Category Archives: Collingwood

Comments, thoughts and musings about my hometown: Collingwood, Ontario. And some local politics, too, with my comments as a municipal councillor.

Strat Plan Part 2: The Shuffle Game

DilbertIn the second part of my critique of Collingwood’s woo-hoo strategic plan, I will look at the shuffle game. This is where consultants give contestants – I mean participants – a limited series of options and ask them to shuffle these around in order of their perceived priority. Then the results are collated and the one whose list looks most like the final version wins.

There are five separate lists given to contestants. Think of them as strategic plan bingo cards:

  1. Accountable Local Government
  2. Public Access to a Revitalized Waterfront
  3. Economic Vitality
  4. Healthy Lifestyle
  5. Culture and the Arts

Participants get to choose the pre-ordained options as if they were some royal or divine authority they can impose on the town and its residents, without regard to law, custom, policies, past practice, or, in some cases, reality. Each of the five categories is preceded by one or more goals.

Let’s start by looking at the first category: Accountable Local Government. It’s stated goals are:

  • Efficient use of Town assets
  • Effectively manage Town debt
  • Engage in frequent, proactive communication with the public in order to build strong, transparent relationships with public and private groups
  • Long-term commitment to implement the CBSP over a 10-15 year horizon

None of these actually relate to accountability. There is nothing about integrity, ethics, or holding politicians to task for not keeping campaign promises. And communication does not “build strong, transparent relationships” as this bit of disinformation would have anyone think. Communication of the sort proposed is merely one-way.

First some prelude to my analysis: councils don’t manage anything: they direct staff to do so. Council’s don’t get hands-on: staff do that. And citizen groups don’t do either, nor do they direct council to direct staff. They, at best, advise. But their advice needs to be based on reality, not on some woo-hoo concept derived from wishful thinking or (in this case), an old ideology we’ve encountered before (see below).

So lets’ look at each “action item” proposed:

ACTION ITEM: Develop an improved Asset Management Plan that takes into account maintenance costs and a funding model for the replacement of assets that have reached the end of their lifecycle. Assets include road, water and wastewater infrastructure in addition to all buildings, recreation facilities, vehicles and equipment owned and maintained by the Town.

This is the first flog-a-dead horse item. Last council directed staff to develop exactly such an asset management plan. Cross this one off the list: we did it already. But one wonders why no one told the participants.

In fact, going through the list below, you’ll see that several of these ‘action items’ were done last term or even previously. Why didn’t anyone involved know that?  Obviously this council intends to take credit for last term’s efforts.

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Strategic Planning, Part One: The Woo-Hoo Factor

Dilbert
There are, in general, two kinds of municipal strategic plans. One is pragmatic and practical. It tells you what you need to build, fix or replace, when you need to do it, how much it will cost, and where the money will come from. This is the stuff a council grounded in reality can use to budget, plan sensibly, and maintain the community’s infrastructure. It’s a roadmap that leads to a well-defined destination.

The other kind of plan is best described by the term woo-hoo. It’s an airy, feel-good exercise that spews forth happy catch phrases, the more nebulous the better. This is the stuff of wet dreams born of vague campaign platforms and fuelled by cliché-ridden dogma meant as a collective group hug without actually doing anything concrete. It’s an entrance to the fairy world where you can freely wander among the flowers.

I’ve seen the latest stage of Collingwood’s nascent strategic plan and in two words I would describe it: woo-hoo.

Over several posts, I’ll look at the “plan” as proposed, and critique it. It starts by asking participants to rank a “vision statement.” A vision statement, it says, is described as,

…inspirational. It brings together the priorities, thoughts and desires of a community to describe the ideal future for a community.”

Actually, what council needs is a mission statement that tells voters what it intends to accomplish in its term not a slice of spongy white bread. A mission statement can include a vision but there’s a goal in it. To boldly go where no one has gone before, is a mission statement, albeit a bit vague for municipalities. To fumble and flail and stumble wildly in the public eye while forgetting procedures and campaign promises… well, I suppose that’s a mission statement of sorts, too.

