Water­front trust drags feet over meet­ing min­utes

Spec­ta­tor has made at least 10 re­quests of lo­cal agency

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - NATALIE PAD­DON

The Hamil­ton Water­front Trust is a high­pro­file agency that over­sees some of the most prized pieces of real es­tate on the city’s water­front.

The arm’s-length agency has been in­volved with re­tail, com­mer­cial and recre­ational devel­op­ment at Hamil­ton’s har­bour.

But doc­u­ments about its board meet­ings and what is dis­cussed at them prove dif­fi­cult to ob­tain.

De­spite at least 10 re­quests over five weeks, the water­front trust has not pro­vided min­utes of its board meet­ings to The Spec­ta­tor.

Monthly min­utes, which The Spec­ta­tor is seek­ing back to 2015, gen­er­ally ac­count for who was at a meet­ing and what oc­curred.

The trust — whose man­date is to help Hamil­to­ni­ans con­nect with their water­front — re­ceives more than $300,000 an­nu­ally in public money to op­er­ate the out­door rink at Pier 8.

The city has also hired the trust to pro­ject­man­age the de­sign and con­struc­tion of public spa­ces on Piers 5-8 in the west har­bour, a con­tract worth an es­ti­mated $1.5 mil­lion.

The re­quest for board min­utes comes af­ter The Spec­ta­tor re­ported the trust is more than $300,000 be­hind in prop­erty taxes, its char­ity sta­tus was an­nulled, and that it split into two or­ga­ni­za­tions with­out no­ti­fy­ing the city.

Ex­ec­u­tive director Werner Plessl has said The Spec­ta­tor can have copies of the min­utes, which are kept in a binder at the agency’s of­fice, but has cited jug­gling the va­ca­tions of his small staff as the rea­son for not yet pro­vid­ing them.

Coun. Ja­son Farr, who sits on the trust’s board, said the board would pro­vide a state­ment in re­sponse to ques­tions — in­clud­ing why the min­utes are not ac­ces­si­ble to the public and how the records are kept — if The

Spec­ta­tor agreed in ad­vance to pub­lish it in its en­tirety. The Spec­ta­tor did not agree to the terms and did not re­ceive a state­ment.

“While we have been re­ceiv­ing some un­prece­dented sup­port dur­ing these last few months, there ap­pears to be a very small seg­ment of folks in­tent of dis­tort­ing facts,” Farr said in an email. “A fully pub­lished state­ment would pre­vent that, and in turn, hope­fully, re­as­sure the over 100 staff, the WT ex­ec­u­tive and the over 800k an­nu­ally who en­joy our grow­ing ameni­ties.”

The water­front trust has been locked in a $15-mil­lion le­gal bat­tle launched by its ten­ant, water­front restau­rant Sar­coa, in late 2015. The eatery’s sub­lease was ter­mi­nated in July. Last week, the own­ers started auc­tion­ing off the busi­ness’ fur­ni­ture and equip­ment.

Ear­lier this month, city council asked water­front trust representatives to at­tend an up­com­ing meet­ing to dis­cuss its fi­nances. They are sched­uled to ap­pear be­fore the gen­eral is­sues com­mit­tee Oct. 4.

Coun. Donna Skelly put for­ward a mo­tion ask­ing for the trust’s au­dited fi­nan­cial state­ments from 2012-16 and an­swers about the more than $300,000 in prop­erty taxes it owes the city as well as the unan­nounced an­nul­ment of its char­i­ta­ble sta­tus.

On Wed­nes­day, she called the strug­gle in gain­ing ac­cess to board min­utes “dis­turb­ing.”

Skelly said she wants Plessl and any au­di­tors or book­keep­ers who worked on the trust’s fi­nan­cial state­ments to be made avail­able to an­swer council’s ques­tions.

The Ward 7 coun­cil­lor said she doesn’t think the trust’s fi­nan­cial state­ments con­tain enough de­tail to be able to address her con­cerns, which in­clude prof­its at Wil­liams Café, staff salaries and ex­penses.

“There’s a per­cep­tion of lim­ited ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion, and that has to be dealt with.”

Coun. Matthew Green said he be­lieves board min­utes and fi­nan­cial state­ments of arm’s-length agen­cies should be made public upon re­quest.“Part of an open-gov­ern­ment strat­egy would be to have it al­ready avail­able for peo­ple so they don’t have to ask, and they don’t have to pay for it through an FOI (Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion) process.”

Since its cre­ation in 2000, the trust has de­vel­oped pop­u­lar ameni­ties such as the two water­front trails, one in the west end of the har­bour and the other along the beach strip.

For al­most 10 years, the trust has strug­gled to stay out of the red.

As The Spec­ta­tor re­ported in 2015, the trust lost money for seven years straight — about $2.5 mil­lion from 2007 to 2014. A 2015 au­dited fi­nan­cial state­ment that was pro­vided to the city shows a deficit of $453,563.

This year, the water­front trust is on deck to re­ceive more than $333,000 from the city to op­er­ate the out­door rink — a fig­ure that has more than dou­bled since the mu­nic­i­pal­ity be­gan of­fer­ing fi­nan­cial sup­port for it in 2012.

The city now pro­vides funding for the rink in the sum­mer months in ad­di­tion to the win­ter sea­son.

Two years ago, coun­cil­lors signed off on a one-time, staff-rec­om­mended $137,500 bailout of the trust in 2015 af­ter representatives came to council ask­ing for $310,000 in an­nual funding on top of the $150,000 it had al­ready re­ceived to main­tain the rink.

There’s a per­cep­tion of lim­ited ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion. DONNA SKELLY WARD 7 COUN­CIL­LOR

Coun. Ja­son Farr has in­sisted on pre­con­di­tions for re­leas­ing Trust doc­u­ments.

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