The word initiative derives from the Latin word initiare “to begin.” Since 1600, it has meant “introduce to some practice or system,” “begin, set going.” While any sort of action or engagement, positive or negative, can be classified as an initiative, generally one refers only to positive enterprises when describing political or social initiatives.
I know, I know: you immediately want to interrupt and say, “but Ian, The Block don’t do anything positive, and you cannot talk about a council’s initiatives when none have occurred.” I agree, but bear with me.
It’s true that, when measuring the positive actions begun for the benefit of anyone but themselves, Collingwood council comes up woefully short: mene, mene, tekel upharsin so to speak. There simply have been none and likely won’t be any this term. This council is better described with one or more of the 44 antonyms for initiative: lethargy, indifference, indolence, apathy, diffidence, staleness, dreariness, lassitude, insipidness… they have no interest in your or my good, just their own.*
A short while ago, I wrote Council’s report card: Year 2, part 1, a post humorously (but truthfully) describing council’s sorry list of “accomplishments” for the first half of its term (forbidding you from throwing birdseed on your driveway is their main intellectual effort). Aside from my sarcastic poke at their rampant ineptitude, as you, dear reader know, there were no real accomplishments.
In that previous post I promised to present you with a list of “the Blockheads’ failures and debacles, their endless efforts to destroy people, institutions, and relationships, their gobsmacking waste of tax dollars to pursue petty vendettas and personal agendas, their arrogant self-interests, their conniving, their secrecy, their blatant dishonesty and their egregious ineptness and all the rest.” And I started to. The list was long. So very long.
To be frank, after I began that post, I found myself unwilling continue. There were simply too many dreary, petty items, too many malicious actions, too much skullduggery and self-interest to expose again. I became depressed in the process of categorizing and explaining all the malevolence and evil. All that self-serving, nest-feathering, the witch hunts and vendettas … it could drive one to drink.
While I don’t mind writing another sententious “Malleus Politici” (and the Muse knows they deserve it) this became an extended, overly long and increasingly bitter rant even for someone given to near-hypergraphia. After some contemplation, I decided to take a different tack. I thought what I should do is to list some of the initiatives taken by other municipalities and compare those with what Collingwood has or has not done in that vein. See what positive approaches others have taken in dealing with the problems, issues and challenges in their municipality and measure ours against that.
Alas, we again fall woefully short. But if you have been reading this blog, you already know that. Still, the exercise is educational. The list as follows is neither complete nor in any order aside from what came to mind at the moment of writing.
First some explanation: Collingwood Council is dominated by the six-strong group known as The Block, led by Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson with five sycophant minions obedient to his beck and call, and one wannabe block member in puppy-like attendance. Only Mayor Sandra Cooper and Councillor Kevin Lloyd stand above – and usually in opposition to – this Borg-like collective and its pet administration. When I refer to Collingwood Council, I often mean simply The Block since they have the voting power; they can initiate projects, policies, goals and objectives. The sad thing is that in two years, all they have done with this power is to destroy.
So let’s continue to the issues.
Municipalities are looking at ways to both improve stormwater and to pay for improvements. The financial trend is to charge an additional stormwater fee on properties depending on the area of non-porous (e.g. paved or roofed) surface. In part this is to incentivize builders to use more environmentally-sustainable low-impact development, and to pay for the costs of maintaining public infrastructure. Since this council fired its experienced and forward-looking water utility board in 2015 and replaced it with five members of The Block, nothing has been done with regard to stormwater or water-related infrastructure.
Wastewater facilities going to net-zero energy
Because water and wastewater plants are the biggest municipal energy users, proactive municipalities have taken measures to reduce both the energy and carbon footprints of these facilities. This can be in the form of solar panels over facilities, water turbines in pipes or biogas-to-energy retrieval. Our former COO of water was working on just a test project for the latter last term. Since he was harassed and bullied out of his position by the administration, and this council fired its experienced and forward-looking water utility board and replaced it with five members of The Block, nothing has been done with regard to water facility energy management.
Everyone is aware that the weather is changing and that severe weather events are becoming more common. Twenty sixteen was the hottest year on record in more than 160 years of recording that data. There are federal, provincial and municipal initiatives to change that tend and reduce the human impact on the environment and on the climate. To date nothing has been raised by Collingwood Council to even suggest they have given the matter as much as a nod. Yet this is one of the most important issues any government faces.
