Can citizens trust the Waterfront Trust?
Our dictionary defines “trust” as “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” Which isn’t the same as the definition of “a trust.” That’s more like: “A relationship in which one person (or entity) holds title to property, subject to an obligation to keep or use the property for the benefit of another.”
That may be a bit legalistic for a Saturday morning, but it’s relevant given the subject: Hamilton’s Waterfront Trust. That’s the organization, founded in 2000, charged with stewarding redevelopment of the city’s waterfront and helping citizens reconnect with it.
Hence, the name. The Waterfront Trust is the agent trusted by the city to oversee redevelopment. City council is a proxy for the citizens of the city. For citizens, and council, to — pardon the expression — trust the trust, it needs to do, and be seen to do, a credible job fulfilling its mandate. Increasingly, that is a problem. Two news items in the past week are perfect examples. On Wednesday, The Spectator’s Natalie Paddon reported that the trust has unpaid taxes to the tune of $325,000 from last year and this year. Until May of this year, that amount was even larger — nearly $165,000 larger. But the trust made a payment for back 2015 taxes, according City of Hamilton documents.
Waterfront Trust board member Coun. Jason Farr lays the blame for the missed tax payments at the feet of the owners of Sarcoa, currently locked in a legal battle with the trust. Had the owners not stopped paying their rent, the trust wouldn’t have the cash flow problem that meant it couldn’t pay its taxes. There are significant problems with that defence. One, it appears that when Sarcoa stopped paying rent, the trust was already behind in its taxes.
Two, if the organization is in such bad shape it can’t withstand even a modest financial setback without reneging on its commitments, its viability and credibility are suspect. And three, would a private homeowner or business be met with the same laissez-faire attitude if three years of taxes went unpaid?
Now the second example, from the same week, keep in mind. In another story, Paddon reported that the trust has lost its charity status because the Canada Revenue Agency found it isn’t technically a charity.
That happened in the fall of 2016. But as of this past Wednesday, the trust was still billing itself as a “charitable organization.” Common sense suggests that claim is misleading, and numerous experts agree, including Carlton University professor Susan Phillips, an expert in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership, who wrote: “Saying they are ‘charitable’ is likely incorrect — and misleading.”
If these were the only two problems with the trust, that would be one thing. But in fact they are just the latest in a long history of trials and tribulations.
Viewed collectively, they raise the troubling question: Can citizens trust the Waterfront Trust?
In 2015, the Spec’s Steve Buist reported a string of questionable spending items and inadequate answers at a time when the trust was seeking funding from the city of more than $300,000. Buist pointed out that the trust had lost (at the time) $2.5 million since 2007. He found many trust operations, Williams Fresh Café (formerly Williams Coffee Pub), the Hamilton Harbour Queen (which the trust eventually closed) and the waterfront trolley, all appeared to have shaky financial oversight and reporting.
Prior to that, in 2012, another Spec investigation raised similar questions. There were answers to many, some found adequate and others not.
In the end, city council endorsed the trust’s operations and management.
The Waterfront Trust has a string of impressive accomplishments, especially in its early years, when it had about $6 million to work with, investing in waterfront improvements, trails and amenities. The fact that our waterfront today draws hundreds of thousands of visitors is attributable in large part to the work of the trust. Hamiltonians owe trust staff, management and successive boards a debt of gratitude for that.
But that’s not the same as saying all is well. The questions, concerns and skepticism keep on coming. No one we know of has ever credibly suggested there is wrongdoing or malfeasance involved, but rather that competent management and oversight are in question.
That’s as true today as it has been for the last decade or so. So once again, we call on city council to put the trust under an intense microscope. It’s time to stop brushing off these repeated concerns, expressed by citizens, media and others. Ultimately, the present and future of our waterfront are the responsibility of city council. It’s time council owned that and acted appropriately. If that means putting this sacred cow out to pasture and taking over direct management of waterfront operations and renaissance, so be it.
Saying they are ‘charitable’ is likely incorrect — and misleading.” SUSAN PHILLIPS NONPROFIT EXPERT