Category Archives: Municipal Politics

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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Lessons From the Campaign Trail

Door to doorI always learn something new, something valuable from every municipal election campaign. I learn from talking to people, I learn from community meetings. I learn from comments and emails I receive. I learn from other candidates, too – there are often good ideas proposed that can be developed by council later.

Each election campaign has been a bit different, and I’ve tried different approaches each time. In some, I’ve done more door knocking; in others I’ve done more mailing. I’ve tried different signs, different literature. This time, I knocked on a lot of doors. It’s been educational every time.

Here are a few of my thoughts about campaigning this term (and some thoughts that have percolated through from the five elections in which I have run as a candidate):

1. Face to face matters. No brochure or lawn sign can match the value of actually talking to someone at the door. Going door-to-door is a grinding, often tedious and tiring process, but nothing can match it for getting in touch with the voters. People want to voice their opinions, their concerns, ask questions and get answers. People like seeing their candidates, putting a face to the name. Nothing can match the personal interaction you get at the door.*

Be positive, be upbeat and be courteous at the door, even when you face someone hostile or an opponent’s supporter. Don’t argue or be impolite: leave them with a good impression of you.

2. All-candidates’ meetings are frustrating for voters. Talking one-on-one at the door is often appreciated more than all-candidates’ meetings. There the voters are a passive audience, unable to ask questions or challenge answers, debate, argue, even talk with candidates. Many people I spoke to at these meetings said they liked the time before and after the speeches best, so they could actually make direct contact with candidates.

Speeches don’t win many votes. In two or even five minutes, you can’t express your whole vision, your accomplishments, your hopes, dreams or even much of your bio. Just try to get a few salient points across that might be remembered later.

People match candidates’ faces with their names, so speaking well and confidently is important, too.

Small gatherings where people can speak one-on-one to candidates are more popular than big venues with 300-400 people in the audience. But events where only a select group of candidates are invited poisons the atmosphere for residents and candidates alike. People want fairness and openness during elections, not secrecy and exclusiveness.

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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.

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.