Betraying the Public Interest


Shame on youAt last Monday’s council meeting, Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson maneuvered so that interim CAO John Brown was allowed to publicly speak to the question of his contract being extended before any vote was taken. Even before anyone on council had a chance to comment on whether he should be allowed to speak.

This motion was the topic of my previous post. I believe this is an egregious betrayal of the public interest, but it’s worth looking at the process in more detail, especially to watch the video of the meeting.

In the video, it seems clear to me that Saunderson has little or no interest in an accountable government, just in getting his own way. Hardly news, I realize, but his disregard for public interest was most blatant at that meeting.

Watch it on the linked video, starting at 2:10: you’ll see Saunderson’s motion (seconded by Madigan) to extend the interim CAO’s contract to October, 2017 (the motion that blindsided the mayor and HR staff, while flipping the bird at Collingwood taxpayers).

The interim CAO stays at the table for two minutes while his position is being discussed. That should have set off procedural or at least ethical alarm bells, but the clerk remains silent.

At around 2:12 the interim CAO interrupts to ask to make a comment. At this point the mayor hesitates, then asks council for its approval of his doing so. Coun. Lloyd raises the question of the interim CAO commenting before council makes its decision, suggesting it’s a conflict of interest. It’s the most salient point of the moment.

Of course, Saunderson jumps in to support the request, and, without a by-your-leave to the mayor, turns to Brown to ask Brown to make his comment before council has a chance to debate and vote. Then – after Brown has said it all, so his supporters get the message loud and clear – he leaves the table.

And I believe, by all I know of politics and ethics, that’s wrong. It’s abuse of process for the Deputy Mayor and not an good example of leadership or best behaviour by the interim CAO.

When I look at the issue, I see a massive conflict: a quarter-of-a-million dollar ($225,000-a-year plus expenses) conflict, for the CAO to address the question of his own contract before council voted. Even before councillors have the chance to comment. And councillors have a right to comment – the CAO does not. But that didn’t stop the DM.

This coming from a council that brayed loudly about a new level of openness and transparency. Yes, it was a new level – several meters below the bar set by previous councils. But I digress.*

Now I understand the town’s Code of Conduct relates to council and their appointees, not staff. But surely senior staff should set the example, not behave on a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do method. As I understand ethical behaviour, a better person would have left the room without saying a word until the matter was decided.

Worse, the mayor was in the process of asking council for an opinion as to whether it should allow the interim CAO to comment, when Saunderson basically opened the floor for Brown to speak. Just snuck it in there before the rest of council had a chance to comment.

Total disregard for the mayor, for the process, for democracy and even for his own supporters.

Starting at roughly 2:21:50  Saunderson defends his action while carefully avoiding taking any responsibility for betraying the process, the interests of the community and the additional costs he has burdened our taxpayers with. His screed is full of self-righteous but risible claims to undeserved greatness for this term (since when was receiving a consultant’s report an accomplishment?).

He says (2:22:55) in the best Department of Redundancy Department speak, “Whether or not this is reasonable or not…” then defends the extra expenses that taxpayers shoulder. They’re only your tax dollars at stake, so what me worry?

Then he makes the argument that instead of saving $75,000 by hiring a permanent CAO, the town will still pay the same because of the cost of recruiting. Curious accounting. The recruitment costs are not part of the salary costs and will have to be paid to hire a permanent CAO later, if not now. They are a fixed amount in a separate budget line. Saunderson’s understanding of accounting appears as hazy as his appreciation of proper process.

Then at 2:25 he says “We’re offering John the contract. He accepts it or he doesn’t…” But earlier, Saunderson had Brown publicly say he already accepted the extension before council could comment, let alone vote, and long before Brown could accept or decline it. So it’s already a fait accompli.

And if you see the clerk speaking at 2:36, you’ll hear her comments that she already had a discussion with Brown about the interim CAO’s hefty compensation (higher even than the Premier of Ontario makes) being raised at council that night, so it’s clear even staff were expecting this to be a shoo-in.

