02/28/14

Conspiracy Theories: 2014 Update


Conspiracy theoriesIt’s time to update a piece I wrote in December, 2012, outlining the secret deals, backroom negotiations and “barbecue politics” that our council has been involved in since that date, more than a year ago.

So here comes the update, the emperor without his clothes:

  • Secret meetings: none
  • Backroom negotiations: none
  • Barbecue deals: none

Sorry, I know this is a disappointment to local conspiracy theorists and bloggers, coming hard on the failure of the world to end as per the Mayan Calendar, or the failure of any number of predicted ends of the world, coupled with the lack of any substantial conspiracy proof against council despite dozens (hundreds?) of Freedom of Information Act requests filed (sorry if the clerk didn’t tell you what sort of lubricant one councillor uses on his chair, though…).

Aliens didn’t make contact in 2013. Bigfoot wasn’t found. Tom Cruise is still in Scientology. Stephen Harper didn’t quit politics and join a monastery. Council didn’t hold any secret meetings.

It was a tough year for psychics and conspiracy theorists alike.

Back at the end of 2012, I wrote:

I can only offer a glimmer of hope that we still have two years left to go, so there’s still a chance we might fail to live up to our oath of office in future. A slim chance, mind you, but those odds don’t stop people from buying lottery tickets.

I have to say, I don’t think it’s going to happen now. We’re sticking stubbornly to the oath. Not only that, we brought in an Integrity Commissioner to ensure the public knows we stay on the straight and narrow.

I also wrote then:

I understand that from the outside, it may look like we’re doing the double-double-toil-and-trouble routine in the “cone of silence” but all we were doing is just treading the slow path of bureaucracy and legality, under the watchful eyes of staff (who wield a rather mean Municipal Act when we stray). We call it “due diligence.”

Not to mention a rather stern CAO who has little tolerance for inappropriate behaviour by councillors, no matter how well-meaning.

Political conspiracy theories get spun by those who don’t participate in or understand how the process of governance works. And like all conspiracy theories ever coined, despite lack of proof, they keep resurfacing and circulating among people who are sure that their government – any level of government – is up to no good.

Clandestine meetings and secret deals  are more exciting, more titillating to believe in than the rather pedestrian, but convoluted process of governance.

You think the truth is out there? The way to find out is to get involved. Working on a committee or sitting at the council table sure strips you of your illusions about government conspiracies. At the very least, sit down with someone who is involved and ask how things work.
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02/26/14

Time to get serious with distracted drivers


Distracted drivingIn March, the fine for being caught texting,  talking on your cell phone, or tinkering with your MP3 player while driving will jump from $155 to $280 in Ontario.

That’s better, but not good enough.

Distracted drivers are a growing threat to everyone sharing the road – other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. We are all at risk.

As the CBC reported:

The fine for distracted driving in Ontario will soon nearly double.

As of March 18, driving with the display screen of a phone, computer, MP3 player or tablet computer visible to the driver will jump to $280 from $155. The total includes a $25 victim surcharge and $5 court costs.

Last week Ontario chief justice Annemarie Bonkalo signed a judicial order approving the new fines.

The fines will not apply to GPS screens.

It’s not enough. The legislation needs to be tougher. It needs to parallel the legislation about impaired driving, or street racing, with similar penalties and fines.

Curiously, as The Star notes, the provincial Liberals (an inconsistent and meandering party seemingly adrift the policy sea, but that’s another post…) didn’t support one of their own MPP’s private member’s bill which would have increased fines and added demerit points:

…the Liberals haven’t pushed a private member’s bill introduced last year by one of their own MPPs, Bas Balkissoon (Scarborough-Rouge River), calling for fines between $300 and $700 and demerit points after one of his constituents, a young mother and community volunteer, was killed by a distracted driver.
“This is a serious, serious community safety issue,” Balkissoon said. “One way or another, I’ll get it.”
He said he was concerned any legislation the government introduces could be delayed by a spring election, and also said he was “disappointed” Bonkalo set the fine at $280 and not his preferred level of $500, the Highway Traffic Act maximum.

So one has to question how seriously the Liberals take the problem.

As the Economist calls it, distracted driving is the “new drunk driving.”

THE driver who killed Jennifer Smith’s mother in 2008 by hitting her car at a crossroads was sober and had never received a speeding ticket. But he was talking on his mobile phone. He was so engrossed that when the policeman later asked him what colour the traffic light had been, the driver said he had not even seen one.

