Muddle-headed editorial palaver

There’s a muddle-headed editorial in this weekend’s Collingwood Connection titled “Citizens, not rich developers should drive political ship” (sic*) that shows (again) how little the chain’s editorial writers understand municipal politics and the laws that govern it. It opens:

Money talks and, in the case of municipal elections, one could argue that all of those cheques, banknotes and e-transfers going toward funding the war chests of various candidates have the potential to speak very loudly.

The writer clearly has never read the Ontario Municipal Elections Act which says in Section 71:

A contributor shall not make contributions exceeding a total of $750 to any one candidate in an election.

No one, whether they are the oh-so-scary “rich developer,” corporation, union or simply your retired neighbour, can contribute more than $750. That’s LESS than the cost of an iPhone. It’s less than the cost of winter tires. It’s much less than the cost of a good ukulele. And it’s a lot less than even the slimiest candidate would sell his or her soul for.

And in my experience through five campaigns, most of the donations are under that limit, be they from private citizens or developers.

Put it another way: to send a campaign flyer through unaddressed ad mail to every household in Collingwood costs about $3,500. Add in the cost to print 10,000+ colour flyers and you easily double that. Then add in taxes. A single $750 contribution covers about one tenth the cost of that single effort.

Sure money talks, but $750 just mumbles a bit under its breath.

Not that candidates don’t appreciate the support, but the law already doesn’t allow anyone to contribute a significant amount to a municipal campaign. Developers have no advantage over anyone else.

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Peter, Parkinson and Adams

Parkinson's Law coverC. Northcote Parkinson, Lawrence J. Peter, and Scott Adams are for me the ‘holy trinity’ of philosophers of modern bureaucracy, within both the public service and the corporate structure. As philosophers, they are all keen observers and witty commentators on the human condition, with emphasis on the nature of organizations, leadership and management.

Not always in the lofty or strategically-focused terms of, say, Sun Tzu or Machiavelli; all three are more prosaic and more cynical. And funnier – an adjective seldom used with either classical writer.

These three pundits are, of course, well-known today: every CEO, corporate leader and ambitious manager worth their salt knows and has read their work. All are required reading in many business courses and workshops. Even dedicated, effective elected government officials and elected representatives have read them (Stop that guffawing, you local residents…)

Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in a magazine article in 1955, is that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Which might explain why putting together a shared services agreement between Collus Powerstream and the town has taken more than a year to do what most people could do in an afternoon over a beer.

Dilbert and Parkinson's Law

Parkinson also created the idea of the “coefficient of inefficiency,” a parameter to describe how committees become increasingly less efficient as their size grows until they become completely and utterly inefficient.

Parkinson’s theory was based on quantity: the greater the size of the organization the lower its efficiency, pointing to trends based on English history. I, however, tend to measure quality over quantity in such situations. Five bobbleheads are, for example, more inefficient in a committee than, say, 50 independent-thinking geniuses. While the latter might accomplish something useful given enough time, the former merely bloviate.

Another contribution was Parkinson’s Law of Triviality which states that “members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” Or as Parkinson phrased it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” His example was a committee debating the development of an expensive, complex nuclear plant: it spent more time debating the construction of its bicycle shed than any major component.

Anyone who has followed council budget discussions recognizes this law in practice: significantly more time is spent on small amounts than on the big ticket items. Except of course this term, when staff told council what to think during the budget discussions, and refused to answer questions. The Bobbleheads accepted this process, thus quickening the timeline by skirting the messy business of democracy, and frank, open discussion.

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Demagogues and democracy

“I just wish, at some point in time, councillors would show a little more integrity or credibility on the floor of council… It’s like every time we try to do something, there’s criticism, no matter what we do. I’d like to see councillors do the right thing. And in my opinion, these people are not doing the right thing. They’re hypocrites. They’re not telling the truth.”

Mayors Gone BadNo, that’s not Mayor Cooper speaking about our current council that continues to blindly clear cut its way through the town’s institutions and services, masticate our already battered reputation into spittle-and-chips, and bludgeon staff morale into pulpy submission.

It’s from Mayor Sam Katz of Winnipeg. He is quoted on page 125 in Mayors Gone Bad, a new book by Philip Slayton.

