The CAO’s expenses

Expense accountsEarlier this year, I filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request to see the expense records of Collingwood’s Interim CAO for 2015 and 2016 to the end of March. You can read these records by clicking on the links above.

Let me start by saying a few things: first, the interim CAO is paid $225,000 a year – roughly $50,000-$75,000 more than his peers in similar and local municipalities – PLUS, as I understand it, he gets a car allowance paid by taxpayers. This council has twice extended his contract, after secretive backroom discussion among themselves.

Second, the town pays mileage of $0.55/km based on the cost of operating a vehicle: its wear and tear, not simply fuel costs. So when someone claims the full $0.55/km for travel using a vehicle already paid for by the taxpayers through a car allowance, is that double-dipping?

I question both the reason for some of these claims, and the ethics of others. I also question why our council refuses to assume its legislated responsibility to act in an oversight role.*

Unfortunately, most of the entries in these documents are only dry monetary facts, no explanations as to why the interim CAO – who rarely leaves his corner office when in town – has to drive to Hamilton, Toronto, Waterloo or Burlington for something that might have been more efficiently and economically handled by a phone call or email. They were not trips for conferences or workshops. So what were they for?

Who or what is in Burlington that needs the top town official to visit personally and spend a day away from the office? In Hamilton? Toronto? Waterloo? Did any of our councillors go with him (It has been suggested that at least on one occasion, one did… but if so, why? And why was it not made public?)

Effective delegation is a skill top leaders have and must have to be effective in their role. Top leaders don’t spend days driving themselves to meetings a long way out of town instead of dealing with the day-to-day activities they were hired to manage. Is this the best use of time for the top executive? What happens to the rest of staff or to town business on days when he is driving to Burlington or Waterloo?

Why are these meetings more important than attending to   the business of the municipality in. town hall?  Why can’t he delegate these tasks? What issue could not have been equally handled by a subordinate? Or is there no trust in the staff’s abilities or professional ethics?

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Two conferences and a show

Windsor: Ontario Water Conference

I had the honour and the enjoyment of attending two municipal conferences last week. While no longer directly involved in politics, I am able to keep my finger in some of the political pies through my current work for an NGO. Plus, I like to remain informed and up-to-date about politics and governance, and am always looking for opportunities to increase my knowledge and understanding of pretty much any topic.

The first event was the Ontario Water Conference, in Windsor. While predominantly a technical and operations event for facility managers and operators, it also has a good political component where utility board members and politicians can learn about initiatives, developments and government updates.

I sat in on presentations over two days, learning about levels of service and risk models; improvement actions from frozen services; eco-fiscal challenges to building resilient communities; business case for a one-water approach; updates from the IESO, the MOE, MOECC, Drinking Water Advisory Council and Safe Drinking Water Branch of the MOECC. From climate change to electricity prices to algal blooms and utility board governance… I learned a lot.

The great majority of workshops were, however, technical, and well out of my depth of knowledge. It also has a large trade show where attendees can see the latest updates in water-related technologies and discuss their implementation with the vendors.

As the website tells it:

The Conference continues to be the premier drinking water event in Ontario, consistently attracting over 900 delegates from all areas of our industry: operators and owners, manufacturers and suppliers, consultants, academics and regulators. The Trade Show has more than 100 exhibitors representing the manufacturers and suppliers of products and services to the water industry. This is a great opportunity to network, and keep informed about technical, regulatory, and equipment development which affect the industry.

I would have assumed that any politician who sits on a water utility board or any public member of such board, who is dedicated to their role and cares about water would have at least made the effort to attend these sessions. After all, they are personally liable for the quality of our water and can be sued for not maintaining it.

I guess if you don’t read the Clean Water Act, this might not concern you. (Hint: it’s crucial reading for members of water utility boards like ours…)

However, there were not many politicians in sight, although I did encounter a few. While I recognized several water utility employees from Collingwood, none of its water utility board (which consists of five inexperienced, neophyte politicians) was present. You would think someone who knew nothing about the subject would be eager to learn about what they have the responsibility over, but perhaps I expect too much from them. Ignorance is bliss, they say.

