Carrier’s Attack Ad

Former mayor Chris Carrier has a big, nasty attack ad in the Connection this weekend. He promises “facts” and attacks the current mayor’s “spin.” But any reader who has followed the debate over the real figures for the town debt knows it’s quite the opposite.

You weren’t fooled, were you, dear reader? I didn’t think so.

Why he would think a negative attack ad laden with insults and misinformation would win voters is unclear. Perhaps he thinks he can scare voters into picking him. I doubt it.

I think he really doesn’t understand municipal finance. Council received a very clear and indisputable amount for the town debt from our auditor. To say it’s wrong and to challenge her figures is to attack the credibility of our auditors. She wrote:

As per the 2010 audited financial statements: long-term debt was $45,507,356 and there was a bank demand loan in the amount of $664,013 for a total of $46,171,369. As per the 2013 audited financial statements: long-term debt was $36,860,776 and there was no bank demand loan debt.

Keep in mind who is the professional here. Who has the string of degrees and years of experience auditing municipal finances? Who has the credibility here? Not the former mayor!

Everywhere I went, knocking on doors, meeting and talking with residents, I was told people didn’t like the negativity this election. I don’t think they will like this ad, either. It’s misleading and angry. And it attacks staff, as well as the current mayor (and her council).

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Promising What Can’t be Done

There’s a wrap up in the Connection this weekend with candidates’ comments on “accountability” I want to address. One deputy-mayoral candidate, Brian Saunderson, wrote, he would,

“Strengthen the current council code of conduct to include dealing with siblings as a defined conflict and impose consequences for council members who breach the code.”

Council cannot make a law that supersedes provincial law, nor can council impose any penalty outside those specified in the Municipal Act and Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. In fact, alleged breaches of those acts can only be dealt with through provincial authorities. The province does not give municipalities the authority to write their own laws that are above and beyond what the province decrees. And we can’t enforce penalties for arbitrary offences.

You’d think a lawyer would know this.

The candidate also called on council to

Create a lobbyist registry to ensure anyone lobbying council on behalf of any third party interest is registered and accountable for any and all lobbying activities.

I already dealt with this canard in my previous post on a lobbyist registry (already rejected by staff in 2008 as unnecessary and impractical). It’s simply a chest-beating exercise. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

He also promised to:

Change the purchasing policy to ensure there can be no sole sourcing of any contract for goods or services over $25,000, no exceptions.

The procurement bylaw grants an exception only where staff determine the service or product is unique – i.e. there are no other suppliers of an equivalent product or service. Council doesn’t make this decision: staff do. This is an attack against the integrity of staff.

The candidate’s promise would force the town to waste time, money and effort trying to source something that staff had already identified as unique and therefore has no competition. Your tax dollars wasted – like a cat chasing its own tail, nothing will come out of enforcing  a search for non-existent suppliers.

This deputy-mayoral candidate also promised to:

Improve communications to ensure the residents of Collingwood are informed of all council initiatives and engage the residents regularly to get community feedback.

Excuse my cynicism, but wasn’t council criticized by this candidate’s supporters for doing just that?

When this council sent out brochures about our accomplishments, plans and goals this term, this candidate’s supporters complained about it being “propaganda.” Trying to inform residents about our activities and progress was criticized. Yet all we were doing was following the recommendation in the Vision 2020 report.

Do I smell a little hypocrisy here? Council is being damned for doing what this candidate demands we do. This council has had a policy of open communication all term. In fact, we even hired a communications officer to ensure information goes out to media and on social media in a timely manner.

Some candidates didn’t like it. So they promise to create a policy to do what we already have done.

More promises:

Open public deputations to eliminate any prior approvals or vetting and allow people to address council on a first-come basis at the commencement of each council meeting

Perhaps had the candidate actually attended a public meeting (had he ever attended a council meeting, let alone made the journey to attend a county meeting!) he would have seen that public meetings are held and governed by both the Municipal Act and the Planning Act. This process is already done and has been done for years. To suggest otherwise is to criticize staff who maintain these laws and meetings.

And more:

Ensure all major decisions seek out community input, and ensure there is rigorous staff research and due diligence before any decision is made.

Already done, and been done for many years.