“It’s a simple vote, being done in the public…” Saunderson continues. “We are doing our business where you can all see it…” Yeah, right. It’s public after this was all negotiated secretly among the Block for weeks prior to the motion. Is that open and transparent?

His comments at 2:25 smack of sycophancy, not objectivity.

Then as he read from his prepared statement, he highlighted a series of discredited reports by out-of-town consultants (which cost taxpayers dearly) and the committee-based wishlist as examples of this council’s achievements. I nearly spit my glass of wine through my nose laughing when he read a series of policies and procedures initiated by last council as this council’s achievements.

At 2:26 he even boasts that Collingwood has “…gone to great efforts to get reports from outside consultants.” Aside from the waste of tax dollars, what does that say about the Block’s confidence in the capabilities (and honesty) of town staff to provide the information?

Excuse me while I digress again, but last week I challenged readers to posit a single achievement from this council for the greater good of the community. Just one. I’m still waiting for a response.

At 2:26:21 he boasts that the changes in water and wastewater have already “…saved the town between $500,000 and $700,000.” That’s not accurate: the town has not yet received the quarterly billing from Collus/Powerstream for services still provided, so there’s no figures to work from, and that’s supposed to be an annual savings, not quarterly.

It’s also misleading about the true costs of the Block’s vendetta. The loss of the shared services income to Collus/Powerstream both devalued the asset and lowered its revenue stream, the result of which will be a reduced dividend to the town in future, and possibly a deficit the town has to cover by 2017. It’s like me taking $20 from you, then handing back five and saying you’re $5 richer now and I’m still $20 richer… the math doesn’t work.

At 2:27:10, he says “The hydro industry is changing quickly. Very quickly, and we need to be on top of it.” Codswallop. First, council isn’t “on top of” anything, especially not the electrical sector. It is the Collus/Powerstream’s board’s responsibility to be “on top of” that sector and present its findings and advice to council, not the other way around. The board is the body of expertise, not a group of council neophytes.

The town sold 50% of its share of Collus to Powerstream in 2012 because it was advised in 2011 by the Collus board of the rapidly changing nature of the electrical sector. The process involved the Ontario Energy Board, KPMG (one of the world’s largest consulting firms with some 30,000 employees worldwide) and a committee of nine top staff, politicians, electricity sector experts and board members to examine the opportunities. The committee chose the best community partner based on a thorough analysis of the RFPs. And until this term, that partnership was hailed across the province as a model for other utilities.

Now the Block is trying to find some imagined dirt, to suggest that was a bad move. But the history shows the former council – not this one – was ahead of the curve. This one is merely trying to blacken that legacy. I’ll write about the secret motives that drive this vendetta in a future post.

At 2:40 the mayor makes her comments about the flawed process.

At about 2:42, the DM has his first self-righteous snit, now the talk of town coffee shops. She calls the process a “…complete disrespect for the mayor’s office” and “…disrespect to the will of the electorate.” Hear, hear. She points out section 224 of the Municipal Act which requires council to ensure the openness and transparency of its operations, which clearly wasn’t done. (It’s also reiterated in section 6 of the Code of Conduct)

The DM’s snit re-erupts at 2:48 before getting abruptly cut off by the gavel when the mayor calls for a recess.

Council returns from recess at about 2:51 with the DM looking chastised. The mayor says she hopes the council can “…enter into cooperation and respect with one another.” To which I might comment: with this Block? Fat chance!

Then the recorded vote is called at 2:54. It’s an embarrassing 5-4, an underwhelming show of support for either the interim CAO or his pet bulldog, the DM. But it passed, thanks to the Block of Bobbleheads.

Maneuvering to let the interim CAO to speak before council had voted was an intolerable abuse of the process and the mayor’s criticism of it was well deserved. This vote broke faith with the interests of the community, and, again, pushed personal agendas above the greater good.

* In order to avoid public scrutiny, the majority of this council voted first to handicap the Integrity Commissioner’s ability to investigate them (after several complaints  had already been filed), then when it wasn’t enough, to cancel his contract entirely. Now they can’t be investigated by him in future. How open and transparent was that?

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