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Banning Phosphorus

Algal bloom
In 2014, Toledo experienced a water crisis that caused the city to issue a “do not use” warning for more than 500,000 residents. They had to rely on bottled water; boiling wasn’t safe because it further released toxins into the water.

That crisis was caused by unsafe levels of the toxin Microcystin in the city’s treated water. The toxin came from the unprecedented algal bloom in Lake Erie; a huge swath of the west end of the lake blossomed with the algae.

The algae were growing rapidly because of the increasingly high nutrient load in lakes and streams. In particular: phosphorus. The bloom wasn’t as large as the 2011 giant that covered 5,000 sq. kilometers of the lake, but it was more deadly.

Not all algae  – or, more properly, cyanobacteria – produce toxins. Many are benign and all play important roles in the environment. But those produced can cause illness and even be fatal, at least to animals. There are some 50 types of Microcystin, of which Microcystin-LR is the most common. And most dangerous: it causes severe and sometimes fatal liver damage.

In the past few months, oceanic algal blooms known as red tides have killed tens of thousands of fish off the coasts of Florida, Chile, ChinaCambodia, and Vietnam. A 500-km bloom polluted one of Australia’s major rivers this spring.

Economies are suffering from algal blooms and their impact on fishing, tourism, shipping and recreation. In Chile alone, the devastation from algal blooms cost their salmon industry $800 million this year.

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The stench of entitlement

EntitlementYou’d think politicians would learn from the recent investigations into Senate spending and the Mike Duffy trial, that Canadians have no tolerance for the gimme, gimme, gimme of politicians. Canadians don’t like the smell of a sense of entitlement.

A lesson lost, it seems, on our own Collingwood Council. The stench of entitlement is strong at the table these days. And much it emanates from Councillor “Senator” Jeffrey.

Last year, Jeffrey cut the cheese when she decided to pursue personal political ambitions by getting onto the board of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Since the FCM board meets all over Canada – except, of course, in Collingwood – she needed more money in her expense account  – limited to $4,500 tax dollars annually for councillors – to attend.

Plus, campaigning for the board – printing those flyers and schmoozing – was too expensive for a mere $4,500 if you still wanted to get in a few bottles of bubbly and some canapes. Better to have taxpayers pay for it.

So she got the Politburo – aka the Ideological Block – at the council table to back her request to add another $10,000 from taxpayers’ pockets every year onto her expense account. That’s $14,500 a year of your money!

Now she would be able to fly, wine, dine and party around the country in style, at your expense, without shelling out of her own pocket. No cold Camembert and stale crackers for our councillor!

And during the discussions about council giving her more money, she stayed at the table, spoke in public in favour of her own entitlement and, yes, voted to give herself more money.

You’d think it couldn’t get much stinkier than that – entitlement dripping with unethical juices and topped with a heaping of conflict – but it can. And it did.

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Killing gnats with grenades

Starving catCollingwood Council has taken the equivalent approach of a grenade attack to swat at a little gnat. It has launched a full-frontal assault on people feeding wildlife in order to get a couple of people in town to stop feeding feral cats.

And of course it was done without any public input.

The sensible, socially active and responsible approach would have been a campaign of education, public meetings, and information. But no, that’s too damned open and transparent for this council.

What this council wants – and got – is punitive legislation. Let’s punish people who think they’re being humane and kind. After all, they’re only taxpayers.

Besides, education costs money and Council thinks your money is better spent letting Councillor “Senator” Jeffrey fly around the county, wining and dining at taxpayer expense, while she pursues her personal political ambitions to become queen of FCM (yes: there’s a motion on the upcoming agenda to give her an unlimited budget to do this. L’etat c’est moi…)

The staff report on the April 11 agenda (starts p. 84) makes it seem like it’s a big move to deal with coyotes – but don’t kid yourself. This is all about feral cats. Coyotes have little to do with it.

Cats which, it seems, this council would rather have hunting birds or starving to death on the street. Real compassion there. Did I mention there wasn’t any public input?

Two letters in this week’s Connection complained about this bylaw. People are upset. After the fact, of course, since (stop me if you’ve heard this before…) Council didn’t get any public input about this.

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Amateur layout and bad ads. Again.

Stinky!I see the Town of Collingwood is still letting the EB layout its full page of ads in the paper.  Tragic. Embarrassing. Cringe-worthy.

