Category Archives: Municipal Politics

Cold Camembert, Collingwood Style


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Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth made comments last week about how awful it is to eat normal airplane food as an excuse why she billed more sumptuous meals to her taxpayer-funded expense account. Cold camembert and broken crackers, she whined, were not acceptable breakfast fare for the likes of a Senator. As the NatPost quoted her:

“There are a couple of times when my assistant put in for a breakfast when I was on a plane, and they say I should have not claimed because I should have eaten that breakfast… Those breakfasts are pretty awful. If you want ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers, have it.”

Oh, how trying it is to be a Senator, having to dine on mere first-class fare at taxpayers’ expense. Her arrogance only made Canadians agonize more over how we really need to abolish or reform the patronage cesspit of our appointed Senate.

Her words also sparked a wave of Twitter and Facebook comments about the Senate’s entitlement and its ‘let-them-eat-cake’ mentality. Barbed editorials appeared in the media and social media. This comes at a time when Mike Duffy is on trial over the very issues Canadians abhor in the Senate: abuse of privilege and self-righteous entitlement.

The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente commented sarcastically about Ruth’s words:

It’s hell to serve your country. Just ask Senator Nancy Ruth, who often finds herself on early-morning flights, schlepping here and there to make the world a better place with nothing to sustain her but crappy airline food. “Those breakfasts are pretty awful,” she explained the other day. “… Ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers.”

But a sense of entitlement among our public officials – elected and appointed – is not limited to Ottawa. Snouts are in the trough at every level of government. Yes, even here: we have our own Senator Ruth.

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Closed for Business, Hostile to Seniors


ClosedClosed: that’s the message Collingwood Council sent to business during its recent budget discussions. We’re making it more expensive to run a business here, and by the way, we’re hostile to seniors and low-wage earners, too.

Under the tissue-thin pretense of keeping taxes low (which they aren’t, really), council approved a staff initiative to remove the costs for maintaining hydrants from the general tax levy and add them into your water rates – where they will do the most harm.

Councillor Madigan made the motion to take the costs from the fire department’s budget – where it has traditionally been, which means it came from property taxes, and dump them on your water bill. Other councillors who had previously resisted this move were suddenly turned into nodding bobbleheads, voting as staff directed.

Only a courageous two – Lloyd  and Edwards – voted against it.

These hydrant costs represented approximately 0.5% of the existing property tax levy and would not have increased taxes because they have always been calculated into our taxes. Now it will make your water and sewage rates go up by 5.8%!

An alleged tax saving that shifts the costs onto utility bills is NOT a savings at all: it’s an expense.

For renters, this means a huge increase in their utility costs. Rental rates are controlled and kept low by provincial legislation. Utility rates, however, are not. This will make living here much less attractive, and less affordable for anyone who rents.

So the people most hurt by this move are seniors, people on fixed incomes, low-income earners and the many people who rent their home. This is a remarkably hostile blow towards a large and vulnerable percentage of our population.

And it’s a double blow against business and industry, since they pay the lion’s share of water costs. It just makes it more expensive to run a business in Collingwood and will further deter industry from relocating here. Workers and businesses get hit at the same time.

This comes at a time when businesses are already struggling and Canada’s economy is in trouble. Retail chains are closing and more are slated to close. The governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, recently warned that “…the first quarter of 2015 will look atrocious…”He added that Canada’s economy was unlikely to meet even the scaled-back predictions and hinted the bank could implement “extraordinary measures” – which suggests a significant increase in interest rates. He called our economic outlook “atrocious.”

Apparently most of council doesn’t care. Collingwood Council’s move just adds to existing business and industry woes. Kick ’em when they’re down.

So much for trying to attract more of them to this town. Close the business doors, I guess Council doesn’t want anyone else to come in. And maybe it wants those already here to leave by making it too expensive to operate economically. Attrition by user fees.

But here’s the kicker: there’s no indication that money moved from taxes will actually be removed from the fire department’s budget: it seems like it will be kept there and used for other purposes (maybe that new pumper truck that’s been requested the past few years?). So it looks like the money will stay on your taxes AND your water rates will go up!

So you get punched twice.  Thanks, Councillor Madigan.

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Councils and Their CAO


A good relationship between a municipal council and their town’s CAO is crucial to smooth, effective and efficient governance. The CAO is the liaison between council and staff, responsible for directing staff to implement council’s direction and overseeing internal personnel issues. If the relationship is rocky, then governance and Council’s interactions with staff – and therefore the entire public’s interests – all suffer.

To fill this role well, a CAO has to be scrupulously objective and neutral, calm and wise – not push any one person’s or side’s agenda, and certainly not promote his or her own, act Solomon-like with both council and staff, and never be a bully.

The CAO has to balance staff needs and goals with council’s and manage competing demands equitably, all balanced on the teeter-totter of taxation. Councillors, however, not the CAO or other staff, should drive the strategic process, and  the initiatives, but the CAO has to steer this boat through the competing shoals of wants and needs. A good CAO can do all of this and still remain calm.