Mayors Gone Bad is an entertaining, provocative look at a handful of mayors across Canada who have ridden into office on a wave of populism and charisma, but who have generally failed miserably to live up to their promise. Some have fallen prey to the temptations that make headlines. Thus their terms in office have often created more of a mess than ever before.

Collingwood might have a future contribution if Slayton ever writes a sequel titled, “Deputy Mayors Gone Bad.”

Katz shares the spotlight with Rob Ford of Toronto, Peter Kelly of Halifax, Larry O’Brien of Ottawa, Gerald Tremblay of Montreal, Susan Fennell of Brampton, Gilles Vaillancourt of Laval, Joe Fontana of London and a few others. All of whom have been star performers in the media circus, and many of whose tales are seriously cringeworthy.

Some are bad in the sense of corruption, bribery, conflict, scandal and criminal charges, or too-cozy relations with developers, but most are bad through ineptness, ignorance, arrogance, entitlement and inexperience. Banal rather than venal. Demagogues whose weaknesses became all too evident when they tried to control the machinery of government.

Some, like Katz, were well-meaning, idealistic and optimistic when they got elected, only to discover the ugly truth of Canadian municipal politics: mayors are not the power, not the movers and shakers, not the sole source of authority they imagined. They can lead, but not rule, as Slayton writes.

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Master Han Fei’s Wisdom

Han FeiLong before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his now-famous work of political philosophy, The Prince, there was another man writing in a similar vein in China. And, like many other sages, his words have important lessons that can prove useful, even today, for our own municipal council.

Han Fei Tzu (aka Han Feizi) was a prince in the Han Kingdom in the third century BCE. He was a member of and spokesperson for the “legalistic” school that challenged many of the Confucian notions of government. In his short life he wrote 55 books – really short essays we would call chapters today.

This week, I pulled out my tattered copy of Burton Watson’s translation (Columbia University Press, 1964) for another read. I hadn’t read Master Han Fei for quite a while, and, as I often am when reading the classics, I was somewhat fascinated at the relevance today of these ancient words. Even though he was writing in a vastly different political climate, a different culture and a different technological era, like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, his comments on politics and leadership still resonate in today’s world.

One of the books was called The Ten Faults, and here I reproduce the list of faults identified by Han Fei (as per Watson’s translation):

  • To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty;
  • To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one;
  • To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall;
  • To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress;
  • To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise;
  • To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction;
  • To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself;
  • To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others;
  • To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment;
  • To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.

Change a few words – ministers to councillors, music to sycophants, feudal lords to staff… and it’s almost scary how well these ideas and admonitions fit into today’s local political arena. So here is my analysis of how Han Fei’s words relate to Collingwood.

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The Crow and the Lion

Fat CrowOnce upon a time, a crafty, old crow was sitting in his nest while his dole of pet doves brought him his breakfast. He happened to look down to the forest floor and saw a convocation of animals had been called. The animals gathered in front of their leader, a wise old lion.

I don’t like lions, said the crow to himself. They’re too full of themselves. The animals like them too much. The lion shouldn’t be king of the beasts. I should be.

So he called his doves to his side. “I am far more experienced, wiser, and smarter and better looking than any lion,” the crow told the doves. “You must confront the lion. You must tell the lion to step down so I can be king of beasts.”

“But how can we do that?” asked the leader of the doves. “The lion is big and strong and has many teeth that could bite us. The lion could eat us.”

“The lion won’t dare eat you in front of all the other animals,” said the crow. “The lion respects the rules.”

So the leader of the doves flew down to the forest floor and stood before the lion. “Old lion,” the dove said. “You must relinquish your crown. The crow wishes to be king of beasts.”

And the lion laughed. “Does he? Well, tell your master I was voted into this office by all the other animals in the forest. If he wishes to be king, he has to run in an election against me. Now fly away little one.”

And the dove flew back while the other animals chuckled at his presumption.

“Wah, wah, wah,” the dove cried to the crow. “The lion laughed at me. He hurt my feelings. He made me look silly in front of the other animals. Wah, wah, wah.”