Disaster planning and recovery
Most homeowners are not prepared for disasters such as tornadoes or floods, so progressive municipalities have plans in place, mechanisms by which they can help clean up afterwards, even emergency fund reserves to manage the aftermath. In the big wind storm of last fall, when hundreds of trees in town lost branches or were uprooted, the town didn’t even offer its own trucks to pick up the considerable debris. Didn’t offer any support – not even a list of companies – to help property owners clean up the mess. Last year, hundreds of residential water pipes froze because of the severe cold. To date, Council has not developed any plans to deal with similar occurrences this or any subsequent year. And it isn’t about money. After all, how much would it have cost for the town trucks to pick the stuff up for a few days? Apparently they have lots of money for their own purposes: The Block voted unanimously and without argument to give Councillor Jeffrey an unlimited expense account for her personal political ambitions at FCM**, and has approved spending more than $500,000 of taxpayer money on outside consultants and lawyers to promote their private agendas. So why couldn’t they spare a few more dollars to help the clean up? Because it didn’t promote their selfish agenda.
Mobile/responsive websites and apps
Most municipalities recognize that mobile devices account for more access and app use than computers these days. So they refine their online presence to make mobile users more comfortable, make their services mobile-friendly and accessible. Collingwood’s IT services were deliberately harassed and alienated by the administration and Block early in the term, so that the town’s online service remain outdated and inadequate for today’s users. Any chance of updating and enhancing our 15-year-old online services was killed early in the term. But don’t worry: the administration is hiring its own IT department at a cost of at least $250,000 a year PLUS the added costs of billing for water (at least $50,000 a month more). After all, it’s only your money they’re wasting.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that municipal boundaries are artificial constructs and that business, travel, jobs, energy, pollution, housing, water, healthcare, weather, development, growth and so much else all reach across those imagined borders. Working with your neighbours makes sense in every way: economic, social, sustainability… only a group as ideological myopic as The Block would insult, alienate and ignore its municipal neighbours and the opportunities to work with them. Last two councils saw the development of regional bus service. The Block chose to alienate the hospital and its board and the regional municipalities it serves by refusing to acknowledge that the hospital is a regional facility, not just a Collingwood one.
It’s important to know where you are going and how to get there. To prioritize your goals and focus on what’s achievable and measurable. That’s what a strategic plan does: as the OMAFRA website notes, it “examines where your organization or business is now, where you want it to be, and how you are going to get there.” Instead, The Block gave us their flaccid “Community Based Strategic Plan” which was a wishlist from a committee of their friends, that was neither strategic nor a plan, had no budget or measureables.
A recent case study in municipal shared services concluded that, “The economies of scale available through shared service arrangements could allow smaller communities to deliver services, attain service levels or realize cost savings that would not be attainable otherwise.” Many municipalities look to share services and collaboration within their own departments or with other municipalities so that they can reduce costs while offering more to the ratepayer. There are reams of pages available on the Municipal Partnering Initiative (MPI) that took off in the USA in the past decade. Yet, in order to fulfill personal vendettas, The Block chose the anti-collaborative approach: to end 150 years of shared services between our water and electricity utilities, and to end the relationship with Collus-PowerStream’s IT and GIS services. The Block wants to privatize our water and electrical utilities. The end result will cost taxpayers perhaps as much as $1 million more a year.
Municipalities have to procure services, equipment, products and supplies for a wide range of needs. To avoid accusations of favouritism or nepotism, many municipalities have developed comprehensive procurement strategies, policies and bylaws which fence out political interference and make the process neutral for all bidders. The Block have instead chosen to override those conditions and grant numerous sole-source contracts to in-laws, to consultants and lawyers, an IT firm, and to pretty much anyone who would support their ideological preconditions. The cost to the town’s credibility has been high.
Financial, reserve and asset management
Last term council initiated long-range plans and policies for asset, financial and reserve fund management. Those plans and policies were brought forward this term, but are mostly ignored. For example, The Block has insisted on renewing the contract for the interim CAO, whose salary is higher than the premier of Ontario’s salary, not just once but twice! They could have saved taxpayers $50,000-$150,000 by simply replacing him with a permanent CAO who lived in the community. They spent more than $500,000 on outside consultants and lawyers.It’s not just that The Block doesn’t give a damn about fiscal sustainability, much less asset management: they simply don’t understand what the words mean.
