Dirty politics takes its toll

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Ed HoughtonBy now you probably have already heard that the CEO of Collus, Ed Houghton, has ‘resigned’ after 39 years of excellent, dedicated service to this community. It’s a huge loss to us, and we should be collectively embarrassed and ashamed at how it happened.

Forced out is more like it; the inevitable result of another evil act by an evil group determined to destroy everything good, effective and efficient in this town. And they are succeeding all too well.

Ed is only the latest casualty in The Block’s ongoing war on our utilities and their staff. The continued, unrelenting harassment finally drove him away. The COO of the water side, Marcus Firman, left in 2015 for much the same reason. And there have been others, too.

Many of those still at Collus and in our water utility are actively looking for work in less hostile, more progressive municipalities. After all, there’s only so much of this unmitigated bullshit and interference one can take. Morale at both utilities is extremely low and no one wants to be the last one left.

You’d know more about it if The Block didn’t have the local media in their pockets. An unbiased investigative reporter would have exposed it all. But you’ll have to settle for my reports, and frankly I am not unbiased about The Block and their malfeasance. Nor should you be. All of this has already wasted several hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars for out-of-town consultants and lawyers whose reports are used to justify the destruction.

Most of this has been conducted in secret, The Block plotting behind closed doors, for the past 18 months. And there’s no end to the damage in sight.

By the end of this year, maybe even by the end of the summer, I expect Collus will no longer exist: the utility will have been sold to Hydro One (secret negotiations are already underway). After which, your electricity rates will be “harmonized” up another 10% or more. Many of the remaining staff will leave. A century and a half of good service and low rates will be gone.

The Block will use the proceeds from the sale – plus millions from our reserves and debentures – to build the Taj Mahal rec centre in Central Park and turn the keys over to the YMCA. Your taxes will go up, of course, to pay for it.

And you, the residents and taxpayers, won’t have a say in it. How’s that for open, accountable government?

Ed’s problem was his success. The Block and the town’s administration cannot stand success in others. Envy eats at them, tears away at their insides.

None of the Block can claim a fraction of Ed’s accreditation or experience, let alone his wit, his charm, his wisdom or his selflessness. Houghton was well liked and widely respected throughout the province. He outshone every one of them. They were determined to bring him down.

Every effort he made to accommodate The Block’s and the administration’s demands was met with more demands, more accusations, more prying, more insults and more hectoring. Years of his email correspondence was demanded, then pored over (as were the mayor’s and former deputy-mayor Lloyd’s), looking for some imagined wrongdoing. None, of course, was found, but that didn’t stop them.

Like insidious carpenter ants, The Block has kept eating away at the heart of the utility, demanding more and more, while claiming what they received was never enough. It never will be, until the whole structure collapses.

The last straw for Ed was a naked grab for power: the experienced and professional Collus board was collectively (and illegally) fired by The Block a few weeks ago, and replaced with pet staff persons who could be cowed into doing The Block’s bidding. Replacements who didn’t need to fill in any application form, or submit any references, like every other applicant must. One of them lives in Meaford, not Collingwood, and another only stays here during days he works in town; his main residence is Oshawa.

The Block had already tried but failed to appoint one of their own to the board, so when that failed they, like all tyrants, used brute force to get their way. That it wasn’t legal, that none of the replacements had any experience in the electrical sector, and that the move poses a serious conflict of interest didn’t matter to The Block. They brook no interference.

Ed realized the situation was untenable. He could never satisfy them, couldn’t stop the erosion, so he fell on his sword. And we lost another of our best.

Houghton has served in many capacities in organizations and agencies, putting his experience of almost four decades to use in helping and developing the water and energy sectors in Ontario. Outside of Collingwood, he is widely recognized and liked by his peers and colleagues.

Among his many professional affiliations in the past, Ed was Chair of the Electricity Distributors Association (EDA), a member of the Ontario Energy Board Transmission Task Force and the longest-serving board member of the Independent Electricity System Operator (and its predecessor, the Independent Electricity Market Operator). Ed is also a past Chair of the drinking water users’ group committee of Zenon Environmental Inc., as well as a past Chair of their wastewater users’ group committee.

Until his resignation, Ed was a board member of the EDA, representing Ontario’s small LDCs. He was also a member of the peer review committee of the Green Municipal Fund for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). For more than three decades, he has been a member of the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technologists and the Association of Architectural Technologists of Ontario. That’s the C.E.T. and M.A.A.T.O. designations after his name.