But let’s look at the five “vision statements” proposed for Collingwood (try not to let your eyes glaze over):

  1. Collingwood is a responsible and sustainable place for business that leverages its vibrant downtown, waterfront and natural assets to offer a healthy, affordable, four season lifestyle to its residents.
  2. The Collingwood of the future is a diverse, affordable and sustainable community that will grow based on its core strengths: waterfront, downtown and natural heritage.
  3. Collingwood is a responsible and sustainable community that leverages its vibrant downtown, waterfront, and natural assets to offer a healthy, four season lifestyle to its residents, visitors and businesses.
  4. Collingwood is the place where healthy living, excellence in government and a commitment to each other create a community that takes pride in its waterfront, its stewardship of the natural environment and its historical past.
  5. Collingwood is a thriving waterfront community that leverages its natural, economic and cultural heritage assets to promote a healthy lifestyle for all.

Don’t they just want you make you sing Kumbaya around the campfire? All those warm and cuddly generic, cookie-cutter statements that strain to avoid identifying Collingwood as a unique community. And all those buzzwords: leverage, excellence, thriving, sustainable, core strengths… sure, they’re all old and tired from overuse, but surely there’s still life in these old chestnuts if we drag them out of retirement and flail them. Why not sprinkle in a few more, like paradigm shift, prioritize, synergy and proactive? Really make it sticky sweet. (and let’s overlook the missing hyphen from four-season for the moment…)

And, of course, meaningless. Where are the action verbs? Where are the concrete, measurable goals?

Simple test: replace Collingwood in the lines above with the name of any other municipality with a waterfront and see if it makes a difference. Barrie.Toronto. Midland. Kingston. Ottawa. Nope, One is easily replaced with the other.

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Fiddling While Rome Burns

Nero fiddlesYou know that legend about Nero fiddling while around him Rome was burning? It’s a popular metaphor for political cluelessness, for inaction, procrastination, for politicians oblivious to the important business of the city while they play games. For municipal leaders who focus on the petty, the trivial, the irrelevant and the self-serving, while major issues are ignored.

Pretty much sums up Collingwood Council’s record to date. Fiddling with irrelevancies.

To be fair, they’ve only been in office eight months and probably haven’t got around to focusing on important things.

Still, you have to scratch your head and wonder why council wastes its collective energy on ephemeral (and irrelevant) strategic plans (that will be dust-collectors within days of being released as have so many previous plans become) or unnecessarily revising a generally unread code of conduct when residents really care about sidewalks, potholes, taxes, trails, parking and other more pragmatic issues.

One cannot but suspect this is the pursuit some hidden ideological plan, some secret, personal agenda being played out upon the citizens like an amateur theatrical production, instead of acting in good faith for the community’s best interests.

Last week, in its theatrical fervour, council unveiled what will likely be the highlight of its term: a revised code of conduct. And the populace responded with… a yawn. That was from those few who even paid attention to such minor issues. Procedural matters are to the public interest what a bicycle is to a fish.

Well, the council sycophants were, of course, delighted: those NINJA* remora think this is just the jim-dandiest thing a council could do and handed out back-slaps and congratulations like candy treats at Hallowe’en. And in crowing over it (clearly without actually reading it…), they ignored its glaring, egregious flaws. As we expected them to do. Cheerleaders on the Titanic to the bitter, icy end.

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Another Secretive, Self-Serving Committee

CouncilThis week, Collingwood Council passed a motion to appoint the Block Five to a new standing committee. The standing committee system, you will recall, is a system of secretive committees that operates predominantly out of the public eye, with limited council attendance, and often without even media presence. Committees conduct town business beyond the pale of accountability. Here’s what they passed (in a 6-3 vote*):

THAT Council approve the Striking Committee recommendation and appoint the following members to the Environmental Services Standing Committee: Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson, Councillor Tim Fryer, Councillor Cam Ecclestone, Councillor Kathy Jeffery, and Councillor Deb Doherty.

Saunderson and Fryer are, as you might also suspect, two of the three striking committee members.

This is the same group of five that voted to remove the long-standing CEO of COLLUS from the Collingwood Public Utility Services board – a man with 35-plus years experience in water services and highly respected across the province for his expertise, talents and his management skills – and replace him with the town’s interim CAO, a man with (as far as I know) little to no experience in those services and no vested interest in the community’s long-term sustainability or well-being.

It’s the same group that previously voted to extend that interim CAO’s contract by another year. Coincidence? Hardly.