Road salt damage
Municipalities are aware of the damage road salt does to their infrastructure, buildings, roads and the environment – costly damage that taxpayers have to bear. Progressive municipalities like Vancouver, Montreal, Barrie and Cowansville are actively looking for alternatives and solutions to lower their use and help their local environments. Collingwood Council has ignored the issue.
Most progressive municipalities recognize the benefits of urban trees: they look great, they clean the air, reduce sound and noise, provide shade, improve morale and happiness. Toronto ranked fifth worldwide in international cities rated for their urban forest coverage at 19.5%. Many municipalities aim for much higher levels: 30-40% coverage. Many cities in Ontario like Toronto, London and others have tree preservation bylaws to protect the canopy. Collingwood has none and council doesn’t care. According to emails I received from staff, the town cuts down twice as many trees on public property as it plants every year. Collingwood Council’s response? None.
Not only does putting up solar panels or small turbines on public facilities reduce the town’s carbon footprint, but it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower our municipal energy costs. So far the only thing related to reducing energy costs this term is to follow through an initiative from last term: replace some streetlights with LEDs. PowerStream – our partner in Collus – is a provincial leader in green energy projects, but The Block and the administration have hectored them so much that they have been too busy responding to demands for information and documents (often the same documents they received only weeks earlier) that they have not been able to (or perhaps have not been willing to) work on any green energy projects here as they have done in other municipalities.
Festivals and events as economic drivers
Outside Collingwood, municipalities are well aware that events, festivals and special activities not only draw visitors, they are economic engines that drive local business and create jobs. Plus they provide a base for public relations and marketing to easily promote the community. Last council we had in place a plan to move events from Parks, Recreation and Culture – where it has stagnated – to Economic Development and Marketing where it belongs and can grow. This council hasn’t done anything to improve our attractions or their marketing and in fact almost killed the Elvis Festival by isolating it on the spit, away from the downtown. Fortunately, Councillor Lloyd spoke up and save it from slow strangulation and keep it downtown.
Business retention and growth
We can be thankful we have an energetic, hard-working director of Economic Development and Marketing (hired last term) who is trying, despite The Block’s failure to appreciate even the most basic concepts of business or finance, to manage and grow our local economy. The only good thing The Block has done in this area to date is to stay away from this department and not interfere (and who knows how long they can keep their destructive hands off it?). Unfortunately, their shenanigans – compounded by two tax hikes and water rate increase – have ruined the town’s reputation and alienated our municipal neighbours and partners, which has spread throughout the province. It’s hard to attract business to a community so despised, such a laughingstock.
Airbnb and Uber
These and similar predatory corporations are a cancer to municipalities, eroding their tax base and authority, flouting laws, ignoring policies, destroying neighbourhoods, costing towns jobs and revenue. They don’t pay fair taxes or user fees, they don’t operate under health, fire and safety standards, they are a massive liability for communities and they put users at risk. They’re like drug cartels. Towns and cities across North America and Europe struggle to come to grips with this rampant cancer; sometimes to find accommodation, sometimes to fight. Collingwood Council’s approach to this rapidly growing problem has been to ignore it.
Education, training, development
Elected representatives have an obligation to learn about their roles, to expand their education, to seek peer experience and advice. At least that’s what the town’s Code of Conduct bylaw says. And any good, dedicated council member would agree: the role is demanding and any help you can get should be welcome. But like so many other requirements in that bylaw, this one was sloughed off, along with any possibility of learning or expanding horizons. Being a good representative means having to learn about and deal with a wide range of subjects and issues that are usually well outside the experience of novice councillors: planning, law, labour negotiations, bylaws, zoning,environment, recreation, facility management, infrastructure, construction, taxation, budgets… it is easy to become overwhelmed by everything you need to know and manage, and do it from the very first meeting. That’s why good, responsible councillors work very hard at learning from their peers, from reading, from studying and from asking questions of staff outside the council meeting. But not The Block.
The first act of this council was to cancel its subscription to Municipal World magazine; the Canada-wide, monthly publication that provides a wealth of information, advice, analysis about issues councils deal with. The Block have shown they don’t read reports prepared by previous councils – often demanding reports on issues and policies that were already produced in previous terms. Attendance at conferences such as AMO have been sparse, with at least one member going to the location, but visiting friends instead of attending seminars or workshops, and another riding his bicycle around the city instead. At your expense. The Block have ignored responses to, and criticisms of reports prepared by their pet lawyers or consultants every time those have contradicted the Block’s ideological position. NOT ONE of them went to Collus-PowerStream to discuss issues with staff there to get their perspective and views but instead blindly accepted what the administration and its buddies told them. The Block already know everything and would not pollute their self-assurance by learning from others.
