Stephen McNeil, patronage and the benefit of the doubt

It is too soon to draw conclusions, but the patronage portents from Stephen McNeil’s first three months in power are not promising.

First, there was the case of Glennie Langille, the defeated Liberal candidate and former party communications chief. Without benefit of a competition, McNeil handed her an $85,000-per-year plum as the province’s new chief of protocol.

The apolitical position — which involves coordinating official ceremonies, hosting royal and other high-mucky-muck visitors, and managing the Order of Nova Scotia — was previously held by a public servant.

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There was no good reason, and no need, for McNeil to plop the job back into the fetid patronage pool. That he publicly defended his appointment (“a great choice”) and dismissed criticism (“I’ve answered more questions here from each of you,” he told reporters, “than I have from anyone out on main street”) shows McNeil sliding down the slippery, entitled-to-his-entitlements slope that would eventually cost Darrell Dexter his job.The latest example — awarding a tender to a freshly formed consulting company owned by Chris McNeil, the premier’s brother — is more complicated.

The $16,750 contract, which is renewable for up to four years, is to devise a training course for the transportation department’s 40 compliance officers, the folks who inspect heavy commercial vehicles at highway weigh stations.

McNeil’s company, Seventeen Consulting — named after the 17 siblings in the McNeil family? — was one of three bidders. Although tenders closed Oct. 30, the province didn’t post the results until Dec. 30.

The province says it referred the contract to Conflict of Interest Commissioner Merlin Nunn “as a precaution,” but it doesn’t say when, or if that was the reason for the delay in awarding it.

The McNeil contract and the bidding process may have been entirely above board, as may be the fact that Seventeen Consulting wasn’t officially registered with the Registry of Joint Stocks until the day after the tender closed. Chris McNeil, the former HRM deputy police chief, is certainly qualified for the contract. And he shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to participate in a legitimate bidding process simply because he is the premier’s brother.

That said, Stephen McNeil has already used up his benefit-of-the-doubt card.

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