Waterfront trust drags feet over meeting minutes
Spectator has made at least 10 requests of local agency
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.