De Officiis: Cicero on Political Obligations

Cicero: On Obligations

No phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its moral duty; on the discharge of such duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.

Cicero wrote that in 44 BCE in his last work in his last year of life: De Officiis, or in English: On Obligations. The translation from Book 1.4 above comes from the Perseus Project (the 1913 Miller/Loeb translation). In the 2000 edition (Oxford University Press, reprinted 2008, and recently added to my library), translator P.G. Walsh renders that piece thus:

There is no aspect of life public or private, civic or domestic, which can be without its obligation, whether in our individual concerns or in our relations with our neighbour. Honourable behaviour lies entirely in the performance of such obligations, and likewise base conduct lies in neglecting them.

The main theme of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s book is stated here, at the beginning: we are all bound by obligations to one another, and if we are honourable people, then we must act on, and never forget, those obligations. Of course, he has a lot more to say, but that’s the gist of it.

The 62-year-old Cicero watched as Rome was taken over by the followers of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar (whom he criticized). He watched how the republic was subverted to the rule of the autocrats and tyrants (whom he also openly criticized). The result of his speaking out was his being named an enemy of the state. Marc Anthony ordered Cicero’s execution and had his severed head and hands displayed in the forum. Such is the way tyrants deal with dissent.

Cicero’s world and life have parallels in today’s politics: his words still have meaning and relevamce today. One need only look at today’s Republican candidates’ struggle for supremacy, or locally to see what has happened to our own council, to understand those parallels.*

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More secrecy, more witch hunt, less accountability

Marie de France“Those who gain a good reputation should be commended.” So starts the Lay of Guigemar, by Marie de France.

It seems like mere commonsense, doesn’t it? We should laud those who achieve good things, who accomplish feats and goals, recognize with thanks those who work for our greater good.

But it ain’t necessarily so, Marie warns.  The 12th century French poet and fabulist known only as Marie de France wrote fables and poems with stories and morals – the earliest woman in France to do so. And what she wrote still has resonance in today’s world. She continued:

“But when there exists in a country a man or a woman of great renown, people who are envious of their abilities frequently speak insultingly of them in order to damage this reputation. Thus they start acting like a vicious, cowardly, treacherous dog who will bite others out of malice.”*

Words to consider when you examine local politics and the continued leavening of spite and malice against some people and organizations in our community by a small group of malcontents and ideologues. Some of whom sit at the council table.

And consider those words, too, when you read the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting of council. Yet one more in-camera session continues the witch hunt meant to finally destroy the once-strong and mutually beneficial relationship between Collus/Powerstream and the town. This destruction has been the landmark activity this term.

Earlier, this term, this council destroyed the productive and mutually beneficial 150-relationship between our hydro and water utilities, throwing both utilities into turmoil, shattering staff morale and exacerbating the rift between the town and its utility partner, Powerstream. The provincially-respected COO of the water service quit and fled town. Others in the water service have resigned or retired early.

This move will cost more jobs, and could force our utility to move its offices and operations out of town. And, of course, it was all done without any public input at all.**

In return for the turmoil and plunging morale, Collingwood gets… nothing so far. The CAO and his consultant promised it would save more than $700,000 a year, but that figure wasn’t mentioned once in the preliminary budget meetings. It seems to have vanished. April fool! Wiser heads tell me they expect it will cost the town a lot of money. Smart move, eh?

Personal agendas should not be allowed to interfere with governance, should not set the terms for how a town behaves. These ideologies and personal agendas have already reduced the town’s once-sterling reputation to tatters, made us the laughingstock of the province, and despised by our neighbours and local developers.

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Collingwood’s Finances: Great Shape!

Doom and gloom consultants

There’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom bandied about over Collingwood’s alleged dire financial picture this term. There have been the-sky-is-falling presentations and nightmare-inducing consultants’ reports that paint a bleak picture of the town’s debt and financial status. Hand-wringing and hair-pulling.

These jeremiads are enough to make a taxpayer wake up in the middle of the night and weep. If it were true.

