Why? A few questions for councillors

asking whyWhy? Councillor Madigan said he had written that on every page of the report about Collus, presented to council last week by lawyer Mark Rodger. After reading the report, I also have many questions why. It’s a good question. I too, wrote ‘why?” on many pages, albeit likely for rather different reasons.

Why, I asked myself as I watched the meeting and listened to the comments from councillors last week, is our current council so intent on destroying its successful, accomplished utility – a superb, efficient business – while demoralizing and alienating the staff who have served this community so well for decades?

Why is this council so determined to destroy the partnership and relationship with the municipally-owned and respected utility PowerStream, easily the foremost and most forward-thinking utility company in the province?

Why does this council accept at face value flawed reports from dubious consultants with incomplete, incorrect or missing information, ignore corrections and factual errors, and overlook significant problems or issues in them? As John Dryden wrote in his satirical poem, Absalom and Achitophel:

Some truth there was, but dash’d and brew’d with lies;
To please the fools, and puzzle all the wise.
Succeeding times did equal folly call,
Believing nothing, or believing all.

Why does this council place so much more weight in the reports from one- and two-person consulting firms operating out of their out-of-town homes than what KPMG – one of the world’s four largest consulting firms, with 174,000 employees worldwide – said or advised to the former council. Are they just sticking their ideological heads in the sand to avoid reason?

Why doesn’t this council demand the administration release to the public and media the hundreds of pages of corrections and responses to all these reports? Why does council allow them to be hidden away in secrecy, far from public scrutiny?

Why wasn’t a glowing third-party review of the Collus PowerStream strategic partnership provided to council last year kept secret? Was it because it was positive, thorough and complimentary? Was it because it debunks reports by buddy consultants?

Why does this council put private agendas and personal vendettas ahead of the public good, ahead of the well-being of our institutions, and ahead of the morale of town staff?

Why did council accept a report that contained content from anonymous sources? On page 4 of Rodger’s report, the footnote says some of the sources “…spoke to us on the condition that they not be identified.” Anonymous sources? What sort of credibility does that have?

Continue reading “Why? A few questions for councillors”

2,036 total views, 20 views today

The latest FOI emails examined

paper stackOne hundred and seventy pages of email correspondence between the town’s interim CAO, John Brown, and the Collus/Powerstream CEO, Ed Houghton, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, , 2015, were recently released to the public as the result of a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request filed locally.

I have printed and read through all 170 pages, and marked up many of them. It’s dull reading, aside, that is, from the included “Third Party Review of the Collus PowerStream Strategic Partnership,” which should be required reading for all members of council.

Let’s get something straight: No one at Collus works for the town, no one at Collus is answerable to the town’s CAO or any other town employee. It’s a separate, partner corporation and as such its employees deserve respect and dignity. Collus executives answer to their board of directors, not to town staff.*

I’m surprised, even astounded that these were released by the recipient because, as I read them, they are not complimentary to the town’s interim CAO. In fact, they paint a rather unflattering picture of the administrator’s communication skills. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I expect the top staff people in any organization, CAO, CEO, CFO, CIO or whatever the initialism, to be a good, professional and civil communicator. It should come with the job.

The records show someone who admits he is not a good “typist” in the medium of emails and modern technology (record 8). But also – perhaps there’s still too much of the editor in me – seemingly unconcerned about stylistic conventions of the language – such as capitalization, punctuation or spelling.

Mr. Houghton’s responses show civility, patience, some evident exasperation, but compliance and professionalism.

Continue reading “The latest FOI emails examined”

2,470 total views, 35 views today

Collingwood’s broken committee system, part 2

Coup d'etat
Coup d’etat!

Back in early 2015, I wrote that the experimental standing committee structure adopted by council was broken. Well, wouldn’t you know it, a year later, council finally agreed. And they replaced it with… you guessed it: another standing committee system. But it’s potentially a much more dangerous threat to our community.

The former system had committees of three council members, which met away from the prying cameras that broadcast full council meetings, some of the committees skulking on the top floor of the library to further avoid public scrutiny.

Because a group of three councillors was not a quorum, committees could only recommend a course of action to council. Delegations and presentations had to be repeated in front of the whole council: a pointless redundancy for staff and the public.

In early 2016, old committees were replaced with two, new five-person committees which meet away from the prying TV cameras, in the top floor of the library where few of the pesky public ever go.

