322 reasons why we’re better off with PowerStream

$322. More. Every year.

$322. That’s how much MORE the average consumer household using 750 kW/month pays a year when connected to Hydro One, compared to the same household connected to Collus PowerStream. That means YOU will pay that much more, thanks to Collingwood Council. The Block, in particular.

And it could be higher, if you have, say, electrical heat, air conditioning, electrical stove or dryer, or a family. A lot higher.*

This council has been in secret negotiations to sell our utility to Hydro One, knowing that your bills will skyrocket. Not only will it mean higher utility bills, but you have no input into the fate of the utility YOU own. Input is not being allowed by the Most Secretive Council Ever.

In fact, they have only ever discussed our utility and selling it behind closed doors this term. Dozens of times. Until last week, of course, when they publicly announced their plan to sell it. Anyone else see this as corruption and breach of public trust?

Last term, when half of our ownership in Collus was sold to PowerStream, it was all done in public, with public input. How quickly things changed under The Block.

If you’re a senior or otherwise living on a fixed income or with typically low wages, you’ll need to come up with at least $26.80 a month more, or you’ll have to cut it from somewhere else. Like your food. Medicine. Clothes. Or heating in winter.

Plus don’t forget to add in the entirely unnecessary but burdensome tax increases this council has already put through TWICE this term. All part of The Block’s war on seniors.

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Thick as a brick

You really have to watch Rogers’ coverage of Collingwood Council, July 11, 2016. Start around 2:08:00. That’s when the discussion about the upgrades to the brick at the Collingwood Curling Club begins.

Another comedic episode full of zany antics and madcap mayhem brought to you by The Block. Be prepared to howl with laughter as Councillor Ecclestone attempts to justify hiding public information from view.

Let’s pause for a moment to remind readers that these upgrades and repairs were approved last term, in 2014 and should have been completed by now. But this council and administration dropped the ball for almost two years.

The former building department official who oversaw the project when it was supposed to go ahead provided a report on the status of the building and proposed repairs in early 2015. The administration sat on the report while the snooze button kept being hit until mid-2016. But I digress.*

Finally, the work got approval to go ahead, two years after it was first proposed and approved. But better late than never, eh? Who cares if costs have risen in the interim? It’s only taxpayer dollars! There’s millions of them where they came from!

Push ahead in the video to 2:09:45. That’s when Councillor Ecclestone speaks. Be prepared to drop your jaw and guffaw aloud. He says:

In the future, I don’t think we should be making public the 15 percent, uh, contingency. I think that it, you know, doesn’t need to get out there, cause I think once you put that in there, the company then can, fffff (sic), go for the full bundle, right? So I’m just thinking that in the future we should just keep that, uh, um, not announce it to the public.

Is he kidding? Hide information from the public in an open bidding process? This is someone who claims to have been the “head of council” previously. Yet here he appears thicker than the brickwork about to be repaired.**

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Strategic planning: what we missed

Strategic planningThe July 2016 issue of Municipal World has an article on the process of implementing strategic plans. It’s called, Getting from Here to There, and it’s written by a trio of experts including the president of a company specializing in municipal strategic planning, a strategic planning professional in the public sector, and a CAO from Alberta. In the short, two-page article, it outlines pretty much everything Collingwood did wrong in its so-called strategic plan – which was neither a plan nor strategic.

Experts, schmexperts, eh? Who needs experts? Not Der Block! I mean, aside from all the out-of-town buddy consultants and ambulance chasers the town’s administration has hired at great expense… can you really think of a better use for several hundred thousand of your tax dollars than paying people to tell you what to think? Neither can I…

Because The Block cancelled its collective subscription to MW in early 2015, it won’t read the advice of experts in this and any other field. Thus it will avoid polluting its myopic ideology with information, process, education, and peer advice. After all, when you already know everything, what need is there to learn what others do?

Besides, when you want outside advice, the administration will happily buy some for you that matches your own ideology.

But for my readers, I’d like to examine the process as outlined in the article and compare it to Collingwood’s. Keep in mind that what The Blockheads risibly call a “community-based strategic plan,” I usually refer to as a poorly defined, committee-based wish list. But let’s move on to the comparison.

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Rules for The Block, different rules for us

Application formEver apply to sit on a town board or committee? If so, you’ll be familiar with the form to the right. It’s the town’s application form. Click on it to see or download the full form. Everyone who wants to sit on a town board of committee must complete and sign it.

Everyone, that is, except the people The Block appoint to the committees and boards they want to control. One set of rules for The Block, another for the rest of us. How very accountable and transparent.

In June, The Block illegally (not to mention unethically and immorally) “fired” the democratically appointed members of the Collus PowerStream board and replaced them with their own selection of tame staff, ones they could cow into submission. I wrote about this naked power grab earlier.

(I say illegally because there is no mechanism in the town’s Procedural Bylaw to remove appointees, and it clearly states their term is concurrent with the term of council. So to me, it seems they have broken the law. But laws don’t apply to The Block, do they? They’re above such petty considerations. Besides, you’d have to be a lawyer to really understand what they say, anyway…)

The town’s policy has (as long as I’ve lived here and for the entire three terms I served on council) is that all appointees must fill in the form and go through the selection process. Except, it seems, when you’re a Block toady. Then you just get parachuted into the position and screw the public input. We don’t need no steenkin’ rules… laws are for losers.

