Taking A Flyer

 

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At HRM Council on May 14th, first reading was granted to a motion by Coun. Lisa Blackburn to enact Bylaw F-100 respecting advertising flyers. This is an issue that has been kicked around by Council for over a decade with no action until now. This has been well-documented by the local news media, with one such story here:

CBC Story

Flyers can be a nuisance to some people. I know I never used to bother with them when I found the plastic bag on my doorstep, as I prefer to read them online. I would take them out of the bag, put the contents in my paper recycling and the bag in my main recycling can. But I know that some people not only use them but look forward to them, so an outright ban would not be a good idea. More on that later.

In my case I have successfully opted out of receiving them for a few years. I saw an email address posted somewhere ( flyerdelivery@herald.ca ) that you could use to discontinue them, and while it took two tries, eventually they stopped. Apparently that success is not universal though, given the number of people who reported numerous times trying to stop them with no success.  Boo to the Herald for not making that work better. But I’m not sure that the weight of a bylaw and all the cost to taxpayers that entails is the best way to fix that problem.

During the discussion at Council, the point was made by a number of Councillors and the HRM Solicitor, John Traves, that this type of bylaw was the only viable way of policing the distribution of flyers because anything further would violate the principles of freedom of expression outlined in the Constitution. I found that rationale strange. Nobody was talking about limiting the ability of those people who wanted the flyers to receive them. The problem was those who did not want them getting them anyway, along with the cost to HRM of dealing with the waste paper and plastic, and their contribution to littering. If, for example, an opt-in or subscription system was implemented, those who wanted the communication the flyers contained would still receive it, while reducing the burden on others who had to deal with the fallout from the existing flawed process.

I read the report that went to Council and it did not cite any legal opinions or cases. But in the discussion at Council, Traves mentioned a report that went to Council in 2012 that supported the position. It took a lot of digging, but eventually I found it, here:

HRM Reports on Flyers

This is a compilation of several other reports to Council going back over a decade. In the discussion section on pages 2 and 3, it talks about an opt-out over an opt-in system, and concludes “An outright ban would not be minimally impairing and would not pass the test. Neither would an “opt-in” requirement as opposed to an “opt-out” requirement. A by-law  (like ones adopted  in Ottawa and in Calgary) that imposes reasonable delivery standards on distributors and requires distributors to respect the clear wishes of a property  owner/occupier would, however, likely be upheld if challenged.”

While an outright ban would certainly be questionable regarding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the analysis of opt-out over opt-in is missing. I looked and looked, and could find no rationale to support that statement. It is just hanging out there with no visible means of support. The analysis of “minimally impairing” and “reasonable” is missing too. It would seem that the one thing that an opt-out system has in its favor is that it is the least risk to HRM should they should ever face a legal challenge. But we do not know how much more risk an opt-in version would entail. Would that not also reflect “the clear wishes of property owners” that they mention as a benefit of the opt-out option they are proposing?

Looking at that material took me down to page 35 of the document where there is a legal opinion from 2012 authored by Marion Tyson, who at the time was Acting Director of Legal Services for HRM, a position she took after retiring from the Province of Nova Scotia as Deputy Minister in portfolios like Justice and Community Services. Way back when I joined Municipal Affairs in 1985, Marion was one of our departmental solicitors. Her reputation back then was that she was meticulous and would not hesitate to tell you something other than what you wanted to hear if her legal training told her otherwise, a quality that was not necessarily universal to lawyers in the employ of the Province. I quickly gained much respect for her as both a very good and thorough lawyer and fine person. She moved on after some years, going back to Justice where she eventually became Deputy. When she retired from the Province in 2011 she was one of the many senior provincial people who moved to HRM for a lucrative short-term gig.

Her opinion found in the document is very interesting. It deals with the question she was asked back in 2012. That question dealt with an outright ban on flyers. The conclusion in her report is that a ban would violate the Charter because, in essence, it goes too far. She then provides an analysis of various options other than a ban that would have less chance of violating the Charter, and outlines the various tests that would have to be satisfied. No recommendation is offered as to which approach is preferred, although she does point out the costs of enacting a bylaw. She leaves it to the reader to judge what the risks and rewards are of any given choice.

Now, I am no lawyer. My experience is in working with them in helping to draft legislation and regulation, and in listening to their advice. In reading all of this material, I am struck by a few things. First, the opt-out system is the one that would seem to have the least risk of attracting a Charter challenge only because it is in use elsewhere and has not yet been overturned. What the extra risk of an opt-in system might be, we aren’t sure, because nobody apparently did that work. But I do know that without any information being provided on that topic, the statement that an opt-in system would violate the Charter is simply unsupported. It may, or it may not, but we do not know. But we can presume that a opt-out system and an opt-in system might eventually, over time, end up with about the same number of households receiving flyers as people make choices to get them or reject them. So perhaps the risk of one option over another is small.

One other point I did not see relating to the “freedom of expression” Charter risk is something that might not have occurred to anyone other than me. If retailers who are being threatened with a ban on plastic shopping bags suddenly started printing recipes or promotional offers or discount coupons on them, would a ban of those be subject to the same Charter challenge? And if HRM can ban plastic bags, why can’t they ban flyers that come in plastic bags? If they ban plastic bags, what packaging will the flyers arrive in? It is all very perplexing.

I am also struck by how there has been very little time spent on the advantages of an opt-out bylaw powered by Official HRM StickersTM  over the existing system of letting the distributor manage the process of letting people opt out and giving the distributor a littering ticket if they leave flyers on your property when they aren’t wanted. That would require no new bylaw, virtually no extra costs or overhead, just some persuasion (or perhaps harassment) of the distributors to do things right. The whole thing seems rather slapdash to me, almost as if they decided to make it go away by just copying the Ottawa bylaw and calling it a day.

The other point that I could not gain any enlightenment about was whether the existing opt-outs maintained by the Herald go away once the bylaw is enacted. Will I suddenly start receiving flyers again if I do not get an Official HRM StickerTM  slapped on my mailbox? I surely hope not, but it possibly could be an unintended consequence of this. But that is just another thing the material is silent upon. Like other recent HRM bylaws, it seems to me that in the rush to do something, this was taken out of the oven way too early before it was fully baked.

 

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Catless

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For the first time in 20 years, my house is catless today. That is because the last of my cats, Rusty, died late last night. He had been diagnosed with liver disease in December after not being himself for a couple of weeks. The prognosis was not good, but medication helped him rally for 3 weeks and for a while he was better than he had been in a long time. But then the decline set in again, and for the last month or so he had been in what amounted to palliative care here at home. Just around bedtime last night it all went very bad, and I had to say goodbye to him.

 

For some reason this one seemed harder than the others. It’s particularly odd since Rusty was always a very reserved cat, not prone to displays of affection or silly play like most cats. He was always stoic, quiet, and kept mostly to himself. He was quite timid around strangers and I suppose that had something to do with his behavior otherwise. It was strange in a way because he was a big bruiser of a cat in his prime, not chubby but muscular and large. He could probably have taken out any of the other cats he shared this place with. But he was a gentle giant, and in fact was the only cat who lived with me who never once, not even accidentally, ever scratched me, bit me, raised a paw in anger, or showed any kind of aggression when I did something he didn’t like. He was never a problem at all.