Here’s where the danger to democracy gets exposed. Aside from the continued reluctance of council to do public business in the open, that is.

Continue reading “Collingwood’s broken committee system, part 2”

2,824 total views, 20 views today

Fixing the shared services agreement

Way too long!First, some history: for 15 years, Collus – now Collus/Powerstream – had a beneficial, mutually-agreed-on and successful agreement with the town to provide services back to the town at reasonable rates. These were things the town did not or could not provide itself for reasons of cost, staffing, expertise, equipment or interest. It was mutually beneficial to have Collus provide them.

The list of potential services included:

Reconnect & Collection, Meter Reading, Billing & Collecting, Customer Service, Information Technology Management, Data Tracking, Accounting, Engineering, Planning & Necessary Maintenance, Contracting with Developers, Customers & Others, Subcontracting Services, After Hours Response, Normal Hours Response, Emergency Preparedness, Provision of Supervisory Services, HR, Policy Development, Regulatory Assistance, Reporting and Capital Construction Activities.

The town, of course, had to request most of the services, and if they weren’t asked for, they weren’t provided, so the town wasn’t billed for them. What was asked for and provided was billed quarterly. These figures appeared in publicly accessible financial updates and budgets presented to council. Nothing secret here.

True, not all services on that list were provided all the time. That’s because the town never asked for that service. And it wasn’t billed for what it didn’t receive. Got that? No provision = no billing.

The agreement was supposed to be restructured in 2012 when Powerstream took over the 50% share of Collus. But the person responsible for doing so didn’t accomplish it in time and left. But Collus/Powerstream continued in good faith to provide services, billing the town only for what it did.

In fact, Collus employees have always gone well above and beyond what the service agreement stipulated. After all, the employees of Collus are also residents who love and respect their home town and want it to be the best it can be – a level of dedication one doesn’t expect from interim employees.

In July, 2014, the former council called for a new agreement to bring the contract up to date and see if there were any services to add or delete. The interim CAO was tasked with the job of having the agreement examined and recommendations made for it to be updated. Should be a simple task, right?

Instead, it resulted in the now-infamous report by True North and Beacon 2020 that condemned the agreement and Collus, publicly presented to the new council in December, 2014.

Council rightfully rejected the report and asked the consultants to fix it and bring it back with the facts straight. But that’s not what happened. I wrote about this botched report back in February, 2015.

Continue reading “Fixing the shared services agreement”

2,890 total views, 40 views today

Master Han Fei’s Wisdom

Han FeiLong before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his now-famous work of political philosophy, The Prince, there was another man writing in a similar vein in China. And, like many other sages, his words have important lessons that can prove useful, even today, for our own municipal council.

Han Fei Tzu (aka Han Feizi) was a prince in the Han Kingdom in the third century BCE. He was a member of and spokesperson for the “legalistic” school that challenged many of the Confucian notions of government. In his short life he wrote 55 books – really short essays we would call chapters today.

This week, I pulled out my tattered copy of Burton Watson’s translation (Columbia University Press, 1964) for another read. I hadn’t read Master Han Fei for quite a while, and, as I often am when reading the classics, I was somewhat fascinated at the relevance today of these ancient words. Even though he was writing in a vastly different political climate, a different culture and a different technological era, like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, his comments on politics and leadership still resonate in today’s world.

One of the books was called The Ten Faults, and here I reproduce the list of faults identified by Han Fei (as per Watson’s translation):

  • To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty;
  • To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one;
  • To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall;
  • To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress;
  • To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise;
  • To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction;
  • To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself;
  • To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others;
  • To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment;
  • To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.

Change a few words – ministers to councillors, music to sycophants, feudal lords to staff… and it’s almost scary how well these ideas and admonitions fit into today’s local political arena. So here is my analysis of how Han Fei’s words relate to Collingwood.

Continue reading “Master Han Fei’s Wisdom”

1,956 total views, 45 views today

Betraying the Public Interest

Shame on youAt last Monday’s council meeting, Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson maneuvered so that interim CAO John Brown was allowed to publicly speak to the question of his contract being extended before any vote was taken. Even before anyone on council had a chance to comment on whether he should be allowed to speak.

This motion was the topic of my previous post. I believe this is an egregious betrayal of the public interest, but it’s worth looking at the process in more detail, especially to watch the video of the meeting.

