The work of politics

Alvin TofflerPolitics is like many other skills, jobs and pastimes in that it requires work to succeed. Hard work, sometimes, for some folk, and easy for others, but always it requires attention, study, and focus. It isn’t something you can do when you’re not paying attention or even when you’re napping at the table (no matter what our own somnambulant councillor thinks… or more likely, doesn’t think at all).

It isn’t something you can do effectively if, like our Block, you try to do it casually, or part-time, or whenever you feel like doing it, without paying attention or without effort.

To become good at it requires consistent, deliberate effort. if, that is, you actually give a damn about your role. Yes, I know: there are those who don’t believe the essence of being a politician is to care for the people who elected you. They think it’s to care for yourself, to feather your own nest, to find funds and appointments for your buddies. But enough talk of The Block for a bit. (Don’t worry: I’ll return to them soon.)

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell postulated that it takes 10,000 hours of effort to excel at anything – music, business, software coding, sports, writing. That has been since debated and, by some, debunked. Some have even expanded his idea to 20,000 hours. But regardless of the numbers, everyone agrees that while some people have innate advantages and skills they aren’t enough: to master a profession they still need to work at it.

And the reverse is true: some people have no recognizable skills whatsoever (see, I told you I’d return to them). So no matter how many hours they put in, they never advance their skill set. Nor, it seems, do they care to. The Block epitomizes the rise of the anti-intellectual in local politics.
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Disrespectful treatment of the mayor, again

Immature blockheadsThere’s a seemingly innocuous story in the Connection this week titled, “Collingwood to sell railway to County of Simcoe for $900,000” that underscores the ongoing disrespect The Block and the local media have for our Mayor.

Down at the bottom of the piece there is a quote from The head of The Block, Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson. That clearly shows how the local media collude with The Block to promote their personal agendas.*

Saunderson doesn’t speak for council or the town. The mayor does. Using a quote from him instead of her is a flagrant act of disrespect. And it doesn’t matter that his words are mere fluff. They’re’ included to keep him front and centre in the public eye, while sidelining the mayor.

But it gets worse. In the Enterprise-Bulletin’s coverage, Saunderson is given significantly more opportunity to bloviate in his usual self-aggrandizing way. A presentation at AMO to a minister? So what? It has nothing to do with the rail line. Nor do his comments on the town’s reserves. It’s all just part of his sly campaign to be mayor.

And even the usually laconic Block minion Tim Fryer is given a chance to mumble his incoherencies at length; although they say nothing about the actual sale, they bloat up his own image in print.

Our mayor wasn’t asked for a comment by either paper. This is highly disrespectful of the mayor and her office, and shamelessly sycophantic of the local media. No wonder few people read local newspaper these days: readers can see they lack credibility.

Section 10 of the town’s Code of Conduct bylaw says:

…official information related to decisions and resolutions made by Council or the Local Board will normally be communicated in the first instance to the community and the media in an official capacity by the Mayor/Chair or designate;

And section 226 of the Municipal Act says the mayor shall,

…act as the representative of the municipality both within and outside the municipality, and promote the municipality locally, nationally and internationally…

Get that? The mayor represents the town here and outside. Not Saunderson and not Fryer: that’s the mayor’s role. Why push them to the forefront, other than to aid their premature campaign bids? (as if either of these highly unpopular council members has a snowball’s hope in hell…)

Yes, I am aware that The Block treat this bylaw with the utter disrespect they show for other policies and laws. But an objective, professional media wouldn’t aid and abet their scurrilous attempts to get themselves re-elected at our mayor’s expense.**
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The Block’s worst abuse of power yet

Abuse of powerI warned you. I warned you The Block would blame others for their own evil acts, that they would scheme and connive to sell your assets behind closed doors, and they would find a way to keep the much-disliked interim CAO on, no matter what the cost to taxpayers. I warned you they would lie, scheme in secret, and behave unethically in order to get their own way. 

And I was right. They did it all, Monday night, behind closed doors.

This week, the town issued a media release that can only be described as the most flagrantly disingenuous statement this municipality has ever made. It says:

In order to ensure the process carries on uninterrupted, Council voted to direct the municipality’s legal counsel at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, and CAO John Brown to continue negotiations with EPCOR and prepare the required draft agreements.

The Block intend to keep paying the sole-sourced lawyer (who, I understand, has already billed the town around $500,000) and its unpopular interim CAO (whose salary is higher than that of the premier of Ontario!) in order to continue the vendetta against our publicly-owned utility, Collus-PowerStream.