“Now, now,” said the crow, patting the dove on his head. “You’re a big, strong dove and you don’t need to take such disrespect from the mean old lion. Nasty, nasty lion. Hurting my little dovie-wovie’s feelings.”

“What can we do?” asked the dove, wiping his tears with a wing.

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Time for Closure

OPPThirty-six months ago a small group of disgruntled, angry residents, some with burning ambition to take a seat on council themselves, allegedly complained to the OPP about decisions made by some members of the previous council. Decisions they didn’t like.

They chose to act in secret, through anonymity and stealth, rather than through open, democratic and public processes.

Using biased media, gossipers with their own agendas, sycophant bloggers, protests, ambitious candidates mouthing righteous platitudes, and virulent social media campaigning, they alleged corruption by local public officials.

The OPP must have been mortified at having to investigate a clearly politically-motivated, baseless complaint.

But the law is the law, and the OPP is required to investigate any complaint. The police talked to people. They examined bank accounts, businesses. They interviewed town staff and collected records. In 36 months, nothing has been uncovered to incriminate anyone. Nothing.

In the last 36 months, the police never once confirmed publicly that corruption was the subject of any investigation here. In fact, the police have never confirmed who or what was under investigation, although they did admit they were investigating something. Any other claims about individuals or items under investigation are simply lies.

That something might have been the complainants themselves: under investigation for malicious intentions to do criminal mischief. For costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars to pursue their personal agendas. Taxpayers paid dearly for their schadenfreude.

By now you, too, understand this was just dirty politics. By now you know there was never anything behind the allegations aside from maliciousness, spite and envy. They tarnished the good reputation of this town without the smallest twinge of guilt.

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Type Crimes and Taxes

tax guideType crime is the term author Ellen Lupton uses in her book, Thinking With Type, to describe egregiously bad typography. That description came to mind as I perused the latest fluff mailer from our MP; the so-called “Tax Guide.” So-called because it isn’t a guide: it’s the usual, dreary Conservative whack-a-mole propaganda about how great they were when in power and how evil the Liberals are now.

In fact, if you want actual information, the publication has a final page where you have to send in to get it (or call the Canada Revenue Agency). And unless you’re an accountant, you’ll need more info because this “guide” is pretty vague at its best and has no specific information about filling in your tax form.

Dreary is right: in terms of design, layout and typography, it’s simply awful. I grade it somewhere between the abysmal colour advertising produced by the Town of Collingwood, and the even worse greyscale newsletter. It also has some grammatical errors that a real editor would have caught. *

And why is her information awkwardly centred at the bottom of the front page instead of flush right?

tax guide_03

Look at the sample above (pages 4-5). The first thing that strikes the reader is the vertical density of the type. The leading (the space between the lines) is far too tight, leading to a drabness of copy (in some paragraphs, descenders of one line touch the ascenders of the next!).

The thinness of the body typeface, too, adds to the overall greyness.

You should notice that the leading in the stacked headlines is inconsistent, too.  And why stacked? There’s plenty of room to spread them across the page. That stacking creates odd, disconnected white spaces that leave the reader’s eye bewildered where to go next. Across to the icons on the right? Down to the words below?

The vertical and horizontal lines around two sides of each section increase the sense of funereal confinement and make each section look like an obituary. And that little diamond on the left end of the horizontal fencing keeps drawing the eye to it.

The background attack-ad graphic at the upper right (“clawed-back for 2016”) impairs clarity and readability. If you look closely, you’ll see that the author used double spaces after end punctuation in sentences, not the proper single space. The paragraph indent is too narrow for the line length, too.

Clawed back doesn’t need a hyphen in either instance. But the benefits were not “clawed back” – they were reduced to former levels. The proper definition of a claw back is, “…money or benefits that are distributed and then taken back as a result of special circumstances.”

And don’t get me started on the run-on sentences, the bureaucratese language and the byzantine descriptions of how our tax system works replete in this work.

By the way, American travellers have an $800 duty-free exemption when returning, compared to Canada’s measly $200. Maybe it’s not something to crow so loudly about.

The headline font for sections appears to be Arial, the body Times New Roman (both over-used and boooooooring….) and the page heads are Agenda bold or perhaps Humanist 521. Why some words are in inverse type is beyond me, nor can I fathom the reason for the inappropriately wide space between some of the inverted words and the other words in the headline.

