Can cit­i­zens trust the Water­front Trust?

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Howard El­liott

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

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