Again, actually attending council and paying attention to the process would help the candidate understand what the process is. All councils have many public meetings and engagements. An experienced candidate would know this.

And finally:

Ensure the division of labour between council members and staff is respected and eliminate micromanagement.

Been done for years. Council does not micromanage staff, except in the imagination of the candidate. Again, experience and attendance at town hall would have informed the candidate this was not an issue in real life.

It’s easy to criticize what you don’t understand. Maybe if Mr. Saunderson had attended any budget meetings, attended any council meetings or attended a single county council meeting, he would be more aware of the processes and procedures and not make empty promises.

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The Lobbyist Registry

Snidley WhiplashI was in the local grocery store with Susan, picking over the collection of organic vine-ripened tomatoes, earnestly searching for the best couple of them. A man recognized me as a member of council and approached me, smiling, hand extended.*

“Hi, Councillor Chadwick,” he said. We shake. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Okay,” I replied and passed what i considered the two best tomatoes to Susan who headed off in search of some fresh Ontario asparagus. “How can I help you?”

“Well, I’m Pastor Jones with the local United Way and I wanted to ask…”

“Wait a second,” I interrupted, holding my hand up. “Are you going to lobby me?”

“Uh, I suppose. I’m not sure. I just wanted to…”

“Are you registered?”

“What do you mean? We’re a registered charity…”

“No, I mean are you a registered lobbyist?” I shuffled sideways to the avocado bin and started to gently poke them. My new companion followed behind, scratching his head.

“I… I don’t know. I’m not sure. But we might be. But I just wanted to ask…”

“Not good enough. I need to know if you – not just your charity or corporation – is registered. Personally. You have to be registered before you can lobby me. Council passed a bylaw. I can’t talk to any unregistered lobbyists.” I picked a particularly nice avocado and handed it to Susan who passed by on her way to the potatoes.

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The Real Facility Costs

Ribbon cuttingAnother misleading statement was made during one of the all-candidates’ meetings last week: that our new recreational facilities – the Central Park Arena and the Centennial Aquatic Centre – cost $20 million and that the pool was 30% over budget.

Neither is correct.

According to our treasurer, Marjory Leonard, who replied to my emails this week, here are the actual numbers:

The original quote for the building alone: $3,425,000.
Council later approved an increase of $1,300,441. This included the therapeutic pool approved October 15, 2012 in Staff Report PRC 2012-22 – $550,000. It included the pool tank enhancements approved February 11, 2013 – $583,000, and the unanticipated construction costs of $88,000 for asbestos, pipe rerouting and soil removal.
The total budgeted amount was thus $4,725,441.
As of Dec. 31, 2013, the total cost was $4,917,739. This was $192,298 over budget. However, subtracting the donation from the Clippers Swim Club of $158,000 for pool enhancements, the total amount over budget was $34,298, or approximately 0.7% over budget. Most of this was because of unexpected problems with the site.
Note that the building costs did not go over budget: increases in costs were due either to unanticipated site works costs or council’s addition of features (i.e. the therapeutic pool).

As for the Central Park arena and rink, the figures are similar:

The original quote was $8,292,000 – Staff Report EMC 2012-01 (August 27, 2012)
This budget was $7,476,000 for the building alone, $316,000 for accessories and $500,000 for site servicing.
The 2013 Budget increased this amount by $57,050 for a total of $8,349,050.
However, council later changed the Hamilton Street entrance, an unanticipated project in response to local residents’ concerns about traffic and at an extra cost.
The actual cost as of December 31, 2013 was $8,571,479.
Again, the overrun was due to unanticipated site works: $222,429, not the building costs. That represents about 2.7% of the amount as approved by council in 2013.
Not included in the figures is the value of the additional audience seating, increased from 250 to 390, donated by Sprung at no cost to the town.

The total budgeted for both facilities (and approved by council) was $13,074,491 (which was paid for from the proceeds of the sale of a portion of Collus to Powerstream, not paid for from going into debt or raising taxes). The total cost was $13,331,218.

Centennial Aquatic centreThe two projects, combined were $256,727 – or about 2%  – over budget.

That’s $7 million less than the amount claimed by the candidate and at 2% a helluva lot less than the 30% inaccurately reported by this candidate at the ACM.