As the article notes, even hands-free devices add to distracted driving:

The human brain has to work harder to process language and communication with somebody who is not physically present. (Conversation with passengers is much less distracting, apparently because those passengers are also aware of the traffic situation and moderate their conversation.) A study by Carnegie Mellon University using brain imaging found that merely listening to somebody speak on the phone led to a 37% decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, where spatial tasks are processed. This suggests that hands-free use of mobile phones cannot help much. Such distractions, according to one study, make drivers more collision-prone than having a blood-alcohol level of .08%, the legal limit in America. It appears to raise the risk of an accident by four times. Texting multiplies the risk by several times again.

So we need some serious attention paid to technology and its social and cultural impact. One of the reasons our health care costs are skyrocketing seems to be easily found here: distracted drivers are causing an increasing number of accidents and deaths.

Distracted driving sticker

Simply raising the fine won’t change that. Paying $280 may be more of an annoyance to people than a real game changer.

Why don’t we treat it like street racing and stunt driving? That gets the driver an immediate suspension of his/her licence at the roadside, a minimum fine of $2,000, and it can be as high as $10,000. A street racing conviction can mean imprisonment for up to six months. It can also lead to a further suspension of the driver’s licence for up to two years for the first conviction and that can go as high as ten years for a second conviction! A convicted driver’s insurance rates increase 100% for the next three years, plus they get dinged six demerit points!

Now that’s a serious law. Distracted driving law? A slap on the wrist. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s own Road Safety Report for 2010 (the latest published) barely mentions distracted driving. Yet clearly the problem – and threat – is accelerating.

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02/23/14

Lucretius and the Renaissance


WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things – De Rerum Natura –  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

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02/21/14

Collingwood’s municipal debt and 2014 budget


Aging infrastructureTuesday, Council got a combined debt-and-budget presentation that set the stage for the upcoming, fuller 2014 budget deliberations starting next week. CAO John Brown gave us a recap of a report (produced by BMA Management Consulting) about the town’s debt situation and financial wellbeing. It was a mix of good news/bad news.

The good is that it’s not as bad as it seems, certainly not as bad as some other municipalities, but mostly in the middle of the peer group selected for the report. The bad is that it’s not as good as we’d like it to be. But barring a big tax increase to reduce the debt and funnel more into reserves, I don’t see how it could be a lot better.

His report also included a comparison of Collingwood’s financial situation to six other municipalities:

I have to wonder why several of these were chosen as comparators by the consultants. The majority are not at all like Collingwood:

  • Wilmot Township, according to its own website, is “…approximately 20,000 persons living in small towns, settlements, and on farms.”
  • Springwater Township “…consists of both urban and rural communities, with a population of over 18,000 people. There are nine settlement areas, with Midhurst and Elmvale being the largest with a population of 3100 and 1700 respectfully. Other settlement areas include Snow Valley, Centre Vespra, Minesing, Anten Mills, Phelpston, Orr Lake and Hillsdale.”
  • Prince Edward County is similarly not one urban centre, but a collection of small, rural communities, the largest of which is under 5,500 population.
  • Innisfil is similar: small communities, some bedroom residential development close to Barrie, but mostly rural. Cookstown, one of the largest centres, has a population of about 2,000.

Only Orillia and Owen Sound are similar, small urban centres. Why would we not compare ourselves to Midland or Wasaga Beach? Brockville? Uxbridge? Huntsville? Orangeville? Surely these small urban centres would provide more of the apples-to-apples comparisons.

I’d also like to have seen such data as how  many employees are on the municipal payrolls in each; if they have their own or use OPP police service (and how much their police and fire budgets were – our services for 2014 will consume 22%, or $6.1 million, for policing, and 16%, or $4.4 million, for fire: more than a third of our budget in the combined costs).

I’d like to know their total budget, including operations, capital, how many buses they run, and so on. What are they spending their money on and why? What reserves do they have, what assets? Municipal finance isn’t so simple it can be reduced to a few lines.

Rural communities have very different needs, infrastructure demands, growth issues, etc. that make it difficult to adequately compare them to Collingwood.

We are also a combined retirement and tourist destination centre, which creates different sorts of challenges for services and infrastructure. Our percentage of people 65 and older is about 23% – much higher than the provincial average of 14.6%, and our percentage of people under the age of 55 is lower than the provincial average. That has implications for housing, employers, services, and commercial and industrial growth.

On page 8 of the report, it notes that the average percentage of farmland by assessment value in our comparators was 5.2%, while the amount is only 0.1% in Collingwood. But if you look at the maps, the actual, physical amount of farmland in those four “peers” significantly dwarfs the whole area of the Town of Collingwood. Farmland is the lowest on the assessment ladder, so having less is good for potential tax revenue.