Fortunately, it isn’t. I’d like to think that someone got his or her numbers wrong, read someone else’s information, added or subtracted when they should have been doing the opposite. Or maybe was just pulling our collective legs. A practical joke. Whatever the reason, it’s not true (and I sincerely hope someone didn’t do it deliberately!).

How do I know we’re in great shape? From reading an impeccable source for financial information: the province of Ontario’s own multi-year fiscal analysis, about which the province’s website explains….

The Multi-Year FIR Review (2009 On) – By Municipality provides selected FIR information by municipality for the years 2009 and greater.
In 2009, the Public Sector Accounting Board introduced new accounting and reporting standards which required municipalities to adopt full accrual accounting practices. As a result of these changes, municipalities must now account for and report their tangible capital assets in their Statement of Financial Position. The FIR also adopted these new reporting standards effective 2009…

The data runs from 2009 to 2014 for more than 500 municipalities, each one a separate file. It doesn’t encompass the previous year (2015), during which our council laboured under what seems to be false information about our debt and finances.

But you will be pleasantly surprised, I trust, to learn Collingwood is actually pretty well off in almost every category and performance indicator. Sure, we can always do better, but you won’t find any doom and gloom in this. So take heart and relax.

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Monday’s Limited Choices

choices, choicesHere are the choices Collingwood Council faces, Monday night, when dealing with the unethical, immoral and probably illegal actions of the two renegade members of council.

You’ll recall that these two sent out an unauthorized, and what I and others believe was a highly inappropriate media release late in December, without showing them to council first, bypassing the mayor, and pimping their own personal political agendas, while disingenuously presenting them as town positions. This also implicated staff in what looks like inappropriate, partisan actions on behalf of the two council members.

This violated the town’s code of conduct, council’s oath of office, and the expectations of the electorate for honest, ethical representation. And so far no one has explained anything in public, let alone apologized.

Selfish, anti-social behaviour cannot be ignored. Council must deal with their actions, and do so publicly, if it is to retain even shreds of credibility this term (not to mention discussing a media release in camera is illegal under the Municipal Act).

The public is waiting for something appropriate to be said, something appropriate to be done if there is to be any confidence left in this council and administration. Ignoring it is not a viable option. Monday will tell us everything.

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Where Have the Ratepayers’ Groups Gone?

Angry mobWhy don’t Collingwood’s ratepayer groups and associations last? In the 25-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen several come and go. Every one has dissolved, evaporated or imploded within a year or two. Seldom do they last longer than a single term of council.

Is this a normal part of the life cycle of such organizations, or is Collingwood at the unfortunate end of the Bell curve with these brief groups?

Perhaps the answer for their short lifespans is twofold: first, they do not represent the general public, but rather a small and usually elitist group; and second, because they are one-trick ponies that have no replay value once that issue has been addressed or gone away.

Plus, most of these groups seem angry. Nor surprising: they are led by angry, bitter people. That’s not a good basis for creating long-term, cooperative, thoughtful and engaging dialogue. But it goes well with whining, complaining, spreading rumours, frothing about alleged wrongs, and protesters with signs wanting to “inpeach” council (really: that’s how he spelled it!).

Some are localized NIMBY organizations whose sole purpose seems to be keeping intact a status quo situation in their neighbourhood. They are suspicious of, and opposed to, anything that even smells of change. Want to put a new sidewalk in a public park they believe is their private property? These groups will stand shoulder to shoulder to oppose it, even when the rest of the community clamours for it, staff recommend it, and safety requires it.

The first ratepayers’ group I recall was CARR: Collingwood & Area Residents & Ratepayers, if I recall the acronym properly. It raised several thoughtful issues such as the town’s financial sustainability and good governance, but, again as I recall, the main focus was on the proposed CSL waterfront development. Once that development stalled (later taken up by Fram), CARR seems to have withered.

I don’t actually remember any official notice of it being dissolved, but it was gone by the time the next group emerged: VOTE.

VOTE allegedly stood for “Voice of the Electorate” but it really represented an elitist group whose main focus was on getting their own members elected to council, while criticizing a former mayor and his supporters. In which effort it succeeded modestly well – getting a mayor and several of his minions on council.