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The ‘Sharing Economy’ is a Hoax

Time MagazineStop calling it the sharing economy. It’s an oxymoron, like ‘creation science’ or ‘sustainable capitalism.’ It’s not collaborative: it’s the new indentured servant economy. If you believe these corporations are all about sharing and collaboration, then you’re mightily gullible. You’ve been had.

These are big, multi-billion dollar corporations whose executives are millionaires. They are more akin to drug cartels than to cooperative economics. The economic similarities are evident: both use others – the users or subscribers – to break the law for them, to generate their wealth for them, to do their dirty work, then leave those users to face legal, moral and social ramifications – and costs – on their own.

What, you think the CEOs of Uber rent their own BMW’s or Audi’s seats out to strangers and drive them around when they’re not in the office? That the CEOs of Airbnb rent their spare rooms – and they have a lot in their mansions – to strangers for weekend stays? No: you do it for them so they don’t have to take the risks. They’re laughing at you all the way to the bank.

And to icing the cake: these firms get their service providers to put their own property and even their lives at risk – and the lives and safety of their customers – without having to compensate them for it! It’s a capitalist wet dream! A gold mine of cash flowing one way into the corporate coffers. Open another bottle of that bubbly, James, we’re expanding.

As Dean Baker wrote in the Guardian in 2014:

…this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law… If these services are still viable when operating on a level playing field they will be providing real value to the economy. As it stands, they are hugely rewarding a small number of people for finding a creative way to cheat the system.

You’re not getting to “share” your home or your vehicle: you’re working for a company to help buy someone a new yacht. Someone who doesn’t give a shit about your welfare, safety or income. You’re contributing to the 1%. Shame on you.

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The Political Agnostic

party politicsWatching the American political debates, especially the increasingly vituperative and acerbic Republican debates, reminds me again why I am a political agnostic when it comes to party politics. I simply cannot believe that any single political entity, any party or person, has all the answers or can dig us out of whatever hole we’re currently in.

And America, with its rigid, two-party system, has seen its electoral options, choices and opportunities reduced to caricature status. On one side, a group of frighteningly racist, homophobic, xenophobic, gun-fanatic Christianists. On the other, a woman with no clear policies but a sense of entitlement.

And then there’s Bernie Saunders, who is the closest thing to an independent I’ve seen in years. He’s the best and brightest hope American politics has seen since JFK. And unlikely to be chosen as the Democratic candidate by a political system in which both parties are built on money, graft, corruption, corporate lobbying, and catering to the lowest common denominator.

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Where Have the Ratepayers’ Groups Gone?

Angry mobWhy don’t Collingwood’s ratepayer groups and associations last? In the 25-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen several come and go. Every one has dissolved, evaporated or imploded within a year or two. Seldom do they last longer than a single term of council.

Is this a normal part of the life cycle of such organizations, or is Collingwood at the unfortunate end of the Bell curve with these brief groups?

Perhaps the answer for their short lifespans is twofold: first, they do not represent the general public, but rather a small and usually elitist group; and second, because they are one-trick ponies that have no replay value once that issue has been addressed or gone away.

Plus, most of these groups seem angry. Nor surprising: they are led by angry, bitter people. That’s not a good basis for creating long-term, cooperative, thoughtful and engaging dialogue. But it goes well with whining, complaining, spreading rumours, frothing about alleged wrongs, and protesters with signs wanting to “inpeach” council (really: that’s how he spelled it!).

Some are localized NIMBY organizations whose sole purpose seems to be keeping intact a status quo situation in their neighbourhood. They are suspicious of, and opposed to, anything that even smells of change. Want to put a new sidewalk in a public park they believe is their private property? These groups will stand shoulder to shoulder to oppose it, even when the rest of the community clamours for it, staff recommend it, and safety requires it.

The first ratepayers’ group I recall was CARR: Collingwood & Area Residents & Ratepayers, if I recall the acronym properly. It raised several thoughtful issues such as the town’s financial sustainability and good governance, but, again as I recall, the main focus was on the proposed CSL waterfront development. Once that development stalled (later taken up by Fram), CARR seems to have withered.

