Category Archives: Provincial Politics

What is a councillor’s role?

A question was asked of me recently about the appropriateness of the Deputy Mayor being at a meeting last summer to discuss the possible purchase of the new recreational facility structures. From the question I inferred that the asker did not approve of a politician being there.

I disagree, and made my point that it was appropriate. It was hardly a secret meeting – it included numerous staff, plus the acting CAO. And the DM was invited to attend by staff, not the other way around.

First,  the DM is both chair of the budget process and council’s liaison with the Works Department. Who on council would be more appropriate to have at that meeting?

The DM would know and understand the fiscal challenges and opportunities better than any other member because of his history guiding the budget process every year. Plus as Works liaison, he knows what other projects are underway and being contemplated – and how they have to be coordinated with staff in planning and parks, recreation and culture, what services and resources are necessary and available.

The DM alone can’t direct staff – it takes a majority (usually at least at least five members) of council to do that. The proposal as staff determined it had to come to council for approval and confirmation. The DM could hear the arguments pro and con, and raise questions and concerns so that at least the presenters might be able to prepare for possible questions or objections from the table. Staff can make sure these salient points get included in any presentation.

In that way, council might avoid the sort of hour-long round-robin discussion we had about the proposed dog park (much of which seemed to revolve around questions about the choice of base material in the park). That meandering debate ended up going nowhere because staff were unprepared to answer the questions raised at the table.

Having someone to suggest possible objections or questions can streamline the process and make it more efficient. We have no need to return to the often indecisive and divisive five- and six-hour meetings of last term.

Second, as the council member who asked staff to look into the structures, the DM would be the one to present any motion to the table. Isn’t it appropriate that he learn all the sides, all the issues, understand the costs and the complexities, before presenting it to the table? You can’t defend what you don’t understand (or at least you shouldn’t try to). See the notes from the Municipal Act, below.

Third, politicians are elected to lead. Not to rubber stamp staff’s ideas or proposals. We should be meeting with staff, with the private sector, with residents, looking for ideas, opportunities and challenges trying to uncover solutions, partnerships and innovations. We have a larger role outside the table than is seen in our Monday night meetings. Our work at the table is only the tip of the iceberg of work we do. Or should do.

We are not elected to sit at home, in some cocoon, avoiding any contact with the outside world. We need to be active and engaged, if we are to champion or challenge issues. A good politician is one who is actively engaged, not just passive.  We are part of the process, not separate from it.  We are expected to use our own judgment in these situations.

To be able to do our job properly and effectively, we need to get all the input we can garner, to hear people’s ideas and concerns, discuss their projects, discuss the implications with staff. As long as there is no overriding legal issue – such as a potential breach of confidentiality or a liability concern – not to meet with our constituents and with staff is a failure to perform our roles.

Politicians have to get involved, get their feet wet. We can’t sit on the sidelines. But we are not dictators who rule by autocratic decree. We need input from the people who have to implement our decisions in order to accomplish our goals – and the way to get that input is to meet with them.

So, yes, it was appropriate. It’s almost always appropriate that council meet with staff and the public to discuss upcoming issues, motions, initiatives and projects because we were elected to represent the populace and we can’t do it without being engaged.

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Why Quebec’s Proposed Headgear Law is Wrong

The Province of Quebec is proposing to ban the wearing of any and all religious headgear (including hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes, as well as other religious symbols) from public facilities and public service – affecting teachers, hospital workers, daycare workers, nurses, civil servants and (we assume) politicians.

The law would also cover “ostentatious” crucifixes, which has led to darkly humorous speculation about police stopping people to measure the size of their crucifix.

What about a tattoo of a giant “Om” on someone’s back? Would the owner have to remove it? Cover it up?

What about priests’ collars or nuns’ habits, worn in every Catholic school in the province. They’re public sector, aren’t they?

Atheist AAnd what about displays of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Evolvefish? Or the red atheist “A”? Atheist symbols aren’t religious, so would they be exempt under this new law? *

It would be a bad law, as bad if not worse than the province’s repressive language laws. And it will spark innumerable challenges based on the Charter of Rights’ declaration of religious freedom.**

Not long ago, Quebec’s soccer federation tried to ban the wearing of Sikh turbans on the field. Why? Do turbans proffer a hithertofore unknown benefit to the wearers; performance-enhancing headgear like drugs? Or the opposite? The federation mumbled incoherently about safety, although there has been no turban-related injury ever recorded.

Could it be that turbans have no effect whatsoever on the player or his game and it was just racially-motivated? The general consensus was the latter, and the federation had to backtrack and rescind the ban after it became an international issue. The backlash was embarrassing and awkward, but the PQ government stood by the soccer federation.

While the PQ government – Canada’s answer to the Tea Party, it seems – remains tight-lipped about the upcoming ban on religious displays, the speculation is that Quebec wants to enforce a secular state by legislation. It has announced plans to release a Quebec secular “values” document this fall.

