Climate Change and Collingwood

Climate changeClimate change is arguably the single most pressing, most important, most challenging issue to affect governments at this time. Our world is suffering and weather is getting extreme in many parts. It’s affecting crops, wildlife, safety, water… everything.

But what are Canadian municipalities doing to combat it, to reign in their use of fossil fuels, reduce their carbon footprint, reduce emissions, pollution, and embrace alternate energy systems?

Not much, according to a study done by the Ontario Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure. OCSI’s 2014 report, “When the Bough Breaks” has some discouraging statistics. According to their survey, only 38% of Ontario municipalities are “incorporating climate change into their asset management planning.” Climate change was a priority in only 13% of municipalities.

Scarier is that, when given a list of relevant activities to choose from, 22% of respondents admitted their municipality was doing nothing to address climate change impacts. Nothing. A fifth of our municipalities aren’t even preparing themselves for catastrophic or severe weather.

In 2008, Collingwood’s now-forgotten Sustainable Community Plan report had this to say:

Over the next forty years, the Town of Collingwood is expected to experience local forces of change such as unprecedented population growth and changing demographic and global forces of change such as rising commodity prices and climate change… Over the next 40 years, climate change may impact the topography, water supply, water levels and climate in Collingwood, and around the world.

The plan went on to address ways Collingwood might act to create a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly community that helped reduce the human impact on climate change. Some, but far from all, of these ideas were incorporated in later town initiatives.

Since then, there have been many initiatives to deal with climate effects implemented by municipalities worldwide (especially to mitigate the threat to municipal infrastructure), and there are whole new trends in areas like stormwater management that have developed and are being shared.

But what has Collingwood done since that report? Not much, if anything.

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Proportional Representation in Canada

Another Canadian election has gone by where the majority government is formed by a party winning only 40% of the popular vote. This has political watchers and pundits increasingly vocal about changing the electoral system. But most of them agree it needs changing.

So far, however, the Liberals are mum on how their campaign promise to reform our electoral system will be implemented. And while I have faith our new Prime Minister will be true to his word, since it will come from a committee effort, one can only wonder what sort of camel that horse will be.*

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in election reform and the institution of a better, more equitable and more democratic form of representation. With the passage of the voter control legislation by the Harper Conservatives – a law that represses voter participation in our democracy, rather than encouraging it – I became concerned that unless we change the system, we are doomed to continuing abuses in our less-than-representational governments.

However, I have yet to see proposed a system that, in my mind, works efficiently. Proportional voting has three distinct methods, and a couple more sub-methods, none of which strike me as entirely satisfactory. But all seem more fair than our current method in giving Canadians real representation. Fair Vote Canada notes the goal of proportional representation is…

…to balance the benefits of introducing some element of proportionality with the capacity to maintain accountable government, most notably as a direct link between elected politicians and their constituents.

Back in 2007, there was a referendum in Ontario for a mixed-member proportional system. It failed (36.9%) to garner the support, probably because the proposed system was simply too damned complicated. Selling a new voting method to the public is never going to be easy easy, but this one sank itself by being so hard to articulate. Plus the process of explaining (and selling) it was poorly organized. As Wikipedia notes:

A June Environics poll showed that 70% of those polled were not familiar with the proposal, including over 50% who knew nothing at all about the upcoming referendum… Citizens were expected to get the information they needed from various websites or from the press. Remarkably, although the Citizens’ Assembly had produced a shorter version of their report and a short leaflet further summarizing it, Elections Ontario distributed neither, to the surprise and disappointment of the Citizens’ Assembly.

As it notes on the Fair Vote Canada site, there’s more than a change to to way we count votes in a proportional method:

PR Systems MUST have multi-member districts: One key feature of PR voting systems is that they use electoral districts that elect two or more MPs. PR-list and STV do this by combining current single member ridings into larger multi-member ridings. If five ridings are combined into one, then all voters in that new riding will help elect 5 MPs for that riding.

Recreating election districts for the whole nation is not an inexpensive proposition. Plus I expect it to be fraught with controversy as such changes in the past have been. However, I trust the pain will be worth the gain in strengthening our democracy.
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Misunderstanding Local Government

A recent editorial in the Collingwood Connection underscores the need to have writers who understand the actual process of government, and not simply comment on politics from an ideological perspective. It also underscores that some of our council still don’t understand why they are at the table.

The anonymous writer of that editorial has penned this bit of cunning misinformation:

Council was not being asked to decide if residents should be able to raise chickens in their backyard or pass judgment on the merits of the idea. They were being asked to start a process of public input.

Well, we know that’s not quite correct. Although the standing committee recommended one option, council really had a choice between the two options presented in the staff report. Here’s what the staff report actually recommended (emphasis added):

THAT Council receive Staff Report P2015-34 for information purposes. OR
THAT Council authorize the initiation of an application for Official Plan and Zoning By-law amendments and the required public consultation process and allow a moratorium of enforcement for existing properties with backyard chickens.

