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Councillors looking for a more forceful voice on port authority board

With key decisions coming on the controversial gas plant proposal and the potential purchase of U.S. Steel lands, who the city appoints to the board has become a critical political move.
The proposed gasification plant would be on a site of leased land on Pier 15 on the Hamilton waterfront. The city is interviewing candidates to serve on the Hamilton Port Authority board. (Courtesy of Port Fuels and Materials Services Inc.)

Hamilton councillors are looking for a new representative to appoint to the city's seat on the port authority board. And they are on the hunt for someone they can count on to represent the city's interests.

With key decisions looming on the controversial Port Fuels gas plant proposal and the potential purchase of U.S. Steel lands, the city appointment to the board has become a critical political move in the early months of the new council's mandate. 

The city is currently interviewing more than a dozen potential candidates to sit on a seven-member collective that rules over operation and management of the Port of Hamilton. 

Sources tell CBC Hamilton that dissatisfaction with the city's current representative, Hamilton lawyer Jim Cimba, means he isn't in the running for re-appointment.

Cimba declined to comment when contacted by CBC Hamilton.

Representing city views

Coun. Sam Merulla, chair of the selection committee said he would not discuss any specifics on the selection process or identify any of the candidates. But he said the city is looking for an appointee who can make his or her voice known on the gas plant issue, which has drawn broad community protest.

"We're looking for someone who's willing to intelligently review the (gasification plant) application, but ensure our public health and environmental concerns are addressed," Merulla said. 

The board includes one appointee each by the federal, provincial and municipal governments, and four people representing users of the harbour, including ArcelorMittal Dofasco. The city expects to appoint someone in May.

I understand what their business case is and I'm sure they understand what ours is and sometimes they conflict.- Coun. Sam Merulla

The board will approve or reject a lease to build the Port Fuels and Materials Services project, which will create energy from waste on Hamilton's Pier 15. 

The gasification plant uses a technology called Gasplasma to turn waste into energy. A January report from a city consultant warns that the potential environmental impacts of the proposed gasification waste-to-energy plant for Pier 15 "may not have been appropriately assessed."

But the only chance the city would even have to vote on the project is if the proponents apply for a site plan or zoning variance. And Port Fuels hasn't even acknowledged that it needs it.

The city hasn't taken an official stance on the project yet. But Coun. Matthew Green of Ward 3 plans to bring a motion to a future board of health meeting asking councillors to formally oppose the project, and several have expressed reservations. 

The selection committee wants someone who will represent "the city's position," Merulla said. 

Any more pollution is too much

"I know I speak on behalf of other lower-city councillors when I say that our air shed, at this point, is already challenged and even the littlest amount of more air emission challenges presents a problem," the Ward 4 councillor said.

I'm sort of pulling back on the political stuff. And that position is pretty political.- Brian McHattie, former councillor

The city and the port authority board haven't always seen eye to eye. In 2003, for example, the city petitioned against a waterfront lease for Bitumar, a company that produces liquid bitumen used in asphalt blends for roads and roofs. But the port authority board approved the lease. 

The city has typically pushed for fewer emissions and more image-friendly ecological decisions, while the board is interested in economics, Merulla said.

"We have conflicting mandates," he said. "They work in a silo, so their primary objective is to increase business activity on the port lands in essence to profit from that activity. Sometimes that activity doesn't fly or isn't consistent with what our city's objective is with respect to the revitalization and the renaissance and the refocusing of where we want to be not only today but tomorrow."

"We do have a history with them. It's not personal, per se. I understand what their business case is and I'm sure they understand what ours is and sometimes they conflict."

Plays two roles

Mayor Fred Eisenberger, a former city representative and port authority board chair, said the member has two roles. One is to represent the city's point of view. The other is to look out for the port authority.

"When you go to the port authority or the harbour commission, you're required to look after the interests of that corporation, but also to reflect the interests of the city as much as you can and work in partnership," Eisenberger said.

"That was my approach when I was there."

It is difficult for one individual on their board to make a difference.- Brian McHattie

Green is vice chair of the selection committee, but wouldn't comment on what he wants in a board member. He says he doesn't want to sway the process.

Former councillor Brian McHattie, who opposed the gasification plant when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor in the fall, was rumoured to be a contender. But he said this month that he didn't submit his name.

Board is a mystery

"I'm sort of pulling back on the political stuff," he said. "And that position is pretty political."

The city appointee will also be important as the authority discusses the future of waterfront U.S. Steel lands, McHattie said. The appointee could make a difference if that person is outspoken and not afraid to have a media presence.

Usually, "they kind of do what they do," McHattie said of the board. "They're not very transparent and it's hard to find out what they're up to. It is difficult for one individual on their board to make a difference."

The city has seen a record number of applicants to its boards and agencies, which range from the library board to the cleanliness and security in the downtown task force.

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