Taxes, finances and budgets
Managing the town’s finances is the single most important job an elected representative can do, so it’s crucial to be fully informed about how the budget works, what the numbers are, how it will affect taxpayers, services and operations. And in that spirit, The Block didn’t bother to look at the complete budget these last two years, merely accepted at face value a short summary from staff without questioning it. And in doing so they raised taxes twice in two years AND twice gave themselves a raise for doing it. When Councillor Lloyd attempted to question some of the numbers, his questions were summarily shut down by the interim CAO. The Block allows the interim CAO to hire consultants and lawyers (one at $700 an hour!) to tell them what they want to hear – wasting more than $500,000 of your tax dollars already on pointless vendettas and personal agendas. The popular phrase “spending money like a drunken sailor” applies here to The Block.
Where most municipalities try to get their budget passed before the year it takes effect, Collingwood has consistently failed to do so and usually doesn’t get around to approving it until at least the spring of that year, sometimes even later.
Open data, shared data
Making municipal data available to the consumers has allowed individuals and companies to develop mobile apps for residents, develop use-specific maps, develop business plans to open stores or services based on local demographics, allowed governments to enhance its own services to residents and visitors, and create better access to government functions. Guelph, for example, developed its comprehensive open government plan a few years back. To be successful this, of course, requires a close and amicable relationship with the IT services. Since The Block and the administration aggressively alienated our IT service and then offered a sole-source contract to an outside firm for IT, any movement towards open-data development was killed at the start of this term.
Poverty and homelessness
Collingwood is fortunate to have a very low level of homelessness, although the average income is also low, mostly because so many people and families in town struggle with low incomes at service, retail and hospitality sector jobs, or are seniors on fixed incomes. The Block’s response to these issues has been to raise taxes and utility rates twice, thus making the life of seniors and low-income earners much more difficult here.
Plastic bags, “flushable” wipes and excess landfill
Non-biodegradable plastic is a frightening problem: it accumulates in our rivers, our lakes, our sewers, our landfills. It ends up in our water, in parks and greenspaces. It kills wildlife and makes everything ugly. While our garbage collection and landfill management are under county authority, the municipality has wide powers to deal with individual areas such as plastic bags in retail stores. The municipality could promote use of reusable products, to encourage more recycling and composting, and to discourage the use of such problem products like the “flushable” wipes that cause serious problems in sewage treatment plants. The Block’s response to these growing and well-publicized problems has been utter silence.
Sprawl and smart growth
Sprawl kills communities. Isolated subdivisions are not neighbourhoods: without good planning and mixed zoning, they are merely places to eat and sleep and watch TV. Box stores aren’t like downtowns: they are merely shopping shells, with big parking lots, outside the walkable zone. Both are bad for the environment, discourage pedestrians and community interaction. It isn’t easy to initiate smart growth concepts, to argue against previously accepted standards of development, to suggest new ideas. It’s even harder when you pay no attention to the trends, to the changes in people-friendly planning and growth being promoted around the world. it’s so much easier to rubber stamp the designs and planning from the 1950s instead of working towards integrated, whole-community planning. And to date The Block has done precisely zero, zip, nada to encourage the sort of smart growth and sustainable planning that progressive municipalities are promoting. But then, smart growth requires smart councillors.
Openness, transparency and accountability
While most councils endeavour to show their openness, The Most Secretive Council Ever gets a failing grade for its failure to engage and consult the public in its eagerness to scheme behind closed doors. I’ve written a lot about their continued antics these past two years, so I suggest you look up past posts to see just how immoral, unethical and dishonest The Block have been. To avoid public scrutiny, they even fired the Integrity Commissioner hired last term. That hasn’t stopped the Ombudsman, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the closed door meeting investigator and the Ontario Energy Board (and, if rumour proves true, the OPP) from launching investigations into their behaviour. And they continue to use the secretive committee system that discourages public participation.
The town’s Code of Conduct bylaw says members of council are held to a higher standard. The Block simply lowered the bar below the ground level, so they could pass over it.