Locals, however, soon called it “Voice of the Elite.” Which was appropriate.

However, it was so acerbic and cranky in its very vocal efforts to get its own way, that it became widely known as Voters Opposed to Everything: a verbal target for wits and the media. And much more appropriate.

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More Bad Ideas

Doh!Arguably the worst decision ever made by a Collingwood Council in my memory was to rescind the heritage permits from the Admiral Collingwood development, back in 2007. The results of that motion – moved by former Mayor Carrier and seconded by Councillor Jeffrey (the same one who sits at the table today)  – can still be seen in the empty lot at the corner of Hume and Hurontario Streets. Locals called it Carrier’s Pond for years, before it was filled in.

Had that council not put personal ideologies over the public good, the site would today be a thriving downtown development with residences,  businesses and a seniors’ home. For the past nine years, our town has had to live with the legacy of that stupid, selfish decision, and the legacy of an unwise council.

But neither the town nor the council is short of bad ideas.* The latest comes via the debate about the proposed airport development that has been hamstrung by this current council in keen pursuit of the same anti-business mentality that killed the Admiral Collingwood. I’ve written about this several times in the past few months.

A comment was posted on Facebook by one of my “friends” who wrote:

Why don’t the developers sign a letter of intent?
Interesting point: Why not make the developers promise to deliver?
Think back to The Shipyards residential development, now sitting there one-third (or thereabouts) completed. A letter of intent would not have resulted in the project being any further developed. The Shipyards project fell victim to market conditions.
Perhaps the same thing could happen a few years from now with an aviation business park. I hope not!

Aside from being surprised that someone I thought had more business (and common) sense than this, I was amazed that anyone who had even a modicum of understanding about business, development, economics or governance would propose something so overtly anti-business. Not to mention daft.

It’s also an attempt to sidestep the facts by making the disaster council created into someone else’s fault. Blame the developers instead of the problematic, unethical behaviour of council. The writer didn’t even mention the law-breaking media release sent out by renegades Saunderson and Edwards – but then, how do you defend the indefensible?

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The Litmus Test

Ethical behaviourTwo renegade members of council broke the town’s Code of Conduct by sending out an unauthorized media release to defend their own, personal positions – but presented them as “town” positions. You already know that reprehensible story.

Clearly this is unacceptable behaviour by any elected officials in any community. But where are the angry protesters marching with signs demanding officials “inpeach” council, screaming “corruption” and demanding councillors resign?

Oh wait, they got themselves elected to council this term… They promised us openness, accountability and transparency… and this is what we got instead.

Councillor Doherty's spouse on right
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That WTF Moment

WTF. Those three letters crudely but superbly sum up the two-page response made to the Laurel and Hardytwo members of council who recently sent out an inappropriate media release, pretending it came from the town. The letter was written by Remo Niceforo, President of Clearview Aviation Business Park. It starts by saying,

Having sought diligently over the past 18 months to obtain an access agreement, this is the first time I have learned (through a media release) of the criteria to be met which might lead to an access agreement.

That’s the first WTF moment. Here’s another:

Your statement that, “the Town does not want to prejudge any negotiations by issuing a statement of intent at this time” confuses me. It is generally accepted in the business community and the courts that a ‘letter of intent’ by its very definition does not prejudge negotiations. It merely speaks to the intent or vision of a particular matter, and identifies a context within which negotiations will occur.

In case you haven’t read the release, you can read it here or read my previous comments on it here. It’s signed by Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson and Councillor Mike Edwards – Collingwood’s own Laurel and Hardy team. You can read the response here. And, of course, you can read my continued opinion about this debacle below.

You’ll note that instead of simply calling the company, talking to someone one-on-one, and explaining what they wanted – i.e. doing their job as elected officials – the two council members chose to send out a vague, meandering, poorly-written (extremely poorly written), confrontational and highly defensive release to the media.

How open and transparent is that?

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The Blackened Nose

Buddha's faceThere’s a famous Zen tale that I was reminded of as I was reading the media release about the Collingwood Airport this week. It somehow seemed remarkably fitting.

