Council Just Waves Its Hands

Hand-wavingCouncil waving its hands. Making ineffective flapping gestures. It sounds like it should be some sort of metaphorical phrase. Something from the Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra episode of Star Trek. But hand-waving is actually a metaphorical term that means failure to deliver the goods. And also trying to deflect attention from your failure. Wikipedia describes it as,

… a pejorative label for attempting to be seen as effective — in word, reasoning, or deed — while actually doing nothing effective or substantial.

Oh, boy, does that ever describe to a “T” our council with its collective, increasingly desperate, yet wildly inept hand-waving efforts to promote the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI). The Oxford English Dictionary gives us this definition:

The use of gestures and insubstantial language meant to impress or convince.

Insubstantial. That surely describes their efforts to make the SVJI seem relevant and worth the millions wasted on it.

I came across the term while reading Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson (Penguin Press, 2013). While I’m not in complete agreement with Thompson’s arguments about the benefits of technology, his description of “hand-waving” as a term for presenting codswallop and claptrap instead of substance immediately made me think of our local politicians. Hand-waving, all of them.

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Quidnuncs on Council

Taking Back Our CitiesA quidnunc is “a small-minded person, focused on petty things.” That’s how Gord Hume describes them in chapter five of his book, Taking Back Our Cities (Municipal World, 2011). Hume adds, “We have far too many of them on municipal councils across Canada.” I wonder what he’d say if he learned we had nine of them on ours? Hume continues:

It’s the councillor who pops up with odd little motions, or quibbling about a word in a motion, or can’t keep up with the agenda, or has trouble contributing to the debate, or focuses more on the process than the substance. Too often their attention converges on personality, rather than issue…

Sound familiar? To me, too. Hume adds that quidnuncs, “tend to seek out like-minded people on council for support, and form little pacts and alliances.” Remember The Block from last term? The ideological monolith that voted like the politburo, following their leader’s wishes at every turn? Well, they’re back with even more members this term. In fact, it’s difficult to impossible to identify anyone NOT part of The Block Version 2; they all seem to march in lockstep far too often these days. Dissension and real debate at the table are rare. Hume adds,

The local media often play them up because they’re always good for an amusing headline or two about their latest nutty idea, even as the public is shaking its collective head at the level of debate at council. The community’s national reputation is wounded once again… Quidnuncs can make councils look absolutely ridiculous.

Did Berman’s “nutty” (aka Stalinist) motion to censor “fact-check” public comments come to mind when you read that? I’m sure for many readers it did. 

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Floccinaucinihilipilification in Collingwood

Floccinaucinihilipilification*, the longest non-technical word in the English language, is when you consider something to be unimportant, worthless, useless, or generally valueless. Basically, it means it’s rubbish. As Robert Heinlein wrote in a 1951 scifi novel:

Digby was a floccinaucinihilipilificator at heart—which is an eight-dollar word meaning a joker who does not believe in anything he can’t bite.
Robert A. Heinlein, The Puppet Masters (1951).

I was thinking of that word as perhaps the most wittily appropriate to describe the report from the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI), the promotion of which our council and staff happily continue to lavish money on. Even though the events investigated are well past their best-before date (from 2011-2012), council continues the “well-worth-spending-your-tax-dollars-on-it” song and dance. And to throw more money at desperately trying to shore up its sagging credibility.

All the while in town our roads decay, sidewalks crumble, the terminals fall apart, the waterfront remains drearily unimproved, and businesses and workers suffering over lengthy lockdowns have received no financial aid from the town. But hey, we got an important-as-clean-drinking-water report instead. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s much more valuable than, say, fixing potholes or keeping local businesses from closing. Me either.

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Let’s Play “Spread the Virus!”

FacepalmsI see Collingwood Council wants the province to end the lockdown, but hasn’t said anything about improving public safety or accelerating the vaccinations if that happens. That suggests to me they are okay if the coronavirus spreads again, and strains our hospital’s already stretched capacity to deal with it. At least, that’s the message I got from the latest facepalm-worthy discussion and motion by council this week. As reported on CollingwoodToday:

Collingwood council is demanding an explanation from the province for the local lockdown and asking for the town to be returned to red zone (or lower) restrictions effective immediately. 
Council is also calling on business owners and residents in the town to start a letter-writing campaign calling on the province to lift the lockdown in Collingwood and allow local businesses to reopen.

I chuckled to read that a small town is “demanding” anything from the province. That’s like an angry toddler having a temper tantrum in a box store because their parents won’t buy them a big toy they see on the shelves.