The latest back page mashup has as its first ad the worst of the worst sort of ad layout, the sort only amateurs would create. It’s too wide for any human being to comfortably and efficiently read. Then there’s the second page with its fat partner in layout crime.

It’s embarrassing for a municipality to be thus represented. The only saving grace is that no one reads the EB any more, so not very many people see how bad it is. But those who do see it, wince.

Why, oh why, does the town continue to permit amateurs to design its advertising? Doesn’t anyone realize these represent the town? They affect our reputation?

These wide ads – and several of the smaller ads – break pretty much every rule in every design and typographic book. High school students could craft more elegant, readable, exciting ads. Maybe elementary school kids could, too.

I’ve written about these embarrassing, amateur efforts in the past and how they hurt the town’s image. Even a bungling non-designer like me can see they are ill-suited for presenting a professional, polished image. I suspect these are designed by the janitor, or maybe someone who delivers the paper. Certainly not by a graphic designer.

Anyone can read the basic books on layout and design to learn enough to see these are awful. Truly awful. Why can’t anyone in town hall see it?

But, you ask, why would the town give the job to someone trained and experienced in that art? That would break this term’s trend.

Council took the management of the water utility from experienced professionals on the board and gave it to inept councillors. Council kicked the experienced, professional, provincially-recognized winner of several awards and honours, the CEO of Collus, off the board and put the interim CAO in his place. The precedent for replacing people who know what they’re doing with those who don’t was set early in this term.

Council cancelled its individual subscriptions to the monthly Municipal World magazine, the best Canadian journal for municipal governance and politics, read by dedicated municipal politicians across the country. Why? Because council felt it knows everything already and doesn’t need peer advice. Besides, reading is hard work.

Council has turned to obscure one-and-two-person consulting firms few if any of us have ever heard of for recommendations on big, important, strategic issues that affect the town’s well-being, rather than listen to respected, worldwide firms like KPMG.

The arrogance of amateurism is this council’s legacy. The inmates are running the asylum. These ads are regular, graphic reminders of that.

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Peter, Parkinson and Adams

Parkinson's Law coverC. Northcote Parkinson, Lawrence J. Peter, and Scott Adams are for me the ‘holy trinity’ of philosophers of modern bureaucracy, within both the public service and the corporate structure. As philosophers, they are all keen observers and witty commentators on the human condition, with emphasis on the nature of organizations, leadership and management.

Not always in the lofty or strategically-focused terms of, say, Sun Tzu or Machiavelli; all three are more prosaic and more cynical. And funnier – an adjective seldom used with either classical writer.

These three pundits are, of course, well-known today: every CEO, corporate leader and ambitious manager worth their salt knows and has read their work. All are required reading in many business courses and workshops. Even dedicated, effective elected government officials and elected representatives have read them (Stop that guffawing, you local residents…)

Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in a magazine article in 1955, is that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Which might explain why putting together a shared services agreement between Collus Powerstream and the town has taken more than a year to do what most people could do in an afternoon over a beer.

Dilbert and Parkinson's Law

Parkinson also created the idea of the “coefficient of inefficiency,” a parameter to describe how committees become increasingly less efficient as their size grows until they become completely and utterly inefficient.

Parkinson’s theory was based on quantity: the greater the size of the organization the lower its efficiency, pointing to trends based on English history. I, however, tend to measure quality over quantity in such situations. Five bobbleheads are, for example, more inefficient in a committee than, say, 50 independent-thinking geniuses. While the latter might accomplish something useful given enough time, the former merely bloviate.

Another contribution was Parkinson’s Law of Triviality which states that “members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” Or as Parkinson phrased it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” His example was a committee debating the development of an expensive, complex nuclear plant: it spent more time debating the construction of its bicycle shed than any major component.

Anyone who has followed council budget discussions recognizes this law in practice: significantly more time is spent on small amounts than on the big ticket items. Except of course this term, when staff told council what to think during the budget discussions, and refused to answer questions. The Bobbleheads accepted this process, thus quickening the timeline by skirting the messy business of democracy, and frank, open discussion.

