A little less than five years ago, Lee Bass, who had been the public face of Brandon’s business community, quit Renaissance Brandon in what was a very public dispute with then Mayor Dave Burgess over the direction that the organization was taking.
In his conversation with the Brandon Sun, Bass said there was far too much political influence within Renaissance Brandon, a non-profit corporation that was initially intended to operate at arm’s length from city hall.
“This is, in fact, basically controlled by the city,” Bass said at the time. “It is certainly not arm’s length from the city and to me that was inappropriate.”
On this page that year, we posed the following question to our Brandon readers and leaders — what exactly is Renaissance Brandon? Is it the true development corporation for Brandon’s downtown that city council agreed to support, or has it become yet another arm of city hall?
To date, this question has not been properly answered. And we think it’s high time that it is.
Last spring, questions of conflict of interest dogged Mayor Shari Decter Hirst and of Brandon City Council regarding whether Decter Hirst breached the law when she participated in debates and decision-making activities regarding funding for the Strand Theatre in her role as mayor and as a Renaissance Brandon board member.
As Sun readers will recall, councillors ultimately decided not to pursue conflict of interest charges against Decter Hirst. But there are lingering questions regarding the ongoing structure of the Renaissance Brandon board and the degree of control that the city exercises over what is supposed to be an arm’s-length board.
In the wake of that situation, the Brandon Sun attempted to access records through the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act from Renaissance Brandon regarding the organization’s dealings with the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society and the Strand Theatre. But in October, the Sun received a very brief letter from Renaissance Brandon chairman Shaun Cameron stating that the organization is not subject to FIPPA, and, as such, the application was being “disregarded.”
To be subject to the Act, Cameron said, a local public body must fall within one of the following categories: Educational bodies, health-care bodies and local government bodies.
Following that letter, the Sun launched a detailed complaint with the Manitoba Ombudsman at considerable time and expense, in which we disputed Renaissance Brandon’s assessment that it is not a public body or a local government body.
Renaissance Brandon was established by the City of Brandon, a municipal government. Unlike Winnipeg’s Centre Venture, which has that city’s mayor as a figurehead board chair, two city councillors and Brandon’s mayor are active members of Renaissance Brandon. And as we have seen with the recent mayoral conflict of interest allegations, having three members of city council as full voting members on Ren Brandon’s board sets up all sorts of potential conflicts.
The City of Brandon has also taken an active role in Renaissance Brandon’s operations through the establishment of the HUB Secondary Plan. As we argued in our complaint to the Ombudsman, the opening words of that Secondary Plan reference the city’s link to Renaissance Brandon.
Moreover, Renaissance Brandon’s ability to fund its operations rests primarily at the behest of city council. This was made especially apparent just recently when, during budget deliberations, the council decided to reduct the Urban Renewal Budget — specifically funding provided to Renaissance Brandon — by $50,000. Until now, the city and the province have shared annual funding for Renaissance Brandon, with Brandon providing $250,000 per year and Manitoba matching that amount.
Yet much of the operations of Renaissance Brandon are conducted behind closed doors. While the organization holds meetings, any meeting minutes are not made public. And while they do publish yearly annual reports — all of which have been posted to their website — we believe that a body that is entirely reliant upon public funds should be more accountable to the public. We understand that certain projects, real estate deals for example, require a certain level of secrecy. But certainly not all files need to be kept from public eyes.
Unfortunately, the Manitoba Ombudsman’s office reviewed the definition of “local government body” in FIPPA and found that Renaissance Brandon would not be considered a local government body in its own right.
“Based on our review, we could not conclude that Renaissance Brandon would be considered a public body under FIPPA,” stated the Ombudsman’s report. “However, based on the close connections you have identified between the City of Brandon and Renaissance Brandon, it is possible that the City of Brandon, a public body under FIPPA, may have custody or control of records about Renaissance Brandon.”
At the Ombudsman’s suggestion, we then requested the same files and information from the City of Brandon. We also asked for any documents regarding proposed and adopted changes to the governance structure of Renaissance Brandon, in the wake of the conflict of interest allegations against the mayor.
Once again, we hit a bureaucratic wall, as much of our request was deemed an unreasonable invasion of privacy or harmful to a third party’s business interests under the Act. The few files we did receive — a handful of emails between the city’s economic development officer and a representative from the Department of Canadian Heritage — were unhelpful.
We have since been told there have been no changes made to the operational structure of Renaissance Brandon, even though the presence of two councillors and a mayor as active board members is highly questionable. It should be set up more like Centre Venture in Winnipeg and have much less of a council presence.
On Feb. 5, members of the Brandon City Council will meet with the Renaissance Brandon board to discuss the organization’s operations — this is before our elected officials consider reinstating the $50,000 that was cut from Brandon’s 2013 budget the following week. We still support the idea that Renaissance Brandon should be properly funded. In fact, as Premier Greg Selinger noted during an editorial board meeting with the Sun earlier this month, it should be increased rather than decreased.
But with that increase should come a better definition of Renaissance Brandon’s mandate, how it operates and to whom it is accountable. Because right now, it sure doesn’t appear to be accountable to the public that pays its bills.