These are the same people who not long ago promised they were only “kicking tires” and would get public input before they made any decisions. They lied.

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The symphony of government

A good government in operation is like a symphony: disparate parts, dozens of different instruments and performers, each in their own space and place, all working together under the benign management of a conductor. When working in harmony, they are a delight to hear and see. There’s no “me” in a symphony: it’s the result of a remarkably efficient collaboration and trust of everyone involved.

To be good, to sound good, they all have to watch the baton, to play and move in syncopation and in harmony. They all need to be tuned to the same pitch (A440). Singers need to listen to the cadence, the pitch, and sing in tune and on time. There’s a lot going on in every bar, so they all pay attention. They all need an implicit trust in one another that – without each one having to oversee his or her neighbour – they all work together to achieve a common goal. It is a remarkable experience.

But a symphony is not simply an auditory experience: it’s something to be seen, to be felt, to be experienced. That is quadrupled if it is an opera, or choral piece. In the video above, the metaphor shines: here is Verdi’s familiar Anvil Chorus from his opera, Il trovatore, performed by the The Royal Opera Company. It’s a stunning production that looks as lovely as it sounds. Who can help but be moved by it?

That’s what good, effective and efficient government should be like: hundreds of pieces moving together towards a common goal under a single conductor. A symphony, metaphorically speaking.

Life coach Michael Hyatt has a blog post on why life is like an orchestra, but it applies to government as well. He says there are five components to an orchestra:

  1. Diversity;
  2. Space;
  3. Pace;
  4. Common purpose;
  5. A plan.

Ultimately an orchestra is judged by its results: the musical performance, and for that performance to achieve its goal (that is: audience appreciation), all those parts have to be in synch. Most of the audience pay little attention to the individual performers, to the space or diversity or the parts listed above: it’s the music that they attend to. It’s the final result that matters.

This is equally true of government: most people pay little attention to the processes, the procedures, the codes of conduct, the staff reports, the flatulent ruminations of sole-sourced lawyers or the dreary pontifications of CAOs. They see only the result: whether the community is working well. Is it safe? Clean? Are there places to work and play? Schools? Are taxes affordable? Are sidewalks and roads in good condition? Can I drink the water from my tap? Is there housing? Are there jobs?

Imagine for a moment the conductor in the performance above waving his or her hands randomly. Imagine different parts of the orchestra trying to play different songs. Imagine the performers striking the anvils at will, each on his or her own time. Imagine the instruments playing at different time signatures. Or different sheet music entirely. It wouldn’t be a symphony: it would be a cacophony.

Such is the state of Collingwood’s municipal politics today. While council should be the collective conductor acting through the mayor, we instead have multiple conductors, each trying to force the orchestra (staff) to play their own tune. While Mayor Cooper tries to wave the town baton in time with the municipal music, the deputy mayor has gone rogue, madly waving his own baton to a tune only he can hear, while behind him the interim CAO props up Brian’s arms to control the motions according to his own corner-office theme song. And there are sole-sourced lawyers and consultants brought in to wave their batons at the same time. It’s chaos.

Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 60.

This is also translated as an imperative: “Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish.” (Lin Yutang translation). In other words: delicately. With subtlety and attention. Carefully. Not the hamfisted stumbling and fumbling of The Block. Not with the flailing clumsiness of the deputy mayor and interim CAO duo.
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Betrayal by the Block, again

Betrayal of the public trustMonday night, The Block will engage in their favourite political activity: betraying the public trust. In fact, it’s the only political activity they’ve engaged in this term, in which the public has been concerned. Everything else they’ve done has been to further their own personal agendas or entitlement. But Monday, they’re doing it up in style. And, of course, in secret.

At the council meeting, Monday, there is what promises to be a lengthy in-camera session:

Items for Discussion: a) Hydro Share Sale; b) Committee/Board Applications; c) Sale of 70 Huron Street property; d) Proposed Land Acquisition; e) Airport Lands f) BMA Report

During this closed-door session, council will get a presentation from its sole-sourced, $700-an-hour lawyer, and from the for-profit, out-of-province corporation EPCOR, with which the town is negotiating to buy the public’s share of our electrical utility. And I expect The Block will vote to sell the utility to EPCOR, knowing full well it will end any pretense of accountability with the utility and will result in skyrocketing electrical bills in the very near future. EPCOR will have a clause in its contract GUARANTEEING them a profit. And if you conserve electricity as you should, and the usage goes down, they will be able to raise rates to get their money and the town will be forced to pay the difference (via your tax dollars). All done behind closed doors.

