What would $9 Million Buy Our Town?

Back a few years ago, the 2010-14 council led by Mayor Cooper approved building for the community several important structures and buying for public ownership several properties, any of which — indeed, several of which — could have been built for less than the $9 million cost we taxpayers are burdened with paying for the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) this term.

For example, the new firehall we commissioned in 2012 cost $4.75 million. For roughly twice that amount, you know what you got from this council? Right: a report. And not just any report: we got a digital report, that, despite being full of vague, generic, and irrelevant recommendations, we’re told is as important as providing clean drinking water. Excuse me while I do a facepalm over that claim.

When we built the firehall, we also upgraded the OPP station — which the town owns — to meet the province’s operational standards. That cost another $800,000. A new firehall and a renovated police station: $5.55 million. Not even close to $9 million, and they’re still standing, still in use, still publicly owned. This term, you got a digital report.

For $5 million, the 2010-14 council upgraded and covered our swimming pool for year-round use, and added a warm-water therapy pool to it for our seniors, had the change rooms rebuilt, added a viewing area, seating, competition diving boards, upgraded HVAC and water systems, and paved the parking lot. That’s $4 million less than this council’s important-as-clean-drinking-water digital report.

And then for $8.5 million, we commissioned and built a new, publicly-owned hockey and skating arena and rink, with dressing rooms, a canteen, benches for spectators, and meeting rooms, all so local teams and clubs didn’t have to drive out of town to practice, and the community had a year-round space to skate and play.  The builder even threw in $500,000 of extras for free. Still cost us less than the $9 million digital, important-as-clean-drinking-water report and it’s there today for the whole town to use.

And we did both of these publicly-owned recreational facilities without costing taxpayers a penny. Two top-rated, environmentally-designed, publicly-owned recreational facilities for about $13 million that will be providing the whole community with service and enjoyment for many more decades. Compare these to the as-important-as-clean-drinking-water digital report you got this term that will be with us for… maybe a couple of months? If that.

In 2013, we also bought Fisher Field for about $500,000, which was then privately owned, securing the town’s soccer pitches for the community, and making future upgrades viable because the public now owned the land. And we also upgraded and rebuilt two public tennis courts to meet community demand, and built a new public park and playground called J.J. Cooper Park.

You got a report this term. A digital one at that.
More Dilbert

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The $9 Million Dollar Mayor

Throwing money awayMore than eight million of your dollars have been spent to date on the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI), and it may top $9 million if you add in the costs the town doesn’t include in its calculations, as well as the proposed $700,000 report-about-the-report. And that should stick to our $9 million-dollar mayor.

There is a breakdown of the SVJI costs as of Dec. 18, 2020, on the town’s website. Sort of. The $8,098,547.40 total doesn’t include two key components: first, the salary and expenses of the inquiry’s judge. While that was paid for by the province, not simply by local taxpayers, it’s still a cost we all have to bear in our annual income tax paid to the province. Even the lowest provincial judges make at least $250,000 a year, so the true SVJI costs should be another $500,000 or even higher.

Then there are the unreported costs for town staff, too, and we do pay these: including overtime, time and paperwork to respond to and accommodate the SVJI requests, travel, time and paperwork to respond to residents’ questions and requests about the inquiry, time to set up rooms and hearing space, to provide water, electricity, and advice, to move departments out of town hall, then back again, for any incidental costs to accommodate the inquiry. How much that was I cannot estimate, but because so many senior staff were involved, I’d guess it easily tops $250,000 spread over the inquiry’s time here.

On top of that, there’s that $700,000 additional to be spent for staff to write a report about the report — a task we’re told is as important as ensuring our drinking water is safe. I’m sure you’ve already read my comments about that expensive, bureaucratic codswallop.

And we’re not sure if that’s the final tally or there are still bills to be paid. The town hall cash register keeps singing to the Nine-Million-Dollar Mayor’s tune.