Municipalities are not independent: they exist at the province’s whim and tolerance: they depend on the province for funding and authority. A more mature, more politically-astute council would have realized that you do not demand anything of the province: you ask. And politely. You maturely present facts, develop an argument based on logic and reason, make a report, dress it up with some pie charts, and you present it respectfully. You don’t whine and cry and demand.

Logic. Reason. Respect. Okay, I think I see the problem…

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The Inquiry Cost $250,000 More? Were We Lied To?

Hidden costsFormer councillor Tim Fryer is back on the agenda this coming week, making another delegation to the Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee about the true costs of the judicial inquiry (aka the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry, or SVJI). I admire Tim’s tenacity at trying to get the truth out to the public about this debacle. My respect for him has risen considerably since he’s been off council, but I wish he had been such a bulldog for the truth when he was at the table (I wrote about Fryer’s last appearance in front of the committee here).

At the very end of the agenda, you can read Tim’s letter, starting on page 161* and continuing through page 166. What’s most interesting is that he included a letter from the town to EPCOR, included on pages 163 and 164. That letter shows the town agreed to pay EPCOR’s legal costs over the SVJI of $250,000 or more. Yet those costs do not show up on the town’s most recent official accounting of the costs for the SVJI (read it here) **

For a council eager to censor “fact-check” residents’ comments and letters so they conform to the party line, it seems highly hypocritical to find that the town itself isn’t forthcoming about the facts. Yet we now learn that $250,000 was mysteriously left out of the calculations. As Fryer writes,

I figured if a $4 Walmart or $8 Tim Horton’s expense charge could be included then certainly something like the $250,000 or more of EPCOR’s legal expense coverage, as per the Side Letter Agreement terms established with council after the CJI was initiated, should be too.

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Another Sad Day for Collingwood

It’s sad to see any council devolve into pettiness and paranoia, but not surprising when this thin-skinned group does.

In a story on CollingwoodToday, council voted 4-3* to censor “fact-check” letters or comments from the public.

It’s so very Stalinist of them that they need staff to ensure the public’s comments march in step with the party line. What next? Purges? Gulags? Show trials? Oh wait, we already had that with the SVJI.

And what qualifications do staff have to read and censor “fact-check” public content? Are they trained for this in any way? Are they educated in journalistic investigative techniques? Are they widely-read polymaths with knowledge of dozens of fields and subjects? Who decrees whether any statement is factual or not?

What if, for example, a creationist comments about the presumed age of the earth? Do staff have to wade into a contentious religious debate and correct them, stating the scientific facts about geology and radioactive isotope dating, crossing out “6,000 years old” and writing in “14.54 billion years old”?

What if, say, a minister writing to ask for support for a food bank, suggests the demand has risen 150 percent. Will staff censor “fact-check” the figures to ensure the council is aware that the demand actually only rose 148 percent? If a resident writes to complain there are hundreds of potholes on their street, will staff race out to count them and censor “fact-check” to note there are actually only 89 potholes? This could easily become the theatre of the absurd (albeit fitting for this council).

Or is this role limited to censoring “fact-checking” only those writers and residents known to be critical of the party line? Perhaps just to those writers who contend that the already-excessive official figure of $8.2 million for the costs of the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) was actually much higher because it didn’t include hidden costs like the payments to sole-sourced consultants and lawyers appointed without proper tendering processes before the SVJI began, or the costs of staff time and expenses to accommodate the SVJI’s needs, or the $700,000 as-important-as-clean-drinking-water-reports-about-the-report that staff will be working on until at least next fall. or even the cost of the OPP investigation (which since 2014 has not found anyone guilty of anything). Why, some might think the cost is much higher, wasting closer to $10 million of taxpayers’ money than the official figure. I’m sure those writers will be sternly censored “fact-checked” for their temerity at challenging the party line.

Will members of the public whose writings have been censored “fact-checked” then be publicly shamed at the council table when the consent agenda is brought up for approval? Will councillors call them out, chastise them, accuse them of mendacity? Did I use the word “Stalinist” yet?

And do staff get to censor “fact-check” members of council as well? If, say, the mayor claims the pool and the new arena only have a ” lifespan of about 15 to 20 years” will staff censor “fact-check” him so the public is aware of the facts: that the outer skin has a guaranteed lifespan of 25 years (the same lifespan as the roof of a standard steel-and-brick building), but the frames have a guarantee not to corrode for 50 years!