Clearly they haven’t learned from history: Lenin and his successors tried to do that and failed. The more the state interferes with religion, the more it thrives. I suspect that this attempt by the PQ will galvanize the province’s fading Catholicism.  Nothing like a good punch-up to bring out the believers. Britain has its soccer hooligans; Quebec may have its Catholic hooligans if this passes.***

Values cannot be legislated. Instilled, taught, expressed and promoted, but – like taste and talent – not legislated. Lead by example, Marois, not by the iron fist.

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Creating an Age-Friendly Community

AgingThe most interesting and inspiring seminar I attended during the recent AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) convention was “Synergies for Senior Friendly Communities.” It was about creating “age-friendly communities,” not simply for seniors, but heavily tilted in their direction.*

Speakers included Mario Sergio, Minister responsible for seniors (Ontario Seniors’ Secretariat); Mayor Debbie Amaroso, of Sault Ste. Marie, Mayor Jim Watson, of Ottawa; and Dr. John Lewis, associate professor of planning for the University of Waterloo. I also benefitted by sitting beside Mayor Rick Hamilton, of Elliot Lake, who gave me commentary from his town’s perspective on many of the issues raised, as well as speaking to me afterwards about specific issues I questioned.

The session provided a lot of ideas and processes that I believe we can bring to Collingwood. We do many things right, here, and we have a generally senior-friendly community, but the seminar told me we can – and should – do more. And it talked about the need to formalize our approach, strategize and create a long-range plan. We can’t do this ad hoc.

Provided for all participants were two publications: “Finding the Right Fit: Age-Friendly Community Planning,” a 112-page manual produced by the Province’s Seniors’ Secretariat, and the City of Ottawa’s 40-page “Older Adult Plan, 2012-2014.” Both are invaluable guides for the process. The Secretariat also publishes “A Guide to Programs and Services for Seniors in Ontario.” All of these are available in PDF format, online.

AFC is a designation, not simply a philosophy or policy behind planning and recreational activity programming. You have to apply for the designation, perform several steps, and obtain your certificate from the World Health Organization (WHO). As the WHO site notes,

The WHO Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities (GNAFCC) was established to foster the exchange of experience and mutual learning between cities and communities worldwide. Any city or community that is committed to creating inclusive and accessible urban environments to benefit their ageing populations is welcome to join.

Cities and communities in the Network are of different sizes and are located in different parts of the world. Their efforts to become more age-friendly take place within very diverse cultural and socio-economic contexts. What all members of the Network do have in common is the desire and commitment to create physical and social urban environments that promote healthy and active ageing and a good quality of life for their older residents.

There’s nothing onerous in the process, but it has to be followed closely to avoid being rejected. The WHO recommends a 1-2 year planning process of four steps:

  1. Establishment of mechanisms to involve older people throughout the Age-friendly City cycle.
  2. A baseline assessment of the age-friendliness of the city.
  3. Development of a 3-year city wide plan of action based on assessment findings.
  4. Identification of indicators to monitor progress.

This should be followed by an implementation program in years 3 to 5. WHO notes:

On completion of stage 1, and no later than two years after joining the Network, cities will submit their action plan to WHO for review and endorsement. Upon endorsement by WHO, cities will then have a three-year period of implementation.

Following this, there’s an evaluation process at the end of year 5.

At the end of the first period of implementation, cities will be required to submit a progress report to WHO outlining progress against indicators developed in stage 1.

Nothing we can’t do here. In fact, I think we could become a shining example for AFCs in Southern Ontario.

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Casinos redux

Seniors and slotsFirst let’s clarify the terms. A “casino” was never really in the discussion, although just about everyone used that term. What the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) offered was a “gaming facility” as they euphemistically called it. A gambling joint, others said.

It was to be a warehouse-like, windowless building with up to 300 slot machines. No keno, no gaming tables for poker or blackjack, no roulette. Up to (and maybe less than) 300 slot machines. No guarantees on the number, just up to 300.

The OLG decides how many: not the town, not the operator. The town can’t even comment on who the operator will be. That decision is in the OLG’s hands.*

Locals also referred to it s a “slot barn,” underscoring its aesthetic deficits. Casino, however, stuck as the word for general palaver.

The OLG made an enthusiastic pitch to every municipality in its artificially-created and somewhat illogically-determined  “zone seven.” Do you want to be a host, they asked, assuming a civic stampede to their door. They held out the promise of money. Who doesn’t want money? It helps grease the wheels of municipal progress. Continue reading

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Troilus and Cressida

Telegraph UKI’ve always found Troilus and Cressida a difficult play. The characters all seem jaded, cynical, opportunistic, stuffily sanctimonious, lecherous or simply underhanded. Some are merely unpleasant, others are despicable, reprehensible. All seem self-serving, more concerned with their own gains and goals than that of the greater war around them.

It’s difficult to understand why it was listed as a “comedy” (although oddly placed in the folio, between the histories and tragedies).

Even Harold Bloom calls it “difficult” and “elitist” (although he later qualifies it as Shakespeare’s “most sophisticated” and “intellectualized” play). And Joyce Carol Oates called it, “…that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays.”

