Stephen McNeil. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Premier Stephen McNeil denies he lobbied or advocated for additional provincial money to be spent on a $3.5-million outdoor track and field facility in his own riding.

The eight-lane track next to the new Bridgetown School is being financed through Ottawa’s Small Communities program. Twenty-five projects in the province have been approved through this federal program, which requires each level of government — federal, provincial, and municipal — to contribute one-third of the project’s cost. But in the case of the Bridgetown track project announced December 20, the Nova Scotia government picked up the $1.1 million the municipality was supposed to pay.

“Did you advocate for the province to pick up the two-thirds share of the funding?,” journalist Brian Flinn asked Premier McNeil after Thursday’s Cabinet meeting. “No, I did not,” said the premier firmly. “I saw the proposal before it went in. What I said to the community organization was, ‘you have to send that to the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage; that would be the appropriate funding model.’ I did not at any time call up the deputy or the minister and say this project has to be done. This project went through the normal process.”

Maybe. But of 25 applications to the Small Communities program, the only other instance where the McNeil government covered the municipal share of the cost was for a new community centre in Acaciaville, Digby County, a few weeks prior to the 2017 provincial election, which the Liberals won.

Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston disputes McNeil’s contention the Bridgetown track application went through the “normal” channels.

“The issue is the province paid more money for this facility than it would normally pay in the ordinary course of business,” points out Houston.  “I think anytime you have something that is the exception to the rule, the onus is on the government to be more transparent because there will be a lot of municipalities wondering how they get that type of a deal. They all have infrastructure needs and this was done differently and people still don’t know why.”

McNeil said his Valley constituency office was involved in reaching out to assemble a committee to get the recreation project going after the new school was built. (The decision to build the school itself was criticized by auditor general Michael Pickup for leapfrogging over others waiting in the queue.)

Deputy Communities Culture and Heritage Minister Tracey Taweel told reporters Wednesday that the Municipality of the District of Annapolis had been working on the track proposal since 2015 but didn’t have the money to pay for its portion. Taweel said she learned in September there was enough money remaining in the Small Communities Fund to make an application to Ottawa.

Asked if he thought the “optics” looked poor, Premier McNeil punted the matter back to the department which approved it.

“I have a lot of confidence in Minister Glavine and his integrity, a man whom I was elected with since 2003,” said McNeil. “At no time have I ever questioned his integrity or his decision-making.”

NDP leader Gary Burrill said he had no reason to doubt Premier McNeil’s word; he had done no more than any other MLA would in directing constituents where to send a request for funding. But Reverend Burrill went on to damn McNeil with faint praise.

“The difficulty with your word is it depends on how you have conducted yourself in the past,” noted Burrill. “For example, it is only natural that people having heard the premier say that he was not lobbied by Jean Chretien about the port and having heard the premier say about the FOIPOP breach how it wasn’t the government’s fault but a 19-year-old’s fault. When you don’t conduct yourself truthfully over time, it has a price. So when we come to a situation like this, it’s only natural that people would have questions about the integrity of the premier’s word.”

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Annapolis County didn’t have the money, eh? Compared with other rural counties in Nova Scotia, lovely Annapolis seems to be doing ok. Its population was nearly stable between 2011 and 2016, unlike 15 other counties that continue to lose people in droves. Makes you wonder how Glavine’s department measures economic neediness among municipalities. Or is it just that the county didn’t want to spend its money on the track, what with McNeil’s pork barrel available?