Costs above and beyond the building costs were either due to unforeseen site conditions (which any construction would be subject to) or council-mandated upgrades such as the therapeutic pool (roughly 1,000 user are in the aquatic centre every week – vindication that the addition of the therapeutic pool was a good idea).

Compare the cost of our new facilities to the proposed $35 million multi-use facility: even with the upgrades to the Eddie Bush Memorial Arena added in, it is still less than half the proposed “Taj Mahal” facility. The same candidate said that the figure of $35 million was “spun” by others in the election, but again that’s not true: the figure comes straight from the report by the steering committee itself – the same committee the candidate himself sat on. See my earlier post on that proposal for the actual page.

Candidates have a responsibility to the public to present accurate and truthful information. If they cannot or will not, they should step out of the race.

I eagerly await the correction and apology from this candidate for presenting this misleading information to the public.

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Your Election Choices

CartoonAs the ballots start to trickle in, the campaigns wind down. The Collingwood election is essentially over – we’re just waiting for the results now. But if you haven’t cast your ballot yet, here are some things to consider before you make your choices.

This municipal election has been polarized along several lines, but your basic choices are fairly simple: binary choices, if you will, about what sort of local government you want for next term. Choices between good and bad.

The primary axis has been:

Positive versus negative

Some candidates have had a positive attitude, refused to engage in personal attacks, and shown civility and respect to other candidates. Others have accused, made allegations, belittled, insulted and been generally disrespectful to their fellow candidates.

It’s up to you, the voters, to decide which attitude you would rather have prevail in your next council. Do you want four years of continual negativity? Or a positive, healthy, respectful one?

I hope you consider me among the positive candidates.

Informed versus misinformed

A lot of misinformation has been flying around about the debt, about taxes, about the new recreational facilities, staff and other issues, most of it coming from the negative candidates. Figures from our treasurer and our auditor have been questioned. Actual facility and building costs have been ignored and wildly inaccurate figures tossed about as a scare tactic.

Do you want to elect people who are either misinformed or have actually lied about factual information? Will you be able to trust what they say once elected? Or do you want a council you can trust?

I hope you consider me among the informed candidates.

Visionary versus critical

Some candidates have a vision. Positive candidates offer solutions, alternatives, directions, talk about projects and growth, plan for the future and identify opportunities. Some just criticize and complain; eagerly denigrate what others propose, downplay council’s achievements and demand things already accomplished – without offering any positive, beneficial solutions.

Which will best lead us forward next term: visionaries or their critics?

I hope you consider me among the visionary candidates.

You have some clear choices. You can elect a council that works well together, people who have shared vision, people who can work with and respect one another. You can elect a mayor and deputy mayor with experience, with passion for their role, and who believe in an inclusive council that engages all of its members to be their most effective.

Or you can elect a divisive, exclusionary, negative and critical group, fronted by angry leaders, hobbled by an inexperienced deputy mayor – knowing that the result of this choice will be turbulence and chaos through four years of ineffective governance and squabbling.

It’s up to you. it’s your future council.

PS. You don’t need to vote for ALL seven members of council. You can vote for fewer. Vote only for those who you think would be the best choices and if that is less than seven, don’t waste votes on anyone you’re not absolutely sure of. I hope I have your support and your vote.

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Clarifying Municipal Taxes

CartoonSome candidates seem confused about municipal taxes this election. I thought I’d clear up a few facts about property taxes for your (and their) benefit.

Property taxes are made up of three components: the municipal portion (roughly 60%), the county portion (24%) and the education portion (16%). The rate (also called the mill rate) for each portion is set independently by its own body (the province sets the education levy).

The total rate is called the blended rate. The town’s portion is the town-own rate. Usually the blended rate is used because that reflects best what homeowners see. The rate depends on the type of property you own: residential, commercial, industrial all have different rates. Single-family and multi-residential are also different.

Let’s look at how taxes were calculated in 2014 for a single-family house valued at $200,000:

Total taxes payable will be $2,526.31, broken down as follows:

  • Education levy $406.00
  • County levy $608.00
  • Town levy $1,512.32

The value of your home – of every home in Ontario – is set by MPAC, the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. This is an independent provincial agency headquartered in Pickering. It sets the value of your home through a computer model that looks at the value of properties around you and at real estate sales in your neighbourhood.