 

One example of how he kept to himself will stay with me a long time. After I had my heart surgery in 2009 I was at home recuperating and my sister Pam came over every few days to help out. One day I was sitting in the living room and Rusty was across the room from me facing the opposite wall, engaged by one of his toys. Pam saw this from where she was in the kitchen and started calling to him, trying to get his attention. He didn’t move a muscle. She kept trying with no response. Finally in frustration she commented to me, “I think he’s deaf!” which made me laugh. He wasn’t deaf, he was just ignoring her. I called his name and he turned around to look at me. That was pure Rusty.

 

I first saw him around the neighborhood in what I think was the summer of 2004 or ’05. Such a big orange cat was hard to miss, and my two cats at the time, Sam and Bear, didn’t like it much when he sauntered up onto the deck. My two had finished eating supper out there and Rusty decided to sample their leftovers. He was such a big, handsome guy that I had to stop and admire him.  Bear wasn’t so thrilled though, and snuck up behind him and gave him a swat. Rusty barely moved and just kept on eating before he slowly strolled away.

 

I didn’t see him for a while after that but when he reappeared in the fall of 2007 he was in need. He still looked to be the same big, strong cat but he was clearly hungry and was grateful when I gave him some food outside. He began hanging around, though he was still quite timid and would only let me touch him occasionally. Finally when the weather turned cold I guess he felt desperate enough that I was able to convince him to come inside, and he bolted through the door and moved in downstairs. A trip to the vet revealed he had been neutered already and was in good health, so he either was lost or abandoned. For whatever reason I had a hard time finding a name for him, until one day at the office a woman I worked with said, “He’s an orange tabby, just call him Rusty and be done with it.” Made sense to me, so Rusty it was.

 

Earlier that year Fred had arrived in a similar manner as well, though he walked in like he owned the place, and those two became running mates. By this time Bear had left me due to a road accident and I had gotten what I had hoped would be a new friend for Sam in little Coco, who came from Atlantic Cat Hospital. As things turned out she never got along with any other cat, though she became very attached to me. The cat society was therefore old Sam as top cat in the house, Fred and Rusty as the bruise brothers, and Coco as diva.

 

Fred and Rusty did most things together. They ate together (preferably outside on the deck when the weather allowed), they went out together, and patrolled the neighborhood together. The golf course nearby gave them a great spot to hunt for mice and voles, and many prizes were returned to me on the deck over the years. One of the more memorable times was when I spotted the two of them up at the end of the street by the golf course fence, obviously engaged with something. It turned out to be a mouse. Fred was working the curb on the right, Rusty the one on the left. The mouse would scoot along the curb until one of them swatted it away, at which point it would go to the other side of the street to repeat the process. The game of ping-pong continued until the mouse got wise and went up a driveway into one of the backyards and vanished, causing great consternation for the two hunters. They both just loved being outside and it was sheer torture if you tried keeping them in when they wanted out. Especially for Rusty, his favorite place was snoozing or catnapping on one of the deck chairs outside until the weather was too cold or too wet to tolerate. He loved being in the sun, and the deck was his spot.

 

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That continued right to the end for both of them. Fred died this past July following unsuccessful surgery for cancer. That was pretty terrible for me, but this time with Rusty was worse in a way, seeing this big strong cat slowly decline and slip away. It was doubly hard because with him being the only cat in the house for the last 6 months, he had begun to express his personality at last. He was a devotee of routines and rituals like most cats, which in his case of being the strong, silent type, were mostly expressed through body language. He would find me in whatever room I was in, sit down in front of me, and stare at me until I got up. He would then tell me what he wanted by where he went, whether to the food dish, to the rear door, or most often, to the bedroom where he would jump onto the bed and tell me it was time to turn in for the night. If I had other plans and didn’t do what he wanted, he would repeat the ritual after a few minutes.

 

He wasn’t a vocal cat at all, and only discovered his voice recently. Previously he sounded like a rusty, creaky gate when he meowed, probably from lack of use, but since he became the only cat here he used his voice a little more and it became more conventional. He also had taken to hanging around with me during the day and sleeping with me for a while each night, then leaving for parts unknown before returning early each morning and jumping onto the bed with a little throat chortle to wake me up around 0630 each day so I could let him out and then feed him.

 

He did that almost right to the end although by then he was catnapping about 23 hours a day and was eating much less than he had been. But repeated vet visits revealed he was still doing reasonably well and it seemed premature to have him put down. Nevertheless his liver was clearly failing as the visible skin on the inside of his ears was noticeably yellow over the last couple of weeks. Still, he was doing OK most of the time until around midnight last night, when things went very wrong. I had to take him to the Emergency Vet Clinic, and that was that. The vet said he had suffered a blood clot that had partly paralyzed him. It was time, and I think he knew it too. Even right up to the end his eyes were clear and he was still his handsome self. It was brutal to say goodbye.

 

In some ways I admire Rusty most out of the four cats I had to say goodbye to over the last while. I loved them all in various ways, but he was different. He went through life with a dignity that I haven’t seen in other cats, right to the end. I only wish I had been given more one-on-one time with him being the only cat in the house. I feel a bit cheated about that, but this isn’t about me, it’s about paying tribute to a cat who ended up being really special.

 

When you have 4 cats of around the same age, the sad reality is that they all leave around the same time. Losing all 4 in a period of a bit over 3 years has been pretty tough. I suspect I will eventually have another cat here after a period of time, because I crave the company and I am a cat person. But for now, my house is catless and it feels very empty.

 

Rest in peace, Rusty. You turned out to be very special, big guy. Thank you.

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A Comedy of Errors

Late in October of 2009 I underwent open-heart surgery, a double bypass and a mitral valve replacement. It was originally supposed to be a triple bypass but for reasons that remain not totally clear the third artery did not receive a graft. Just as well; I was on the operating table a long time as it was and recovery was very difficult. I was discharged after a week in hospital and continued my recovery at home. I would like to be able to write an account of what happened to me that week, but I can’t recall a whole lot. I was very much out of it and as weak as a newborn kitten. The first couple of weeks at home were very tough.

Things improved through November, but in early December I noticed that I was gaining small amounts of weight after a few weeks of dropping pounds, and my breathing was not what it was. I went first to my family doctor, who despite no prior history diagnosed me with asthma and gave me a puffer. That did nothing and my breathing kept getting worse. In mid-December I luckily had a follow-up appointment with my cardiac surgeon at the QEII. He sent me downstairs for a chest x-ray and when it came back I was told that because my chest cavity was full of fluid I had a partially collapsed left lung and I was being admitted. This kind of fluid buildup happens sometimes post-op, I was told, and was nothing to be concerned about. They said they would drain it and I would only be in hospital for a couple of days. It was a bit distressing since I had driven to the appointment and parked my car at a meter, but eventually my brother came to my aid with an overnight bag of necessities and also rescued my car.

Being just before Christmas, the Cardiac ward I was admitted to late on Thursday afternoon was a festive place. The staff were in a good mood as someone had sent up a pile of sandwiches and treats from Pete’s for them. Since my arrival time meant I missed the meal service, the nurses brought me in some of these items for dinner. The room was large, pleasant, and private (I have no idea how that happened) and it all seemed quite lovely, all things considered. Shortly after I ate, two residents arrived to drain my chest.

