Why not to run for council

Silly season starts this fallA recent article shared with me on Facebook, titled “Five Terrible Reasons to Run for Municipal Officelists many – but far from all – of the reasons people should not run for office. It’s a good read and, since the silly season will be on us soon enough (some of The Block are already in campaign mode), you should pay attention if you plan to run for office next year. Knowing why not to run is as important as knowing why you should.

The author of this piece is Danielle Klooster, self-described as, “… a leading Alberta provider of professional community development, economic development and strategic business planning consultation and support…”

Klooster’s five terrible reasons are:

  1. “People are ready for change!”
  2. “I’m going to clean house!”
  3. “I’m going to fix the [insert pet peeve such as snow removal/pot holes/bike lanes] situation!”
  4. “We have to get rid of the current corrupt/secretive/self-serving/incompetent bunch!”
  5. “I’m going to make lowering taxes my number one priority!”

She then fleshes out each element with her explanations why you should not run on these. Overall, it’s a pretty good exploration of the inappropriate motivations behind some people’s decisions to campaign for municipal office. Locally, of course, there have been other reasons, not least of all The Block’s decision to collectively use the municipality and your tax dollars to enforce and fund personal agendas and private vendettas.

The Block was especially big on number four – they built a whole campaign on innuendo, rumour and lies about the former council and promised to “drain the swamp…” but instead, they became the alligators. This council quickly proved itself more corrupt, secretive, self-serving and incompetent than any we’ve seen in this town previously.

They still harbour conspiracy theories about the former council and some now-departed staff and blame them for everything (Yes, I know: The Block blame their own faults and mistakes on someone or something else, all the time because taking responsibility is an adult act).

Time has shown the public that the former council was none of these things, and in fact The Block have shown themselves time and time again to be the most closed, unethical, and corrupt councillors in our town’s history. In the past three years, The Block’s single positive accomplishment has been a bylaw that makes it illegal to throw birdseed on your porch or driveway. Compare that to the lengthy list of positive, pro-community actions and accomplishments last term.
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The symphony of government

A good government in operation is like a symphony: disparate parts, dozens of different instruments and performers, each in their own space and place, all working together under the benign management of a conductor. When working in harmony, they are a delight to hear and see. There’s no “me” in a symphony: it’s the result of a remarkably efficient collaboration and trust of everyone involved.

To be good, to sound good, they all have to watch the baton, to play and move in syncopation and in harmony. They all need to be tuned to the same pitch (A440). Singers need to listen to the cadence, the pitch, and sing in tune and on time. There’s a lot going on in every bar, so they all pay attention. They all need an implicit trust in one another that – without each one having to oversee his or her neighbour – they all work together to achieve a common goal. It is a remarkable experience.

But a symphony is not simply an auditory experience: it’s something to be seen, to be felt, to be experienced. That is quadrupled if it is an opera, or choral piece. In the video above, the metaphor shines: here is Verdi’s familiar Anvil Chorus from his opera, Il trovatore, performed by the The Royal Opera Company. It’s a stunning production that looks as lovely as it sounds. Who can help but be moved by it?

That’s what good, effective and efficient government should be like: hundreds of pieces moving together towards a common goal under a single conductor. A symphony, metaphorically speaking.

Life coach Michael Hyatt has a blog post on why life is like an orchestra, but it applies to government as well. He says there are five components to an orchestra:

  1. Diversity;
  2. Space;
  3. Pace;
  4. Common purpose;
  5. A plan.

Ultimately an orchestra is judged by its results: the musical performance, and for that performance to achieve its goal (that is: audience appreciation), all those parts have to be in synch. Most of the audience pay little attention to the individual performers, to the space or diversity or the parts listed above: it’s the music that they attend to. It’s the final result that matters.

This is equally true of government: most people pay little attention to the processes, the procedures, the codes of conduct, the staff reports, the flatulent ruminations of sole-sourced lawyers or the dreary pontifications of CAOs. They see only the result: whether the community is working well. Is it safe? Clean? Are there places to work and play? Schools? Are taxes affordable? Are sidewalks and roads in good condition? Can I drink the water from my tap? Is there housing? Are there jobs?

Imagine for a moment the conductor in the performance above waving his or her hands randomly. Imagine different parts of the orchestra trying to play different songs. Imagine the performers striking the anvils at will, each on his or her own time. Imagine the instruments playing at different time signatures. Or different sheet music entirely. It wouldn’t be a symphony: it would be a cacophony.