This model means your home value can increase whether you do anything to it or not.

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The Myth of Block Voting

I was amused by a recent comment I had voted “95%” the same as others on council. This was followed by the inevitable accusation of “block voting.” The complainer apparently wants everyone to vote in some helter-skelter manner. God forbid we should all agree on anything.

It’s a tired old campaign tactic: to accuse your opponents of being a “voting bloc” simply because they can agree on things. Oooh, scary: people voting alike. Don’t vote for those people: they agree instead of fighting and arguing. Damning politicians for getting along.

The vast majority of things that arise for votes at a municipal council table are procedural, administrative or bureaucratic. We vote to approve staff recommendations and reports, to receive items for information, to accept tenders for previously-approved budget items, to accept committee minutes, to approve agendas and minutes. We even vote to adjourn. Scary!

There’s seldom more than a sliver of a reason to vote against these issues. When big or contentious issues arise – and they are seldom – at the table, we vote as our conscience dictates. Our municipal council is not a partisan body. Party politics do not play an overt role (despite the efforts of some former politicians to force them upon us).

Think about it: there are only TWO ways to vote: yes or no. For or against. Not nine: not a different way for every council member. Just two. There will ALWAYS be at least five people voting the same way on EVERY issue. Is that a block? If you think so, you really don’t have a clue about politics.

Many of us at the table campaigned on common issues: finance, budget, taxes, growth, the harbour, openness, and so on. Of course we will vote similarly when these issues arise because that’s what we stood for on the hustings. It would be hypocritical to vote against something you advocated for or campaigned in favour of.

Who wouldn’t vote yes to control municipal spending, reduce the debt, lower taxes, or improve our accountability? Does that make it a voting bloc? Of course not. It simply makes it common sense.

Maybe what the records show is that councillors often voted the same way because we generally agreed with one another. That we share a common vision for the greater good. That our strategic planning sessions helped outline our common priorities and we pursued them. That the votes reflect this council’s cooperation, effectiveness, and team spirit.

Now is that a bad thing? Of course not.

Voting blocs? Piffle. Just the opposition trying to deflect your attention from what matters this election.

So what kind of council do you want next term? A positive, cooperative and effective one – or an ineffective group, beset by the bitterness, bickering and divisions that fragmented the previous council? It’s easy to see which candidates to vote for if you choose the positive.

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Their Shoddy Potemkin Villages

Dirty PoliticsIn 1787, the Empress Catherine II took a long trip to the Crimea along the Dnieper River. She wanted to see how her subjects lived. Not wanting her to see the actual poverty and hardships of the peasants, her lover – and the region’s governor – Grigory Potemkin, had pretty, fake villages of canvas and clapboard built along the way, with his own people acting and dancing the roles of happy peasants. After she visited one, the village was disassembled and rushed down river by barge to be rebuilt further away.

These have become known as Potemkin villages. According to Wikipedia, the term is used today,

…in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is.

But there’s also the opposite: when it refers to an imaginary construct that is negative: when such constructs are used to divert attention from an embarrassing situation or condition. Or, in some cases, an inconvenient truth.

Politicians have been accused of creating Potemkin villages to embellish situations and put a Pollyanna face on social or political ills. But their opponents – especially during election campaigns – also create their own facades to make the reality look worse. They create shabby Potemkin villages; cardboard slums, ugly-looking facades simply to make themselves look good by making the incumbents look bad.

Collingwood’s municipal election has its own shoddy Potemkin villages. Opponents have created a shabby, fake facade on the economic situation, on the recreational facilities, on economic development and on this council’s many achievements. They would have their followers believe that little if any good has been accomplished this term. They’ve erected not a few of these faux derelicts on social media.

As the Vermont Political Observer blog notes

See,that’s the problem with Facebook: it only takes one person to erect a plausible a Potemkin village.

Here are some of the campaign’s rickety Potemkin villages we’ve all heard during Collingwood’s municipal election, and the more solid truths they attempt to hide:

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Promising to do What’s Already Done

AccomplishmentIt’s good for councillors to know we’ve already accomplished so much that everyone wants to emulate us. Listening to the all-candidates’ speeches and reading the campaign literature is a real boost to the ego.

