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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Our ruined reputation

Collingwood’s reputation is in tatters. But you wouldn’t know that from the local media coverage. A story in the Stayner Sun this week illustrates just how bad it has become. It should have been front page in this week’s Connection:

Clearview Township mayor chastises neighbouring Collingwood for airport decision

In the story, Clearview’s mayor and deputy mayor rebuke Collingwood – our council and administrative staff – as being anti-business, anti-growth and simply being bad neighbours.

Well-deserved criticisms if you’ve been following the airport debacle. Or the Block 9 debacle and its fallout. Or the anti-business-tax-hike-to-cover-council’s-pay-raise debacle. Or the anti-business assault on signs. Or the sneak-one-past-them anti-worker attempt to force holiday openings without public input.

Although much of this mess stems from irresponsible and confrontational initiatives that originate in the top administrative staff, Council shares the guilt by being mindless bobbleheads nodding in approval of whatever staff demand.

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Moved by myself…

After watching Collingwood council meetings on Rogers again, I felt I should re-post a link to a piece I first wrote several years ago, then again in 2014, then re-wrote in April of this year:

Me, myself and I

Every time I watched the meetings, I also watched councillors say the same thing: “move by myself.”

The incorrect use of the reflexive is like nails on a blackboard.

We don’t expect all of our elected officials to be English majors, or great orators, but we do expect them to know – and speak – the basics. We expect them to speak better than some TV trailer park characters.

“Moved by myself” is like hearing them say “I seen…” or “yous guys” or calling the library a “lie-berry.”

Trying to improve someone’s idiomatic speech is a Sisyphus effort. I realize it makes me seem like a tired old pedant to keep harping on it.

But even if I don’t like their politics, I don’t want to be embarrassed by our town’s official record. I don’t want outsiders watching it and snickering at what they perceive as hayseeds who can’t speak well. I want us to come across as cultured, mature and literate. And the way to do that is to speak properly.

I suppose this is just me pushing the rock of literacy up the steep slope, but it matters to me how others perceive us. With our reputation already in tatters, and the common perception we’re an aggressively anti-business, anti-growth, anti-development and anti-progress community, I’d rather not add to our disgrace with something more easily corrected than bad policy.

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Screw the Taxpayer

Greedy administrationSitting down? Good. You might want a drink, too. A strong one. Ready? Get a grip on your chair. Here goes:

Collingwood is looking at a 3.9% tax hike for 2016. And that’s just its own portion.

Let me help you up. No, that isn’t wrong. It’s the proposed budget hike this council is contemplating. It was presented to council at an all-day meeting last week. The Connection reported on it, Dec. 2, in case you missed it (nothing in the EB, though).*

That municipal tax raise will be coupled with an increase from the county, sending your taxes skyrocketing up another several points.

Why, you ask, would council raise taxes when we have a surplus? Because it can. Because council is in thrall to the administration and does its bidding.

And you, dear reader, just have to grin and bear it. Have another stiff drink before you read the rest.

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The End of Integrity

Robert SwayzeCollingwood Council has apparently decided it is better to be viewed as hypocritical than as unethical. Following a year of investigations of council behaviour by the Integrity Commissioner, Robert Swayze, council decided that, rather than reform their collective behaviour, it was easier to dump the IC.

So no more pesky peering into how they conduct themselves or whether they are acting in the best public interest.

And yet most of those elected to council this term were among the group loudly demanding the last council hire an integrity commissioner to protect the public trust.

Is that hypocrisy? Some would think so.

The previous council suffered only one investigation in the year after it hired Robert Swayze. That was from a complaint filed by a campaign supporter of the current deputy mayor against the incumbent deputy mayor, weeks before the election.

Despite what many saw as clear political motivation for the complaint – the incident under investigation was already five months old, but the code says a complaint must occur within six weeks of the complaint – the IC chose to make it public on the eve of the election. He had the prerogative of delaying or dismissing any complaint clearly politically motivated. He chose not to do so, for reasons never revealed.

That had a lot of tongues wagging about the ethics of the IC himself.

This term, there have been numerous complaints about the ethical and moral behaviour of our council members. Since only those the IC decides should be commented on are made public, and the process is  – allegedly – confidential until a decision is made public, the actual number remains obscure. But since some bloggers have reported on investigations that have not been made public, confidentiality doesn’t apply to council telling its friends and supporters.

