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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Professional Politicians? Not Here…

There’s an editorial in the January 29 edition of the Collingwood Connection that underscores how little the local media really understand local politics, and how biased it remains. Which is unfortunate, because buried within this vitriolic screed was a nugget of wisdom; a salient point about local politics.*

First, it begins with an essential error by criticizing councillors for not showing “…they’re willing to work as a team -as they’ve been elected to do.”

In non-partisan municipal politics, only individuals are elected. Not teams. Yes, there was a slate of candidates with similar ideologies who ran and many of whom were elected (most of the current council, in fact). But that doesn’t make them a team any more than a bus full of passengers is a team.

Sports teams are filled with people on the same side chosen for their skills that complement those of the others. The sport-related metaphor of council as a team is not merely inappropriate, it is wrong. A herd of cats and dogs might be a better metaphor.

That doesn’t mean councillors can’t work as a team after they are elected – and most do, either collectively or in small groups because they share common goals – but they were not elected as a team and have no obligation to act as one. In fact, the whole notion of electing a team is pointless in this context, given that an election result is also the product of chance, not merely campaigning.

Teams are appointed or chosen, not elected. They have leaders and distinct agendas. Mayors may be the titular head of council, but have no say over who gets to be on their council “team.”

The fact that most municipal politics and councils are non-partisan and not team-based is actually one of its strengths. It means elected representatives can follow their individual conscience and goals, and are not chained to a particular party platform, nor someone else’s agenda. The media apparently don’t grasp this elementary concept.

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My Goodbye to Local Politics (for now)

I had meant to read a statement at last night’s final meeting of Collingwood Council, but I misplaced my printout between the time I left home and the meeting’s start. I remembered most of it, but may have missed a few words. Here’s an edited version of what I said with some notes from what I had written for the occasion:

First, I’d like to thank staff for all their help and support these many years. Staff have helped make council’s ideals, plans and goals into reality. Without them, we would have floundered and run aground on our unconsummated ideas. We have an excellent staff here, who always have the public’s best interests in mind. I sincerely appreciate their efforts on our behalf.

I have been fortunate to serve as council representative for the past 11 years. I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had to do good for the community and to serve the greater good.

I am particularly privileged to have served this term. This council has done more good for the community than any council I have know over the past 25 years, both as reporter and as councillor. I want to thank all of my council colleagues for their dedication, their support and their passion these past four years. I am honoured to have served with all of you.

I congratulate the the incoming council and wish them all the very best luck. I am sure they will be successful because of all the hard work this council has done for them.

I look forward to being able to serve the community in other ways, as a volunteer, as a contributor and as a supporter in the many areas and activities we have. Thank you to everyone who has believed in me, has voted for me, and shown confidence and faith in my goals and my vision these past 11 years.

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Before You Become a Politician

IgnatieffNo, this isn’t about me. This is about federal politics. I never had an inclination for higher levels of politics, those other arenas, other battles, nor the lofty separation of politician from the electorate such roles entail. But some of it is relevant to those who want to enter municipal politics; indeed to all levels of politics.

It’s a letter from the former leader of the Liberal party, Michael Ignatieff. And a touching letter it is.

After an glorious entrance into politics, hailed as the next Pierre Trudeau, a towering intellectual giant among the pygmies, Ignatieff was eventually elected leader, then battled and buffeted by the political Pulcinellas – both internal and external – so badly he was turned into a caricature (as was his predecessor, Stephane Dion). And in the world of politics, you can survive being loved or hated, but not laughed at. His party failed miserably in the election.

Ignatieff resigned, then shuffled off ignominiously, back to academia. He now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Still, I had great respect for him, for his intellect, and tremendous empathy for his travails. It’s hard to be a man with honour on that field.

In this letter, posted on The New Republic, he writes to an admirer who asked his advice about entering politics. Ignatieff opens by stating,

All I’d claim is that my thoughts come with what Scott Fitzgerald called “the authority of failure.”

I think as most politicians realize (or come to realize once in office), failure may not always be of your own making in a world of increasingly personal, negative and angry politics where blame is cast about like birdseed on a windy day. Even success can be framed as a failure by opponents, and the message spread by the channels of newspeak: social media, well outside the control of any politician’s spin.

Dissembling, combined with egregious nastiness, has long been a signature component of politics. Ignatieff seems not to have recognized this until he was already swimming with the piranhas:

I had the vocation for politics. What I didn’t have was any aptitude for political combat. I took the attacks personally, which is a great mistake. It’s never personal: It’s just business. It was ever thus. You can prepare yourself for combat by going in as a staffer, watching it from the sidelines, as I did when I was in my twenties, but believe me, when you step in the ring yourself, the first punch always comes as a shock. That’s when you’ll know, as you snap your head back into place, whether your first instinct is fight or flight.