We also have a higher percentage of commercial and industrial assessment, which is equally good for tax revenue.

What we never learned from the report was how much money had any of them invested in major infrastructure projects or municipal facilities over the past decade or more. Collingwood has had an ongoing infrastructure upgrade and replacement program, as reflected by the projects paid for by debentures. Plus we have a fairly modern museum, a new municipal building (library and planning services), a new fire station, upgraded police station, new parks, new recreational facilities, new trails, new works building, an airport, a harbour and a comprehensive municipal transit system. Not many municipalities can boast all of that.

Our CAO explained that debt wasn’t all bad – debt means you are building, upgrading and maintaining infrastructure, erecting new facilities. We maintain our infrastructure constantly else face higher costs when it fails. Debt isn’t operational: it’s used for capital projects.

But, the CAO cautioned, it’s important to manage that debt wisely. Which this council has been doing. And, he said, we can’t continue the status quo; we don’t want to push our debt capacity to its limit.

First, of course, we have to manage our spending. The initial overview of the budget has a projected 2.1% increase (about $67 per average household). However, in light of the CAO’s sobering presentation, I would not be surprised if department heads were told to come back with lower budgets, even in the negative area. I will certainly argue for a lower amount in many areas.

Personally, I’d rather see an overall increase in taxes no more than 1.2%, but even better would be a small reduction, say -1% or even -2%.

Of course, it may mean a reduction of non-essential service in some areas. You cannot continue to provide certain levels of service without paying for them – and costs always increase. Utility costs, inflation, fuel costs, food, wages, benefit costs, materials – they all go up. So to maintain even a zero-increase-based budget, you need to cut something or someone. Essential services won’t be affected.

Therein lies the rub. Quality of life is measured by some of those services. Taxpayers pay for a good life – and we do have a good life here in Collingwood. So what, if anything, are they willing to forego in order to avoid any increase? Or would they rather pay a little more to retain these services?

What can council or staff find in the budget that is non-essential and can be removed or reduced without affecting that perceived quality of life?  We need to find more opportunities for shared and contracted services.

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02/17/14

Should councillors abstain from voting?


Abstain from votingIn an earlier post, I wrote that Collingwood’s Integrity Commissioner, Robert Swayze, proposed two changes to the town’s Procedural Bylaw: amending section 13.7 and deleting section 13.8. Last post I dealt with the former; here I will explain my concerns about the latter.

Section 13.8 currently reads:

13.8 No vote – deemed negative – exception
Notwithstanding the provisions of Section 13.7 of this By-law, every Member who is not disqualified from voting by reason of a declared pecuniary interest shall be deemed to be voting against the motion if he/she declines or abstains from voting.

In other words, no member of council, board or committee can abstain from voting when at the table: everyone present has to vote or have the abstention counted as a negative vote.

This is partially derived from Section 246 of the Municipal Act, which reads

Recorded vote
246. (1) If a member present at a meeting at the time of a vote requests immediately before or after the taking of the vote that the vote be recorded, each member present, except a member who is disqualified from voting by any Act, shall announce his or her vote openly and the clerk shall record each vote. 2001, c. 25, s. 246 (1).
Failure to vote
(2) A failure to vote under subsection (1) by a member who is present at the meeting at the time of the vote and who is qualified to vote shall be deemed to be a negative vote. 2001, c. 25, s. 246 (2).

So under the MA, you need to call a recorded vote to have an abstention deemed negative. That can get tedious. Other provinces don’t have this requirement. Saskatchewan’s guide for municipal councillors notes:

All Members Must Vote
Legislation requires every member of council including the mayor or reeve, to vote on every question. Members must not abstain from voting unless they have a pecuniary interest. If a member abstains from voting for any other reason legislation deems his or her vote as opposed to the motion. Minutes are required to record all abstentions from voting.

There’s a bit of confusion about rules of order and what rules to follow. Some people think our municipal meetings  – including board and committee – are governed by either Robert’s or Bourinot’s Rules of Order. That’s incorrect: we are governed by the Municipal Act and our Procedural Bylaw. Council and all boards, committees and task forces created by the municipality are bound by the procedural bylaw.

Mr. Swayze wrote in his report to council:

In my opinion, all members of Council should be encouraged to declare a conflict, whether pecuniary or not, if the member feels that he or she cannot be impartial in voting on a matter. If for example, a member sits on the board of directors of a charity and awarding grants to the charity is before Council, the Councillor should declare a conflict, refrain from voting and such a declaration should not be deemed to be a vote against the charity. I have recommended in Appendix “D” that personal conflicts be added to section 13.7 and that 13.8 be deleted from the Procedural By-law.