Only those decisions about Councillors Doherty and Fryer were made public, so I cannot confirm that there have been others. But if not, why would council drop the IC after only a year?

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The Airport Mystery

Collingwood AirportWhat’s happening at Collingwood Airport? Or better yet: what’s NOT happening? And why isn’t it?

Once touted as the role model for regional cooperation, and having the best potential for local economic development, it is now a topic for murmurings about a secret sale, and ugly rumours that this has become the worst regional relationship this town has ever had.

Every time the airport comes up on the agenda, our oh-so-open and transparent Collingwood Council scurries behind closed doors to discuss it. But while that may seal a few local lips, it hasn’t stopped people in our surrounding region from talking about it. And several are complaining loudly about our council and administration.

There’s a $150-million development (and potentially MUCH larger; it could reach $300 million, I was told… read the letter in this week’s consent agenda starting page 22) going on out there. Well, it got started, and when it turned to Collingwood, it got stuck in bureaucratic limbo because of council’s and staff’s inaction.

And, from what I’m told, our municipal partners at the airport are fed up (a sentiment overheard last night after council’s inevitable in camera meeting about it).

The once-golden regional relationship has turned toxic. Just like it did with our water utility and Collus/Powerstream. There may be a trend here… everything this council touches is turning bad.

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CRAP Design

The Non-Designer's Design BookCRAP: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. An unfortunate acronym from the four basic principles of graphic design first expounded in Robin Williams’ delightful little book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. It’s now in its fourth edition, adding 24 pages since the last edition, almost 50 since the 2nd and more than 100 since the first).

Of all my books on graphic design, this has been my favourite for several years, ever since I bought the first edition in the late 1990s. It condenses so much information, so many ideas, so many nuances into clear, understandable principles.

Plus, it’s well-illustrated, with many visual examples of good and bad design.

Every chapter and many sections offer some quiz, test, or challenge for readers to work on. None of which are terribly difficult and some of which are subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer. But it’s a good exercise because sometimes the answers reveal things we missed in our initial exploration.

Since Williams came up with the CRAP list, it has been expanded and enhanced by others online. The principles have been included in courses, infographics and videos, too. They apply not only to printed publications, but digital ones as well, as this site shows.  You can find many more online, and I recommend you do so. But go back to the original to see how and where it started.

Other principles are often expounded on by subsequent authors: whitespace, balance, flow, scale, focal point, hierarchy, unity, movement, variety, emphasis, gradation, proportion and grouping for example – but you can tackle these once you’re understood the essence of CRAP.

I can recommend this book to everyone who does any sort of design, from PowerPoint slides to rack cards to brochures and even town newsletters. If you aren’t a graphic designer – and I am not – then it will give you the basics to help understand what design is all about. If you are, it’s a good reminder of the core principles.

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Our Know-It-Alls

Municipal WorldCollingwood Council obviously knows more than anyone else in municipal governance. More, in fact, than anyone else in the entire country. In fact, they may all be geniuses in local governance issues.

Otherwise, why would council cancel their individual subscriptions to Municipal World magazine at the start of their term?

Previous councils subscribed to an issue for each member of council, plus others for administration. While I can’t say everyone read them, the brightest and most dedicated politicians on council read them cover to cover.

Now the whole town gets one issue. ONE for the entire workforce;  for the dozen or so staff AND politicians. That suggests council must be brighter not only than all previous councils, but brighter than all other municipal politicians, advisers, consultants, lawyers, planners and administrators in the whole country, combined.

Since 1891, Municipal World magazine has been Canada’s foremost source of information, best practices, issues, ideas, challenges, policies and opportunities for local governance. Every issue – 12 a year – is packed with important, informative articles and columns. This is considered the “bible” of municipal governance by every other politician across the nation.

But Collingwood council doesn’t read it any more. Clearly our council are all atheists, when it comes to the municipal bible.

I guess it’s because they already know so much they have no need to learn more. Their heads are just bursting with knowledge and just can’t fit any more in. No need for the ideas of others. No need to obey their own Code of Conduct which states councillors are obliged (underlining in the original) to learn more about their roles and responsibilities:

Members have an obligation to promote, support, pursue and partake in opportunities for professional development…

This council doesn’t need more learning because clearly they all know it all, already.

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The Gauche in the Machine

Newsletter, front pageRudibus ex machina: criticizing Collingwood’s latest newsletter feels a bit like punching a puppy. Or commenting on the sloppy grammar of local bloggers. Both are far too easy, like catching fish in a barrel, and I feel guilty when I even think of doing it.