There’s always a learning curve for any new council members: they have to learn to work with staff, and they depend heavily on the CAO to make it a smooth process. Councils inherit staff and few ever have the opportunity to set up the relationship their way. There’s also a learning curve for staff to get to know what the new council wants and expects. It can often be prickly if a new council is elected with different goals or agendas from a previous one, forcing staff to make changes in direction.

It can be more difficult for everyone if departments heads or administrative staff like the CAO are replaced mid or late term. There is seldom enough time for both sides to gel fully and build constructive relationships.

Last term, Collingwood council made a deeply ethical decision mid-term when the contract with the former CAO ended: not to impose its choice of a permanent CAO on a new council. Regardless of who might be elected, the decision was made to allow the new council to make its own choice.

It would have been easy last term to hire a new CAO and make the new council work with that choice. But that was seen as ethically inappropriate, at least by most of the former council.

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The tail wags the dog again


In January, the CAO coupled a ‘sky-is-falling’ presentation about the town’s debt with a proposed 5.11 percent tax increase. *

Councillor Kevin Lloyd made a motion to have staff bring back two options for council to consider: a one and two percent increase to the general tax levy, with comments on how these would affect services.

Council approved the motion and directed staff to prepare them.

Instead, what council got at its Feb. 24 budget meeting was a wish list from staff for additional spending. The direction from council for a report on 1% and 2% increases was totally ignored by placing this material ahead of the report. (This report should have been presented this week so council could assess the wishlist in context, not as an afterthought.)

Council did not even get to see any department’s full, line-by-line, preliminary budget so it could make an informed decision on whether these items should be budgeted.

As a result, council wasted five hours wrangling over items and requests without even the slightest understanding of how these decisions would affect the overall departmental budgets or what their impact on our taxes would be. This is backwards.

Council also received a brief notice that the overall tax increase would start at 2.37 percent, but these additions are on top of that. All the savings made by the last council could be wiped out in a single budget this term.

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What’s Wrong with Municipal Bonusing?


OntarioUntil the early 1970s, municipalities in Ontario were involved in a free-for-all competition to attract business and industry. They offered tax breaks, free land, free infrastructure, utilities or services, housing — whatever it took to get a plant or office to open within their boundaries. A lot of small Ontario communities were able to attract businesses that way, and many got major industries.

Of course, the local taxpayers paid for these benefits, but the towns subscribed to the theory that eventually the extra jobs and tax revenues coming into the municipality would pay for the up-front largesse through increased revenue across the community. The plants would bring jobs, which would translate into new homes and property taxes, and the increased population would create a demand for other businesses such as retail stores, restaurants, and the service industry, themselves creating new jobs.

For a while, that system worked, mostly to the advantage of municipalities which could both afford the largesse, and had the land and services readily available. Not everyone considered such competition the best way to run a province, however, and there were arguments that through bonusing, municipal taxpayers were increasing the profits of private enterprises.

Then, in 1974, the provincial government stepped in and said the practice wasn’t fair. All municipalities, the province decided, should compete on a level playing ground: bonusing of this sort was made illegal in Section 106 of the Municipal Act. The Act even makes loans illegal:*

Assistance prohibited
106. (1) Despite any Act, a municipality shall not assist directly or indirectly any manufacturing business or other industrial or commercial enterprise through the granting of bonuses for that purpose. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (1).
(2) Without limiting subsection (1), the municipality shall not grant assistance by,
(a) giving or lending any property of the municipality, including money;
(b) guaranteeing borrowing;
(c) leasing or selling any property of the municipality at below fair market value; or
(d) giving a total or partial exemption from any levy, charge or fee. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (2).

David Sunday, a lawyer writing on the Sorbara Law website, noted in late 2014:

Section 106 of the Ontario Municipal Act, 2001 is a much worried about “anti-bonusing” provision of broad application. It is worrisome because its limits and applications are far from clear. By its terms, the provision purports to create an unqualified prohibition on municipalities directly or indirectly assisting any manufacturing, industrial, or commercial enterprise through “bonusing”. The scope of prohibited “bonusing” extends to the giving or lending of any municipal property, including money, guaranteeing borrowing, leasing or selling any municipal property, or giving a total or partial exemption from any levy, charge, or fee.

The change was made more than a generation ago. Since then, the Auto Pact has become defunct, the Canadian dollar has risen too high to offer the economic benefit that once attracted U.S. firms and its recent slide came too late to turn things around. Many factories closed in North America and reopened in Asia, creating massive unemployment everywhere. Consumer buying trends have shifted from quality products to the least expensive on the big-box store shelf. Wages, especially in unionized plants, have escalated to uncompetitive levels compared with Asian workers. It’s a different, more challenging world today.

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Whitewash


In early January, Council was presented with a report by outside consultants on the state of the shared service agreement between Collus/Powerstream and the town. The report, however, was rejected by council as flawed – wisely, it turns out – and the following motion was made (emphasis added) that night:

THAT the motion be deferred for one month to allow the president and CEO of Collus/Powerstream to review and comment on the report, and that the report be further circulated to the interview participants and CPUSB to provide any corrections/clarifications that may be reflected in an updated report.