It’s about the folly of selfishness, of thinking yours is the only way forward, of possessiveness, of narrow views.

I first came across this tale in the late 1960s, in a copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. I still have that book; a battered paperback I have carried with me ever since. This story is only one of more than 100 in the book. It’s number 48: Black-Nosed Buddha, and, in the spare way such tales are told in the book, it goes like this:

A nun who was searching for enlightenment made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she went she carried this golden Buddha with her.

Years passed and, still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a small temple in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense before her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to the others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the Golden Buddha making it especially ugly.

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Lessons from the paper

Another fine messThere’s a story on page B2 of the January 1 Enterprise Bulletin (not online yet*) that offers us three lessons. Two lessons on how the local media fails us, one on cringe-worthy political ineptitude. Those lessons are:

  1. How far the credibility of the paper has fallen;
  2. How little respect there is for real reporting and investigative journalism in the local media;
  3. How pusillanimous and dysfunctional council has become.

Let’s start with number one. The article on page B2 is headlined “Business centre strategic board takes flight.” Now you might think you were reading a light piece about the development of the Clearview Aviation Business Centre (CABC). Good news, right? After all, the news about the airport has been pretty much all bad until now.

What you’re actually reading is two distinct media releases from very different sources cobbled together into one incoherent and contradictory mess. You have to read a full ten inches of copy before you get the first reference to any of it being copied verbatim from a media release. It isn’t news at all.

And even then it states the release came from “Collingwood council” when that is not true: it was released by two members of council alone (see below).

That is deceptive. The piece should start by clearly stating that the content comes from two separate media releases authored not by the paper but by the proponents. It should also clearly identify which is which and the sources of the content.

Because of their very different nature, the two items really should have separate headlines, and not doing so suggests editorial laziness. This is simply bad cut-and-paste stuff.

It’s acceptable for a paper to reprint media releases, as long as they are properly identified. We used to call this stuff “advertorials” when I was editor. But to publish it on a page labelled “Local News” in 144-point type as if it were reported by an independent, trustworthy source is disingenuous and underhanded. It discredits the rest of the material in the paper.

It’s also an editorial mess. Or rather a mess that apparently had no editor.

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Council’s First Year Reviewed

DilbertAs we come close to the end of 2015, it’s time to take stock of what your Collingwood Council has accomplished in its first year in office.

Let me start by saying it’s up to you to decide whether we have the best people at the table to represent our needs. Or  are they gormless, brainless, pursing a political agenda set for them by unelected outsiders, and/or blindly following the lead of administration staff? It is up to you to decide whether they have lived up to their election promises or led this town astray.

First, here’s the complete list of everything council has done for you: for your benefit, for the greater good, for the good of the whole community, for the welfare and wellbeing of you, the resident and voter. Scroll down to see the full list:

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Consultants Run Amok

Dilbert consultant cartoon

As the old saw says, a consultant is someone who comes in to solve a problem and stays around long enough to become part of it. So how many consultants’ reports does it take for council to figure out we’re spending too much money on consultants’ reports?

More than three, apparently.

Three is the number of consultants’ reports included in the preliminary budget alone (the one that recommends raising your taxes almost 4% and gives council another pay increase as a reward for doing so…!).

Three consultants’ reports… one would be an unprecedented number in a small town town budget. Three is, well, staggering. The inefficiency just screams aloud.

Taxpayers have to ask: why does this council need to spend our money on so many outside consultants? And why are the local media silent on this abuse of our tax dollars?

In its first year, this council has used more outside consultants to tell it what to think than most councils use in their entire terms. And most of what these consultants have produced is little more than shredder-ready claptrap designed to bolster staff agendas and decisions already made for council by staff.

It’s unlikely those at the council table even bothered to read these reports cover-to-cover. Certainly none at the table bothered to question their numbers or conclusions. That would require critical thinking and analysis, both of which run counter to the wishes of the admin staff and would make the consultants’ reports appear meaningless.

After all, why bother to hire consultants if all council is going to do is ask them difficult questions and think for themselves?

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