I went into politics thinking that, if I made arguments in good faith, I’d get a hearing. It’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s wrong. In five and a half years in politics up north, no one really bothered to criticize my ideas, such as they were. It was never my message that was the issue. It was always the messenger.

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Thank you for your support

Thank you everyone who voted for me this election. I am delighted and honoured that you once again gave me your confidence and trust to represent you for another term in office. Unfortunately, although there were a lot of you, it wasn’t quite enough. I will not be returning for the upcoming term, but perhaps I will run again in 2018.

I promised this term, as I always have done, that I would keep the interests of all of Collingwood in the forefront; to make decisions I believe are in the best interests of everyone to be fully open and transparent in my decision making, as I always have been. I believe I have kept that promise.

While I am personally disappointed, after 11 years in of service in public office, I can look back to many accomplishments and positive results. I was especially fortunate to have served this term in what I believe has been the best council in the past 25 years. What we accomplished in terms of financial sustainability alone is a significant task no other council has managed to achieve. Plus we answered the community’s two-and-a-half decade demand for more water and ice time. This council set the bar very high. It has been a fulfilling experience to serve on council.

During my time in office, I have worked with many people at the table and on staff, and I thank all of them for their efforts on behalf of the town. I have been proud to work with you on our common goals.

I have also made some real friendships in that time. I have been especially fortunate to have served this term with people I both respect and admire and we have formed close bonds in a common vision for the community. I cherish these connections and hope they continue outside the political arena.

Good luck to the new council. It is always challenging to be at the table and I wish them all the best of luck. I hope I can continue to serve the community in other ways.

I will also continue to post here, to write, to read, to pursue my scholarly and cultural interests, and to make social, political and other comments as I do so. I will be updating my other social media content as well over the next few days.

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A Modern Take on Gorgias

GorgiasPlato’s dialogue Gorgias is mostly about the difference between content and form. Or rather it’s about how Socrates saw the difference between philosophy – content and truth – and rhetoric – form and words. Both of which are practiced and studied today in much different forms from what they were in ancient Greece. But the essential core of his argument is still there for us.

Socrates felt rhetoric  – oratory – was shallow; merely using words for persuasion, for effect, for emotion: it lacked the validity, the meaning and depth of philosophy. It lacked truth and knowledge.

If you look at the dichotomy in Gorgias as one between science, fact and evidence on one side, and pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and angry bloggers on the other, then it makes sense in a modern way. Instead of the speeches he discusses, imagine them like this: as blog posts. Gorgias argues his speeches are about freedom – angry bloggers often argue their posts are a right, and they have freedom to write whatever they please, to belittle and demean others without punishment. A modern Socrates might label these sophists “A” types.

What kind of change, then, does rhetoric effect in the soul? Socrates infers from Gorgias that it is persuasion. What kind of persuasion? One kind of persuasion “provides belief without knowing,” and another “provides knowledge.” Clearly knowledge is better than true belief, which is better than false belief, and more knowledge is better than less knowledge. But rhetoric merely imparts belief, Gorgias admits, and experience shows that rhetoric produces both true belief and false belief (454e). By this reasoning rhetoric, to the extent that it is a theoretic art, is powerless to effect the best possible change (knowledge) in the soul of the hearer, but it has the power to effect the worst possible change (false belief) in the hearer’s soul.

This may be the main reason that Socrates stops discussing the greatest of goods and begins to discuss the greatest of evils. It is important to protect one’s soul against the worst effects of rhetoric. Socrates refers to the greatest of evils, in slightly different formulations, over a dozen times. The subject matter of the greatest evil takes many forms, most notably that of injustice. Can the state of soul called false belief be reconciled with the state of soul called injustice?

One could easily apply Socrates’ views about content versus empty form to the local political scene: the debate between financial facts, facility facts and council accomplishments versus the fictions, fantasies and outright lies presented in attack ads, on social media and angry blog posts. Wikipedia tells us:

Socrates believes there are two types: “…one part of it would be flattery, I suppose, and shameful public harangue, while the other—that of getting the souls of the citizens to be as good as possible and of striving valiantly to say what is best, whether the audience will find it more pleasant or more unpleasant—is something admirable. But you’ve never seen this type of oratory…” (502e). Although rhetoric has the potential to be used justly, Socrates believes that in practice, rhetoric is flattery; the rhetorician makes the audience feel worthy because they can identify with the rhetorician’s argument.