I quickly learned what this involved. A small incision is made between two ribs to create an opening to the chest cavity. A rigid tube is then inserted and attached to a reservoir – it looked a bit like the one shown, except mine was portable and had a handle like a suitcase – and either via gravity or suction (I’m not totally sure) the fluid is withdrawn.

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They injected a shot of Novocaine into the spot where they would make the incision, and I told them that it usually takes me longer than most people for it to take effect, based on my experience in the past at the dentist. A young nurse arrived to assist. They asked me to roll onto my right side facing where she was sitting next to the bed, and they began to make the incision. I could feel them cutting and it was really painful, so after letting out a yowl of pain I asked them to wait for the freezing to kick in. The nurse took my hand and held it as they resumed making a series of shallow cuts into the tissue between my ribs after a short pause. It was still quite excruciating but I gritted my teeth since I could tell these residents were on a training mission, one explaining what to do to the other, who was doing this for the first time. With each cut I grimaced and the nurse’s eyes kept getting wider – she had never seen this kind of performance before either.

Finally I heard the more experienced resident say to the other that he was about to strike paydirt with the next incision and create an opening into my chest cavity. He said he would be ready to quickly insert the drain tube. I felt the cut and then I exploded, for want of a better word. A geyser of fluid spouted out of the hole all over everything: me, them, the nurse, the bed, the floor. You can imagine what it looked and smelled like.  I thought the nurse’s eyes were going to pop out of their sockets and later it occurred to me that it was probably a good thing that she didn’t open her mouth in shock. All I felt at this point was a nice warm feeling all over because I was lying in a pool of 98.6 degree liquid. Plus I realized that I couldn’t breathe because the pressure inside my chest had equalized.

The next thing I felt was a sharp pain as the tube got jammed into the hole in my side. Once that was done I could breathe again. They connected it to my new suitcase-like collection unit while the nurse composed herself enough to put out a call for all hands to come and clean up the mess. Three or four unit staff came in, all of whom were astounded by what they saw, and they retrieved towels to mop up me and the nurse, while others called for help from the cleaning staff. The residents beat a hasty retreat after wiping themselves off.

In due course the bed was changed, a few cleaners arrived with buckets and mops to scrub down the room, and I was cleaned up too – although the soaked underwear I was wearing disappeared when they changed my johnny shirt, never to be seen again. I settled somewhat uneasily back into my new bed. I noticed that despite the drama, I could now breathe a little better. Just after the nursing shift changed one of the new nurses came in to take my vital signs.

Everything was normal, and she was standing at the end of the bed writing the numbers down in a chart when I felt myself starting to crash. I had experienced this once before when I had internal bleeding in my leg following an angiogram and almost died (as in blood pressure 20 over zero, unable to see or breathe) so I knew right away what was happening and alerted her. She took another BP and it was 70 over something so she called a code. A bunch of nurses and doctors rushed in, stuck IVs of something in either arm, and got me stabilized again. I don’t know what they gave me because my vision disappeared for a while when I was in the low BP trough. After a few minutes I was back to normal. Good thing the nurse was in the room when it happened.

There was much consternation the next day as they tried to figure out what was causing all of the fluid to form, as the suitcase connected to the drain continued to fill with a bloody, watery mix. They moved me to a semi-private room and aside from the drain and the nuisance of the suitcase I didn’t feel too bad. A bunch of doctors kept coming to examine me and asking all sorts of questions trying to diagnose it. It could be a post-op infection, one told me. Another asked a lot of questions that led me to think he thought it might be cancer, though he didn’t come out and say that. It seemed strange to me that I could have been on an OR table with my chest open just 6 or 7 weeks earlier and nobody would have noticed that, but whatever.

The next day, Saturday, I was visited by a thoracic surgeon. He said they wanted to do a thoracic scope procedure, where they go in via a hole in the chest wall – which luckily I already had! – to take a look around. I disagreed, but in the end he persuaded me to sign the consent form. The procedure was scheduled for Sunday morning, the next day. After he left, the nurse came in to tell me that they had scheduled an EMS unit to pick me up at 10AM the next morning to take me over to the VG where the procedure was to be done. The idea of being moved was unappealing to me, but they said I would come back to my room at the QEII when it was done.

No breakfast was awaiting me the next morning due to the upcoming anesthesia as I waited to be picked up. Around 10AM the EMS crew arrived with a gurney and the comedy show began again. They took one look at me and my drainage setup and said they couldn’t transport me, because they weren’t qualified for that. None of the nurses on the unit seemed to be aware of that proviso. Another request was made and about an hour later a different crew arrived to take me over to the VG.  They loaded me into the truck inside at QEII emerg but when we arrived at the VG main entrance and they opened the ambulance doors to pull me out I saw it was snowing and rather cold, the thin cotton sheet they had me covered with not doing much to insulate me from the chill. They pushed me to the main doors of the building and they couldn’t get in because all were locked. I’m on my back on the gurney outside, shivering while snow falls on me, while they tried to rouse somebody. Finally a security guard unlocked a door to let us in, and up to the top floor OR level we went on the elevator.

The elevator doors opened on to a totally dark floor except for a few emergency lights. The EMS crew started a search along the darkened halls, calling for anyone to answer, while I was on the gurney in the elevator lobby. They came back after finding not a soul on the floor. They got on their radios back to HQ trying to get someone there to figure out what the heck was going on. They asked me if I was sure this was where I was supposed to be. How the heck did I know? All I knew was what I was told. I suggested they take me back where I came from, but apparently that was not on. But they couldn’t leave me there either. We were all stuck there.

After a few minutes of this, the elevator doors opened and a medical student (as it turned out) got off and was immediately pounced upon by the EMS crew, who were being pestered over their radios to get out of there because they were needed elsewhere. The poor guy was just going to his locker to retrieve some books, but they grilled him about who he might know that they could call to come over to let them leave. He remembered there was a surgical nurse who lived nearby and offered to call her. One of the EMS crew went with him to make the call while the other stayed with me in the lobby. After a bit they came back, the student left, and the EMS guy explained to his partner that the nurse had agreed to come over to take custody of me, but that it would be a while. Apparently everyone was moving pretty slowly that morning because the unit’s Christmas party was the night before. Oh, great, hangover surgery.

Close to a half-hour later the nurse arrived and the EMS crew got out of Dodge. I told her that I only knew the name of the surgeon who was supposed to operate on me, and she started working the phones. She raised him after a while and he said it wasn’t supposed to be done until 2PM. But since I was there they figured they would try to rouse a crew and do it as soon as they could. She got another nurse on the phone, and she arrived next. Shortly thereafter the anesthesiologist arrived, and finally the surgeon. I’m still on my back in the lobby all this time. They all went off to prep the OR and after another few minutes one of them came out to wheel me into the room. It looked almost exactly as I remembered from when I was working there 25 years earlier, right down to the pale green ceramic tiles on the walls.  With just the four of them there they realized they might have a problem safely moving me from the gurney to the operating table. “Are you ambulatory?” one of them asked, and when I said I was, they asked if I could get up onto the operating table by myself. I was starting to think they were going to want me to assist during the procedure too at this point, but I got off the gurney, hoisted myself onto the table, and they positioned me. As I looked up at the massive operating light bolted to the ceiling, the copious amount of rust I saw poking through the chrome finish on the large metal support was a bit disturbing. Maintenance was obviously not a big priority, and I wondered how often some of those specks fell off.