So council could choose between two actions (a standing committee can only recommend, not dictate to council).

First choice: receiving the report and, after considering the cautions, concerns and costs identified by staff in the report, then relegating it to the dustbin as an issue not to be brought forward.

Second choice: start an unbudgeted, expensive, time- and resource-consuming, legal process to change our Official Plan and bylaws to accommodate a small special interest group, while allowing those people who are currently breaking the law to continue doing so without penalty.

Council wasn’t being asked if residents could raise chickens because that is already illegal. Council could choose to do nothing, or to start the process of changing the laws.

But there was public input already: advocates made a presentation to the standing committee, several people spoke to the issue, and presented a petition. Anyone could attend, could stand up and speak to it. Why would you need more? Do you need more public meetings again and again on a single issue?

Public input is part of the latter choice because it is required by the Planning Act and Municipal Act when OPs and bylaws are changed. It wasn’t necessary in the first choice (you don’t say ‘No, we’re not going ahead. Now let’s hear from the public…”.

Frankly it’s a canard to make that the focus, because in the end the decision still remains with council regardless of the public input.

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The Republican Conspiracy

CNBC GOP Debate: The Sh*tshow Version Last night’s debate was a total sh*tshow.

Posted by The Huffington Post on Thursday, October 29, 2015

I realized only after watching this edited video that the activity of the so-called Republican candidates’ debate was not simply the circus it seemed from the outset; it was actually a conspiracy. A cunning, well-laid conspiracy. And it is so Machiavellian that I actually smiled in appreciation of its deviousness.

My first reaction on watching the debate (online) was that no one in their right minds could ever select any of these clowns for president.

Come on – Donald Trump as front-runner? That’s a joke, right? Daffy Duck would make a better, smarter president.

It’s got to be a big circus; mere entertainment for Americans weary of reading about another gun-nut mass slaying in their home town that the Republican candidates will callously gloss over or say could have been prevented by everyone else being armed (often while quoting some obscure Biblical phrase).

And these clowns running for an office that requires intelligence, wisdom and critical thinking – that is immensely entertaining. It was like watching 10 comedians all playing Lou Costello in the famous “Who’s on First” skit simultaneously, with the moderators as Bud Abbott.

But maybe it’s a lot more devious that it appears. Maybe it’s far more cunning than any of us realized and we’re all the patsy in a con game.

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Feathers A-Flying in Collingwood

Dead chickenChickengate: despite urban chickens being outre among the trendy these days; a fad long abandoned by hip who are now pursing some new form of glitzy hobby, some folks in town want to raise chickens in their yards. Seems we’re only a few years behind the trendsetters. What next? Urban cows? Urban sheep? Urban bison?

It’s a bad idea, but one this council will likely endorse – not simply because they are prone to nurture bad ideas, but because some of them owe hefty political favours to campaign supporters who, coincidentally, happen to raise chickens here already (in violation of the law, of course, but what are laws when you have friends in high places?).

The NatPost published a story back in 2013 that presages what Collingwood will see in the future if council allows residents to raise chickens in their backyards:

…municipalities across North America are just now starting to see the unforeseen consequences of allowing hipster farmers to raise chickens in their urban backyards: Hundreds of birds are being abandoned by their owners after they’ve become more of a burden than a blessing.
More than 500 chickens were dropped off at animal shelters across the United States, according to Chicken Run Rescue, an operation based in Minneapolis. At least 400 to 500 chickens turn up annually at the Farm Sanctuary, headquartered in Watkins Glen, N.Y. that has sanctuaries on two coasts. National Shelter Director Susie Coston told NBC there are around 225 chickens now waiting for homes.

That’s right: people give up their fad pets once their attention span gets distracted by the newest fad.

It has ever been thus. Pets have always been a fad among the fashionista; a trendy accessory to show off with. Remember the fad for urban (potbellied) pigs? Remember Collingwood’s Wilbur? That fad left thousands of the little porkers abandoned when they grew too big and proved inconvenient as pets. Remember when hedgehogs were all the rage? Ferrets? Gophers? Dalmations? Cock-a-poos? Sea monkeys? Tamagotchi? Now it’s urban chickens.

Imagine the local humane society flooded with unwanted chickens in a couple of years. And, yes, that will happen. It happens with every pet, fad or not, but especially with fads taken up by people entirely ignorant of the work, complexity and responsibility involved.

Hens don’t lay eggs continually: two to three years at best, but they live well past their egg-laying prime. And then what do you do with them once they’re not laying? Allow backyard slaughterhouses? Will parents teach their children all about killing their pets? Maybe let them kill their pet chickens themselves?

Or will the owners abandon them (just consider how many people already abandon their dogs and cats) and find some new, shiny thing to occupy them?