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Collingwood in the Top Ten

Top rankingsThere’s a story in today’s Financial Post that is headlined, “Collingwood’s debut in top 10 on ranking of business friendly cities is no accident.”

No accident at all, as anyone on council, in staff or who follows local politics knows. We’ve worked hard to get to this. We deserve it. We told you during the election we were finally open for business and here’s the proof: the rest of the country recognizes us.

Collingwood was ranked tenth out of 81 small-sized communities in the FP’s poll, conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses:

In its first year to qualify, the revitalized city, in cottage country about an hour north of Toronto, has landed in 7th place in the Top 10 small cities in the annual survey ranking the strongest entrepreneurial activity in Canada conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business for the Financial Post.

We were also the only Ontario municipality to place in the top ten. And in great part, thanks goes to this council’s forward-thinking economic development strategy:

One point of pride is its integrated support system for entrepreneurs. “Our approach is very unique from other municipalities and even larger cities. Typically they are scattered across areas making it more difficult for people to start and grow their own companies,” (Martin Rydlo, director of marketing and business development for the Town of Collingwood) said.
Instead, the offices for the Town of Collingwood, the Business Development Centre and the South Georgian Bay Small Business Enterprise Centre are all under one roof, next door to the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Improvement Association.
“We’re also within 100 metres of the five core banks and town hall,” Mr. Rydlo pointed out. “So getting permits is as close to a one-stop shop experience as it can be. That’s huge for people starting a business. Add to that a strong angel investment, mentorship and consultant network and everything is there to help people with their growth plans.”

Better yet: we ranked NUMBER ONE in the CFIB’s list for entrepreneurial presence” in its “Top Entrepreneurial Cities, 2014.”

Thanks for the vindication of this council’s policies and initiatives.

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The mote and the beam

“Hide witch hide, the good folks come to burn thee;
Their keen enjoyment hid behind a Gothic mask of duty.”

Jefferson Starship: Mau Mau (Blows Against the Empire, 1970)

I was thinking about those lines recently. They seemed appropriate given the events in town since last spring. I was also thinking about what Gord Hume wrote in 2011:

“Explosive internet columns, blogs, and opinion pieces that do not seem to be overly-burdened with concerns about facts or accuracy are now being added to the traditional media mix, and have further aroused this toxic brew.”
Gordon Hume: Take Back Our Cities, Municipal World

Toxic certainly describes the political atmosphere in Collingwood these days. It’s been a rough campaign season, although I have to say thanks to the support I and some other members of council have received from residents. It’s good to know the poison has not seeped into every pore. Not everyone listens to the harridans of hatred.

Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
Shakespeare: Macbeth

Coffee mugIt’s a sad day indeed for this community when any person is judged guilty solely on an allegation from a blogger, without any evidence, without even hearing his or her side. Just innuendo, rumour and gossip. And increasingly more often, outright lies.

What happened to our Canadian sense of justice and fairness?

A former politician recently called the attitude among the local negativists as a “lynch mob” mentality and referred to the madness of the McCarthy era. Both seem, sadly, true.

But I have to add: Honi soit qui mal y pense – evil be to him who evil thinks.

Who would have thought anyone in this small, quiet, beautiful town would be so shamelessly determined to hurt and demean others? I simply don’t understand that. It’s outside my ken.

I never understood bullying. And now we have the local cyberbullies pointing their fingers at us and call us bullies when we stand up to them and demand accountability; who damn us for asking questions of staff after they spent years castigating and accusing staff themselves.

Ah, the hypocrisy never ends, does it?

It sometimes disheartens me, demoralizes me. Maliciousness affects our families, our friends and neighbours. It is, as Gord Hume wrote, a toxic brew; and it keeps getting stirred by this small group.

Social media rewards partisanship. It is the nature of the medium that like-minded people talk to one another and reinforce one another. It is easy to dismiss any aliens who challenge your prejudices. Unquestioned prejudices shrivel into slogans and labels.
keller.blogs.nytimes.com

These attack posts, these accusations are not about engagement, or debate, issues, process, or even democracy. Never have been. Democracy comes with responsibilities; social media doesn’t. They’re not about civil debate; the mature exchange of ideas and views. They’re not the Collingwood way of engaging one another.

They’re simply about hurting someone else, about smearing them, discrediting them, demeaning and belittling them, getting revenge for a council decision they didn’t like. Just like in the school yard: bullies, grown up to be cyberbullies.

