A July 28 editorial in the Hamilton Spectator, following two news stories earlier in the week–one about the Trust’s property tax arrears and a second about its loss of charitable status; appears to signal that the city’s newspaper of record will be subjecting the organization and its management to greater scrutiny in future. This is a welcome development. In volume 1, Number 1 of the Bay Observer back in October of 2008, this publication first raised concerns about lack of transparency with the HWT. At that time we praised the work the trust had done in building waterfront trails and recreational amenities, but we wondered why its internal workings, particularly financial reporting was shrouded in so much secrecy, given that it was operating with public money on public land. We also expressed concern that the organization seemed to essentially be the private fiefdom of its then chair, Ward Five councillor Chad Collins. It turned out that what we knew then was only the tip of the iceberg.
In calling for closer Council scrutiny of HWT the Spectator says,” 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.” It depends on your definition of wrongdoing, but since this publication started taking interest in the organization we have assembled a documented list of actions and events that should raise concern, and frankly, should have long ago.
The Spectator first showed interest in HWT financial performance in 2012 with an article that detailed the Trust’s loss the previous year of a half million dollars, but concluded with Board members Tom Jackson and Jason Farr saying ‘there’s no reason for concern’ and indirectly referring to critics like this publication as a ‘small cabal of naysayers.” Prior to that, coverage of the HWT was generally supportive in tone. Coverage of a 2011 council meeting in which then Mayor Bratina tried to raise concerns about HWT financial operations portrayed the mayor as an isolated individual obsessing about the trust. An opinion piece described Bratina as ‘half-cocked and ill informed’ in his attacks on the Trust. The column took at face value HWT chair, Bob Charter’s prediction that the Trust would show a profit in 2012, when in fact the agency was already three quarters of the way to posting a $500,000 loss. The Hamilton Spectator has the resources and talent on board to pretty much thoroughly probe any news story it chooses. That fact has been repeatedly demonstrated with some terrific reporting over the decades. One has to wonder, though, if its interest in the Hamilton Waterfront Trust would have happened sooner were it not for what appeared to be an institutional aversion to Bratina. In fact, Bratina was spot on with his facts when he was censured by his council colleagues and ridiculed in the Spectator in 2011. His only possible error that day was rising with his colleagues in an expression of support for the HWT that, as it turns out was misplaced, and was eerily reminiscent of a vote in the North Korean parliament.
Having said, it is to the Spectator’s credit that they are now on top of this story. In the business of journalism we all come up short at one time or another in judging the importance or newsworthiness of stories. I recall when I was a TV news director not following up adequately when investigative journalist Paul Palango tried to convince me that there was something amiss at Philip Environmental. That was three years before the company collapsed in a sea of misstated losses and theft. I still berate myself, wondering if the litigious nature of the company then formed part of my decision. The important thing is to try to tell stories as honestly and as completely as possible, and trust those who consume our stories. Journalism doesn’t always get it right the first time, but good journalism eventually gets it right, period.