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In Praise of Audio Books

Audio booksAlthough I had listened to them in the past, I really discovered the joys of audio books several years ago, when my 92-year-old father entered hospital for his final months. As I travelled to and from the city frequently that summer, audio books kept me entertained and my mind from dwelling on the more serious questions of his health and mortality.

Travelling to Toronto to visit my mother in her nursing home, for several years after he passed away, often became a trip with audio books, too. Although I have always been an avid and voracious reader, CD recordings soon found a place in my library alongside the printed books. And, this year, her 95th, as I drove to and from the city, I again found them an equal source of distracting comfort.

Today, as I walk my dogs, I listen to audio books still. Sophie’s 14; old and slow, a little stiff, and she pokes along, stopping frequently to sniff. Listening keeps me from becoming impatient with her glacial pace. Some days I actually appreciate her slowness more because I get to finish a chapter.

Reading and hearing a story create quite different responses in the audience. A well-read story creates a remarkable emotional reaction in the listener in a way that reading the same book doesn’t. That, of course, is why radio shows were so popular before TV pretty much wiped them out. But I grew up in the last period of the era of great radio dramas and remember listening to them with fondness. I still get a kick out of them.

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The high cost of affordability

Affordable housing is crucial to the economic and social vitality of every municipality. Without it, people cannot afford to live here, which means they will look for jobs in places they can afford. Young people, especially, will move to places they can afford better.

Collingwood is especially vulnerable to housing issues.* Given that the growth trend in our area is in low-paying (minimum wage), and part-time employment, finding affordable housing has become increasingly difficult for many people. Simcoe County itself estimates that a “single individual on Ontario Works would need to spend 108% of his/her monthly income to afford to live in the County.”

And as the Simcoe County housing strategy continues:

The Southern Georgian Bay area, while home to a thriving tourism industry, is also experiencing an aging population, high market rental rates, and a higher incidence of low income in private households.

Skyrocketing real estate costs contribute to the devaluation of a community. They push up taxes, living costs, rent, and utility bills. It takes a mature, wise and compassionate council to find ways to counter rising taxes and keep their community affordable. **

As the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing notes on its website,

Decent housing is more than shelter; it provides stability, security and dignity. It plays a key role in reducing poverty and building strong, inclusive communities.

But housing is a complex, challenging issue for municipalities and municipal politicians. Solutions are often very expensive; more than a small community can afford.

Councils have no direct control over real estate values (a problem compounded by the out-of-control Municipal Property Assessment Corp – MPAC – which raises property values across the province by computer formula, from its ivory tower offices, without conversations with local officials).

Municipalities also lack the legal muscle to demand private-sector development of lower-cost housing and much-needed rental properties like apartments (few young people can afford to buy homes, especially in a community that offers predominantly low wage job opportunities, so a supply of affordable rentals is critical).

On top of that, jurisdiction for affordable housing usually lies with a higher-tier government. In Collingwood’s case, it falls under the authority of Simcoe County. There are already 4,113 social housing units in Simcoe County, including approximately 3,035 rent-geared-to-income units. The County provides rent subsidies to 28 housing providers for 2,878 non-profit units, 60% rent-geared-to-income and 40% market rent. The county has already invested $3.4 million in maintaining its housing assets.

Before we go further, let’s dismiss some emotional – and inaccurate – impressions. Affordable housing doesn’t mean subsidized housing (although subsidized housing is also affordable). It represents a range of housing types. As the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) defines it, it’s an economic condition:

Affordable housing generally means a housing unit that can be owned or rented by a household with shelter costs that are less than 30 per cent of its gross income.

Last Tuesday, Simcoe County Council heard a presentation on the county’s long-term plan for affordable housing. Given its importance, it’s unfortunate neither of our own council reps were there to hear it.

I, however, had the fortune of being there for what proved an eye opener.
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Apps are making us criminals

Uber protestAlmost every week you read in the news about another taxi driver protest against Uber and its drivers. Taxi drivers go on strike, some rage against Uber and attack the drivers or damage their cars.

Similar protests – albeit not yet as violent or large – have been made against Airbnb for its effects on local property values and changing social conditions like the loss of rental properties.

These are just two of the apps whose effect on our society and culture are challenging laws and policies. There are others now that attempt to clone the success of their competitors with similar service (like Lyft and Homeaway – but I’ll concentrate on these two as examples of what can and does happen).

And in the process making criminals of its users.

That’s right: using these apps, both as a service provider for the companies and a user of those services often breaks existing laws, such as zoning or licensing. Renting your home for short-term rentals through Airbnb, for example, is illegal in many Ontario municipalities – including Collingwood – because zoning bylaws prohibit short-term rentals in residential areas.

Municipalities worldwide are increasingly challenged by these and similar programs that function counter to municipal bylaws, policies and operations. And they eventually cost taxpayers money.

It’s not a small deal. These can hurt our economy, kill jobs, and put people and property at risk. The corporations that operate them don’t give a shit. They’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank every time you use them.

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