Finally they were all ready to go when the final absurdity took place. They were ready to put me under when they realized they were shorthanded. One of the nurses asked, “Can you hold this over your nose and mouth?” indicating the gas mask. I was beginning to feel like a character in an episode of M*A*S*H at this point, but I figured why not, so I did.  A few deep breaths later and I was out.

I woke up some undetermined time later in a recovery room with a wracking cough from (I found out later on) some liquid they had flushed my lungs with, which hurt the hole in my side every time I did it. It took a couple of days to get all that stuff out of there. While I was in recovery I learned also that they had managed to “restick” only part of my lung, so I would lose some of that capacity. The final part of the debacle was that in the hours since I arrived at the VG, it had continued to snow heavily, and the ambulance dispatched to take me back to the QEII was slithering around on unplowed streets while I coughed away in the back. At this point I figured having the ambulance wrap itself around a telephone pole wasn’t out of the realm of possibility considering everything else that had happened already. But I was deposited back safely after the comedy show I had been a part of.

Thankfully the scope didn’t find anything cancerous, but it did find a couple of sources of the fluid. One was from an incision made during the original surgery to harvest a vein from the inside of the chest wall which hadn’t healed, possibly due to infection. The other, I was told the day before I was discharged on New Year’s Eve, was a stabbing-like injury from the initial insertion of the drain tube by the resident. Over the 10 days between the scope and my discharge, I continued to drain away into my suitcase setup while they gave me a daily course of IV antibiotics. Those things were apparently quite strong and were hard on my veins, so they kept having to find new spots to put in cannulas and began to run out of places to stick me. The ones on the inside of my forearm and on the back of my hand were the most painful.

It was interesting having to spend Christmas in the QEII. The place was fairly quiet since everyone who could be discharged was sent home, and the dietary department made an attempt at a turkey dinner for those who remained.  After nearly 2 weeks they deemed me fixed, removed all the drains and stitched up the hole in my side (that wasn’t fun, but the idea of escaping made me not care there was no freezing). The main downside was that the internal bleeding made me very anemic, which hung on for a few months afterwards despite daily iron supplements. It took me a long time to fully recover.

I presume my experience wasn’t typical, but it made me very averse to future surgeries. When my aortic valve needed to be replaced in 2018, I was glad that those in charge apparently looked at my past experience and decided to do it with a non-invasive TAVI procedure. That was a comparative walk in the park compared to comedy of errors I went through the previous time.

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Is Halifax Water All Wet?

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For the second time in three years, Dartmouth residents served by Halifax Water have faced autumn water restrictions on its use. Drinking water is like any other utility service – you just expect it to be there when you need it, so to have that be compromised in two out of three years is a pretty big deal, even if it wasn’t a stringent restriction – in this instance, prohibiting outside uses like watering of plants and washing cars. In my case, a week prior to the restrictions being imposed I had begun to rehab a section of lawn in my yard that I had resisted watering all summer, so that work now will need to be redone come spring, making me annoyed. Unsatisfied with the answers I got from Halifax Water and my Councillor, I dug deeper. The more I dug, the more concerned I became.

I am not an engineer, nor am I any kind of expert on water utilities. As I was preparing to write this piece, I remembered the classic closing statement by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick at his press conference prior to the Super Bowl in January of 2015 regarding the charges that staff from his team had intentionally deflated the footballs used in the AFC Championship game. It fits well here too, just change the word “football” to “drinking water”:

“I just want to share with you what I’ve learned over the past week. I’m embarrassed to talk about the amount of time that I put into this relative to the other important challenge in front of us. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an expert in footballs; I’m not an expert in football measurements. I’m just telling you what I know. I would not say that I’m Mona Lisa Vito of the football world, as she was in the car expertise area, alright?”

I only wish I could deliver this in the dour, frustrated but unintentionally hilarious way that Belichick did with his.

In September of 2016 Halifax Water imposed restrictions on Dartmouth customers because Lake Major was “critically low”. Checking their Twitter account from that time, the only thing they used to explain that were a few pictures of water levels at the dam by Lake Major Road. Over a month later and after significant rainfall, they posted a picture of water flowing over the dam and lifted the restrictions.

This time, they imposed restrictions on September 10th – curiously, less than a month after responding to a query from a Twitter user asking if she should use her sprinklers and giving her the all-clear. In both instances, I could see no public announcement of any advisories beforehand saying that levels were dropping and giving some warning that conservation then might avoid restrictions later. Nor was their much clarity in their responses to questions about how much rainfall would be needed to eliminate the restrictions. They either didn’t know, or were not inclined to share. All in all, in both years, not a shining example of communications.

Being the curious person that I am, I looked deeper. I asked HW about the Lake Major Dam which was in the process of being replaced and which they had said would help control lake levels better once the new one was completed. They said that would not be ready until March of next year. I also asked about the pipeline across the Macdonald Bridge which was tested a few times earlier this year after being re-comissioned, and was told it was out of service due to pumping station upgrades. So both insurance policies for Dartmouth ratepayers were essentially down simultaneously, not a good situation.

I then asked Sam Austin, my Council member and someone I consider a good Councillor, what was going on. Sam quickly responded that with only 38% of normal rainfall such restrictions were understandable. Now, I don’t know for sure where that number came from, but it was clearly wrong.  I had looked into rainfall statistics for this year and at Halifax International Airport our cumulative rainfall was actually above historical YTD averages. Now I concede there is some variability in rainfall from location to location, and at Shearwater the numbers were not quite so rosy, but still not particularly drought-like. And after all, a reservoir is intended to provide a reserve supply, hence the name. Plus, there were no restrictions whatsoever on the other side of the harbour, so perhaps the weather wasn’t so dry after all. The mystery deepened.

I also asked Sam about Lake Lemont, the emergency backup which is the lake immediately adjacent to Main Street across from Dave’s Fruit and Vegetable in Dartmouth that you see when you drive through Westphal, and which was the old Dartmouth Water Supply prior to Lake Major coming online. He obviously made some inquiries and again got back to me quickly. I learned something that I didn’t know, that if it ever gets to the point that we need to use that, it brings with it a boil-water warning. Why I do not know, but there it is. Anyway, between that, the dam project and the pipeline, it was three strikes and you’re out if you live in Dartmouth.

Now more curious than ever, I did some more digging. I drove out to look at the work on the Lake Major dam replacement. There was clearly work underway, but it certainly wasn’t a beehive of activity. In fact all I saw was one vehicle and some pumps working away. Not the kind of urgency I would have expected.

With more questions than answers, I dove into the Halifax Water website. I found there is a Lake Major Watershed Advisory Committee, whose Terms of Reference start with:

“The Board will review and make recommendations in a timely manner, to the Minister of Environment and Halifax Water, on all activities or policy issues affecting the water quality, flows, levels, storm water, development and forest management in the Lake Major Watershed, as requested by Halifax Water, the Province of Nova Scotia, stakeholders and communities in the area.”

That sounded promising, so I looked at their meeting notes and was quickly disabused of the notion that they might be on top of this. They have trouble obtaining a quorum, the Chair is often not in attendance, and all in all it seemed like a Committee that needs a shot in the arm to either revitalize it or put it out of its misery. So I pressed on.