The Block have never discussed in public why they want to sell the utility, what the town will get for it, what the benefits are to the residents, why they chose EPCOR instead of our partner PowerStream, or whether local people will still continue to have jobs after the sale. Nor do we know whether any of them, any staff members, or any of the sole-sourced lawyers and consultants involved will get a commission or any other kickback from the sale. The Block have never once reached out to the council of the 4,000-plus Collus-PowerStream customers outside Collingwood, to even inform them of the sale.

We, the public, deserve to know. It’s OUR utility. But The Block don’t give a damn about what we think. They’ve proven that over and over and over.

Compare Collingwood’s secretive, highly deceptive and unethical process with that of Wasaga Beach. The Beach council recently decided to investigate selling its electrical utility and went through a lengthy process of open public meetings, online surveys, public engagement and presentations. But then, Wasaga Beach has an ethical council – that’s the difference. Not once in the past two-and-a-half years has this council done any of that. And the local media, in collusion with The Block, have remained silent on this abuse of power.
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Taking credit for the work of others

PlanningA short while ago, I received an unsolicited email from the interim (and soon to be departing) CAO, John Brown, with the subject, “Ideas. Observations. Musings  . Opinions  . Facts ?” (yes, written just like that…). Although he says he never reads my blog, it inspired me to write this post.

He wrote (copied in its original form and punctuation):

I  was wondering if you might  be interested in the towns (sic) recent building permits statistics  reflective of  highly positive growth  in the tax base during the recent past ?  As you are aware from your time on council our financial position has not been  robust in the past  however you will be glad to hear that  it is now showing clear signs of significant  improvement  .

Last  year the total construction value was   115,560 999 dollars – the highest ever I believe  .  I am advised that this year is tracking  , potentially  , higher  . A good  news ‘ economic development ‘  story about the high level of investment in the town based on confidence in the local economy  , based on facts  ,  might be of interest  ?  You can let me know  and I will have them forwarded to you.

(Yes, I too wince at his inability to communicate effectively in writing, but at least he seems to have learned how to use the shift key since his last emails to me, even if the apostrophe still eludes him. But proofreading and clarity are likely overrated… just assume it’s all labelled ‘sic’…)

Now, anyone who follows municipal politics at all knows that council has little if anything to do with private building or construction (unless you’re voting for your brother-in-law’s projects). It is the work of developers, it is not done overnight, but generally part of long-term planning and investment over several years, especially where subdivisions and large scale projects are concerned. So this council cannot take any credit for recent construction. Balmoral Village, just as a single example, was approved last term, although the fees are collected this term.

Plus the fact that none of The Block have ever advocated, championed or even suggested anything resembling the whisper of a ghost of a hint of an economic policy should be considered at any time this term. Not just growth-related: crafting ANY economic policy has so far escaped their attention and grasp. Not surprising, since the collective business and economic acumen of The Block is somewhat less than that of the average anteater.

So why try to pretend this growth is the result of anything The Block has accomplished? To date their greatest intellectual achievement is a bylaw that prohibits throwing birdseed on your driveway. Everything else they have done has been utterly negative, selfish and destructive.

What, then, was the interim CAO’s motive to inspire me to write about this? Surely he knew I’d present a factual counterpoint to his spin.

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The Dude, the Tao and the Dharma

The DudeI suppose it all began with Benjamin Hoff. Hoff was one of the first contemporary writers to attempt to distill Taoism in a lighthearted form for Westerners when he wrote The Tao of Pooh in 1981, a very successful book still in print. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 49 weeks. A decade later, he followed with The Te of Piglet, less successful (its message somewhat diluted by Hoff’s extraneous political and social commentary) but also still in print.

Not that Hoff was the first Westerner to attempt to explain Asian philosophy and religion. That goes back to Marco Polo. However, it really got a head of steam in the late 19th century when there was a flurry of translations of almost all of the Asian classics, from the Vedas to Zen stories. A lot of these translations are still in print, although newer, better ones are available. And in the 1950s and 60s came a second wave, first as the beatniks, then the hippies adopted some of these beliefs. Sometimes even seriously and sincerely.