In the video, it seems clear to me that Saunderson has little or no interest in an accountable government, just in getting his own way. Hardly news, I realize, but his disregard for public interest was most blatant at that meeting.

Watch it on the linked video, starting at 2:10: you’ll see Saunderson’s motion (seconded by Madigan) to extend the interim CAO’s contract to October, 2017 (the motion that blindsided the mayor and HR staff, while flipping the bird at Collingwood taxpayers).

The interim CAO stays at the table for two minutes while his position is being discussed. That should have set off procedural or at least ethical alarm bells, but the clerk remains silent.

At around 2:12 the interim CAO interrupts to ask to make a comment. At this point the mayor hesitates, then asks council for its approval of his doing so. Coun. Lloyd raises the question of the interim CAO commenting before council makes its decision, suggesting it’s a conflict of interest. It’s the most salient point of the moment.

Of course, Saunderson jumps in to support the request, and, without a by-your-leave to the mayor, turns to Brown to ask Brown to make his comment before council has a chance to debate and vote. Then – after Brown has said it all, so his supporters get the message loud and clear – he leaves the table.

And I believe, by all I know of politics and ethics, that’s wrong. It’s abuse of process for the Deputy Mayor and not an good example of leadership or best behaviour by the interim CAO.

Continue reading “Betraying the Public Interest”

1,862 total views, 20 views today

The $1.2 Million Bird-Flip

Alfred E NeumanOnly 16 months into this term and I’m already worn out from saying “I told you so.” I warned you it would get worse just a few weeks ago. And look: IT DID.

But you’re not really surprised, are you? The whole thing was choreographed by the Bobblehead Block Five through months of secret meetings and emails without any public input. Secrecy, no openness, no accountability – the hallmarks of this term. And it will get worse. Much worse.

I’m going to be saying “I told you so” a lot more through the train wreck of this term. Get used to it.

$1.2 million is the approximate amount Collingwood will have paid its interim CAO by the end of this council term. That’s at $225,000 a year ($50-$100,000 more than what other local CAOs make) plus car, and expenses. And it doesn’t include the stratospheric costs for lawyers (at $900 an hour) and buddy-consultants that have been rung up in the past year. Hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That’s your money. And it’s been used to promote the private agendas and personal vendettas of the Block Five. It could have been used to keep taxes low. It could have been used to pay down the debt. Remember the debt that this group screamed during the election was so out of control that it could only be solved by electing them? Guess what… their solution to fiscal management is spend, spend, spend.

The Block Five flipped the bird at Collingwood taxpayers.

Section 224 of the Municipal Act says council has an OBLIGATION to:

(a) to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality;
(b) to develop and evaluate the policies and programs of the municipality;
(c) to determine which services the municipality provides;
(d) to ensure that administrative policies, practices and procedures and controllership policies, practices and procedures are in place to implement the decisions of council;
(d.1) to ensure the accountability and transparency of the operations of the municipality, including the activities of the senior management of the municipality;
(e) to maintain the financial integrity of the municipality

Council flipped the bird at the province, too. Openness and transparency only get in the way of doing whatever you want. Why obey the Municipal Act? Why practice financial integrity? Spend, spend, spend.

Continue reading “The $1.2 Million Bird-Flip”

3,040 total views, 25 views today

The Crow and the Lion

Fat CrowOnce upon a time, a crafty, old crow was sitting in his nest while his dole of pet doves brought him his breakfast. He happened to look down to the forest floor and saw a convocation of animals had been called. The animals gathered in front of their leader, a wise old lion.

I don’t like lions, said the crow to himself. They’re too full of themselves. The animals like them too much. The lion shouldn’t be king of the beasts. I should be.

So he called his doves to his side. “I am far more experienced, wiser, and smarter and better looking than any lion,” the crow told the doves. “You must confront the lion. You must tell the lion to step down so I can be king of beasts.”

“But how can we do that?” asked the leader of the doves. “The lion is big and strong and has many teeth that could bite us. The lion could eat us.”

“The lion won’t dare eat you in front of all the other animals,” said the crow. “The lion respects the rules.”

So the leader of the doves flew down to the forest floor and stood before the lion. “Old lion,” the dove said. “You must relinquish your crown. The crow wishes to be king of beasts.”

And the lion laughed. “Does he? Well, tell your master I was voted into this office by all the other animals in the forest. If he wishes to be king, he has to run in an election against me. Now fly away little one.”