I then went to the Halifax Water Board of Commissioners meeting site. The Board has three citizen representatives along with four Council members plus the CAO and Mayor. To their credit, Halifax Water posts the full Board packages from each meeting online. Here I learned a great deal.

In the October 2016 Board package there is an information report about that year’s water restrictions. On October 9th of that year, Lake Major reached a historic low water level of 18.28 meters – still plenty of water obviously, but low enough to cause concern about reaching the level of the pumping station criticality of 17.8 meters. Because I am not an engineer I do not know why those intakes are located where they are, seemingly near the surface of the lake. The report states that 1 meter of height in the lake is worth about 3 months of supply in the absence of precipitation. I also learned that NS Environment requires Halifax Water to pump or siphon 4 cubic feet of water per second over the dam into Little Salmon River, presumably for fish habitat. That seems like a lot of water.

There was also a reference in the September meeting minutes to this, one of the few items I spotted in any of the minutes where a Board member raising a question was referenced – most of the minutes are very formal, short-back-and-sides in tone with little indication that Commissioners say much of anything. But here we have this:

6-I  WATER SUPPLY LAKE LEVELS

Carl Yates gave a brief overview of the lake levels.  Lake Major has been impacted the greatest by lack of rain and, as a result, on September 19, 2016, water conservation measures were implemented. The residents that are connected to the Lake Major water supply have responded in a positive way and demand has decreased. A formal submission to Nova Scotia Environment is being prepared that will include a contingency plan should this situation occur again.

The Chair suggested that updates on this situation be provided to the Board on a weekly basis.

I’m unsure if the contingency plan mentioned is for the fish habitat or the Dartmouth residents – hopefully the latter. Given that we are in the same situation two years later I do wonder if it ever happened. In any event, good for the Chair to ask for some communication.

In looking at all of the other minutes and Board packages on the site, that was the only reference I could find to capacity issues. There was mention of a proposed low lift pumping station project that would move water from Lake Lemont to Lake Major, but that seems to have not proceeded. Perhaps a big reason for that is quite possibly the most astounding thing I found in all of that information – that for the last 15 years, water consumption has been dropping by an average of over 2% per year. That’s not per household or per capita, but overall. I had no idea. Despite all the growth in HRM over that time, water use is consistently down. No wonder HW is more concerned about water quality than quantity. I guess all of those water-saving toilets and low-flow showerheads have had an impact. Which is great, except that with all that, those of us in Dartmouth are still experiencing water restrictions. Where would we be without those things?

As an aside, I would hate to be a Commissioner on that Board, if only for the avalanche of information that seems to land on top of them in every meeting. Quarterly pension plan reports (why?), endless financial, capital project, and operational minutiae, highly detailed and lengthy Corporate Balanced Scorecard updates, very technical engineering reports, it goes on and on and just seems both far too detailed and absolutely mind-numbing for a Board. As someone who was responsible for this sort of thing for the last decade of my work life, it is really quite awful to expect Commissioners to be able to absorb all of that, much less understand it. Do they really need to know about $1,300 capital purchases? That level of detail is for managers and executives, not Commissioners. That perhaps reflects the culture of the organization, being driven by accountants and engineers. Being good with detail is important for those professions, but not so much for people coming from other backgrounds, Commissioners who come to meetings 4 or 5 times a year, or the public at large.

So with all of this, where are we? It is raining today and is supposed to rain even more tomorrow, so I expect the restrictions will soon be over. But that does not change the reality that Dartmouth’s water supply has been shown to be quite fragile in recent years. The new dam, which apparently was originally supposed to be complete in March 2018 but was pushed back a year, gives an additional 0.5 meter of depth which should help somewhat, but from what I can tell that is only about a 6-week cushion. That low-lift pumping station to move water into Lake Major could also help if it was undertaken. Hopefully it will be. The pumping station for the bridge pipeline needs to be made operational ASAP. In the shorter term, the real issue here is communication.

Halifax Water recognized that they had a communications issue a couple of years ago, and engaged the agency Revolve to help them out. The result of that was, among other things, the bus placard ad shown at the top of the page, which someone must have thought seemed like a good idea at the time. They apparently were not well-received by the public and didn’t stay around for very long.

But that kind of reputational communication is very different from day to day communications, be it in the news or on social media. The way HW interacts with the public in those areas seems very formal and rigid. Again, I think that is probably  the culture of the organization being reflected to some extent in how they communicate. But you can’t talk down to people, issue surprise decrees, or provide carefully crafted, canned responses and expect to do well at communicating to the public. That, unfortunately, is all too often how HW comes across. If Dartmouth citizens had some advance notice that reservoir levels were dropping earlier in the summer, maybe we could have behaved differently to help avoid the restrictions. If we had a more fulsome explanation as to why things were challenging at Lake Major and what HW was doing about it, maybe the restrictions would have been easier to swallow other than just saying “it’s on you to conserve”. And just maybe, Halifax Water could have taken a little bit of responsibility for not having the things that would have helped mitigate low lake levels, caused for whatever reason, already in place. This is not about assigning blame, but about communicating credibly and effectively. That is something they just don’t seem to be good at doing.

Posted in Halifax Water, HRM, utilities | Leave a comment

Not a Hangover, But a Headache

william_powell_myrna_loy_asta_dog_the_thin_manOn January 14th, the Chronicle-Herald published the latest from columnist Bill Black, entitled “Drinking local — this party comes with a hangover”, in which he attempts to outline how preferential treatment provided to local producers costs the Province of Nova Scotia millions of dollars each year. As the person who had overall responsibility for this file within the NSLC for over 10 years, I feel the need to respond.

Aside from my disappointment in Mr. Black referring to the NSLC as “the Commission” – a term that hasn’t been correct in over 15 years, ever since it became a Crown corporation with outside Directors in 2001 – perhaps my greatest disdain for his piece was with the simplistic and narrow view of the sector which he puts forward. Some history is in order.

Local small-scale producers are a relatively new thing in Nova Scotia. The first farm-based winery was Grand Pre, which started in the late 1980s. The first craft brewers began in the early to mid 1990s. And the first small-scale distillery, Glenora, began around that same time. In all of these instances, the pioneers had to deal with a provincial  regulatory environment and NSLC policy structure that was ill-suited to their unique type of operation. It was built for an industry that was based on large-scale manufacturing, not one that was producing a comparative trickle of products.

When you are making products in small volumes, each unit costs you more – a lot more, because your ingredients are more expensive, your labor costs are higher, and your overhead gets allocated over a much smaller volume of product. So when you sell it, you have to charge more. If your retailer – and back then, the only liquor retailer in Nova Scotia was the NSLC – marks it up at 80% or 140% or over 200%,  nobody is going to buy your product, no matter how good it is or how much you play up the local aspect of it. That’s just reality. Most people aren’t buying a $30 or $40 bottle of wine to go with Tuesday’s frozen entree dinner.

These new types of producers forced government and the NSLC to make some changes, small ones at first. In the latter half of the 1980s government introduced the Nova Scotia Farm Wine Policy as an agricultural development incentive – for growing grapes – and gave some advantages to wineries that also grew their own grapes locally, namely the ability to sell their products on-site and keep a bigger portion of the markup. In the 1990s the NSLC recognized that high markups on commercial beer meant that they couldn’t sell local craft beer because it would be priced out of range, so that was adjusted downward for those producers, just as every other jurisdiction in Canada eventually did. It only makes sense.