Such is the state of Collingwood’s municipal politics today. While council should be the collective conductor acting through the mayor, we instead have multiple conductors, each trying to force the orchestra (staff) to play their own tune. While Mayor Cooper tries to wave the town baton in time with the municipal music, the deputy mayor has gone rogue, madly waving his own baton to a tune only he can hear, while behind him the interim CAO props up Brian’s arms to control the motions according to his own corner-office theme song. And there are sole-sourced lawyers and consultants brought in to wave their batons at the same time. It’s chaos.

Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 60.

This is also translated as an imperative: “Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish.” (Lin Yutang translation). In other words: delicately. With subtlety and attention. Carefully. Not the hamfisted stumbling and fumbling of The Block. Not with the flailing clumsiness of the deputy mayor and interim CAO duo.
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Brian the comedian

ClownFollowing the success of Collingwood’s Comedy Duo, whose act has taken them on tour across the nation on the taxpayers’ dollar, our Deputy Mayor has entered the ring as our jester-du-jour. And since the Duo’s main act was sidelined recently by not being allowed to keep a snout into the FCM trough, it looks like Brian’s act may be the foremost comedy skit in the council burlesque. Who would have thought a lawyer could also be a clown?

At a recent Council meeting (June 12, 2017) he had the audience in stitches with his new routines. And not just his always-risible English gaffes when he starts his speeches with “moved by me…”! You can watch it on Rogers TV starting at 1:22:23 when he presents a request for a staff report (cunningly not included with the meeting’s agenda so as to keep the element of comic surprise alive when it was presented!).

Watch and listen. Brian uses words like “accountability” and “transparency” like they are something he suddenly discovered and we need to get to them now. Like frickin’ right now. And staff better give us a report about them because these are hot stuff!

Too bad the camera didn’t pan out to catch the baffled looks on the faces of his minion Block members. Heads were shaking and rattling sounds could be heard from them. Blockheads had never heard him use those words before, at least not since the election campaign and certainly not directed at them. The Block stands for secrecy, for scurrying behind closed doors to discuss policy, to making decisions via email not in the public. For conniving and conning, for ignoring the public and blaming everyone else.

Yet after two-and-a-half years in office, here is Der Leader suddenly telling them he wants to see more “accountability,” more “transparency.” They must have piddled themselves in terror. What, they wondered, do those words mean?
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Sadly, it’s business as usual

Missed targets
I suppose you expect I am disappointed that not a single one of The Block had the spine, the moral compass, the ethical guts to resign after killing the hospital redevelopment. After all, I called on them all – plus the interim CAO – to resign immediately. Not doing so, I said, would prove everything I ever said about them. They didn’t budge.

Well, my compensation is that I get to say “I told you so.” Again. I suspect I will repeat those words several more times this term.

People only disappoint you when they don’t live up to your expectations. My expectations for this group are low. Abysmal, really, based on the reality of their performance to date. They constantly strive to reach mediocrity, but consistently fail to achieve it. If you expected from them secrecy, conniving, backroom deals, conflict of interest, inflexible ideology and rigid self-interest, then I suppose your expectations have been met.

I didn’t really expect any of them to actually resign. To resign would take courage, commitment and a deeply held caring for the community. Attributes that are most notable in their absence among this group. They would have to take responsibility for their own acts instead of blaming others. I hardly expected them to start doing something so antithetical to their natures now. Hyenas can’t change their spots, can they?

It’s not as if they and they alone killed my faith in humanity. After all, they are not the first politicians to be unethical, and more concerned about feathering their own nests than about the community. Nor will they be the last. There have been other politicians before them who lied to their constituents, who put personal agendas over the greater good, who used their office to conduct vendettas and who handed out sole-source government contracts to friends and family. There have been politicians before them with closed minds who refused to consider other viewpoints or to learn anything. This group won’t be the last of them, either.

Failing to resign, it will be business as usual for them, continuing to lurch and fumble and stumble their way along, tearing down as much of our town as they can along the way.
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The OPP investigation after 48 months

Inpeach council!
Forty-eight months ago a very small group of disgruntled, angry residents – some with burning ambition to take a seat on council themselves – complained to the OPP, allegedly about decisions made by the previous council. Decisions and people this group didn’t like. Decisions they thought – without any proof – were shady. People they thought – again without any proof – were corrupt.

Both conspiracy theories have long since been proved wrong. But they damaged reputations and lives, while others used the fallout to further their own dark goals. All done without the slightest twinge of guilt. 