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The Hypocrisy Goes On

Anyone having supervisory responsibility for the completion of a task will invariably protest that more resources are needed.
Hacker’s Law of Personnel, coined by Andrew Hacker in The End of the American Era, Atheneum, 1970.

At the end of the Feb. 8 virtual meeting of Collingwood’s “Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee,” under “other business,” Councillor Jeffrey (~2:02:20) worries about the “lack of staff resources” the mayor has at his beck and call. She wants to “make sure he has the benefit of the resources he needs to do his job.” She wants the town to hire or appoint him another assistant. Ka-ching! 

Is that not the wildest hypocrisy? Jeffrey and our current mayor were both part of the council that stripped the former mayor of her executive assistant (a position in town hall for at least two decades previously) in mid-2018. Some of those on that council felt she didn’t need one. They turned the assistant out of her office and made it into the council mail room.

In her term, Mayor Sandra Cooper went to many meetings, in and out of town, attended hundreds of town events and community occasions, met face-to-face with business leaders and citizens every day, attended conferences, met with ministers at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa.

I have known every one of our mayors since 1990; I covered them for the media for a dozen years; I served on council under three of them, and in those three decades I never encountered a mayor who attended more events, or engaged the community more than Sandra Cooper. She was in the office almost every day (when not away on some municipal business). She was tireless in attending to her job, and not just the official responsibilities: she cared more about the people of this community than anyone I ever saw in the mayor’s chair before, and certainly after.

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My Report About the Report About the Report

Dilbert again
As I predicted (correctly) late last year, Collingwood Council was given a dumbed-down, $700,000-as-important-as-clean-drinking-water-report-about-the-judicial-inquiry-report. More than 900 pages of the original report reduced to a mere 15 to report on the report. And as I also predicted, it would include pie charts.  You can read it here: “STAFF REPORT #CAO2021-02 Phase One – Collingwood Judicial Inquiry Next Steps.

You can also look at the PowerPoint presentation made to council — which, as I also correctly predicted, would have the report “reduced to a dozen bullets on PowerPoint slides, written in a large font and read aloud, slowly, at a council meeting.” Plus it had pie charts! Nostradamus couldn’t get much better than this. 

I get it: Saunderson’s 900-page, $9-million report** with more than 300 often irrelevant, redundant, or vague recommendations, laden with legalese and moral bloviating is simply too much for most of those at the table to process. But, I suspect, so is a 15-page summary. After all, it has to be read and as we know from watching their meetings last term, the majority at the table really don’t like to read.*

Of course, we didn’t elect the A-team to council. We didn’t even elect the B-team. It’s more like the C-Minus-Team. Big fonts, small words, and lots of pie charts for this lot. More cowbell, as the meme goes. Until, that is, staff can figure out how to make the agendas into colouring books and hand out crayons in meetings.

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A Municipal Challenge to Democracy?

Freedom of information?
Collingwood has joined other local municipalities asking the province to revamp its Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA; a guide from the Information and Privacy Commissioner to the Act is also available here) to make the process more restrictive and less open. While some of those changes might seem appropriate to outsiders, I see buried in the wording of the request some dark challenges to our democracy.

The story in Collingwood Today is titled, “Freedom of information rules ‘archaic’ and in need of modernization, says Collingwood clerk.” Democracies depend on some core attributes: openness, accountability, transparency, and privacy. The motion suggests neither the bureaucracy nor our elected officials respect those attributes and want to restrict or remove them from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

It’s bad enough that the majority of our council — including our current mayor — were at the table last term and eagerly participated in the most secretive, deceptive municipal government this town has ever seen. They betrayed the public trust by holding many, many closed-door meetings in which they decided without public consultation to sell our publicly-owned electricity utility to an Alberta for-profit corporation*; they decided without public consultation to sell our publicly-owned airport at less than the assessed value to a private individual; they heard a sole-sourced lawyer advise them behind closed doors to hold a judicial inquiry; they decided behind those closed doors to call for an inquiry without public consultation, then they appointed that same same-sourced lawyer to represent the town without due process of the procurement bylaw, and they planned and schemed to erect roadblocks against the hospital’s much-needed redevelopment. All while hiding themselves from public scrutiny.

Most of the same group that betrayed the public trust last term is back at the table this term. Little wonder they don’t want FOI requests to expose them. And at least one of the newcomers wants to implement a form of censorship on public comments. 

Do you notice a trend here? Do you see those campaign-trail promises of openness, accountability, and transparency being broken before your eyes by a group of callous, self-interested politicians? Democracy under siege?

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