I remember when I had my first visit to a Nova Scotia winery in 2001, something which was totally foreign to me at the time. I visited the Jost Winery in Malagash, met Hans-Christian Jost, and toured around the facility. I was astounded to find such a bustling place in what was otherwise a fairly sleepy spot. People were working there, and lots of  visitors were coming in and spending money. To see that kind of activity in a such a rural part of Nova Scotia was an eye-opener. That kind of economic activity simply would not exist there without the regulatory and policy framework that had been put in place, and Hans-Christian and others in the industry had ideas on how it could be made even better.

A few years later, the Winery Association of Nova Scotia produced its first strategic plan, which called for 1000 acres of vineyard in Nova Scotia by the year 2020 and set a number of priorities for the industry to pursue. The Board of the NSLC at the time was highly supportive of local industry given that it is one of the NSLC’s 4 legislated objectives,  and agreed to help with an economic impact study to determine what the industry added to the provincial economy, which was later updated by staff within government in 2012. A similar study was done for the craft beer industry about 5 years ago. Such studies are sometimes derided for overstating the benefits that arise from whatever the activity under analysis may be. But until someone comes along with something better, they are the best gauge for measuring these effects, and the provincial Department of Finance actually is the custodian of the economic model used.

The results of these studies as they relate to wine made from locally-grown grapes or other produce are eye-opening. Because pretty much everything used in making that kind of wine is from within Nova Scotia, well over 90% of the economic activity generated stays within Nova Scotia. The industry is quite literally rooted in the ground here and unlikely to pull up stakes and go somewhere else. That creates jobs for not only the people growing the grapes and making the wine, but also for the people who make the cases and print the labels and staff the winery outlets and maintain the facilities. The activity from selling a bottle of New Zealand wine here is a mere fraction of that.

In 2007 the Board of the NSLC approved a reduced markup for wines from small regions sold by the NSLC, recognizing the higher wholesale cost that small producers are forced to charge. They also acknowledged that the profit impact was a drop in the bucket compared to the overall return of the NSLC. This let more of those wines start to appear on NSLC shelves and that better distribution combined with increasing awareness of the quality of Nova Scotia products and the broader “buy local” trend let the industry take off. As Mr. Black notes, there are now 21 wineries in this province, all of them in rural Nova Scotia where jobs are scarce. Most of the craft breweries and distilleries are rural as well. The government should be on their knees giving thanks to those entrepreneurs for doing what they do given the state of Nova Scotia’s rural economy.

Many of those same consumer trends related to favoring locally-made products led to the growth in the craft beer and distilling sectors. While initially not tied as closely to local agriculture as the wine sector, most players in those operations recognize the value in doing that and are moving in that direction. We now have a local malting facility in Nova Scotia, and farmers are planting grain crops that can be used in brewing and distilling. The amount of growth seen in both areas locally over the last 5 years is truly remarkable. As the saying goes, it’s all good.

I take issue with what Mr. Black terms a “subsidy” for these operations. A subsidy is defined as a payment made in order to keep an operation going or to reduce the price it charges. The NSLC or the Province are not writing cheques to these businesses, as was the case for the film industry. It is instead helping them to generate sales by not taking as much of a cut on sales the NSLC makes. A fine point but a useful one, since most of those sales likely would not happen if they didn’t do that.

The second, and I think more useful point, is that those sales that are now happening are not totally substitutable, or as economists say, fungible (I love that word). If you’re looking for a bottle of local craft beer, you probably aren’t buying a case of corporate beer if it isn’t on the shelf. That bottle of local Tidal Bay isn’t likely to be replaced by a box of French Cross, or by a bottle of Semillon from France. There is some substitution on the fringes, but it is small. Therefore any figures bandied about as to what it costs the Nova Scotia treasury are questionable at best, and also fail to take into account the revenue all the associated economic activity generated by the manufacture of these items produces in terms of payroll, income, and sales taxes. This kind of simplistic thinking is what the original Nova Scotia Liquor Commission used back in the day to argue against any kind of incentives for local producers, by failing to look at the bigger picture. Yes, the profits taken in from the sale of liquor help fund government services, but they are not the only yardstick. All that economic activity produced by the industry generates taxes and jobs. Import substitution is one of the best things you can do for any economy. It’s like eating your vegetables – it’s hard to do too much of it. Using NSLC profit as your only measuring tool is the best way I know of to kill a burgeoning industry, which compared to the big multinational manufacturers that the NSLC generally deals with, is still miniscule in size.

The most questionable part of Black’s piece is extending the “lost profits” argument from sales made by local producers directly to the public at their retail stores as a loss to the provincial treasury. The reality is that almost none of those sales would exist if those outlets didn’t exist. Most people don’t go to the Benjamin Bridge winery to buy their Nova 7 or to Tatamagouche to buy their Hippie Dippie Pale Ale. Unless you’re a local resident, those sales are made to visitors and tourists, and in the big picture, don’t amount to a lot. Keep in mind that the outlets wouldn’t exist if they had to pay full NSLC markup, because they would be selling those products at a loss. You can’t lose something you don’t have. It is a silly, almost churlish, position to take.

Should there be a transition point where the advantages are reduced as the operation gets large? Perhaps so. But none of our local craft producers are anywhere near that stage as yet. By any standard used within the industry, they are all tiny. Over the years the Province has bent over backwards to provide advantages to the large commercial brewers who have been located here. The one that remains provides a couple of hundred good-paying jobs, which are nothing to sneeze at. But the craft brewing sector employs more people in Nova Scotia now than they do, albeit at not as high a pay scale. By all means, track what the advantages provided by government policy to all industries may be. But don’t think the government can just pocket that money if they stop providing that incentive. In most cases, those industries will eventually just go away, and so will the jobs and tax revenue that goes with them.

The issue here as I see it is that the world has changed. The world that the old NSLC was built to operate within saw the public happy to buy products from Gallo, Constellation, Diageo, InBev, and other large multinational producers. In some cases that was because they had no other choice. The NSLC was a mass-market retailer for the most part. Niche products were largely unknown, and were never a strength of that type of model. But just like in all sorts of other sectors of the economy, the old rules don’t always apply any more. Just ask the newspaper in which Mr. Black’s piece appeared. Trying to save those old ways of thinking by destroying something new is seldom a useful exercise. The NSLC has done a good job in the recent past in embracing – reluctantly at times – our local beverage alcohol industry. In turn the various governments over those years have been happy to wrap themselves in the buy-local flag, especially when it comes to these industries. Nova Scotia is now seen as a leader within all of Canada in terms of how it has helped its local beverage alcohol industry take off. We should be proud of that. Government and NSLC can be a catalyst for it to grow even more if they choose to take on that role. Or they can kick and scream that throwing back to their old ways of thinking will give the treasury more money. It won’t. But it would be a tragic mistake both for them, and for us.