From summer 2013 through the election, we witnessed a vicious, coordinated campaign to discredit and defame members of the former council: sycophant bloggers, biased media pushing their friends’ agendas, staged protests (who can forget the “inpeach council” sign?), ambitious candidates mouthing righteous platitudes and empty blandishments, virulent social media campaigning rife with gossip, rumour, whispers, allegations, and outright lies.

It worked. People were fooled. But not now. After four years, and no OPP report, people realize they were hoaxed, and many think they know by whom. 

The OPP must have been mortified at having to investigate a clearly politically-motivated, baseless complaint. So much so that shortly after the flurry of bad publicity, the “investigation” vanished, as if the police were too embarrassed to mention it again.  It hasn’t resurfaced.

The law says the OPP is required to investigate any complaint. The police talked to people. They examined bank accounts, businesses, connections. They interviewed town staff and collected records.

In the past four years, nothing has been uncovered to incriminate anyone.

Nothing.

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I used to like him; not so much now…

John SewellBack in the ’70s when he ran for mayor and we both lived in Toronto, I voted for John Sewell. And when he won, I was a big supporter of his human-scale policies and planning, and enjoyed his youthful vigour and vision. Now, not so much. Sure, he’s a smart, well-spoken, erudite man with a long list of credentials. But he’s also wrong. At least about one issue: our hospital.

Sewell and Collingwood resident Karina Dahlin (former Editor, executive communications, the Hospital for Sick Children, according to LinkedIn) wrote an opinion piece for TVO’s online magazine titled, “Health care gaps: Ontario forcing sprawl by putting hospitals at the periphery.” Sorry, but that’s nonsense.

Both writers are members of the local committee formed to fight the proposed move of the hospital from its near-central location to a new site on the periphery of town. Why Sewell – whose bio states he lives in Toronto – is so involved in Collingwood politics mystifies me.

Sewell was a darling of some former VOTE (Voters Opposed To Everything) members; years ago he was brought in to speak about several issues like planning and growth, mostly in support of their own notions (VOTE, as you know, killed the Admiral Collingwood development which would now be a stunning, income-generating anchor to the downtown had they not interfered).

I’ve written about the hospital in the past (here, here and here for example) – mostly about The Block’s (and the administration’s) ongoing war against the hospital, its development committee and its board. It is a battle between The Block’s idée fixe and the greater good of the community, between personal and public agendas.

While the article makes some good points, it’s not exactly an unbiased and objective look. And in part their argument is based on a faulty association: a big city and a small town. They write:

It is occurring so frequently that it appears to be ministry policy: don’t build a new hospital in the centre of town, only on the periphery. That’s what has happened in Owen Sound, St. Catharines, North Bay, Oakville, Peterborough, Barrie, Cobourg, and other communities.
And there are plans to do the same thing in Windsor, where the two large downtown hospitals are slated to be torn down and a new $2-billion facility built out beyond the city’s airport; in Collingwood, where the downtown hospital would be demolished and a new $400-million facility built among farmers’ fields, beyond what town council calls its “built boundary;” and in Bracebridge and Huntsville, where two hospitals would be demolished and a new one built literally halfway between the communities, in the bush.

We are relatively similar in size to Owen Sound and Coburg, but not to any of the others. Certainly what happens in Windsor or Oakville cannot be reasonably compared. The differences in land values in the core versus those in the outskirts are so much greater in cities that you cannot compare the economics in such communities. Plus they are single-tier municipalities and we are second-tier.

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Thick as a brick

You really have to watch Rogers’ coverage of Collingwood Council, July 11, 2016. Start around 2:08:00. That’s when the discussion about the upgrades to the brick at the Collingwood Curling Club begins.

Another comedic episode full of zany antics and madcap mayhem brought to you by The Block. Be prepared to howl with laughter as Councillor Ecclestone attempts to justify hiding public information from view.

Let’s pause for a moment to remind readers that these upgrades and repairs were approved last term, in 2014 and should have been completed by now. But this council and administration dropped the ball for almost two years.

The former building department official who oversaw the project when it was supposed to go ahead provided a report on the status of the building and proposed repairs in early 2015. The administration sat on the report while the snooze button kept being hit until mid-2016. But I digress.*

Finally, the work got approval to go ahead, two years after it was first proposed and approved. But better late than never, eh? Who cares if costs have risen in the interim? It’s only taxpayer dollars! There’s millions of them where they came from!