I don’t actually remember any official notice of it being dissolved, but it was gone by the time the next group emerged: VOTE.

VOTE allegedly stood for “Voice of the Electorate” but it really represented an elitist group whose main focus was on getting their own members elected to council, while criticizing a former mayor and his supporters. In which effort it succeeded modestly well – getting a mayor and several of his minions on council.

Locals, however, soon called it “Voice of the Elite.” Which was appropriate.

However, it was so acerbic and cranky in its very vocal efforts to get its own way, that it became widely known as Voters Opposed to Everything: a verbal target for wits and the media. And much more appropriate.

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Oh, Ann, You Do Make Me Laugh

Ann Coulter, harridanAnn Coulter, that spewing harridan of hatred, bigotry, malevolence and xenophobia makes most thoughtful people cringe. Hell, she makes even rabid, right-wing frothers cringe. She makes the Westboro Baptist morons cringe. She makes the Duck Dynasty wingnuts cringe. She out-froths them all.

Coulter represents the worst of human behaviour and thought in so many areas, blackening the eyes of even the most fervent right wing, which she alleges to defend. But you have to admit this thick-as-a-brick viper is sometimes good for a laugh.

Coulter recently endorsed Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate. Which isn’t surprising: they are siblings in vehement hate speech. But I bet it made all the other candidates relieved: her endorsement would be the kiss of death to any reasonable or moderate candidate (yes, that description is a stretch for the lot of them: they are only moderate in comparison to the frontrunners… that doesn’t reduce their collective reprehensibleness…).

It would be a better political strategy to declare themselves atheist, gay and stricken with Ebola than to accept Coulter’s endorsement. That, at least, might appeal to some voters.

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Proportional Representation in Canada

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laUPeXZlPEg]

Another Canadian election has gone by where the majority government is formed by a party winning only 40% of the popular vote. This has political watchers and pundits increasingly vocal about changing the electoral system. But most of them agree it needs changing.

So far, however, the Liberals are mum on how their campaign promise to reform our electoral system will be implemented. And while I have faith our new Prime Minister will be true to his word, since it will come from a committee effort, one can only wonder what sort of camel that horse will be.*

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in election reform and the institution of a better, more equitable and more democratic form of representation. With the passage of the voter control legislation by the Harper Conservatives – a law that represses voter participation in our democracy, rather than encouraging it – I became concerned that unless we change the system, we are doomed to continuing abuses in our less-than-representational governments.

However, I have yet to see proposed a system that, in my mind, works efficiently. Proportional voting has three distinct methods, and a couple more sub-methods, none of which strike me as entirely satisfactory. But all seem more fair than our current method in giving Canadians real representation. Fair Vote Canada notes the goal of proportional representation is…

…to balance the benefits of introducing some element of proportionality with the capacity to maintain accountable government, most notably as a direct link between elected politicians and their constituents.

Back in 2007, there was a referendum in Ontario for a mixed-member proportional system. It failed (36.9%) to garner the support, probably because the proposed system was simply too damned complicated. Selling a new voting method to the public is never going to be easy easy, but this one sank itself by being so hard to articulate. Plus the process of explaining (and selling) it was poorly organized. As Wikipedia notes:

A June Environics poll showed that 70% of those polled were not familiar with the proposal, including over 50% who knew nothing at all about the upcoming referendum… Citizens were expected to get the information they needed from various websites or from the press. Remarkably, although the Citizens’ Assembly had produced a shorter version of their report and a short leaflet further summarizing it, Elections Ontario distributed neither, to the surprise and disappointment of the Citizens’ Assembly.

As it notes on the Fair Vote Canada site, there’s more than a change to to way we count votes in a proportional method:

PR Systems MUST have multi-member districts: One key feature of PR voting systems is that they use electoral districts that elect two or more MPs. PR-list and STV do this by combining current single member ridings into larger multi-member ridings. If five ridings are combined into one, then all voters in that new riding will help elect 5 MPs for that riding.

Recreating election districts for the whole nation is not an inexpensive proposition. Plus I expect it to be fraught with controversy as such changes in the past have been. However, I trust the pain will be worth the gain in strengthening our democracy.
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