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The irony, the hypocrisy

Mob ruleThere’s a letter on the council consent agenda that will either make you shake your head in wonder at the brash irony of it, or laughing at a writer who plays a fawning Rudy Giuliani to Saunderson’s Trump.

It’s from Claire Tucker-Reid, the co-chair of the former Central Park Steering Committee (SPSC; our current mayor was the other), the committee that can be argued to be the cause of this recent and expensive turmoil that led to the town wasting more than $8 million of your money on a vindictive judicial inquiry (or, as some believe, a vendetta). The inquiry enriched lawyers but did nothing for the rest of us. Sure, we got 300-plus mostly generic or irrelevant recommendations, but can we fix the potholes with them? With $8 million we could have.

The letter’s author is also a self-professed member of the small, disruptive, special-interest lobbying group “Better Together Collingwood” (which was neither better than nor together with the rest of the community) that tried to bully council through mob rule into giving the YMCA a $35 million handout back in 2012.

And to top it off, she was the “campaign chair Mayor Saunderson, for the last 2 municipal elections.” No conflicts there, right?

You might recall that the SPSC had its own conflicts, not least from having an employee of a developer who made a competing proposal to build a rec facility as a voting member. It had a YMCA representative voting. What about the personal relationships between the writer and the former director of the PRC? Didn’t the inquiry rail on about how personal or business relationships were “hidden conflicts” even though they weren’t legally recognized as such?

If you accept the conclusions of the judicial inquiry that conflicts of interest exist outside the legal requirements of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, then from what I see, this letter is pretty hypocritical. But there has long been a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do block of Saunderson supporters for whom such considerations of fairness or transparency do not apply.

What about the committee’s refusal to share critical information with council six or more months before the final report was presented? And failed to share its meeting minutes with council, thus keeping council in the dark about its machinations. This knowledge might have caused council to shut the committee down much earlier because it had failed in its mandate (to develop a partnership), or at the very least it should have changed the nature of both the committee and the discussion around building a recplex.

Examining their activities, I find it hard not to conclude that the  CPSC acted in a secretive and deceptive manner. But I digress.

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Council’s financial follies part 1

This is the first in what I expect will be a long series of posts about the financial follies and shenanigans of our council.

Another fine messOur council begins its term not with a bang but a groan and the shaking of heads. To quote Oliver Hardy, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” I’m sure it won’t be the last time I get to say that to this council.

To be fair, the debacle is not the responsibility of everyone at the table – that falls squarely on the shoulders of the four re-elected incumbents. However, since most of the newcomers hitched their horses to the Saunderson Campaign Bandwagon, the continuing debacle is an albatross they too will have to wear this term.

First up, a story in Collingwood Today about the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial inquiry (SVJI) that suggests the SVJI’s skyrocketing costs are just beginning. It notes (sic):

Public hearings will take place from April 15 to 18, April 22 to 25, April 29 to May 3, May 13-17 and May 21-24. The policy phase hearings are expected to take place on June 10, 11, and 1.

(I assume that last number was truncated and should read 12 – and BTW, the story wasn’t even covered in The Connection. Surprise.)*

The SVJI was initially scheduled to begin its hearings last November, but they are running late. Five months late, in fact, and then 25 days of hearings are scheduled from mid-April into mid-June. After that the inquirers have to judge the input, come up with a conclusion, write a report and present it. Likely they will not conclude until mid to late fall. During this time the cash register continues to sing its chirpy song.

Meanwhile the number of documents continues to pile up (more than 400,000 already and more still to come… as I wrote about earlier). So many that the SVJI has had to hire two more lawyers to handle the paperwork. Ka-ching!

Last April, I predicted the SVJI would cost taxpayers at least $6 million, based on comparisons between the Mississauga judicial inquiry and the SVJI. But it now looks like that was a conservative estimate. Its original cost estimate was $1-$2 million, too. Here’s what I wrote back then:

The Mississauga inquiry interviewed nearly 100 people and collected about 35,000 documents and held hearings where 35 people testified over a period of 38 days. And cost the city $6.2 million.