Posted in Industry, liquor, Nova Scotia, NSLC | 2 Comments

How I Didn’t Get To Meet Arnold Palmer

arnie1

I was born in 1956 and Arnold Palmer won his first PGA Tour event – The Canadian Open – in 1955, so much of his success came before I was even aware of golf. In our home we got a color television set in 1970 and, it seems to me, that is when we started watching golf on TV. Especially when it was cold and snowy and generally miserable here for a good part of the year, both my parents and myself liked watching the lush settings and beautiful weather seen on golf tournaments from California or Hawaii or Florida. “Where’s that from?”, one of them would almost always ask when they walked into the living room and saw the screen filled with images of green grass, blue ocean, and palm trees. It usually meant that they would sit down and watch for a bit, not for the golf since they never played the game, but just for the visuals. By that time, Arnold’s days of contending on the Tour were largely over, but along with Jack Nicklaus they were the two big names everybody knew about.

Back then in the pre-cable days of only 2 over-the-air channels, all you could count on seeing were the four major championships plus the Canadian Open and a few others the Canadian networks might choose to offer on the weekend. But once cable arrived you could watch golf every weekend and I found that I liked it. In turn that led me to become interested in playing golf myself and that happened in the late 1980s. I took a few lessons and read a bunch of books, and among those were a few by Palmer that not only offered tips but were accounts of his life. It was then that I realized what an important role he had played in growing the game in the 1960s, and what an incredible businessman he had become. As I understood the history of the game more, I also realized how important and respected a figure he was, not just for his golf exploits. The tips I read never made me very good at the game but I went through a period where I was totally golf-crazy and played as often as I could.

In March of 1990 I visited Florida to spend some time with my dad who wintered down there, and drove over to Orlando to spend a few days doing some touristy things. On Sunday I decided to attend the Nestle Invitational (now the Arnold Palmer Invitational) at Bay Hill, the PGA Tour event at Arnold’s club. It was the first Tour event I attended and was a wonderful day. Golf fans may remember this as the tournament where Robert Gamez holed out from the 18th fairway later that day to win the event and give Greg Norman another heartbreaking defeat. But earlier in the day when I arrived I spent some time wandering around taking it all in until I finally joined a crowd surrounding the 1st tee where the groups starting their rounds were being announced.

There was a large gallery there many rows deep and from my spot near the back I could see very little. But people were constantly coming and going so I was able to gradually make my way to the front and eventually snag a spot next to the ropes to watch the players hit their opening tee shots. In between groups there was a lot of chatter among the gallery and I overheard a couple behind me talking about how they really couldn’t see much. Glancing back, I saw they were an older couple, probably in their 60s, and both rather diminutive. Shortly thereafter someone on one side of me left and I slid over to make space and gestured for them to move up next to me at the rope line.  They were grateful and we chatted about where I was from and what to do there during the day. When the man – I believe his name was Tony Ruggiero, but I can’t be certain now, 26 years later – realized how far I had come, he asked me “Would you like to meet Arnie?”

Well, duh. It turned out he worked for Arnie in some capacity at Bay Hill, and he could get me in to meet him. I was thrilled, and he said that as soon as the last groups had teed off, we would go over to the Clubhouse and he would introduce me. Not to mince words – I was as excited as hell.

The remaining groups were seemingly taking forever to come through and I couldn’t wait for it to all be done so we could go meet Arnie. Suddenly Tony’s wife was stricken with a coughing spell that would not go away.  Maybe she inhaled a fly or something, I don’t know. Well, you can’t have someone hacking away when pro golfers are trying to tee off, so he quickly hustled her away from there to attend to whatever had afflicted her. I never saw them again for the rest of the day. Bye-bye to meeting Arnie. No handshake, no autographed program, no thanks for coming from the great man. I couldn’t believe it.

It obviously made an impact on me because it stayed with me and about 10 years later, I remember writing a letter to Mr. Palmer to tell him the story. But when I finished it, I re-read it and thought “Why would he want to read about this? I’m not even sure of the guy’s name or if he actually worked for him”, and never sent it. Now I wish I had. When I would see him on television over the last few years I could tell he was slowing down verbally, and this year it was shocking to see him on the telecast of his tournament. He was obviously not doing well and did not look very good. It was the same story a month later at The Masters when he wasn’t able to hit the ceremonial opening tee shot. I didn’t know all the details about the many health problems he grappled with over the last few years that came out today after his passing, but he had multiple ailments so his passing on Sunday wasn’t really a surprise but it was still very sad. Getting old is not for the faint of heart. Rest in peace, Arnie.

PS: One of Arnie’s many business ventures was being a co-founder of the Golf Channel in 1995. It has become a huge success, and last night when I saw the news break on Twitter I switched them on for details. They were still doing live coverage of a Champions Tour event – the Tour that Arnie helped create – but I was surprised to see no crawl on the bottom of the screen with any info at all. But finally they left the live golf in mid-playoff and went to what they do best, with continuous live programming with a revolving roster of guests live or on the phone to talk about their reactions to the news and their memories of the man. It was obvious they had taken an hour or so to scramble everyone into on-air mode from the site of the Ryder Cup in Minnesota later this week where they were still getting things set up.

I had planned to go to bed fairly early Sunday night but I just couldn’t turn it off because it was just so engaging. The emotion shown by network long-timers Rich Lerner and especially Kelly Tilghman during a live hit from Orlando was something you almost never see from TV people.  I felt so sorry for her because she was really hurting. The on-site people in Minnesota like Tim Rosaforte and Mark Rolfing were still coming to grips with the news and it was tough for them not to show their feelings. Fred Couples, the pro golfer, started to talk about Arnie on a phone hookup and immediately broke down wailing, saying “I can’t do it!”. I thought they were being pranked by some jerk. But it was indeed Fred, and he came back on the line after a few minutes, more composed this time. They had similar emotion from Annika Sorenstam, someone who normally seems pretty unemotional. It was somber but also entertaining as the night went on as the stories started to come out after the shock and sadness. It was like that all night, with great stories from everyone they talked to, people like Lanny Wadkins and Rocco Mediate and Jim Nantz of CBS and Jimmy Roberts of NBC. I gave up and finally went to bed at 2:30AM and they were still going, in their fifth hour of live commercial-free coverage. Well done, Golf Channel.

Posted in Golf, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Deputy Dawgs

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A discussion on Twitter yesterday morning about how Deputy Ministers get appointed reminded me of my experience working for the provincial government over the years and interacting with Deputies. That discussion was about whether they have to apply and compete for those positions, or if they just get appointed. I don’t know how it works in other provinces or with the Feds, but here’s what I know about how it happens in the Province of Nova Scotia.

 

First, an explanation of the title “Deputy Minister”. It really is a misnomer in that a Minister is almost always an elected member of the government in power, a member of the House of Assembly (there have been exceptions to that though, as recently as the 1990s here in Nova Scotia), while the Deputy Minister is not. They are best thought of as the CEO of a Department, the top civil servant in charge. While they need to understand the politics at play in their environment, they should still be giving their Minister the best objective advice possible. In other places – New Brunswick comes to mind – Deputies are sometimes ex-politicians or political operatives connected to the party in power. This thankfully usually does not happen in Nova Scotia. There have been a few, and at least one of them remains a Deputy in Nova Scotia today, but thankfully that is the exception rather than the rule.