Push ahead in the video to 2:09:45. That’s when Councillor Ecclestone speaks. Be prepared to drop your jaw and guffaw aloud. He says:

In the future, I don’t think we should be making public the 15 percent, uh, contingency. I think that it, you know, doesn’t need to get out there, cause I think once you put that in there, the company then can, fffff (sic), go for the full bundle, right? So I’m just thinking that in the future we should just keep that, uh, um, not announce it to the public.

Is he kidding? Hide information from the public in an open bidding process? This is someone who claims to have been the “head of council” previously. Yet here he appears thicker than the brickwork about to be repaired.**

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The Leadership Crisis

The Leadership CrisisIn his latest book, The Leadership Crisis, Gord Hume defines seven characteristics – the Seven Cs – of great political leadership*. See how many you can recognize as attributes within our own council:

  1. Competencies, including people, organizational, business and strategic.
  2. Character, and its traits, values and virtues; integrity.
  3. Commitment, including aspiration, engagement, perseverance and sacrifice.
  4. Charisma, that unquantifiable attribute that political leaders either have or don’t.
  5. Communication, through effective messaging that inspires, informs and influences.
  6. Context, an understanding of what’s going on around them.
  7. Culture, and how to develop, create, change and advance that culture

I think you can see for yourself that these traits are notable by their absence in most of our council. Just take any one of the seven – say, communications. How can a council that conducts so much of its business behind closed doors communicate well, if at all? And how does it communicate? Only through poorly-designed, improperly formatted ads in a newspaper no one reads and via a dull “newsletter” riddled with mistakes but no news.

Culture? There’s more culture in a cup of yogurt than in all of council. Competencies? How can a group that refuses to learn from its peers and hand over control of policy making to staff be competent?

One can, of course, learn and grow on the job, assuming one breaks out of the ideological shell that cocoons them. Which, in 18 months in office, still hasn’t happened. But, like winning the lottery or being struck by a meteorite, there’s still a chance for it to happen. A very slim chance, but we must be optimistic, despite the odds.

There are many books on leadership on the shelves these days. What makes Hume’s book different is the context of leadership within Canadian municipal politics.** You can read an excerpt of the book here. As Hume writes on his website:

Ego, ambition, fear, doubt, passion. Politicians may have a fervent belief in the rightness of their position or a visceral dislike for another person, party or platform, but these should always be tempered by the need to inspire collective action to move any agenda forward.

Hume’s books are among the most thought-provoking, engaging books I’ve ever read on municipal/local politics. It’s sad to note that perhaps only one or two (at most) on our own council will read this book. It is another important publication on municipal governance they will actively ignore. This council already stopped subscribing to the Municipal World magazine because they already know everything – despite most of them being new to the position – and doesn’t want their preconceived views polluted by advice from peers or experts. So exhorting them to read it will fall on mostly deaf ears (I have hope for two of the nine…).

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Two conferences and a show

Windsor: Ontario Water Conference

I had the honour and the enjoyment of attending two municipal conferences last week. While no longer directly involved in politics, I am able to keep my finger in some of the political pies through my current work for an NGO. Plus, I like to remain informed and up-to-date about politics and governance, and am always looking for opportunities to increase my knowledge and understanding of pretty much any topic.

The first event was the Ontario Water Conference, in Windsor. While predominantly a technical and operations event for facility managers and operators, it also has a good political component where utility board members and politicians can learn about initiatives, developments and government updates.

I sat in on presentations over two days, learning about levels of service and risk models; improvement actions from frozen services; eco-fiscal challenges to building resilient communities; business case for a one-water approach; updates from the IESO, the MOE, MOECC, Drinking Water Advisory Council and Safe Drinking Water Branch of the MOECC. From climate change to electricity prices to algal blooms and utility board governance… I learned a lot.

The great majority of workshops were, however, technical, and well out of my depth of knowledge. It also has a large trade show where attendees can see the latest updates in water-related technologies and discuss their implementation with the vendors.

As the website tells it:

The Conference continues to be the premier drinking water event in Ontario, consistently attracting over 900 delegates from all areas of our industry: operators and owners, manufacturers and suppliers, consultants, academics and regulators. The Trade Show has more than 100 exhibitors representing the manufacturers and suppliers of products and services to the water industry. This is a great opportunity to network, and keep informed about technical, regulatory, and equipment development which affect the industry.

I would have assumed that any politician who sits on a water utility board or any public member of such board, who is dedicated to their role and cares about water would have at least made the effort to attend these sessions. After all, they are personally liable for the quality of our water and can be sued for not maintaining it.