I am always astounded at the number of people who are either too immature or too lazy to pick up after their dogs. People who have no pride in their town or themselves don’t pick up after their dogs. Dog shit spreads disease and parasites, and when washed away pollutes waterways. It fouls wastewater treatment plants when it arrives in runoff, too. And it’s dirty litter that makes your community look like, well, shit. Progressive municipalities engage in proactive educational campaigns to encourage responsible pet ownership, encourage hygiene, and when that fails they aggressively enforce bylaws that require picking up. The problem is increasing across North America. Collingwood Council has, as expected, not even discussed the issue.
Free wireless downtown
Free municipal WiFi is a hot trend in many municipalities in Europe and North America because it boosts the city’s business-friendly profile. I raised this with IT in 2014, but ran out of time to go further with it. Since then, The Block ruined the relationship with IT and the project sank. The closest thing to a technical discussion anyone on the Block has had at the table since the election was when Councillor Madigan fretted like an old lady about the value of used computer mice and cables when Collus offered to buy their old hardware. Given the lack of technical expertise at the council table, the likelihood of this being raised this term is slightly less than the odds of my readers all winning the same lottery.
Pedestrian mall, walkable community
For years, there have been murmurings of turning one or more block of Hurontario Street into a pedestrian mall, usually dated from the Victoria Day to Labour Day or even Thanksgiving weekends. It’s part of a larger image of a pedestrian-friendly, walkable community, a concept totally ignored in the Block’s vaunted CBSP. It requires long-range planning and exploration into the new urban growth concepts and controversial ideas like mixed-use zoning and other complexities that would make The Blocks’ collective heads spin. Nothing has been raised about these issues to date because The Block simply doesn’t care about the downtown and won’t ponder anything difficult like walkability (for the first year, The Block even refused to have a council rep on the BIA board, the first municipality in Ontario to so thoroughly ignore its downtown).
There are, of course, many more areas and projects*** to explore and discuss, including:
- Backyard pet breeders and puppy mills;
- Sidewalk restoration and rebuilding;
- Services and support appropriate for our demographics;
- Water bottles banned from municipal use;
- Healthy foods offered in municipal facilities instead of vending machine junk food;
- Downtown parking – should it be free?
- Expanded library services and programs;
- A satellite library for the west end;
- A satellite fire station for the east end;
- A seniors-oriented park/exercise area;
- Expropriation of the Silver Creek wetlands to protect the area from development;
- Occupancy taxes for short term stays;
- A municipally-funded spay-and-neuter program for low-income pet owners;
- No-idling bylaws (and we ours isn’t enforced);
- No stopping in designated fire lanes (and why our bylaw isn’t enforced);
- And on and on and on.
We expect our representatives to be champions, to be advocates for ideas and goals, not merely rubber stamps for staff dictates. Governments are elected to lead, to move forward, to solve problems and to raise new ideas to discuss in the public forum. Name one thing – aside, that is, from their own self interest – that any one of The Block stand for, or have championed, have advocated, or have initiated. Right: nothing.
The bottom line is always the same: The Block has chosen to follow rather than lead, to ignore problems rather than solve them, to bow to the administrations goals, and stick their collective heads in the sand while they pursue their own agendas and vendettas. They have no interest in looking after the greater good.
Face it: The Block has not initiated a single, positive thing in two years, but in that time they have raised taxes (twice), destroyed relationships and institutions, alienated municipal neighbours and partners, lowered staff morale, tattered our reputation and pandered to their own greed.
We would have better off to have no council at all, than have The Block. They have failed utterly and completely to live up to their responsibilities. They have acted in bad faith. But you, dear reader, have long known all of this and none of it comes as a surprise.
As I always say, Collingwood deserves better. In two years we may even get it, once this lot is turned out of office.
* Personally, I prefer words with the in- prefix to describe this council: indifferent, indolent, insipid, inept, incapable, inactive, inanimate, inanition, incommodious, inadventurous, inalterable, inconversable, ineffective, inexcusable… so many from which to choose!
** Despite the fact that “Senator” Jeffrey has been wining and dining her way around Canada in high style at your expense to pursue her goal to become queen of FCM, FCM has been remarkably cold towards Collingwood. In its database of funded initiatives, FCM lists only one project that it deigned to help us with: the sustainable community plan from 2010-11, which has since been relegated to the “ignore this report” shelf in town hall. (Number of The Block who have even read it this term? None.) The net result has been great expense to taxpayers for precisely zero return to the community. But at least Kathy gets to gallivant in high style and eat warm camembert on your dime.
*** These are some of the topics that should be raised at the table for discussion, and opened for public consultation, not necessarily things I advocate.