And the dove flew back while the other animals chuckled at his presumption.

“Wah, wah, wah,” the dove cried to the crow. “The lion laughed at me. He hurt my feelings. He made me look silly in front of the other animals. Wah, wah, wah.”

“Now, now,” said the crow, patting the dove on his head. “You’re a big, strong dove and you don’t need to take such disrespect from the mean old lion. Nasty, nasty lion. Hurting my little dovie-wovie’s feelings.”

“What can we do?” asked the dove, wiping his tears with a wing.

Continue reading “The Crow and the Lion”

World Poetry Day

PoetryToday, March 21, is World Poetry Day. Do you care? Not that I’m cynical about poetry – I think it’s important stuff. Poetry is far more important than, say, hockey. The Kardashians. The Oscars. The budget. The latest iPhone or iPad. A cute puppy or kitten video on Facebook. The latest anti-science fad. Or fad diet. It’s even more important than the US election.

But that’s a hard sell to a culture with the average attention span lower than that of a goldfish.

Whoever gets elected in the US in November will get into the history books, but the campaigns and the brouhaha will soon be forgotten. They’ll just be noise for the historians to sift through generations from now. I’m sure if current generations are even really aware of, or even care about the issues facing them – certainly the past is a foreign country to them, especially their own past.

Does anyone still talk about the federal election of 1917? What were the campaign issues, who was running, what were their parties? The leaders? Does anyone still talk about the Unionist Party and its motives? Yet that same year, T. S. Eliot’s Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock was published and it’s still being read and quoted. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas… ”

Most folk couldn’t tell you who won the Stanley Cup a decade ago, let alone in 1923, without resorting to Google. But William Carlos Williams’ poem from that year – colloquially known as The Red Wheelbarrow (poem XXII from Spring and All) – is still read and treasured:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

Continue reading “World Poetry Day”

1,452 total views, 5 views today

Anti-GMO = Anti-Science

FrankenfoodsThe politics of persuasion play a bigger role in the anti-GMO movement than science. Like so many anti-science movements before them – the anti-gluten fad, the anti-vaccination idiocies, creationism, the HIV and Zika virus conspiracies, chemtrails and on and on. Like them, anti-GMO is built on a combination of ignorance, fear and gullibility. And it’s all codswallop.

First, lets get something clear: almost every single thing you eat today has been modified. Tomatoes, corn, beef, chicken, salmon, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, peas, apples, almonds, peanuts, wheat, potatoes, bananas, milk, cheese, yeast… aside from some wild fish and wild game, everything you eat is the product of selective breeding, hybridization, grafting, careful feeding, vaccinating, fertilizing, antibiotics, hormones, spraying or a combination thereof. And the result is genetic modification. Not necessarily genetic engineering, but the result is the same.

Look at corn. It’s been played with by humans for the past 10,000 years. The ancestral teosinte bears no resemblance to the corn on the cob on your plate. Today’s corn is genetically very different from its ancestor. Archeologists found 4,440-year-old corn in Mexico and the genetic structure revealed how humans modified the plants deliberately and systematically to create better, bigger produce. Genetic modification for millenia.

Of course no one called it that, back then. Today we have genetic engineering and biotechnology and, since most of us really don’t know exactly what they entail, what the research is, what the techniques are, we find them scary. Somehow a farmer hybridizing plants in a field feels safer, more “natural” than a scientist doing it in a laboratory. Nonsense.

More to the point, what you see as “corn” in the supermarket is just one of many thousands of varieties grown in North America. Could you even tell the difference between the basic categories of dent, sweet and pop corn from looking at it in a field? What about flint, flour and pod corn? I couldn’t. But okay, the bag of frozen niblets says it’s “sweet” corn. What does that label actually mean to you, the consumer? As opposed to sour corn? Salty corn? You’ve got your label, now what?

The corn you eat is already genetically modified to be insect resistant, to be more drought-resistant, to be herbicide tolerant. Most of that was done over the past several decades to improve crop yields or to counter pests, predators and disease. You’ve been eating it for years.

What some people often don’t consider is that those modifications are helping reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides, irrigation and even fertilizers, which is better for the environment.