Ed was Executive Director of Public Works for Collingwood from 2000 to 2013. For distinguished service to the water-supply field, in 2005, Ed was recognized with the most prestigious award for water in North America – the George Warren Fuller Award. The AWWA website says of the award:

George Warren Fuller Awards are presented annually by the American Water Works Association to the sections’ respective selected members for their distinguished service to the water supply field in commemoration of the sound engineering skill . . . the brilliant diplomatic talent . . . and the constructive leadership which characterized the life of George Warren Fuller… It is emphasized that the qualifications for the award specify that the services of the candidate must have been over and above those expected of officers and committee members in fulfilling the obligations or duties assigned to them. It is emphasized that the performance of a nominee must be exceptional and extraordinary.

Exceptional and extraordinary. How many of us can claim our life’s work lives up to those two words? How many of The Block can even achieve being called adequate? Yet Ed was recognized internationally through this and other awards for his work.

In 2012, Houghton, long-time President and CEO of Collingwood Public Utilities and Collus PowerStream Corp., was asked by council to fill the role of Acting Chief Administrative Officer for the Town of Collingwood. He took the job for a year, 2012-13 on top of his other duties, a demanding position for which he did not receive any additional compensation.

That period was the smoothest, most productive periods for this town’s administrative bureaucracy that I have ever seen in more than two decades in media and on council. As Acting CAO, he initiated in a cooperative, mutually supportive management team that worked together for common goals rather than in the competitive silos we had before and after. His was an inclusive style of leadership. Ed has always had the ability to inspire the best in others, to bring out their talents, and not take credit for the efforts of partners or subordinates. He never felt the need to read their emails, to restrict their communications, or answer for them.

Ed also brought his wealth of both water and municipal-utility experience to the Ontario Municipal Water Association as both a board member and president of that organization. He is currently the CEO of OMWA.

In 2012, he was the recipient of the OMWA Exceptional Merit Award, presented to the “individual who’s made an important contribution to the waterworks sector over an extended time.” Another recognition by his peers of his exceptional and extraordinary efforts.

Now you have to ask yourself, why would anyone in their right mind want to get rid of someone so well liked, so well respected, so experienced, so dedicated and so accomplished? Any other municipality would be scrambling to keep him, to boast of his presence and his accomplishments to other municipalities. But not Collingwood.

Here, he was hounded and hectored out of his job. Why? Can sheer jealousy alone account for this maliciousness and pettiness? Who benefits?

Well, connect these dots: Ed was Acting CAO for the town in 2012 when council asked for a review of alternatives to the proposed, highly unaffordable ‘Taj Mahal’ rec centre. He presided over the staff report on the Sprung buildings that determined they were the best, most affordable choice to fill our community’s recreational needs. He presented staff’s recommendation that council approach Sprung to build two of these affordable, energy-efficient structures as the best alternatives.

And in doing so, council rejected the glitzy, extravagant but impractical Taj Mahal proposed for the Y by the Central Park Steering Committee (which would have also entailed a 10% tax increase to finance). And by the way, the committee failed to mention to council the Y had told them the previous year that it had no intention of contributing any money to the project. Taxpayers had to shoulder the entire cost.

The committee was co-chaired by the current deputy mayor, Brian Saunderson, who, when his pet project failed, founded the “Better Together Collingwood” group. He led protests outside town hall where BTC demanded council cave in: build the proposed facility and turn the keys over to the YMCA. BTC fuelled the anger during the election campaign with misinformation, innuendo and imaginary scandals. BTC mouthpieces ruthlessly attacked Ed and other utility staff, as well as councillors, on their blogs.

Meanwhile, the sale of 50% of Collus to PowerStream in 2012 was supported by most of the Collus management. Apparently not by the now-Councillor Tim Fryer. I’ve been told the former the CFO at Collus expressed strong opposition to the sale. After which sale he retired, allegedly bitter over being overruled.

Has The Block’s attack on our utilities been done for the benefit of the people of Collingwood? To serve the greater good? Or simply to fulfill some personal vendettas?

Apparently, when The Block heard of Houghton’s recent resignation, they went into a frothing tizzy because Ed had the temerity to not inform them ahead of time. As an employee of Collus and its board (not the town), he of course informed the board, but I’m told that incensed the control freaks on council. They had wanted him to come cap in hand to beg to be let go. They lost one last chance to humiliate and belittle him, an act of defiance that continues to rankle them.

Collingwood’s loss is also our great shame. This is not how a municipality should behave. This is not how a municipality should treat its best and brightest. No one should be sacrificed to The Block’s malicious agenda.

Collingwood deserves better. Ed certainly deserved much better. Our utility staff deserve much better than this.

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