UK reviewer, Charles Spencer, wrote of a 2008 production,

This is surely the bleakest, nastiest and most nihilistic of all Shakespeare’s plays… The whole drama is obsessed with disease and bad faith. The cynicism, and sense of exhausted contempt, undoubtedly makes the play seem extremely modern. It also makes it hard to sit through, and a relief to escape from.

There is no real honour among warriors as we see in Shakespeare’s history plays (Hector’s single moment of gallantry, allowing the exhausted Achilles to live, is marred by his immediate desire to kill a different, unknown Greek solider, solely for his shining armour).

There’s no redemption, either, just self-serving action, personal agendas, vengeance, adolescent lust, scheming, cynicism and politics. There seems no remorse, no guilt, no shame like you might find in Hamlet or Macbeth.* Hector, when he tells Troilus,

There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory. (2.2.180-183)

suggests that laws, not conscience, not guilt, are all that controls humanity. This is the opposite of the message in Shakespeare’s other plays, which almost always explore the effect of shame and conscience on the protagonists and their actions. Continue reading

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It’s All About the Money

Tax cartoonAlmost every council decision comes with the subtext question, “Can we afford it?” Everything not procedural or administrative is usually about the cost. Who pays, whose budget does it come from, is the money in reserves, can we get funding, can we use development charges, will it raise taxes, are there other options, are there partnerships – all these questions run through most discussions.

Will it raise taxes? That’s crucial. No one wants to pay more.

The economic path is simple: property owners pay taxes, municipalities spend them. Almost all of the money a municipality gets comes from the taxpayers; a small amount comes from service users (people use facilities, rent venues, pay parking fees, dog licences, etc.) and some comes from grants from higher-tier governments.

It’s council’s responsibility to ensure that the money is spent wisely.

On June 10, council made a decision on how to spend the dividend from the sale of 50% of our electrical utility – Collus. That June 10 agenda was accompanied by a report by the treasurer that had been presented previously, on Feb. 25. It documented the responses from the public on the uses of these funds, and included comment on some of them.

The total amount of money available from that sale was approximately $14.45 million. The  town has on hand $12.28 million in cash and $1.71 in a promissory note ($13.99M total).

Council voted 8-1 to use the funds to pay for the new recreational facilities (approx. $9.8 M) and put the rest into a reserve to upgrade Hume Street (the latter vote was unanimous).

Any other decision would have meant raising taxes in 2014 to cover the costs of the rec facilities. It really was all about the taxes.

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The open government report

Accountability reportOn Monday’s agenda, council received a 21-page report from the clerk on the nature and mechanics of open government in Collingwood. This comprehensive report, titled the “Accountability and Transparency Policy,” because it also introduced a revised, formal policy, listed all of the bylaws, policies and legislation by which council and staff operate.

This is such an important and useful report that I felt it worthwhile to extract it from the April 13 agenda and make it available separately here. If you have not read it, or have any questions about how a council works and the rules that guide us, it’s worth reading. It opens by defining two terms:

Accountability: The principle that the municipality is obligated to demonstrate and take responsibility for its actions, decisions and policies and that it is answerable to the public at large.
Transparency: The principle that the municipality will conduct its business in an accessible, clear and visible manner and that its activities are open to examination by its stakeholders.

The report than goes on to further define how the municipality achieves these goals and why they are important:

Accountability, transparency and openness are standards of good government that enhance public trust. They are achieved through the Town of Collingwood adopting measures ensuring, to the best of its ability, that all activities and services are undertaken utilizing a process that is open and accessible to its stakeholders. In addition, wherever possible, the Town of Collingwood will engage its stakeholders throughout its decision making process which will be open, visible and transparent to the public.

The report then provides a comprehensive list of how we currently comply with the requirements, as well as what we do to enhance and better them:

The Town of Collingwood currently complies with a host of legislation, policies and procedures that maintain an open and transparent decision-making process. For the purposes of the Policy, the Town’s various policies, procedures and practices have been divided into the following categories:
1. Legislated Requirements
2. Financial Accountability, Oversight and Reporting
3. Performance Measurement and Reporting
4. Open Government
5. Internal Accountability and Ethical Standards

I won’t repeat all of the material that follows, but will include the section about “open government” which is really about local governance and the policies and procedures we already have in place to achieve this openness:

Open Government
The following are policies, procedures and practices that ensure the Town is transparent  in its operations and that residents are not only aware of how decisions are made and carried out, but that they are able to participate as well:

  • Council Procedure By-law
  • Public Posting and Distribution of Council Agenda Meeting Documentation
  • Public Notice By-law
  • Procurement By-law
  • Land Sale/Disposal By-law
  • Closed Meeting Investigator Policy and Retainer
  • Facility Naming Policies
  • Committee/Board Recruitment Policies
  • Land Acquisition Guidelines
  • Accessible Barrier Complaint Policy
  • Records Retention By-law
  • Social Media Policy

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