Collingwood’s culture of secrecy

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Soviet politburoFor the past fifteen months, I have been trying to get a copy of the Request For Proposals (RFP) sent out to potential buyers for the purchase of our public utility. For the past fifteen months, the town has fought me, has refused to hand it over, has challenged my appeals to the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC). The public is not allowed to see it, even though it affects us and our once-public utility. Even though it is in the public’s interest to know what has been going on.

Why not? After all, the RFP was released in August, 2016, the responses were received that fall, and this council decided to sell our utility to the for-profit corporation, EPCOR, shortly after. All done, of course, behind closed doors with no public input or engagement. So why not release the RFP? It’s not a legal document, it has no bearing on the sale nor the conditions of proposals. The process is completed.

Seeing the RFP now surely has no effect on any of the already-completed negotiations. But the town still says no. The inescapable conclusion is that the town is hiding something. Something devious, unethical, something The Block don’t want revealed to the public.

The public can’t see it simply because of the deeply entrenched culture of secrecy and deception in town hall. This culture is so ingrained in everything this council does that it acts more like a Soviet politburo than a supposedly open, democratic government.

The RFP was crafted by the sole-sourced lawyer hired by the administration (with The Block’s unanimous approval). He sent it out, not the town, and it was not shared with council. This is not merely highly unusual: it was a deliberate act to ensure the secrecy of this document. Not only can the public not learn to whom the RFP was sent, but what it asked for because now the town can hide behind client-solicitor privilege. Very devious.

That’s right: this was set up to deliberately block public scrutiny. But as you already know, the entire process has been done behind closed doors to avoid all public scrutiny and input. As I wrote before, this council held at least 37 (and possibly more) closed-door meetings about the fate of our public utility yet in three years has never ONCE said why they want to sell it, has never ONCE asked for public comment on the sale. An open, transparent government would not behave like that.

Who can forget the promise made by candidate Brian Saunderson – now deputy mayor, in the Connection before the last election:

Ensure all major decisions seek out community input, and ensure there is rigorous staff research and due diligence before any decision is made.

Well, that has not happened with ANYTHING this term: not with the breaking of the shared services agreement between our utilities and the town; not with the creation of a new IT department and hiring new staff while tripling the costs; not with The Block’s concerted effort to derail our hospital’s redevelopment; not with the sale of our publicly-owned airport; not with the sale of our publicly-owned electrical utility; not with the attempted sale of our public water utility (on hold at present but not gone away). The Block have done nothing to “seek out community input” and have made arbitrary, secretive decisions about our community’s assets and future.

To be fair, not all of The Block are entirely to blame: the administration has also been a participant: actively helping the devious members of The Block build and maintain those walls of deception and secrecy.

You might recall that Saunderson also promised:

Open and transparent government will require a fundamental shift in the way our council engages and responds to public input.

That “fundamental shift” was not towards openness: it was to entrench secrecy and deception in every act, every motion, every decision. This council does not engage and respond to the public: it cowers away behind closed doors where it can scheme and plot and connive against the very public it was supposed to serve. Saunderson even said, risibly,

Council is elected to serve the residents of Collingwood and is accountable to the residents throughout its mandate.

But all that has been served this term are private agendas, personal vendettas and The Block’s inflated sense of self-entitlement. Saunderon’s lapdog, Bob Madigan also promised:

Openness and transparency are the keystones to this upcoming election. I believe the community as a whole needs to be more involved and have input with key decisions. In doing this, the elected will be accountable for the final decisions they make. It will make our town a better and more harmonious place to be.

And like his leader, he has not kept them. No openness, no engagement and instead of harmony, The Block have polarized and divided town staff and our community. The only positive thing to come out of this has been a growing group of powerful people dedicated to bringing down The Block and making sure they never get re-elected.

Deb Doherty promised to “…strongly promote effective citizen participation within the new model of governance that we will be adopting.” Neither of which she did, or even raised again at the council table. Like her colleagues, she shuns citizen participation and public scrutiny. That’s why The Block voted to fire the town’s Integrity Commissioner – he investigated her and her fellow Blockheads for unethical behaviour.

Councillor Fryer promised that, “Once those interests have been fully protected though, then Council should provide the protected information to the public. That is how Council can show it is accountable and prove to the public it has made the best decision possible.” Which of course he has never done. Nor has he ever made public his active role in the 2012 share sale of the utility to PowerStream, and acts as if everything that was done was a surprise to him. I suppose saying he was a participant makes his negative council statements sound too much like the blatant hypocrisy they are.

Next election, will you trust the people who made – and then broke – those and similar promises? I didn’t think so. No thinking, self-respecting person would.

Add onto their cult of secrecy their assault on the utility staff, on our hospital, on jobs, on seniors, on people on fixed or low incomes… plus giving themselves pay raises every year and handing out sole-sourced contracts to friends and relatives like party favours. It’s been a burdensome three years under their noxious governance. Democracy has never suffered as much in Collingwood as it has this term.

But for now, you can help assault this fortress of secrecy. Get a Freedom of Information request (download a PDF here) and fill it in. In fact, print out several of them. Request the town provide the RFP; request the town provide the shareholders’ agreement; request the emails between councillors where they discussed Collus, where they discussed EPCOR; where they discussed PowerStream (our former utility partner); request the costs of the lawyers and consultants who provided input about the utility and the sale; request the amounts paid as a “consultant” to the former interim CAO after he retired. Request anything and everything with regard to the sale of our public utility. Request anything and everything about the airport sale, and the hospital redevelopment. These should all be public knowledge.

And when the town inevitably refuses (or demands a huge amount of money for the information – a tactic used to deter people from filing FOI requests) – file an appeal with the IPC. Don’t let this bunch get away with this. Our local democracy is at stake and, as I always intone,

Collingwood deserves better.

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