A lot of new people are promising to do what’s already been done. Incumbents can comfortably sit back and say, “been there, done that, accomplished that already.” We don’t seem to have left a lot for the newcomers to accomplish.

It’s been a very productive term – remarkably so given that we have so few meetings that last more than two hours. (For a list of just a few things we accomplished this term, see my ACM speech.) But still, some candidates seem to want to repeat our successes.

Take for example the promise to “diligently manage our finances and assets…” Check. Already done. We have an asset management plan in place and we started the long-term financial management strategic plan. But we’ve made our finances sustainable this term, so we don’t have to fret so much about them in future. Our practice of replenishing reserves through internal loans rather than just spending them is one example. (Read more about that practice here)

Same with the promise to “Stop the waste by developing a long-range financial plan and transparently evaluating all capital investments.” Aside from the mystery of how one evaluates “transparently” (does that mean invisibly?), we have an asset management plan in place and the strategic financial plan is in the works.

Staff do any evaluation, by the way – councillors only read and comment on their efforts. And any such evaluations would always be public.

As for waste – this council has trimmed the budget and cut spending for the past four years. We’re kept tax increases down to a blended average of only 0.45% per year – less than the cost of living. We saved taxpayers more than $400,000 a year by stopping the rail service (while keeping the line active for future transportation opportunities). And we topped up reserves from $19 to $30 million! No waste here!

Ditto for creating a “plan that looks at our long term financial health.” Initiated by this council, thank you, and will, I expect, be completed before this term is over. We made financial stability a priority at our first strategic planning session in 2011, reinforced that priority at our second strategic planning session in 2013, and we achieved it.

“Manage our high debt load…” Thanks for the advice, but we have paid down $7.5 million of the $45 million debt we inherited this term without raising taxes. We controlled spending and instituted a sustainable plan to finance projects from reserves through internal loans. And we topped up reserves, too. So cross that one off, too because we’re one step ahead of you.

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My Speech at the All-Candidates’ Meeting

Here’s the two-minute speech I gave Wednesday night at the Collingwood Legion, plus the wrap-up:

In two minutes, I can’t list everything this council and staff have accomplished on your behalf. But here are some highlights:

  • We answered your demand for more ice and water time. Parents no longer have to drive their kids to other towns for meets because we built two beautiful new recreation facilities right here.
  • And we paid for them without going into debt or raising your taxes.
  • In fact, we also paid down the debt by almost $7.5 million while adding $11 million to town reserves this term.
  • We completed an asset management plan.
  • We initiated a long-term financial management plan.
  • We put much-needed new docks in the harbour.
  • We’re upgrading the Eddie Bush arena.
  • We launched very successful bus services to Wasaga Beach and Blue Mountain.
  • We finished First Street and started the reconstruction of Hume Street.
  • We built a new fire hall and renovated the police station.
  • Yet we kept our average tax increase to under one-half a percent per year. That’s less than the cost of living.
  • We launched a small business centre with our community partners to develop and grow local business more efficiently.
  • We hired a marketing and economic development director to promote our town, to attract more industry, more visitors and, most important, more jobs.
  • We even appointed an integrity commissioner to make sure we behave in the most transparent and accountable manner.
  • Our operational and governance reviews are making the town more efficient and your council more effective.

And that’s not all. We’ve accomplished a lot this term. And we can do more next term, including:

We must continue to keep your taxes low. That’s number one.

We need more jobs, more industries, more business. We’re already working on that.

Our harbour has been neglected too long. It must be redeveloped. Together, we can make it the best harbour on Georgian Bay. Our waterfront master plan will guide us.

If you want decisive leadership with vision, and if you want continued financial stability next term, please vote for me, Ian Chadwick.

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A Buddhist Guide for Voters

Kalama Sutra
While it was intended as a general ‘charter of free inquiry,’ the Buddhist Kalama Sutra (or sutta) contains wise words that all voters – especially local voters – should heed during the municipal election campaign.

The Kalamas were a people in ancient India. Gotama visited them and stopped in a town called Kesaputta, where he gave a sermon, now referred to as the Kalama Sutra. At first the citizens came to him with a deep problem: how to trust what people were telling them. They had been visited by many religious teachers who all held divergent views. Not unlike candidates for Collingwood council going door to door. Well, without the spirituality and a few badmouthing other candidates, too. But let’s not get distracted by them.