But wait. It gets more interesting…

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Misleading mouthpieces

StinkyContrary to what you might expect, I am not surprised that the Enterprise Bulletin recently printed a letter replete with disinformation and disingenuous claims from someone who might be best described as one of The Block’s more rabid mouthpieces. Call it an editorial fart.

My faith in any objectivity, neutrality of, or fact-checking by the EB was long ago disabused. The EB has been The Block’s tame outlet even before the current editor took the job. That the EB continues to run a similarly biased, inaccurate column by another of The Block’s mouthpieces (albeit one of lesser talent) merely underscores my impression of overt bias.

I am, however, annoyed that no one who knows the facts has come forward to challenge these outlandish assertions.

For example, “The CAO of our town spent 15 frustrating months trying to obtain documents pertaining to the sale of Collus from its CEO.” This is simply incorrect. Any information in the hands of Collus/Powerstream was provided to the town, sometimes several times over.

Frustrating? Yes, for the utility. How many times do you have to keep giving out the same material to the town before it stops demanding what it already has?

The utility could not, however, provide such information as minutes of council meetings because they were the responsibility of town staff to record and keep. But let’s blame the utility for not doing town staff’s work for them.

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Power, naked ambition, and corruption

Collingwood sinking...No matter how many times you watch the film, Titanic, the ending is always the same: the ship hits the iceberg. Sort of like watching Collingwood Council these days. They just keep hitting the iceberg. And hitting it and hitting it and hitting it.

But unlike the Titanic’s crew, our feckless crew is doing it deliberately. Their goal is to sink the ship. And they’re doing a bang-up job. Literally. Of course, they don’t plan to go down with the ship themselves: that’s the fate left to our town institutions and facilities. They’re just doing the steering. Into the iceberg.

Although the epithet says power corrupts, I think the corruption had set in among them long before the Block came to power. But their naked ambition, their arrogant disregard for the greater good, have never been so blatant as found in the agenda for next Monday.

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Yellow Journalism

Yellow journalismHere’s an interesting approach to developing good relations with your print media advertisers: take their money, publish their full-colour advertisement, then challenge their content, their integrity and their claims in a story that doesn’t present all the facts.

Then wonder why your other advertisers may be nervous about this tactic… and wonder why print media is in trouble.

That’s just what the Collingwood Connection did recently. They accepted and ran an ad last week from Collus/Powerstream – an innocuous, non-political, full-colour ad that modestly promoted the utility and its partnership with the town – then challenged it in an piece this week (the original, online piece was later updated, as I understand it, after complaints were made to the writer).

Not surprising if the folks at the utility are seriously pissed off at the Connection and feel betrayed, either. (update: I’ve been informed that the ad ran twice and wasn’t cancelled and ran twice… but I didn’t see it in the paper where the story ran…)

As Wikipedia tells us, yellow journalism is…

…a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.

Is it ethical or professional not to ask the basic questions reporters are taught to ask: who, what, where, when and why? Or to rely on unnamed sources? Those practices certainly look like yellow journalism to me.

Now, anyone who has followed local politics is aware of this council’s unrelenting attacks on our utility services and their staff. And you’re probably aware that the utility’s side of the story has never been covered in any local media, even though pretty much everyone in town is talking about it.

Local media seem content to look the other way and pretend it’s not happening. Investigative journalism? Not welcome here…

You also know how council broke the water service away from the electrical, and what a miserable dog’s breakfast that situation is now. The 150-year old mutual service relationship was torn asunder, and in almost two years the town has failed to craft a new one, although it should have taken an hour at most… but this council never intended to renew the agreement.

The experienced, respected professionals on the water utility commission were tossed overboard and replaced by a group of ideologically-motivated, inexperienced and inept councillors and pet staff. After, of course, deciding to so so without public input at a meeting behind closed doors.

And yes, they refer to themselves as “Our Group.” I, personally, prefer the term “Politburo” since it better captures that Stalinesque odour about them, but let’s use their own appellation for this post.

Since then, staff morale in water has plummeted. I’m told the utility is in chaos, the unions are squabbling, everyone is complaining, resumes have been sent out by the dozen, and no one is happy. Except for “Our Group,” of course. Another story whitewashed in the media.

Having basically destroyed one utility, “Our Group” has actively and aggressively pursued doing similar destruction to our electrical utility.

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The 50% Solution

Wings'n beerImagine you want to go out for dinner with a friend. Get some wings and beer. You like mild dry rub wings, and a nice, crisp lager. Your friend likes sticky and spicy, with a dark stout. The restaurant will bring out the food and drinks split according to your wishes. And your bill.

That means whoever pays for the meal gets to decide what you both get on the table.

You can’t afford to pay for the whole meal yourself, and you don’t want your friend to pay for it because you don’t want to share a basket of hot and sticky wings and a jug of Guinness. You want your own meal: you want half the food and half the beer, the kind you like. So you know you can’t pay less than 50%, otherwise you’ll give up control of the meal.

And if you pay more, you’ll end up with more than you need and your friend will feel unsatisfied. So you ask your friend what percentage of the bill they want pay before you order.

Your friend feels the same way. Your friend wants a fair share, a full meal, and doesn’t want anything less, and certainly doesn’t want to pay for your food, either. So your friend offers to pay half the costs. Fifty percent. Split right down the middle. That way you both get the wings and beer you want, no fighting. Both walk away from the table happy.

That’s the logic Collingwood used when it decided to sell half of its power utility, Collus, to Powerstream. Sure, the process was a little more complicated than that, but it still boils down to the same thing.

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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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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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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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