Thursday, October 13, 2011

School District 15 promised benefits in exchange for cooperation

Say Superintendent in conflict - will have actor playing his role in movie
Questions how many people living in Bathurst have high paying jobs on film and for how long

District 15 Superintendent John McLaughlin leaves the Coroners Inquest into the deaths of the Boys in Red, Bathurst, NB, May 2009.

(Bathurst, NB - October 13, 2011) - Two Bathurst mothers who made Right to Information requests to two New Brunswick government departments about Dream Street Pictures film "The Phantoms" say the government's response has raised more questions than it answers about conflict of interest allegations against the District 15 Superintendent, John McLaughlin.

Isabelle Hains and Ana Acevedo say a July 26 letter from Mr. McLaughlin to the Assistant Deputy Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development shows that District 15 was promised benefits in the form of sports equipment and other "legacy" items by the film producers in return for allowing filming to take place on location at Bathurst High School.

Somewhere in this condominium on Cliffe Street in Fredericton is the world headquarters of Dream Street Pictures.

Hains and Acevedo believe this is not usual practise in the film industry and they wonder if the producers and CBC made the Superintendent an offer he coudn't refuse, especially since he has an actor playing his own role in the movie.

Hains and Acevedo have asked several times whether an actor will be playing Mr. McLaughlin in the film but they have never received a straight answer. "Let him deny it," says Acevedo. "In the absence of evidence to the contrary, there is only one thing we can believe and that is Mr. McLaughlin will have an actor playing his role in the movie. Talk about a conflict of interest!"

The mothers say even if Mr. McLaughlin doesn't have a role in the film, his involvement in the tragedy which took their sons' lives makes it impossible for him to be objective. They say McLaughlin should never have been allowed by the NB Minister of Education, Jody Carr, to make the decision about filming in Bathurst because he has too great a stake in the film.

The mothers also say McLaughlin, who was responsible for consulting with the community and making the ultimate decision to film at the High School, had already made up his mind long before a so-called consultation took place between July 28 and August 5, 2011.

They intend to follow up on a recommendation Tuesday from the provincial Ombudsman to take their complaint about Mr. McLaughlin to the District 15 Education Council, which is his employer.

Hains and Acevedo point to an email dated July 26 to Zoe Watson, Assistant Deputy Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, a full ten days before Mr. McLaughlin made his decision about filming on BHS property. In the email he wrote:

"Met with the film producer today and Shaun the principal and we read the script. I have no issues with it in that respect. Spoke with _____________ to get his advice. He feels that we are better off working with them than not. He feels there would be opportunities to further the healing process if it's done right. Shaun and I are in the process of contacting the key people to gauge the level of support (the parents, staff, students, coaches, mayor, etc.) We won't get unanimous support but if we get general consensus then we'll probably allow access. There is a great potential for community to benefit from this in terms of the economics of it all. Also our students will have an opportunity to be part of the process (acting, etc.) Also a legacy for the school in terms of sports equipment, etc. So it is complex and complicated but no more so than anything else we managed in this whole thing. They need to know in the next week. Have also been keeping Mike informed. Will let you know how it goes. John"

Hains and Acevedo say that would like to know what the "etc." is that Mr. McLaughlin refers to and they are interested to know who he spoke to for advice because they believe it is someone from the film industry who also has a stake in the film.

Hains also questions the economic development "carrot" that was dangled in front of the community.

"Don't be fooled by this talk of jobs in the NB film industry," says Hains. "A few days or weeks of employment at a low wage in a failing industry that the government pulled out of last year when it axed NB Film doesn't sound like a long term economic development strategy for Northern New Brunswick to me."

"I'd like to know how many people who actually make Bathurst their principle residence are working on the high paying jobs in this film and for how long their employment lasts. Our guess is that the bulk of low paid, temporary jobs like extras who are paid less than $100 for one and two day stints will be going to unskilled Bathurst residents while the professional jobs - assistant directors, gaffers, electrical, etc., will go to people who are from out of town and worse, out of province. Some may even have been born in Bathurst and lived in Bathurst in the past, but they don't live here now and haven't for years so they can't claim residency. So much for economic development in Bathurst - and we the taxpayers are footing the bill to the tune of $250,000 in the name of job creation in an economically depressed region. It's a farce, especially when they say they have no money for student transportation safety."

Kevin Lacey, Atlantic Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has also spoken out against government tax credits for the movie. On August 12, he wrote an open letter to the Minister of Wellness, Culture and Sport, Trevor Holder, urging the Conservative government to cancel the $250,000 grant to Dream Street Pictures. But in an interview with the media, the Minister shifted the blame for the tax credit to the former ruling Liberals.

"Your government determined that the Film Tax credit program was deserving of budget cuts," Lacey wrote to the Minister. "Given the government determined the program was ineffective, we believe that no further money should have been spent."

Hains and Acevedo say the government has less than forthcoming on their Right to Information requests, failing to fully answer their questions about government employees who will have actors playing their roles in the film and using delaying tactics to avoid answering questions in a timely manner.

For example, on August 5, Hains and Acevedo made simultaneous RTI requests to the Minister of Education Jody Carr and the Minister of Wellness culture and Sport, Trevor Holder, asking for specific information about funding to Dream Street Pictures and other details related to the government's financial support of "The Phantoms", a made for television movie that will be filmed in Bathurst and Fredericton this fall with a $250,000 tax rebate from the former provincial film agency NB Film, which no longer exists.

On September 9, they received a response from Wellness, Culture and Sports acknowledging receipt of the original August RTI request and asking for a 30 day extension to consult with the "third party" (Dream Street Pictures) before releasing any information. On October 7, they received a second letter from the Department telling them to resubmit the request because there is no corporate body named "Dream Street Pictures"; rather, the name of the company is "Dream Street Development Corporation".

The mothers also asked the provincial Ombudsman, the provincial Auditor General, the federal Auditor General and the CBC Ombudsman to investigate allegations of conflict of interest among other issues. The responses have flowed in over the course of the last month. Yesterday, they received the last of the reports from the provincial Ombudsman, Francois Levert, who recommended that they contact the District 15 Education Council, which employs the Superintendent John McLaughlin.

"In light of the nature of your complaint and in keeping with our August 23rd discussions, we feel that District 15's DEC would potentially be, at this point in your efforts to have the Superintendent's decision to allow use of school property overturned, the most effective recourse. In keeping with subsection 12(2) of the Ombudsman Act, it would allow for the DEC to act as the next level of appeal before our office can intervene."

Hains says that after meeting with the Ombudsman in August she contacted a lawyer with a view to having a court injunction against the film, but the price tag of $10,000 made it out of reach.

"We've tried everything to stop this film. Now we will let the DEC decide whether District 15 Superintendent John McLaughlin is in a conflict of interest or not."