Continue reading “Anti-GMO = Anti-Science”

1,917 total views, 15 views today

CAOs: Mene mene, tekel upharsin

Leaders in the ShadowsThe title, as you well know, dear reader, comes from the writing on the wall in Daniel 5, translated as, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Those words came to me as I read David Siegel’s recent book on Canadian municipal CAOs, Leaders in the Shadows.  It’s subtitled, “The Leadership Qualities of Municipal Chief Administrative Officers.” Interesting stuff for any municipal politician engaged in the recruitment of a CAO.*

Siegel suggests CAOs lead from the shadows because, in part, “…a CAO whose name is in the media frequently is probably in some kind of trouble.” I also suggest that such a CAO may also be so I-centric that he or she feels the need to subordinate the politicians and community to be in the forefront of attention; to be in the media simply for the egotistical delight of seeing his or her name in print. Such a CAO is not a good leader.

Siegel looks at general ideas of leadership within the complex and often byzantine context of Canadian municipal governance, and provides five case studies of successful CAOs from around the country. He examines their careers in depth, their personal attributes, and looks at their leadership skills in leading down (to staff), up (council) and out (community and peers).

That three-way balancing act is crucial to Siegel’s analysis. Good CAOs manage to engage all levels and all directions simultaneously. Staff and council, of course, have more direct interaction with the CAO, thus more opportunities to engage (therefore more opportunities to lead down and up).

I would put leading out under the microscope more because I believe it requires much more effort, more passion, more dedication and more professionalism to be involved in the community outside the office. To actively go out of the town hall doors and engage businesses, groups, to be involved in events, to walk the streets and speak to residents. That’s where a truly great leader would shine, in my estimation. Conversely, any CAO who doesn’t do at least minimal and regular external engagement is not, in my eyes, a leader, merely a manager.

A CAO who isolates himself or herself in the office and does not engage the community would, I believe, be more of a liability to the administration than an asset.

Siegel identifies a municipal CAO with good leadership skills as having “…the ability to move the municipality forward by interacting in a mutually influential way with and motivating council, external stakeholders and organizational subordinates.” This extends a more general definition from Joseph Rost’s book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. The key words here are interacting and motivating; not bossing, not ordering, not demanding.

He notes that good leaders “…minimize their personal ambition and emphasize ambition for their organization” (p256). His exemplars, he further notes, were not I-centric, but during interviews deflected discussions away from their own accomplishments to those of their subordinates and their organizations. I expect they were comfortable working in mutually-beneficial partnership situations (like we had with our own Collus/Powerstream partner until this term) and with staff as valued members of the organization, rather than attempting to destroy any relationship for ideological or personal reasons.

The five CAOs were chosen as role models in different categories and styles of management: the generalist, the task-oriented leader, the relationship-oriented leader, the partnership-building leader and what he calls the “I think I’m a better employee…” leader. In truth, all of the CAOs chosen show some degree of strength in every category. Conversely, I would expect there are those around who have none of these skills but have risen through the ranks by sheer ability to outlast everyone else. One can never lose sight of the Peter Principle in which “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

Continue reading “CAOs: Mene mene, tekel upharsin”

2,188 total views, 15 views today

The Crow and the Eagles

Fat CrowOnce upon a time, the crafty old crow was huffing and puffing as he flapped his way up into his nest. Although the nest was barely halfway up the tree, the crow could barely fly that high with his stubby, fat little wings and his round belly full of the delicious clams his pet doves brought to him every day.

This nest is too high! he said to himself. I’ll have to get my doves to move it to a lower branch. No bird should have to fly so high to get to its nest. It’s an insult to all birds to have to nest above the ground.

But as he settled into his nest, enjoying the soft, downy feathers the doves plucked from their own chests to line his nest, he happened to glance up. Up, way, up, there in the sky so high they appeared as mere dots, eagles soared. Soared high and free.

I hate eagles, the crow muttered to himself. No bird should be able to fly higher than I can fly. These eagles are an insult to my integrity. I have a responsibility to all birds to bring them low.

So he called for his forest friends, the rat, the weasel and the fox.

To the weasel, he said, “My pet doves admire the eagles. They like they way the eagles soar free up there among the clouds. I need you to frighten them. Make them afraid of the eagles, make them learn to hate these free birds. Tell them how the eagles are disrespecting them by flying so high. Tell them that only birds intent on evil fly up in the clouds.”

And the weasel ran off to find the doves and warn them about the eagles and spread dissension and fear.

Continue reading “The Crow and the Eagles”

1,482 total views, 5 views today