Once Upon a Time in Collingwood

PolitburoMORE THAN SIX MONTHS after council received the final report from the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI), council has finally seen fit to hold a (virtual) public meeting about it (April 7). Given their history of secrecy and deception, I suspect most of them begrudge even that one “public” activity. It is, after all, the first such public event since the previous council approved Saunderson’s motion to initiate the inquiry, more than three years ago. It’s been two years since the inquiry itself began, and almost a year and a half since it ended.

And let’s be clear: they’re not doing this to listen to you. This is merely another opportunity for the politburo to regurgitate their ossified defence against growing public anger over the still-increasing costs — likely more than $10 million if council was honest in its accounting — spent on a report about decade-old processes and events.*

I guess they figure if they keep repeating the same fairy tale about its value, enough gullible people will begin to believe them. 

I don’t expect this to be a public meeting as much as a series of stern lectures and reprimands from our elected representatives, with lots of hand-waving, and chastising those residents who “besmirch” council by voicing concerns over the ongoing and lavish spending.

But why is any report more important to  the community than:

  • Helping our small businesses and their employees survive the pandemic lockdowns, and the unemployment caused by business closures;
  • Providing services and support to isolated seniors and physically- or developmentally-challenged people during the lockdowns;
  • Helping people unemployed during the lockdown by covering their utility bills or providing rent subsidies;
  • Providing services to families with children struggling through layoffs and hardships during the lockdowns;
  • Developing a partnership with the food bank to help families and individuals struggling through the lockdowns;
  • Creating a local job bank to hire people unemployed by the lockdown to maintain and clean our streets, boulevards, parks, and downtown;
  • Specifically helping downtown businesses during the lockdown by paying or helping with BIA fees, utility costs, and rent while they are forced to close;
  • Fixing our crumbling streets and decaying sidewalks;
  • Restoring the terminals;
  • Upgrading and restoring the waterfront;
  • Upgrading our water and wastewater plants;
  • Building community arts and culture centre;
  • Installing more traffic signals and stop signs on busy roads to mitigate increased and faster traffic and make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists;
  • Reducing the town’s carbon footprint to help do our part to mitigate climate change;
  • Funding and supporting our hospital’s long-overdue redevelopment;
  • Buying the few remaining woodlots and greenspaces to protect them from development and create an environmental legacy for the community;
  • Saving the money to keep taxes low for years, or even lower them during the pandemic.

I doubt we’ll get any honest answers to the above, any more than we’ll get an honest accounting of the actual costs of the SVJI. I expect the usual self-serving, smug retorts about the report being as important as clean drinking water. (That bromide merely trivializes the efforts of previous councils long before this one to ensure the town HAS clean drinking water.) I expect the costs will be shrugged off, repeating the mayor’s hubristic claim that it was just a drop in the bucket, even though we taxpayers have to keep refilling that bucket every year.

(Maybe someone in the public will even ask the tough questions our local media won’t ask.)

Council will no doubt try to reassure us that, without these 306 often irrelevant or redundant recommendations, made by a panel of “experts” — most of whom were lawyers, and none had ever served as elected representatives in a municipality** — we would never have been able to move forward. Piffle.

For example, if we failed to ensure our CAO’s employment was limited to a “six-year nonrenewable term” (Recommendation 82), are we to expect all hell could break loose in town hall?

Imagine, too, the mayhem that would result if the Code of Conduct at the Town of Collingwood was not “written in plain language and easily understandable by staff and members of the public” (Recommendation 89).

Picture the confusion and uproar during a council meeting if staff inadvertently summarized or explained the findings of a consultant’s report (Recommendation 122). Or the confusion and anxiety among councillors if a consultant’s report was not “appended to staff reports,” but presented separately (Recommendation 180). 

I expect there would be mass protests outside town hall if the lobbyist registrar was not appointed for a non-renewable term (Recommendation 251, although how long that non-renewable term should be was not specified).

We’d likely see the OPP breaking down the doors at town hall to arrest council miscreants if municipally-owned corporations at the Town of Collingwood were not made “accountable and transparent” (Recommendation 265). That’s a difficult one to achieve, of course, given that the previous council sold our only municipally-owned corporation to a for-profit corporation without public consultation several years before the report was written. And yet how much consternation must there be among council on staff attempting to ensure that “the selection process for board membership on a municipally-owned corporation at the Town of Collingwood must be robust” (266) when that corporation doesn’t even exist?

There are 30 recommendations (nos. 265-294) dealing with our non-existent municipal corporation, but, apparently, they’re crucial to the as-important-as-clean-drinking-water-report. A full ten percent of the report’s recommendations deal with something we don’t have. Will the town create a new corporation simply to accomplish these thirty recommendations? (One wonders why the “experts” spent so much time on recommendations for something that didn’t exist…)

Imagine what could happen should the Province of Ontario fail to amend the Municipal Act “to mandate that municipalities the size of the Town of
Collingwood should have a solicitor on retainer to provide legal advice” (302) and fail to “mandate that municipalities the size of the Town of Collingwood appoint a chief administrative officer.” (70) Wait, you’re telling me there’s no definition to guide us on what “size” means? Full-time population? Full and part-time population? Area? Road and street mileage? Carbon footprint? Economic footprint? Egos of councillors? Surely an $8-$10 million document wouldn’t be so vague and inexact… oops.

Of course, it’s such a large and complex document, our own council could not absorb it all (or possibly for some, any of it). Council required staff to prepare a slimmed-down, $700,000 report-about-the-report, with a PowerPoint presentation in big fonts, read aloud slowly, with pie charts so our elected representatives could get the gist (who among us actually expected our council members to read something that large? Me either.) And it’s only the first of a planned series of reports-about-the-report that will siphon your tax dollars away from those unimportant areas like street and sidewalk repairs or pandemic support.