Here’s how Soma Thera translates what the villagers said:*

There are some monks and brahmans… who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces… Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and brahmans spoke the truth and which falsehood?”

That’s a lot like trying to decide which candidate is the best one(s) to vote for. Some explain what they stand for while others merely revile what others stand for. Some offer hope and a future, others tear it down. Some simply tell lies. Doubt and uncertainty arise. When they come to your door or make statements in an all-candidates’ meeting, how do you trust what they say?

That’s when the Buddha made one of his most memorable speeches, in which he told the listeners they had to decide the truth for themselves, to examine the claims and prove what is right or wrong for themselves, and not make choices based on hearsay, ideology or gossip:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas.

  • Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing;
  • nor upon tradition;
  • nor upon rumor;
  • nor upon what is in a scripture;
  • nor upon surmise;
  • nor upon an axiom;
  • nor upon specious reasoning;
  • nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability;
  • nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’

One might add some modern terms to that list of things that do not offer a suitable basis on which to form an opinion of what is or is not truthful:

  • nor by blogs;
  • nor by speeches;
  • nor by campaign literature;
  • nor by self-written pieces in the local newspaper;
  • nor by innuendo;
  • nor by unproven or unfounded allegation;
  • nor by rumour;
  • nor by email blasts;
  • nor by claims made when stumping;

He then tells the citizens that to learn for themselves what is bad, what is bad, evil and harmful, they must assess everything by asking, “Does this do good? Or harm? Does it lead to suffering?”

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Misconceptions About the Town Debt

Clock TowerYesterday members of council received a letter from our auditors that should clear up any misconceptions floating around about debt and debentures. It is clear and succinct.

I was also forwarded an email from a candidate (sent to his supporters) with misleading statements about how much debt there is. I don’t know if it was deliberately meant to be misleading – I suspect rather that the candidate simply doesn’t understand municipal finance. But it isn’t really a complicated process.

And no candidate should make claims based on misunderstanding or misinformation. It is their responsibility to get and present the facts, not fantasies, nor opinions.

In response to concerns over such inaccurate claims and misunderstandings, we asked for a clarification. Sue Bragg, B.B.A., CPA, CA, and partner in Gaviller and Company, which audits the town’s financial statements every year, wrote the following (emphasis added):

We understand there have been some inquiries regarding the “definition of debt” and how the debt levels have changed during this last term of Council.
Our professional opinion is that debt is external, contractual debt, typically in the form of bank loans, debentures and mortgages. This definition is in keeping with the presentation of debt on the Financial Information Return prepared annually for the Ministry, as well as the Ministry’s calculation of the Annual Repayment Limit.

Okay, here’s the first important point: debt is external. That’s both the professional and the legal definition of municipal debt as defined by the Ministry of Finance.

Debt is what we owe outsiders: money borrowed with interest and bank charges to be paid. It’s what affects your taxes. It’s our debentures.

It is not any internal loans we have. I’ll get to those a bit later and explain how they work. Just keep in mind that they are not debt by any professional or Ministry calculation.

So then what is our actual debt? Ms. Bragg continues (emphasis added):

As per the 2010 audited financial statements: long-term debt was $45,507,356 and there was a bank demand loan in the amount of $664,013 for a total of $46,171,369. As per the 2013 audited financial statements: long-term debt was $36,860,776 and there was no bank demand loan debt.

We are unable to comment on the 2014 balances as we have not audited those transactions to date.

Got that? We started with a total debt of $46.17 million ($45.5 million in debentures) when we took office. As of Jan. 1, 2013, this council and staff had brought it down to $36.86 million. By the end of 2014, we estimate it will be roughly $38 million because we will pay down more this year, but we also need to borrow for two earlier projects).

At the end of our term, this council will have paid down approximately $7.5 million of our debt, as we have been saying for months now. These are the facts verified by the auditor.

Our debt is not the $50,361,230.00 some candidates are suggesting.

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Ke Ji Feng Gong

Ke Ji Feng Gong
Back in 2007, I first wrote about those Chinese symbols in the image above. They spell “Ke ji feng gong.” This is an update to that older piece, because it seemed appropriate to raise it in the midst of our current political campaign.