But since your tax dollars are at work, it needs to be done. Someone needs to stand up and say this is not the standard  we expect from a $55 million-a-year corporation. This might be a good runner-up in a high school contest, but it is not a professional product appropriate for municipal communications.*

This piece, I’ve been told, was not produced by the town’s communications director, but rather by the clerk’s office. It was not seen – or approved by, let alone edited – by the mayor or council before it went out. Since the clerk’s office reports to the CAO, the ultimate responsibility for this piece of dreck lies with the CAO. That’s where the buck stops; that’s where we expect accountability. But where was it?

Let’s get the basics over first: it’s not a newsletter. There is nothing in it about the town’s finances, budget preparations, parks, facilities, economic development, library – nothing about ANY department. Nothing newsworthy at all. A full third of it is about the self-described “strategic plan” (which is neither) – information that’s already months old!

It has as much in common with news as a grocery store flyer. It’s an ad sheet. It does little more than regurgitate content from the town’s atrocious advertising in the EB.*

Who does it serve? What is the target audience? Is there a theme, or a focus? Where is the news?

In terms of design, content, layout, graphics, it’s awful. Bloody awful.

Not the sort of awful that King Charles used when he called Christopher Wren’s design for St. Paul’s cathedral “amusing, awful and artificial.” By awful, he meant awe-inspiring; something that inspired reverential wonder, or even fear. Which I certainly don’t mean, and refer readers to the more current definition: shite.

Newsletter, front pageIt’s not as drab as the previous newsletter, and certainly more colourful, but in terms of artistic design, it’s equally cringe-worthy. Awful, in its modern sense, will suffice. But like the last publication. it’s not a newsletter; just an ad sheet.

As far as I am aware, the Town of Collingwood won’t spring for real page layout software like InDesign or CorelDraw, so the newsletter is likely still created in Microsoft Publisher (or worse: Word). Which is to layout and design what a crayon sidewalk scrawl is to a Shakespeare play. You get what you pay for.

But even lumbered by the inefficiencies and inanities of Publisher, a reasonably good design could still be beaten out by a competent designer who adhered to some basic design rules and style. None of which were apparently considered when this was being cobbled together. ( I cannot say it was crafted…)

What rules, you ask? Well, the first one is white space. It has none. This thing is as dense as a brick. Even the margins and spaces between columns are so small that the text runs into itself horizontally. The eye has no idea where to go, what is important, where to look. It’s like reading street pavement. Ever notice the individual bricks on the main street sidewalks? Tightly fitted together so you see a pattern, but not the individual bricks.

They’re like the words in this publication.

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Climate Change and Collingwood

Climate changeClimate change is arguably the single most pressing, most important, most challenging issue to affect governments at this time. Our world is suffering and weather is getting extreme in many parts. It’s affecting crops, wildlife, safety, water… everything.

But what are Canadian municipalities doing to combat it, to reign in their use of fossil fuels, reduce their carbon footprint, reduce emissions, pollution, and embrace alternate energy systems?

Not much, according to a study done by the Ontario Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure. OCSI’s 2014 report, “When the Bough Breaks” has some discouraging statistics. According to their survey, only 38% of Ontario municipalities are “incorporating climate change into their asset management planning.” Climate change was a priority in only 13% of municipalities.

Scarier is that, when given a list of relevant activities to choose from, 22% of respondents admitted their municipality was doing nothing to address climate change impacts. Nothing. A fifth of our municipalities aren’t even preparing themselves for catastrophic or severe weather.

In 2008, Collingwood’s now-forgotten Sustainable Community Plan report had this to say:

Over the next forty years, the Town of Collingwood is expected to experience local forces of change such as unprecedented population growth and changing demographic and global forces of change such as rising commodity prices and climate change… Over the next 40 years, climate change may impact the topography, water supply, water levels and climate in Collingwood, and around the world.

The plan went on to address ways Collingwood might act to create a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly community that helped reduce the human impact on climate change. Some, but far from all, of these ideas were incorporated in later town initiatives.

Since then, there have been many initiatives to deal with climate effects implemented by municipalities worldwide (especially to mitigate the threat to municipal infrastructure), and there are whole new trends in areas like stormwater management that have developed and are being shared.

But what has Collingwood done since that report? Not much, if anything.

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