I count 16 recommendations to the province to amend the Municipal Act or the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. That’s five percent of the report we paid for, but have no control over. Couldn’t these have been better made by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), to which the town belongs? AMO holds conventions, meetings, and workshops to which the town sends staff and council members. Why didn’t we raise these issues there and let AMO bring them up on behalf of the rest of the municipalities in Ontario? But no, we had to pay for them ourselves.

I could mention the many recommendations about town procedures, policies, codes, procurement, and HR issues that the town either implemented years before the inquiry was called for, or has done since. What was the point of making recommendations and paying for something we’re already doing or stopped doing years ago? You’d almost think the “experts” didn’t bother to read our town’s current policies and bylaws before pontificating on what we should do with them. But, redundant or not, they’re listed.

Does anyone really expect this council of sycophants to be critical of the egregiously expensive report their leader so proudly flogs around the county and the province?*** Or to be honest about the actual costs of the SVJI — beginning with the sole-sourced lawyers and consultants appointed to set the stage last term, years before the motion for the inquiry was presented.**** and including the secret deal with EPCOR, the $700,000 staff report, and the cost of bringing the former legal team and former CAOs back to Collingwood? Neither do I.

Collingwood deserves better.

~~~~~

* It’s been more than nine years since the Central Park Steering Committee (Saunderson was its co-chair) presented its final report to Collingwood Council, demanding that, instead of a partnership arrangement as the committee’s mandate required, the town instead give the YMCA a $35,251,965.11 handout. Council’s refusal to give the money away without at least a financial contribution from the Y began this whole process that led to the SVJI. Funny how the local media seems to have forgotten that.

** From the inquiry’s final report, page 113: “Part Three of the Inquiry consisted of expert witnesses who testified in panels. The panellists first made a presentation on their topic, and Commission counsel then asked the panellists questions. Counsel for the Town of Collingwood – the only participant granted status in Part Three – could also ask questions at this time.”
So no elected representatives or staff members, past or present, no lawyers for the witnesses, or witnesses themselves were allowed to question the “wisdom” let alone the qualifications or conclusions of these “experts.” Only the town’s legal team — the same, sole-sourced lawyers who advised council behind closed doors to call a judicial inquiry then got appointed as the town’s representatives without the proper RFP process required by the town’s procurement bylaw — could question them? Does anyone else think that’s not what one should expect from a fair and objective inquiry?

*** I have no doubt this “meeting” will also serve as a publicity stunt to get his name in the media; part of his campaign to get out of this responsibilities as mayor and get a better-paying job in Toronto as MPP.  His campaign (in which he touts his role as mayor and county councillor) has much potential for conflict-of-interest and influence-peddling accusations, although his beloved SVJI has the following recommendations about potential conflicts (emphasis added):

9 Section 223.2(4) of the Municipal Act … should be amended to
require that municipal codes of conduct for Council members
include provisions on real, apparent, and potential conflicts of
interest.
12 The Province of Ontario should amend the Municipal Conflict
of Interest Act to broaden its scope beyond deemed pecuniary
interest to encompass any real, apparent, and potential conflict
of interest.
27 The Code of Conduct should contain specific provisions
addressed to apparent and potential conflicts of interest as well
as real conflicts of interest.
28 The Code of Conduct should state that Council members must understand and adhere to their obligations concerning real, apparent, and potential conflicts of interest under the Municipal Act, the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, the Code of Conduct for Council members in Collingwood, and other relevant Town policies and legislation.
31 The Code of Conduct for Council members in Collingwood should include provisions on disqualifying and nondisqualifying interests. The Code should prohibit Council members from participating in “decision-making processes” related to “their office when they have a disqualifying interest in the matter.”
A disqualifying interest is “an interest in a matter, that by virtue of the relationship between the Member of Council and other persons and bodies associated with the matter, is of such a nature that reasonable persons fully informed of the facts would believe that the Member of Council could not participate impartially in the decision-making processes related to the matter.

Saunderson clearly doesn’t think they apply to him. I guess he’s a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of politician. If he can so blithely dismiss these recommendations about potential conflicts, why should anyone heed the rest of them? The honourable thing for him to do would be to stop taking the town’s paycheque and resign while he hunts for another job. I wonder if anyone will ask our mayor why he’s ignoring these recommendations during the meeting (the local media isn’t doing it).

**** Sneakily brought to the table without prior notice of motion, when three members of council were absent from the table and unable to join the discussion or vote, and then only approved by a razor-thin majority of five: Saunderson, Jeffrey, Doherty, Madigan, and Ecclestone, in Feb. 2018. The first four were re-elected to the current council. These five should be held responsible for the costs, despite their efforts to blame it on others.

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5 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Brydges

    Can a town council still approve a project or spending if it is not approved through the public budget process without publicly amending the budget in accordance with the Municipal Act and without going through the prioritization process of the budget? Would any of the policies and procedures being implemented in accordance with the judicial inquiry recommendations prevent this from occurring?

  2. Jeffrey Brydges

    By replenishing reserves that were depleted by funding the judicial inquiry costs, such as the working capital reserve, indirectly using the proceeds of the assets sales to fund the judicial inquiry costs contrary to council’s previous public direction to staff?

  3. Jeffrey Brydges

    Skinner said the 2021 budget of $700,000 would provide the resources “to do a good job on the judicial inquiry follow-up.”
    Is this the mayor’s pre-campaign slush fund or is it only for the report about the report?
    So many questions, so few answers.

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