Over the past several months since taking office, council has let – perhaps even encouraged – the relationship between the utility board and its staff, and the town’s administration deteriorate significantly. It has allowed a once-productive and mutually-beneficial relationship to grow into a toxic, confrontational environment. The head of the water services, another staff person highly-respected around the province, fled for a better working environment in another municipality.

Consultants were brought in to provide what clearly seemed to outsiders as pre-determined, very negative but erroneous reports about the utilities. Critical comments and responses about the inappropriate and even false conclusions, and the incorrect data used were ignored or buried. This was, metaphorically, Collingwood’s burning Reichstag: the self-created excuse to justify the Block’s subsequent slash-and-burn actions (although outsiders were able to discern the self-serving political motives behind these reports, this group took them at face value).

Then, in a move calculated to destroy the solid, 150-year-old working relationship between the utility services and the town, the same Block Five voted to dissolve the utility board – a group with decades of combined experience in utility services, politics and law – and replace them with a group of inexperienced, novice and ideologically-motivated politicians – themselves. Self serving? Don’t ask….

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Nailing Collingwood’s Door Shut to Business

DohertyCouncillor Deb Doherty seems eager to cement this council’s already ugly but deserved reputation for being hostile to business. This week she made a motion to re-open the always-contentious sign bylaw, apparently in order to impose draconian restrictions on business signs

THAT Council direct Staff to review Sign By-law 2012-110 with respect to sign height and any other revisions or amendments as deemed appropriate by the Chief Building Official; AND FURTHER THAT the report be presented through the Development and Operations Standing Committee not later than August 31, 2015.

Sign bylaws are necessary, but always contentious to debate. Municipalities want to limit clutter. Business owners want the freedom to erect signs that attract customers, advertise their products and generate revenue. Our bylaw is already strict enough: over the years it has proven a fair balance between control and liberty. Why fix what isn’t broken?

But apparently Ms. Doherty wants to tighten the screws on businesses. And I suspect most of council – the rest of the Block Five who vote as a clump, for sure – will follow her lead.

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Reincarnation as a Consultant or a Psychic?

 

A wag met Nasrudin. In his pocket he had an egg. “Tell me, Mullah, are you any good at guessing games?”
“Not bad,” said Nasrudin.
“Very well then: tell me what I have in my pocket.”
“Give me a clue, then.”
“It is shaped like an egg, it is yellow and white inside, and it looks like an egg.”
“Some sort of cake,” said Nasrudin.*

NasrudinShould I have the chance to do my life all over again, I’m not sure which career I would prefer most: a psychic or a consultant. One takes money from people because he is scamming them. The other takes money from people thinking he is helping them. I just can’t remember which is which.

I think if I were a consultant, I’d specialize in writing strategic plans for municipalities. That way, I’d only ever have to write one report, at the start, then I could recycle it to everyone else with minimal changes.

A psychic is, well, just someone who makes stuff up and gets paid for it. Other cultures call them liars, con artists, hoaxers, investment bankers. You don’t have to be very creative at it.

A consultant, however, is really a cook who works with words and ideas. Once you have the recipe just right, you only need scale it for the audience to sell it over and over. Toss lightly with a selection of local and generic photographs, get the mayor to write an introduction, and serve warm.

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The Antis at Sunset Point

ChipperThere are always those who don’t want change. Any change upsets them. Anything that’s new, different, exciting, challenging or just unusual bothers them and want it stopped. They want a steady state, where nothing happens, nothing changes, nothing is new. Stop growth, stop development, stop change.

Some of them are the ‘last in’ crowd – the recent arrivals who don’t want any more newcomers because newcomers will change things, and they will change the reasons the ‘last-in’ group came here. They want to be the last ones to arrive and to shut the door after themselves. They want things to remain as they were when they arrived.

Some are long-time residents who think the world should have stopped in the 80s when the shipyards were still operating. They don’t like what Collingwood has become since then. They don’t like having more than one phone exchange. They don’t like homes on the waterfront. They don’t like turning lanes on First Street. They don’t like having Thai, Japanese or Indian food restaurants because they’re too ‘foreign’. They want time to freeze and things to stop changing so damned fast. If it was good enough for their grandparents, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

And some are simply antis – people who are anti-everything. Anti-anything they didn’t think of first. Everyone else’s ideas are bad and they will protest them, write petitions, send letters, complain on social media

And some of these folks live at Sunset Point, across from the park. Last term these Antis protested the upgrades to Sunset Point Park – upgrades that made it more attractive and safer. They claimed the upgrades would reduce the amount of green space (grass cover), although the landscape architect made a presentation showing the upgrades would actually increase grass cover. They didn’t like the new sidewalk aimed at reducing traffic conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians because, well just because. They didn’t want the dreary old washroom/ice cream stall building to be upgraded, cleaned up and improved. They didn’t want a restaurant there with a patio. They didn’t want to encourage outsiders to use the park.

