Letter reveals C.B.S. mayor pushed for OCI Long Pond harbour project before declaring conflict of interest
Terry French sent the letter to Ottawa in 2018; has since declared a conflict of interest on the file
The Town of Conception Bay South has yet to make a final decision on a controversial multimillion-dollar proposal for Long Pond harbour, but CBC News has learned it's been advocating for the project for years behind the scenes, even though the town's mayor later declared a conflict of interest over the issue.
CBC News obtained a letter sent from Mayor Terry French to federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau in April 2018, which begins with a rosy description of the town: "Conception Bay South has an aggressive growth agenda supported by an 'open for business' mindset and offers promising commercial, industrial and tourism investment opportunities."
The letter goes on to say that without new sources of long-term revenue, the viability of the Long Pond Harbour Authority, the non-profit organization that runs the port, would be in question.
The letter says efforts to market the port to the oil and gas industry failed due to space issues, but there was a development on the horizon, a new infill project that "would be an exciting growth opportunity for our town, generating more than 50 new jobs, economic spinoffs, and much-needed long-term tax revenue that increases the economic vitality of the municipality."
That project was Ocean Choice International's, the company that wants to build a new wharf and cold storage facility in the harbour but whose plan has been met in recent months with opposition from some residents.
To make the project happen, the letter says, the harbour authority needed to dispose of about "12 acres of unusable land, underneath waters of Long Pond" and needed federal approval in order to do so. In the letter, the town endorses that transaction.
A meeting in Ottawa, and a conflict of interest
In an interview Wednesday with CBC News, French said he decided to get involved in 2018 after learning that the Long Pong Harbour Authority was seeking that federal approval.
"I said, 'OK, what can we do to help?'" said French.
Part of French's help came in the form of that letter. A few months later, when he was on a work trip in Ottawa, he also arranged a quick meeting with Garneau, speaking to him on the way to the House of Commons, French said.
In September 2018, the Town of C.B.S. and the Long Pond Harbour Authority announced the sale of a 12-acre waterlot to Ocean Choice International in a press release.
The initial reaction is a punch in the gut. - Pierre Gauvreau
At the time, OCI chief operating officer Blaine Sullivan said the town, harbour authority and local MP "have been great to work with on this."
But as the project approached the final approval stage this past summer, French stepped back from it, declaring a conflict of interest as he owns a couple of rental properties on Terminal Road — which connects to Long Pond harbour — next to Route 60.
"I never dreamed I was in a conflict of interest on this file, still really don't believe it, to be totally frank with ya," said French.
He doesn't feel there's a conflict because there is no financial gain in it for him, French said, but he was advised to make the declaration to be safe, and fully acknowledges he was a major booster of the project up to that point.
'Business as usual'
French said it's his job as mayor to advocate for these types of projects, regardless of what company is involved.
"I was concerned about the tax base for the residents of this town, and that's what I was elected to do and that's what I'm continuing to do," he said.
French said he regularly makes cold calls trying to attract industry to C.B.S.
"I do this all the time. So it was business as usual. Now does that mean they have the green light to go ahead? Absolutely not," he said.
But that's not what members of the Advocates for the Responsible Development of Long Pond, a group unhappy with the development, think has happened.
They think the letter shows the project is a done deal and that the town, harbour authority and OCI all decided on plans without proper public input.
"The initial reaction is a punch in the gut, it's disappointment, it's disgust with, you know, that letter [that] dates back two years," Pierre Gauvreau, who lives in the Long Pond area, told CBC News on Tuesday.
After the CBC interview, Gauvreau sent an official statement on behalf of his community group, stating the harbour authority's ability to sell the land to OCI "was made possible only because of his letter to the federal minister. This is wrong on so many levels and impossible to defend or justify."
The statement goes on to say "any decisions pertaining to this project while French has been at the helm should be revoked and the reset button pressed. It is the responsible way forward."
A final town vote on the project could come within a couple of weeks.