Council discusses agency’s future after Hamilton Waterfront Trust representatives skip finance meeting – again
The city has brought in a consultant to review the financial viability of the Hamilton Waterfront Trust and offer advice if the organization chooses to pull out.
Meanwhile, advisers are expressing frustration – yet again – at representatives of the independent agency who are not showing up to answer questions about its latest financial statements.
“I’ve had enough. We’ve asked them to appear before this committee many times, many times,” adviser Brad Clark said Thursday.
But talks focused on the future of the Waterfront Trust – which was formed in 2000 to manage redevelopment and connect Hamiltonians to the port – are scheduled for later this month and early October.
The agency‘s board has not given formal direction to the municipality on a “mandate change,” Mike Zegarac, the city’s chief financial officer, told councilors.
But if the council gives an official nod to dissolving the trust, city staff and consultant KPMG will work out how to reduce it, manage assets and deal with contracts, Zegarac said.
If it decided to continue to play a role in the city’s West Port lands, KPMG would review the financial viability of the trust, Zegarac told city politicians on Thursday.
Com. Lloyd Ferguson, however, noted that city politicians had already learned that the council “in fact wanted to enter into the trust and probably return it to the city.”
That’s what “triggered” the council’s directive to staff to meet with representatives of the trust to chart a way forward in the first place, Ferguson said.
The Ancaster adviser also questioned whether the trust’s longtime executive director Werner Plessl was “not even around anymore” or had already retired. “So we need all this information for us.”
The “transition” of trust and the “imminent” retirement of Plessl are subjects that should not have been aired in open session, the adviser. Board member Jason Farr told The Spectator.
“We deal with real personnel issues behind closed doors, legal issues and contractual issues.”
It’s not fair that trust staff – up to 110 in peak season – have to simmer in their workplaces amid talks, Farr said.
“We want to reassure them – it’s really essential – there’s still a lot of work to do and that work is ongoing.”
Com. Judi Partridge, who is also on the board, told The Spectator it would make sense for the trust to “slow down” given that much of its redevelopment plans have been completed.
He would return to overseeing a few amenities, such as the waterside cart, the Williams Fresh Cafe and the skating rink/skating rink, the outgoing Flamborough councilor said.
“There is no point in continuing just for the sake of continuing. It doesn’t make much sense.
Plessl did not respond to The Spectator’s request for comment on Thursday.
The trust has been under city control for years amid struggles with its bottom line, prompting donations from municipalities and concerns about transparency.
In 2017, he came under the microscope for owing the city hundreds of thousands in back taxes. In 2018, the council voted to buy out the trust’s 45-year lease for the former Discovery Center and its parking lots for $3 million, paid in installments over 15 years, less what it owed in unpaid taxes.
More recently, advisers have asked for an independent analysis to determine if this is still an “ongoing case”.
At Thursday’s finance, audit and administration committee meeting, advisers reviewed the trust’s audited annual financial statements for 2021, which showed net income of $1.43 million, compared to 31 $759 the previous year, when the organization struggled during the pandemic.
Zegarac, however, pointed out that the “major change” was a roughly $1.3 million contract with the city for waterfront development.
Finance staff also clarified that a reference to $15 million in “waterfront development revenue” was not “true revenue,” but rather reflected the value of the projects.
“We’re giving the money to the waterfront trust to pay the contractors,” said Brian McMullen, director of financial planning, noting that not all funds are provided at once.
Advisers – echoing dismay at absences from previous meetings and not having ready-made documents – expressed frustration at Thursday’s no-show, despite an email asking for trusted representatives to be present. Plessl last appeared before city councilors in April.
“I don’t know how we’ll grow back, but it shouldn’t happen,” Clark said.
The committee requested that representatives from the trust make a presentation to the next board – which will be elected on October 24 – on key documents, including finances, business plans and any changes to the organizational structure.
Additionally, legal staff should investigate whether the city can withhold payments from the trust until representatives report with documents.
In an interview, Farr argued that the antics of “silly season” – a reference to election posturing – were the source of his colleagues’ outrage over the absence of the trust.
“Clean verification” notwithstanding, just months ago councilors had a “robust” closed-door discussion about the trust, he said.
Farr said he suggested this in a message to city staff, but had not received a response and believed the trust could address the committee in December, as noted in the city email.
The Ward 2 councilor – who is also seeking re-election – added that he had tried unsuccessfully to find out what progress a member of the city’s human resources staff was seconded to work ‘amicably’ on the trust file. had done before leaving for another job.
The agency, meanwhile, remains an “easy target” for “whatever the reason,” Farr bristled.
“My personal opinion is that hysteria, sometimes, is unfounded. I’ve been a proud member for 12 years. My personal opinion is that we need to celebrate accomplishments, especially under the leadership of our GM.”
Partridge agreed, noting that the trust turned a few million dollars in start-up funds into tens of millions in equipment. “Absolutely, I think they did an amazing job.”