I guess if you don’t read the Clean Water Act, this might not concern you. (Hint: it’s crucial reading for members of water utility boards like ours…)

However, there were not many politicians in sight, although I did encounter a few. While I recognized several water utility employees from Collingwood, none of its water utility board (which consists of five inexperienced, neophyte politicians) was present. You would think someone who knew nothing about the subject would be eager to learn about what they have the responsibility over, but perhaps I expect too much from them. Ignorance is bliss, they say.

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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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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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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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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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The high cost of affordability

Affordable housing is crucial to the economic and social vitality of every municipality. Without it, people cannot afford to live here, which means they will look for jobs in places they can afford. Young people, especially, will move to places they can afford better.

Collingwood is especially vulnerable to housing issues.* Given that the growth trend in our area is in low-paying (minimum wage), and part-time employment, finding affordable housing has become increasingly difficult for many people. Simcoe County itself estimates that a “single individual on Ontario Works would need to spend 108% of his/her monthly income to afford to live in the County.”

And as the Simcoe County housing strategy continues:

The Southern Georgian Bay area, while home to a thriving tourism industry, is also experiencing an aging population, high market rental rates, and a higher incidence of low income in private households.

Skyrocketing real estate costs contribute to the devaluation of a community. They push up taxes, living costs, rent, and utility bills. It takes a mature, wise and compassionate council to find ways to counter rising taxes and keep their community affordable. **

As the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing notes on its website,

Decent housing is more than shelter; it provides stability, security and dignity. It plays a key role in reducing poverty and building strong, inclusive communities.

But housing is a complex, challenging issue for municipalities and municipal politicians. Solutions are often very expensive; more than a small community can afford.

Councils have no direct control over real estate values (a problem compounded by the out-of-control Municipal Property Assessment Corp – MPAC – which raises property values across the province by computer formula, from its ivory tower offices, without conversations with local officials).

Municipalities also lack the legal muscle to demand private-sector development of lower-cost housing and much-needed rental properties like apartments (few young people can afford to buy homes, especially in a community that offers predominantly low wage job opportunities, so a supply of affordable rentals is critical).

On top of that, jurisdiction for affordable housing usually lies with a higher-tier government. In Collingwood’s case, it falls under the authority of Simcoe County. There are already 4,113 social housing units in Simcoe County, including approximately 3,035 rent-geared-to-income units. The County provides rent subsidies to 28 housing providers for 2,878 non-profit units, 60% rent-geared-to-income and 40% market rent. The county has already invested $3.4 million in maintaining its housing assets.

Before we go further, let’s dismiss some emotional – and inaccurate – impressions. Affordable housing doesn’t mean subsidized housing (although subsidized housing is also affordable). It represents a range of housing types. As the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) defines it, it’s an economic condition:

Affordable housing generally means a housing unit that can be owned or rented by a household with shelter costs that are less than 30 per cent of its gross income.

Last Tuesday, Simcoe County Council heard a presentation on the county’s long-term plan for affordable housing. Given its importance, it’s unfortunate neither of our own council reps were there to hear it.

I, however, had the fortune of being there for what proved an eye opener.
Continue reading “The high cost of affordability”

Apps are making us criminals

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Uber protestAlmost every week you read in the news about another taxi driver protest against Uber and its drivers. Taxi drivers go on strike, some rage against Uber and attack the drivers or damage their cars.

Similar protests – albeit not yet as violent or large – have been made against Airbnb for its effects on local property values and changing social conditions like the loss of rental properties.

These are just two of the apps whose effect on our society and culture are challenging laws and policies. There are others now that attempt to clone the success of their competitors with similar service (like Lyft and Homeaway – but I’ll concentrate on these two as examples of what can and does happen).

And in the process making criminals of its users.

That’s right: using these apps, both as a service provider for the companies and a user of those services often breaks existing laws, such as zoning or licensing. Renting your home for short-term rentals through Airbnb, for example, is illegal in many Ontario municipalities – including Collingwood – because zoning bylaws prohibit short-term rentals in residential areas.

Municipalities worldwide are increasingly challenged by these and similar programs that function counter to municipal bylaws, policies and operations. And they eventually cost taxpayers money.

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It’s not a small deal. These can hurt our economy, kill jobs, and put people and property at risk. The corporations that operate them don’t give a shit. They’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank every time you use them.

Continue reading “Apps are making us criminals”