It’s an ancient Chinese saying that means:

“Work Unselfishly for the Common Good.”

An alternate translation, but similar in intent, is

“Self-restraint and devotion to public duties; selfless dedication; to serve the public interest wholeheartedly.”

Typically in the translation of Chinese characters, the phrase has a multitude of shadings. It can also mean,

“Place Strict Standards on Oneself in Public Service.”

I found another reference to it as “shared success.” It is sometimes written as “fèng gong kè ji.”

Regardless of which flavour appeals to you, it defines everything that I believe in about municipal political service: we are here to serve the public good; the greater good.

Every member of council should get this emblazoned on our desks, our computers, and our business cards to remind ourselves that our duty is to the greater good, not to serve friends, colleagues or whatever group you may belong to.

Maybe we should get one of the scrolls placed in our council room as an admonition, too.

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Montaigne: The Depravity of Our Morals

Montaigne“Our judgments follow the depravity of our morals and remain sick,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay On Cato the Younger (Essay XXXVII, Book I, Screech translation, Penguin Classics, 2003). That’s quite a condemnation.*

Montaigne opens that essay by quietly commenting, “I do not suffer from that common failing of judging another man by me.” Would that we all had his strength, not to judge others by what we think of ourselves. But he was born long before the age of selfies.

In our more narcissistic age of social media we are all too quick to judge, too quick to anger, too quick to take offence. We react first, strike back immediately, think long after. We treat anyone with different ideas or visions as intruders; trespassers on our internet. We disparage rather than discuss. We hurl invectives and insults rather than ask questions. We slough off civil debate in favour of personal attack.

(Yes, I’ve been reading The Essays again. I never seem to tire of Montaigne; there’s always something in his words to move me, inspire me and make me think. There’s nothing quite so comforting as sitting on the front porch in the late afternoon, under a clear, warm sky, Susan reading beside me, dogs at my feet, while I sip a glass of homemade wine and peruse Montaigne… well, him and a small pile of other books I am also currently reading. Would that these moments could be frozen in time and all afternoons be so comforting and civilized… as blogger J. D Taylor writes, “I will never finish reading Montaigne…”)

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On the hustings

Hustings meeting
I’ve been going door-to-door for the past few weeks in my campaign for re-election. Stumping on the hustings, as it’s called in Canada. Or at least that’s how I’ve always heard it used.

Hustings is an odd, old word, an anachronism that survives, seemingly, only in the world of politics. It comes from the days when England was a series of small kingdoms suffering frequent invasions by the Danes and Vikings. A few of the old Germanic and Norse words have managed to survive in our language, reminder of those distant, violent days.

The first known use, Wikipedia says, in a charter dated 1032 CE. But it probably was in oral use long before that document.

Husting derives from an Old Norse word, “hús” which meant ‘house. ’ It combines with “thing ” to make “hústhing,” which meant a ‘household assembly held by a leader.’ The meeting of the men who were in the household of a noble or royal leader. They would be the noble’s ‘cabinet’ or advisors.

Husting later came to mean more generically any assembly or parliament. In Old English, as the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, it meant ‘meeting, court’ or ‘tribunal.’

The word appears in Middle English – the language of Chaucer – referring to the highest court of the City of London. From there is begins an odd transformation to mean the platform where the Lord Mayor and aldermen presided. By the early 18th century, it meant any temporary platform on which parliamentary candidates were nominated. And by 1719, it came to mean generally a platform for political speeches.

That evolved into an even more general sense of the election process itself. In England, it still refers to a meeting or an assembly where all candidates are present. Or, as Wikipedia says, “a combination of a debate, speeches or questions from the electors.” You can “go to the hustings” or “attend the hustings” as a member of the audience, or as a politician (Word Wizard notes) you can “hit the hustings” or “take to the hustings.”

I’ve often heard it said candidates are “on the hustings” when on the campaign trail, going door-to-door. This isn’t exactly the sense meant by the term, but calling it “stumping” is equally incorrect if we’re to be true to the etymology (see below).

There are online references to a verbal form too: to hust, although I’ve never encountered it in Canada. The singular form of the noun – husting – seems to have vanished while the plural form survives.

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