Like in my previous post, my concern is in the implementation, not the intent.

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02/16/14

Legal Versus “Personal” Conflicts of Interest


Conflict of interest?In May, 2013, I wrote my thoughts about Ontario’s Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and the effect it had on the governance and procedural behaviour of municipal councillors. Back then, I wrote,

The Act allows no grey areas: there are no “perceived” conflicts in law, only clearly defined legal ones. This is obviously intended by the stringent wording that lays out what construes a conflict of interest.

This clarity absolves everyone of trying to second guess the intention of the Act, or trying to interpret degrees of conflict.

For the MCOI Act, only pecuniary – i.e. financial – conflicts matter: only they have to be declared; only they affect procedure and governance. And only the person and his or her direct family – parents and/or children – are involved. Siblings or other relatives, friends and coworkers are not considered to present a conflict:

Indirect pecuniary interest
2. For the purposes of this Act, a member has an indirect pecuniary interest in any matter in which the council or local board, as the case may be, is concerned, if,
(a) the member or his or her nominee,
(i) is a shareholder in, or a director or senior officer of, a corporation that does not offer its securities to the public,
(ii) has a controlling interest in or is a director or senior officer of, a corporation that offers its securities to the public, or
(iii) is a member of a body,
that has a pecuniary interest in the matter; or
(b) the member is a partner of a person or is in the employment of a person or body that has a pecuniary interest in the matter. R.S.O. 1990, c. M.50, s. 2.
Interest of certain persons deemed that of member
3. For the purposes of this Act, the pecuniary interest, direct or indirect, of a parent or the spouse or any child of the member shall, if known to the member, be deemed to be also the pecuniary interest of the member. R.S.O. 1990, c. M.50, s. 3; 1999, c. 6, s. 41 (2); 2005, c. 5, s. 45 (3).

Last week at our Feb. 10 council meeting, in his report to council, Collingwood’s Integrity Commissioner, Robert Swayze, proposed changes to two sections of the town’s Procedural Bylaw. The proposed change to section 13.7 would add a clause for “personal conflict” to the bylaw, and I address that below. I’ll deal with the changes to section 13.8 in a subsequent post.

In his report, Mr. Swayze said,

In my opinion, all members of Council should be encouraged to declare a conflict, whether pecuniary or not, if the member feels that he or she cannot be impartial in voting on a matter. If for example, a member sits on the board of directors of a charity and awarding grants to the charity is before Council, the Councillor should declare a conflict, refrain from voting and such a declaration should not be deemed to be a vote against the charity. I have recommended in Appendix “D” that personal conflicts be added to section 13.7 and that 13.8 be deleted from the Procedural By-law.

In his oral presentation, he said that other municipalities had included similar “personal conflict” conditions in their own governance regulations. I did some research into those regulations this past week.

Mississauga has the term in its procedural bylaw, I found, but it lacks a firm definition of the term, leaving it open to individual interpretation. The other references I’ve found are in codes of conduct or policy statements.

I’m troubled by the potential pitfalls of implementation as presented, rather than the intent, and argue below that the appropriate place for such terms is in the town’s Code of Conduct.

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02/15/14

BL2: Resistance is futile


Borderlands 2I tried to resist. I really did. I avoided it for more than a year, skillfully averting my eyes from the store shelves where it sat, ignoring the emails with invitations, sales offers that dangled newly-released DLC packages before me. I looked the other way when ads popped on on websites.

I have more serious things to do, I’d tell myself. Getting too old for games, I’d mutter under my breath. I have better things to do with my time. Like reading. Studying. Developing website material. Learning music. Besides, I’m running out of hard disc space.

But then I saw the intro, below. And I succumbed. It just seemed way too much fun. And I love the theme song (it was also the theme for the excellent British action TV series, Flash Point). Watch it. Stick with it because it gets fun around the 1:50 mark.

I had seen the “Wimoweh” trailer, below, before I saw the one above, and it almost convinced me. It’s hard to resist such a call. And if you haven’t seen it either, give it a watch.

Late in 2013, Steam had Borderlands 2 on sale – the whole Game of The year package at one low price – and I gave in. GOTY was just too damned tempting.

Now I have a handful of characters scattered throughout Pandora in various stages of game completion, edging up their stats slowly as I learn and test each one’s style, weapons and special features. Finishing quests. Opening chests of loot. Gathering eridium. To be honest, I’ve played only three of the possible six characters so far, but I plan to try them all.

And I’m not alone. On many missions, I am accompanied by a friend in Nova Scotia who joins me for co-op play sessions. Two old farts playing edgy computer games. What a lark.

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