But not everyone was Jack Kerouac. Most of these books were serious stuff: the work of scholars and translators determined to open the intellectual doors for Western minds. Similar efforts were undertaken to Anglicize Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Sumerian and other classics. It was an intellectual exercise, which often only confounded the average worker.

In 1971, Be Here Now, a seminal work by Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) presented the ideas of Asian philosophy in a graphically entertaining manner (it’s still in print). It did a remarkably good job of clarifying and distilling a lot of ideas and practices. However, it was still stuffier than Hoff in its presentation of those ideas.

Hoff made it fun, made it easy to read. He disarmed readers by explaining everything in comments and discussions by the lovable A. A. Milne characters, and who can’t love a cuddly teddy bear discussing the meaning of life with a stuffed toy pig? The dialogues went like this:

Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “That that’s why he never understands anything.”

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Thrasymachus and The Block

ThrasymachusThere’s a character in Plato’s Republic called Thrasymachus who acts as a foil to Socrates by presenting a series of comments and arguments the old philosopher has to debate and counter. He (Thrasymachus) is based on an actual historical figure, a Sophist from the fifth century BCE. It’s unknown if the views Plato has him voice are those of the real person, or simply a literary device to advance Socrates’ (and thus Plato’s) arguments.

Of late, I’ve been reading Alan Bloom’s translation of The Republic. At the same time, I’m listening to the Great Courses 36-lecture series on Why Evil Exists, in which Thrasymachus is discussed (in only one of the lectures so far, mind you). He seemed very familiar to me, perhaps a stereotype of people we know of locally.

Thrasymachus seems to me like he would make the perfect member of The Block on Collingwood Council. His rigid views, his refusal to be swayed by reason, his disdain for others who have different ideas – at least as Plato describes them – are remarkably similar to those held by The Block. Or at least by its leader, since most of the rest are merely meat puppets with no real thoughts of their own. Thrasymachus states:

Listen, then. I say justice is nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger.

The basic argument Plato has him make is against Socrates’ assertion that justice is important in a society, that justice is served for the greater good. Thrasymachus, in Book I, counters by saying justice is nothing more than the advantage of the strong over the weak. What’s good for those in power equals justice. In other words: might makes right.

…in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.

Which is exactly how The Block govern. They have the might (a majority of seven out of nine council members), so they vote in rigid lockstep to accomplish subversive goals and further their private agendas regardless of the impact on the public, on residents, on taxpayers. Regardless of whether what they do is actually the right thing for the community. Their concept of right is simply what is good for them. They don’t care a whit for justice unless it empowers or entitles them. Might even allows them to continue to pursue personal vendettas at the public expense. Great expense, too.
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Marcus Aurelius and The Block

Marcus Aurelius, MeditationsPerhaps the most famous work by any Stoic is the Meditations, written as a series of notes-to-myself by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  I’ve been reading a lot of Stoic works of late, and this remains my favourite. Although never meant for publication, just as reminders to himself, it’s full of wonderful, inspiring comments. And some seem eerily prescient in our current municipal calamity. For example, Book Two opens with these words:

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil …

While I don’t know if Mayor Cooper or Councillor Lloyd have ever read the Meditations, I suspect they start each council and standing committee meeting with a silent thought that is remarkably similar to those words, even though they were first written between 170 and 180 CE. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it sure reads to me like an uncannily accurate description of The Block: meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, surly… it has all seven of them nailed (however, we might add somnambulant, feckless, secretive and supercilious just for accuracy…)

Now, I know what you’re going to say: “But Ian, The Block have nothing to do with Marcus Aurelius. Or Stoics. Or philosophers. Or thinking about anything other than themselves. They have nothing to say about reason or philosophy because they don’t reason and they don’t read.” Well, I agree, but that doesn’t mean Marcus Aurelius doesn’t have something to say about them.

You can read the entire work of his – twelve short books – in a somewhat dated translation on the MIT classics site. I recommend you consider buying a more modern version, however. Here, for example, are the lines from the Hays, 2002, translation of that piece:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.

It’s not just that The Block can’t tell good from evil, however. Those few among them who can recognize the difference choose only what serves their own interest, regardless of whether it is good or bad for the community. Marcus Aurelius continued with a warning to,

…stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.

Such words of wisdom are wasted on The Block, of course. Those are attributes they have honed to a fine edge within themselves. Hypocrisy is their collective forte.

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