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Demagogues and democracy

“I just wish, at some point in time, councillors would show a little more integrity or credibility on the floor of council… It’s like every time we try to do something, there’s criticism, no matter what we do. I’d like to see councillors do the right thing. And in my opinion, these people are not doing the right thing. They’re hypocrites. They’re not telling the truth.”

Mayors Gone BadNo, that’s not Mayor Cooper speaking about our current council that continues to blindly clear cut its way through the town’s institutions and services, masticate our already battered reputation into spittle-and-chips, and bludgeon staff morale into pulpy submission.

It’s from Mayor Sam Katz of Winnipeg. He is quoted on page 125 in Mayors Gone Bad, a new book by Philip Slayton.

Mayors Gone Bad is an entertaining, provocative look at a handful of mayors across Canada who have ridden into office on a wave of populism and charisma, but who have generally failed miserably to live up to their promise. Some have fallen prey to the temptations that make headlines. Thus their terms in office have often created more of a mess than ever before.

Collingwood might have a future contribution if Slayton ever writes a sequel titled, “Deputy Mayors Gone Bad.”

Katz shares the spotlight with Rob Ford of Toronto, Peter Kelly of Halifax, Larry O’Brien of Ottawa, Gerald Tremblay of Montreal, Susan Fennell of Brampton, Gilles Vaillancourt of Laval, Joe Fontana of London and a few others. All of whom have been star performers in the media circus, and many of whose tales are seriously cringeworthy.

Some are bad in the sense of corruption, bribery, conflict, scandal and criminal charges, or too-cozy relations with developers, but most are bad through ineptness, ignorance, arrogance, entitlement and inexperience. Banal rather than venal. Demagogues whose weaknesses became all too evident when they tried to control the machinery of government.

Some, like Katz, were well-meaning, idealistic and optimistic when they got elected, only to discover the ugly truth of Canadian municipal politics: mayors are not the power, not the movers and shakers, not the sole source of authority they imagined. They can lead, but not rule, as Slayton writes.

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Why? A few questions for councillors

asking whyWhy? Councillor Madigan said he had written that on every page of the report about Collus, presented to council last week by lawyer Mark Rodger. After reading the report, I also have many questions why. It’s a good question. I too, wrote ‘why?” on many pages, albeit likely for rather different reasons.

Why, I asked myself as I watched the meeting and listened to the comments from councillors last week, is our current council so intent on destroying its successful, accomplished utility – a superb, efficient business – while demoralizing and alienating the staff who have served this community so well for decades?

Why is this council so determined to destroy the partnership and relationship with the municipally-owned and respected utility PowerStream, easily the foremost and most forward-thinking utility company in the province?

Why does this council accept at face value flawed reports from dubious consultants with incomplete, incorrect or missing information, ignore corrections and factual errors, and overlook significant problems or issues in them? As John Dryden wrote in his satirical poem, Absalom and Achitophel:

Some truth there was, but dash’d and brew’d with lies;
To please the fools, and puzzle all the wise.
Succeeding times did equal folly call,
Believing nothing, or believing all.

Why does this council place so much more weight in the reports from one- and two-person consulting firms operating out of their out-of-town homes than what KPMG – one of the world’s four largest consulting firms, with 174,000 employees worldwide – said or advised to the former council. Are they just sticking their ideological heads in the sand to avoid reason?

Why doesn’t this council demand the administration release to the public and media the hundreds of pages of corrections and responses to all these reports? Why does council allow them to be hidden away in secrecy, far from public scrutiny?

Why wasn’t a glowing third-party review of the Collus PowerStream strategic partnership provided to council last year kept secret? Was it because it was positive, thorough and complimentary? Was it because it debunks reports by buddy consultants?

Why does this council put private agendas and personal vendettas ahead of the public good, ahead of the well-being of our institutions, and ahead of the morale of town staff?

Why did council accept a report that contained content from anonymous sources? On page 4 of Rodger’s report, the footnote says some of the sources “…spoke to us on the condition that they not be identified.” Anonymous sources? What sort of credibility does that have?

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The latest FOI emails examined

paper stackOne hundred and seventy pages of email correspondence between the town’s interim CAO, John Brown, and the Collus/Powerstream CEO, Ed Houghton, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, , 2015, were recently released to the public as the result of a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request filed locally.