Go to Sunset Point any warm summer weekend and it’s packed with people. Visitors love to come there for a picnic. Buses arrive. Families gather. Kids and dogs play. People swim. It’s lively, exciting, fun. Plus the new restaurant is busy and successful, with its patio packed. Visitors love it. So do a lot of residents.

Sunset Point Antis hate it. They want it to be their park, and theirs only. They don’t want anything done to the park, even safety upgrades, without their permission. They don’t like anyone else’s success. And they most certainly don’t want to encourage any more visitors to use their park. “Keep out of our park,” they moan.

So what if this is a tourist town, so what if our economy depends heavily on visitors, on people enjoying themselves, having a good time, having good experiences and good recreational and dining? The Antis just don’t want them here. Why, they ask, should outsiders have a good time, when they come here?

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More Chinese Wisdom: Confucius and Council

AnalectsI was reading The Analects, this weekend, in the recent Penguin Classics edition translated by Annping Chin, a book I acquired on my recent mini-vacation in Toronto (one of about 30 books I purchased – a good trip for me). Confucius – Master Kong – is remarkable for his relevance to today’s politics and his insight into human behaviour, especially in a bureaucracy. Chin’s version is wonderfully clear and accessible, and her notes help clarify the passages where Westerners like me might find difficulty in understanding context (historical and cultural).

My purpose in reading The Analects this time is to seek the wisdom in these ancient words that can apply to today’s politics, with particular emphasis on local council politics. I’m going to quote some of the sections in her work and try to explain why I feel they have local resonance. For anyone interested in philosophy, politics or Oriental studies, I highly recommend her translation. I have also added alternate translations from Muller’s excellent online version because they add clarity.

And, of course, I recommend everyone in politics read them. No one can ever learn too much about how to behave.

9.25: A person should stay close to those who do their best and are trustworthy. He should not befriend those who are not his equals. And when he makes a mistake, he should not be afraid to correct it.

Muller translates this as, “Base yourself in loyalty and trust. Don’t be companion with those who are not your moral equal. When you make a mistake, don’t hesitate to correct it.”

In other sections, Confucius warns his followers not to judge a person by his or her popularity (or unpopularity), no matter how many people like (or dislike) the person. What matters is their trustworthiness, their respectability, their honesty, their uprightness. And here he again advises people to judge others on their trustworthiness.

People who lie, spread gossip and rumour, defame others are not trustworthy. They are not your equal. And if you make them so, you only lower your standards to their level. People are judged by the company they keep.

These lines are the same as the last three lines in 1.8. However, in that section, it also says:

If a man of position does not have integrity, he will not inspire awe. And when he tries to learn, he will not persevere to the end.

Residents are willing to forgive mistakes and flaws in their politicians, as long as they believe those politicians have integrity. If politicians make a mistake and admit it, people respect them. If they try to cover it up, ignore it, gloss over it, they will lose public respect.

Integrity, he adds, is also linked to perseverance. The person who does not persevere in learning has no integrity. People expect their politicians to learn to do their job properly. That means study and reading, not just showing up to meetings. That means learning all the Acts that govern them, too.

Similarly, in 16.4, it adds:

It would do you harm to be friends with those with practiced manners, an affected sweetness, a glib tongue.

Muller translates this as: “Friendship with the deceptive, friendship with the unprincipled, and friendship with smooth talkers are harmful.”

We all know people with attributes like these; they include some former politicians who, like spiders in their webs, still try to influence local politics from the shadows. They appear outwardly likable, affable, loyal and trustworthy, but it’s a sham. They are false friends, seeking only to further their own interests and ensnare others. The charming manners are a thin patina on ugly self-interest, dishonesty and lies. They will betray your trust because their interest lies not in your welfare, nor in the community’s well-being, but in their own goals and agendas.

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