There’s always been a political agenda playing in the wings. This term it’s been replete with dirty politics, name-calling, smears, lies and self-righteous but groundless accusations. Some say it’s part of a generations-old feud between Liberals and Conservatives. Or just a longstanding personal animosity between some current and former politicians. Others say it’s big-city politics, or Harper politics, or American politics. Doesn’t matter: the relentless personal attacks, the denunciations, the accusations have continued unabated, their angry clamour growing louder with every week as we approach the election date.

Any opportunity for an engaging debate on the issues, even for simple explanation and exchange of views, was scorched away by the ongoing vitriol. Who can be heard over the continual schoolyard shouting, the lies and taunts?

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Montaigne on Friendship, Liars and Politics

Sisyphus“I am seeking the companionship and society of such men as we call honourable and talented,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay, On the Three Kinds of Social Intercourse (Book III, 3). “It is, when you reflect on it, the rarest of all our forms…”

Montaigne was musing in his essay and others on the nature of not simply friendship, but on what attracted people to work, converse and share at the highest levels. To bond without some ulterior motive such as work, politics or profit. What, after all, is true friendship? Once stripped of necessity is it pure or will it prove simply a convenience?

Montaigne disliked pointless social chit-chat and small talk (he would fumed over Facebook and Twitter). He wanted to engage in conversations with depth, to debate, to examine, to explore ideas, to argue and converse, not simply rehash the shallow and the trivial. He treasured civil debate most (I suspect he would have greatly disliked our modern, divisive and fragmented social media).

Montaigne mulled over the nature of friendship in several essays. In his essay on Friendship (Book I, 27, also known as On Affectionate Relationships in Screech’s version), Montaigne wrote (Cotton translation):

There is nothing to which nature seems so much to have inclined us, as to society; and Aristotle says that the good legislators had more respect to friendship than to justice. Now the most supreme point of its perfection is this: for, generally, all those that pleasure, profit, public or private interest create and nourish, are so much the less beautiful and generous, and so much the less friendships, by how much they mix another cause, and design, and fruit in friendship, than itself. Neither do the four ancient kinds, natural, social, hospitable, venereal, either separately or jointly, make up a true and perfect friendship.

“Good lawgivers have shown more concern for friendship than for justice.” That’s how Screech translates the line. He goes on: “Within a fellowship, the peak of perfection consists in friendship, for all forms of it which are forged or fostered by pleasure or profit or by public or private necessity are so much the less beautiful and noble – and therefore so much the less “friendship” – in that they bring in some purpose, end or fruition other than the friendship itself. nor do the four ancient species of love conform to it: the natural, the social, the hospitable and the erotic.”

Montaigne continued:

For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined.

Friendship of that exalted sort Montaigne valued most is rare. He called his ideal “how remote a thing such a friendship is from the common practice.” Rarer still, it seems, in politics and law.

He discounted “friendships” created by some need or goal as merely temporary. He quotes Cicero on the nature of long-term friendship:

“Omnino amicitiae, corroboratis jam confirmatisque, et ingeniis, et aetatibus, judicandae sunt.” (“Those are only to be reputed friendships that are fortified and confirmed by judgement and the length of time.” –Cicero, De Amicit., c. 20.)

Friendship – Montaigne’s idea of real friendship, not one born of necessity or advantage – is also a sign of personal success. It is an achievement that transcends business, politics and time. Those other “friendships,” he warned, are fragile: vulnerable to external events, personal needs and private goals. In fact, they are not friendship at all, as Montaigne defined it.

“Let no one, therefore, rank other common friendships with such a one as this,” Montaigne wrote of his own true friendship. “In those other ordinary friendships, you are to walk with bridle in your hand, with prudence and circumspection, for in them the knot is not so sure that a man may not half suspect it will slip.”

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The Best of Times

Tale of Two CitiesI was overcome this weekend with an urge to re-read Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities. I suspect it’s because of its brilliant, powerful opening. That opening epitomizes for me Collingwood’s municipal election and the dichotomy between the two camps: positive versus negative. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

I was downtown Saturday, shopping in the farmers’ market and local stores when the urge came over me. Ducking into Sandra’s little used-book store on Ontario Street, I found a copy. I sat on a bench downtown and read the first two chapters while Susan browsed in a nearby store. Wonderful stuff.

I carried it home (where it joins a couple of other editions of the same title). It’s actually a nice edition (shown in the cover image on the right); paired with another superb novel by Dickens: Great Expectations. Which title might also be said to reflect the overall tone of this election: all the expectations every candidate and his or her followers have for the outcome (I’m sure Terry Fallis would do it justice…).

The opening paragraph of Dickens’ novel reads:

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

That could easily be said reflect claims and counter-claims this election. It doesn’t need to be changed at all to be framed in a modern context.*

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