 

There is sometimes an important exception to this, which would be the Deputy to the Premier, the “Deputy of Deputies” as they are sometimes called. That is the most powerful bureaucrat in any government, and issues direction to the other Deputies as to what the Premier needs them to do. It is a very demanding job that has great power, great responsibility, and great risk of blowing up in one’s face. You can well imagine the balancing act that this job needs, and the number of balls in the air at any given time. Because the person is in the Premier’s inner circle and is a confidante for getting things done, it sometimes happens that the person is active in the party structure. It needs to be a person the Premier can trust, and is not a job that is ever posted for competition as far as I can remember. Sometimes the Premier will appoint an existing Deputy into that position, but sometimes it will be someone from within the party or simply someone he trusts and likes. This person is often but not always also the Deputy for the Executive Council Office, the “machinery of government” spot where Cabinet decisions get recorded and made official, among other things.

 

In recent times it has become more common, if still not usually the case, to see departmental Deputy positions get posted for applicants. That really should not be a surprise – a lot of CEO jobs get competed for too – but that certainly wasn’t always how it worked. I remember back in the John Buchanan era having a casual conversation one day at some sort of office reception with a group of co-workers, when our Minister sat down and joined us just to shoot the breeze, a fairly rare thing. One thing led to another and eventually the subject of Deputy appointments came up. Our Minister described it in these terms: after Cabinet one day, the Premier asked the Cabinet to stay behind after staff left, and he used a whiteboard to list the names of Departments where he wanted to change Deputies. He then polled the room as to who might be good candidates. Names were written on the board, opinions were exchanged, and eventually people were slotted into the spots available like some sort of fantasy draft. As a fairly young and quite green member of the civil service, this boggled my mind. I could just picture it, the backroom boys making deals and kings.

 

But assuming the names offered were known players in the senior civil service, this might not be as crazy as it sounds in retrospect. I know from having witnessed many competitions for senior positions over the years that even the most structured and well-meaning recruitment process to pick the best candidate is still a crapshoot at these levels. Not everyone is cut out to be a Deputy or a CEO. I know that many times over the years my co-workers and I would talk about why the hell anyone would even want to be a Deputy in the first place. The pay back in the ’80s and ’90s was lousy for the level of responsibility, you had limited ability to actually change anything, you had a rotating series of politicians to try and satisfy, and your life was a series of meetings, demands, and complaints. It wasn’t like you could suddenly become a star. The system prevented that. I can think of a few occasions over the years where outside candidates who went through a selection process were brought in, guns blazing, and flamed out in short order, often because they didn’t understand politics or how government worked. Others immediately proved themselves lackluster at best and either settled into a career of shuffling around, or were eventually eased out. That taught me more about the shortcomings of H.R. recruitment practices than the people themselves.

 

Part of the reason that outside candidates sometimes struggled as a Deputy is that running a government department is nothing at all like running a private company. You could have all sorts of great ideas, do all the right analysis, make all the right moves, and be shut down with a simple “no” after months of work simply because it was not palatable politically. Trust me, having worked in government I know how that is. But a lot of people in the top chair would not put up with being shot down like that. It would cause some of them to start looking for a new job, while others would toss their grand plans aside and try to get along as best they could. Meanwhile, a person who had been around the civil service for years and rose through the ranks would understand it, even if they didn’t like it, and just continue on.

 

The other thing that sometimes caused Deputies who were parachuted into a Department from outside government to fail was that the organism itself – the Department – rejected the transplant. If there was a senior staffer who was widely seen as the heir-apparent who ended up getting bypassed, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there might be some resentment from them and their colleagues towards the new arrival. This could even filter down into lower-level staff, with the expected and unfortunate consequences to morale and performance. This was made even worse if the new Deputy was not someone with obvious credentials but instead an outside person selected because of connections or profile, which is something that happens occasionally. Any flaws will be exposed by the senior staff, and any mistakes will be made known. Should the new Deputy attempt to initiate something that was ambitious, the response was often one of nodding in agreement while whispering under one’s breath, “they’ll learn”, and not doing anything to keep them from falling on their face. I saw this in the ’90s with at least one of the Deputies brought in by the Savage government, and again later on in the Tory governments of the early to mid 2000s. Not a nice thing, but it happens.

 

This leads to the other thing I learned about the Deputy ranks in my time within government – the way to do well and get ahead is to never rock the boat very much. You can play around the edges, but the system is very resistant to change. It is well-nigh impossible to do any sort of meaningful change to improve efficiency or streamline how things work. If legislation needs to be changed to make that happen, that is a very lengthy process with no guarantee of success. If people need to be moved out, either due to poor performance or restructuring, good luck to you with that. While it occasionally happens, that almost always was in the early days of a new government when they thought they were in charge of such things. The reality is that union members working in government never go away unless they want to, they just change locations. Even non-unionized management staff have a system that protects them to at least some (albeit lesser) extent. The result is that big changes take so long to happen that most Deputies have learned it is usually best to not even try. In most cases they will be shuffled to their next assignment before anything happens anyway, so why bother? Just don’t do anything stupid, don’t get a bad reputation, keep your head down, and go along to get along for the most part.

 

One example of this that never ceases to amaze me is something I worked on in my days at Finance in the late 1990s. We were asked to look at how government managed their equipment fleet – trucks, cars, heavy equipment and the like. While Transportation and Public Works had most of that responsibility, it turned out that other departments had fleet management operations too. We did a lot of work with the staff at TPW (who were great) and realized that there was considerable savings to be had if it was all centralized under one agency, either in a Department, a standalone government operating agency, or privatized. But however you chose to do it, it made zero sense to have a bunch of Departments doing it themselves. What even made less sense was having two fleet garages damn near side by side (separated only by a fence) in St. Peter’s, one belonging to TPW and one belonging to Natural Resources, doing much the same work. I mean, that was a no-brainer. When we presented our conclusions to the Deputies, there was a lot of nodding, everyone agreed it made sense to amalgamate, but in the end nothing ever changed. As of 2012, the date of the most recent Google Streetview images I can find, the status of things in St. Peter’s remains the same. From the Deputies point of view, it would be a lot of trouble dealing with all the displaced workers and facilities, and not only would they would get no reward for their efforts but likely just a lot of grief instead. So why bother?

 

In the end, that’s why most Deputies come from within the ranks of the senior civil service. Someone working at that level knows all of this, knows how government works and doesn’t work, knows what their department does well and what it doesn’t, and knows what to focus on and what to stay away from. If they aspire to become a Deputy someday, that is known as well, thanks to their annual performance review with the current Deputy when they got to the part that talked about career development. If there is agreement on that being a possibility, the existing Deputy will plant a seed with the right colleagues around the Deputy table and the Minister may well do the same at Cabinet (especially if the person is known to and liked by Cabinet members) after the potential candidate visits to present on something. It is just a lot easier to appoint someone from within the system, even if they may not be the perfect person for the job. All that being said, it is not a guarantee by any means either. I can think of one case where someone who was pretty much a certain future Deputy made a very dumb move, which ultimately ended their career in government. Some had it snatched away when an outsider was brought in and never got another chance. Others might have all the qualities required for the job, but for whatever reason never got the call.

 

To sum up, the reality is that most departments have senior management in place with one or more likely Deputies already being groomed for the spot, so when the opportunity happens, it is just easier for the sake of effectiveness, expediency, and morale to appoint from within. You tend to see government look outside more often when a department is newly created from parts of others, or if there is a perception that the place needs a good shakeup. It is true that an outsider is often the most likely person for the job when you are looking for big changes to an organization. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that the cure for what ails the Department will always take, given the amount of resistance to change inherent in the government system.

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