Money grows on trees in CollingwoodThe SVJI has already interviewed more than 60 people (as of early November) and hasn’t even started the public inquiry portion. There are more than TEN TIMES the number of documents involved (so many that the earlier deadline to submit documents had to be extended another six weeks). This suggests to me the SVJI is going to cost us a lot more than we were led to believe. Millions more.

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SVJI costs continue to skyrocket

BureaucracyAs I predicted earlier, the costs for Saunderson’s Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) are going to climb through the roof. And of course you, the taxpayer, are going to pay for it.

Last month local media carried stories that the SVJI – scheduled to begin this month (November) – wasn’t going to meet its deadlines. It was delayed and would not start until the “new year” (apparently not until February, 2019). Bayshore Broadcasting notes in its coverage*:

The inquiry team had hoped they would start this fall, but Inquiry Counsel Janet Leiper tells us that won’t be possible and that it will be the new year before the public hearings can start. She says that’s because the rest of some of the necessary documents aren’t expected until the end of November.

Three more months of lawyers being paid $400-$700 an hour, plus travel and accommodations , plus the other staff, computers, phone, office space… That’s going to hurt the town’s budget but hey, it isn’t Saunderson’s money he’s spending. And it helped him win the election, so he doesn’t care what it costs you.

The piece also noted the inquiry had already received about 11,000 documents and interviewed more than 60 witnesses, some of whom may need to spoken to again. Ka-ching!**

Alectra – the company that came from the merger of PowerStream and other Ontario utilities – has already submitted more than 4,000 documents, sorted out from about 40,000 the company had from the time period in question. But that’s not enough: the SVJI wants more paperwork from more people.

Alectra’s lawyer, Michael Watson, said that could mean sorting through 100,000-200,000 documents from that period.  Big job. So why not do it twice? The Connection noted:

(Judge) Marrocco suggested the company provide the documents and allow inquiry staff to do a search while Alectra does the same.

Okay, let’s do some cost and time estimates on the effort required to search through 100,000 or more documents.
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The campaign’s moral compass

Every politician – in fact, every human – has a personal moral compass that helps guide the way they act, debate and vote in office. While a politician’s may not be the same as the compass that they use as civilians, as family members, as employees, or as a friend, it operates similarly to direct their actions.

For some, their moral compass is a strong internal force that is the same regardless of circumstance or role. For them being a politician is not morally or ethically different from being a member of the community, from being in a service club, a community organization, a church group or just a circle of friends. Their moral compass is the same in all situations. They see right and wrong, good and bad in the same perspective whatever their circumstance. I like to think of myself in that group.

Others have a more flexible moral compass; one that changes according to role and circumstance. They may be relativists who see morals and ethics as variables, as situational guides; relative signposts not absolutes. As politicians, they may even choose to ignore their personal moral compass and instead base their decisions on party platforms, on a fixed ideology, or on what someone else tells them to do. I believe most of the local incumbents fit comfortably into this category.

Party politics are often like this: they create a rigid standard of ethics, morals and beliefs that every member of that party is expected to follow, regardless of how these interact or even clash with personal values. Party members  submerge the personal views under the party’s line. That’s not always bad, but it can often sideline conscience.

Municipal politics are supposed to be about individual conscience, not about partisan politics or blind faith in any leader. The moral compasses of councillors should not all point towards one person’s north. One of the strengths of municipal politics has always been the variety of ideas and views it allowed.

Do obedient soldiers, those gray ranks of “komitetchiks” make the best decisions at the council table? I don’t believe so, at least not for the community’s well-being. I believe councillors should vote on issues according to their conscience, based on their research and their understanding, based on effort and thought, on discussions with residents and staff, not simply because someone told them how to vote.

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