I have printed and read through all 170 pages, and marked up many of them. It’s dull reading, aside, that is, from the included “Third Party Review of the Collus PowerStream Strategic Partnership,” which should be required reading for all members of council.

Let’s get something straight: No one at Collus works for the town, no one at Collus is answerable to the town’s CAO or any other town employee. It’s a separate, partner corporation and as such its employees deserve respect and dignity. Collus executives answer to their board of directors, not to town staff.*

I’m surprised, even astounded that these were released by the recipient because, as I read them, they are not complimentary to the town’s interim CAO. In fact, they paint a rather unflattering picture of the administrator’s communication skills. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I expect the top staff people in any organization, CAO, CEO, CFO, CIO or whatever the initialism, to be a good, professional and civil communicator. It should come with the job.

The records show someone who admits he is not a good “typist” in the medium of emails and modern technology (record 8). But also – perhaps there’s still too much of the editor in me – seemingly unconcerned about stylistic conventions of the language – such as capitalization, punctuation or spelling.

Mr. Houghton’s responses show civility, patience, some evident exasperation, but compliance and professionalism.

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Collingwood’s broken committee system, part 2

Coup d'etat
Coup d’etat!

Back in early 2015, I wrote that the experimental standing committee structure adopted by council was broken. Well, wouldn’t you know it, a year later, council finally agreed. And they replaced it with… you guessed it: another standing committee system. But it’s potentially a much more dangerous threat to our community.

The former system had committees of three council members, which met away from the prying cameras that broadcast full council meetings, some of the committees skulking on the top floor of the library to further avoid public scrutiny.

Because a group of three councillors was not a quorum, committees could only recommend a course of action to council. Delegations and presentations had to be repeated in front of the whole council: a pointless redundancy for staff and the public.

In early 2016, old committees were replaced with two, new five-person committees which meet away from the prying TV cameras, in the top floor of the library where few of the pesky public ever go.

Here’s where the danger to democracy gets exposed. Aside from the continued reluctance of council to do public business in the open, that is.

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Fixing the shared services agreement

Way too long!First, some history: for 15 years, Collus – now Collus/Powerstream – had a beneficial, mutually-agreed-on and successful agreement with the town to provide services back to the town at reasonable rates. These were things the town did not or could not provide itself for reasons of cost, staffing, expertise, equipment or interest. It was mutually beneficial to have Collus provide them.

The list of potential services included:

Reconnect & Collection, Meter Reading, Billing & Collecting, Customer Service, Information Technology Management, Data Tracking, Accounting, Engineering, Planning & Necessary Maintenance, Contracting with Developers, Customers & Others, Subcontracting Services, After Hours Response, Normal Hours Response, Emergency Preparedness, Provision of Supervisory Services, HR, Policy Development, Regulatory Assistance, Reporting and Capital Construction Activities.

The town, of course, had to request most of the services, and if they weren’t asked for, they weren’t provided, so the town wasn’t billed for them. What was asked for and provided was billed quarterly. These figures appeared in publicly accessible financial updates and budgets presented to council. Nothing secret here.

True, not all services on that list were provided all the time. That’s because the town never asked for that service. And it wasn’t billed for what it didn’t receive. Got that? No provision = no billing.

The agreement was supposed to be restructured in 2012 when Powerstream took over the 50% share of Collus. But the person responsible for doing so didn’t accomplish it in time and left. But Collus/Powerstream continued in good faith to provide services, billing the town only for what it did.

In fact, Collus employees have always gone well above and beyond what the service agreement stipulated. After all, the employees of Collus are also residents who love and respect their home town and want it to be the best it can be – a level of dedication one doesn’t expect from interim employees.

In July, 2014, the former council called for a new agreement to bring the contract up to date and see if there were any services to add or delete. The interim CAO was tasked with the job of having the agreement examined and recommendations made for it to be updated. Should be a simple task, right?

Instead, it resulted in the now-infamous report by True North and Beacon 2020 that condemned the agreement and Collus, publicly presented to the new council in December, 2014.

Council rightfully rejected the report and asked the consultants to fix it and bring it back with the facts straight. But that’s not what happened. I wrote about this botched report back in February, 2015.

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