This report, however, was now public and widely seen as negative in the community, although few realized how flawed and inaccurate it was. But council made it clear in the motion that it wanted to see ANY corrections or clarifications and to have them all included in an updated REPORT. It got neither.

As one of those interviewed, I was sent a copy of the report and asked to comment on it according to the motion above. My response, provided to staff on Jan. 26,  was 27 pages long, detailling what I saw as numerous factual and perceptive errors. I’ll get to my concerns, a bit further below. The Collus/Powerstream board also provided a 12-page response highlighting inaccuracies and misconceptions it found in the report, plus there were several other responses.

Council was provided only two of these responses by staff prior to last week. The majority of the responses were not provided to council by staff until late Friday, Feb. 13, and only then a single copy was placed in one binder in the council room, labelled ‘confidential” by the administration, with instructions not to remove the contents from the room. This despite several emails I sent to staff requesting my comments be shared with council.

How many councillors do you think spent several hours in a small, dingy room in town hall on a holiday weekend reading these comments? Consider, too, that they also had 295 pages of agenda to crawl through before Tuesday’s meeting. Looks to me like the administration didn’t want them read. How utterly open and transparent.

Instead, what council got in its agenda – and the only thing to enter the public record – was merely a two-page letter from the consultants – not the updated report council as directed – that said, basically, that the concerns raised by the responses were ignored. A list of minor word changes was included – not the full list of ANY corrections and clarifications as council directed:

Based on the responses received, the recommendations and conclusions in the Report remain the same.

That was followed by 17 pages of self-aggrandizing resumes to let us know how experienced the consultants are at this sort of report. La-dee-dah. None of this was what council directed staff to provide.

In my opinion, the administration whitewashed this one, in part because it looks like the administration made a serious strategic error in releasing the report prematurely and is now trying to cover its collective ass. In part, It’s also my opinion that there is a political agenda at town hall that I see causing a growing rift between admin and Collus staff and the water operations. Morale, I’ve been told, has plummeted.

And the result may end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

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Open for Business, But Not For Your Input


Did you happen to read the town ad on the inside page in the Enterprise Bulletin this weekend? February 6, top of page D7? I’m betting you didn’t because no one I’ve spoken to seems to have read it. And since you can’t find the ad on the EB’s website, you won’t have read it online, either.

But you should because it likely affects you and possibly in a big way.  It may change your life and not in a positive manner.

It’s on the town’s website, buried under a user-unfriendly URL here: www.collingwood.ca/node/11875.

It looks innocuous enough at the start:

In accordance with the Retail Business Holidays Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. R.30, as amended, and Ontario Regulation 711/91 – Tourism Criteria, the Town of Collingwood hereby gives notice of a Public Meeting and intent to pass a by-law to incorporate proposed changes to the Retail Business Holiday Exemption By-law, during its regular meeting of Council to be held Monday, March 2, 2015 at 5:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers, 97 Hurontario Street, Collingwood.

But read a little further and you’ll find these two bullet points:

  • Allowing retail business establishments to be open to the public Family Day, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, in addition to the other exemptions provided in the by-law.
  • Review of application from the Business Improvement Area and the Chamber of Commerce to incorporate a town-wide exemption encompassing all retail business in Collingwood.

That’s right: council intends to pass a bylaw to permit retail stores to open on statutory holidays – two of them among the most important religious holidays of the year for Christians. And they didn’t warn anyone this was coming. But read on, there’s more.

Open for business, not for your input

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The Hypocrisy Starts


HypocrisyIt didn’t long for the hypocrisy to start at council. Monday night, council approved a five-year contract for an unsolicited proposal from the town’s only (monopoly) taxi service without going to an open bid process.

Yes that’s right: this council approved a sole-source contract in its first two months of this term. No tender. No RFP. No public input. It wasn’t advertised. It just came in, unsolicited.*

And the contract lasts five years – beyond the term of this council.

Yes: the same people who loudly lambasted the previous council for sole-sourcing a contract for Sprung (although staff recommended it because Sprung was the only supplier of that product in Canada), made a sole-source decision themselves this week.

And the same irate, sycophant bloggers who damned the previous council for that decision were entirely silent when their friends did the same thing. Isn’t that just a little bit hypocritical?

Ah, the smell of hypocrisy. It’s like the smell of bacon, but more pungent. More like rotting flesh.

During the election campaign, the previous council’s single instance of sole-sourcing was widely attacked by several of those who were later elected to the table: including the deputy mayor, councillors Ecclestone and Doherty.

Where, oh where, were their voices in protest when a sole-source contract came to council Monday? They voted in favour, the issue of sole-sourcing never once raised its ugly head.

And here’s the kicker: the Deputy Mayor only the previous meeting made a motion to “address” sole sourcing in the procurement bylaw (although it is already dealt with in the comprehensive bylaw, which it appears he did not read before making his motion).

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