don’t build big towers, H/\LIF/\X would just be a decrepit open-air museum, right? Besides, we really need a huge football stadium, and we simply can’t expect the private sector to carry that burden alone, can we? That’s not how we do business in H/\LIF/\X. Somebody’s got to grease to ways.

      I predict Mr Cleary will have a bright future.