Professional Politicians? Not Here…

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There’s an editorial in the January 29 edition of the Collingwood Connection that underscores how little the local media really understand local politics, and how biased it remains. Which is unfortunate, because buried within this vitriolic screed was a nugget of wisdom; a salient point about local politics.*

First, it begins with an essential error by criticizing councillors for not showing “…they’re willing to work as a team -as they’ve been elected to do.”

In non-partisan municipal politics, only individuals are elected. Not teams. Yes, there was a slate of candidates with similar ideologies who ran and many of whom were elected (most of the current council, in fact). But that doesn’t make them a team any more than a bus full of passengers is a team.

Sports teams are filled with people on the same side chosen for their skills that complement those of the others. The sport-related metaphor of council as a team is not merely inappropriate, it is wrong. A herd of cats and dogs might be a better metaphor.

That doesn’t mean councillors can’t work as a team after they are elected – and most do, either collectively or in small groups because they share common goals – but they were not elected as a team and have no obligation to act as one. In fact, the whole notion of electing a team is pointless in this context, given that an election result is also the product of chance, not merely campaigning.

Teams are appointed or chosen, not elected. They have leaders and distinct agendas. Mayors may be the titular head of council, but have no say over who gets to be on their council “team.”

The fact that most municipal politics and councils are non-partisan and not team-based is actually one of its strengths. It means elected representatives can follow their individual conscience and goals, and are not chained to a particular party platform, nor someone else’s agenda. The media apparently don’t grasp this elementary concept.

The second big mistake is in noting that the “… professional response would have been for Lloyd to have shown the deputy mayor the report in advance of the council meeting and outside of a public forum, having been given two months’ notice of Saunderson’s motions coming forward.”

Since when are part-time municipal politicians a profession? The definition of profession, according to Wikipedia is:

A profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain.

Most municipal politicians are part-timers: politics is their hobby. They serve while they carry on other employment – always a possibility for conflict, but generally necessary since they are seldom paid enough to make politics their only job.

As for education – for most it is training on the job, not the result of years of classrooms or apprenticeship. Even attending the orientation sessions is not mandatory; not everyone attends every term (some even leave part-way through, to attend to their other work demands).

One can point to the former Mayor Hazel McCallion as one of the few municipal politicians who might be considered a ‘professional’ in that she served so long. But in general, municipal politicians have a higher turnover than their provincial and federal counterparts.

If by “professional” the writer(s)* meant “appropriate” or “suitable” or “ethical” or any similar adjective relating to correct behaviour, then they should have said so.  However, it still would have been wrong.

The appropriate behaviour would have been for the person making the motion to do his homework and due diligence: to contact staff and former politicians, to discuss the issue and its history and to obtain and read previous reports and comments on the issue. As the writer(s) points out, he had two months in which to do it, yet he was unaware that such a report even existed!

Staying informed is every councillor’s responsibility. Not to do so suggests the motion was made more out of ideology than need.

While staying informed about local issues is not an obligation that burdens our local politicians (but is, nonetheless, pursued by the diligent few), the Code of Conduct – which they all signed – says:

Council Members are encouraged to stay updated on issues and trends so that they can be
as efficient and effective as possible in the carriage of their duties and responsibilities.

Clearly the deputy mayor did not stay updated on an issue that was raised,  received a staff report, debated, and was rejected years ago. Nor did he read the report on openness and transparency produced by staff in 2013.

Instead, what happened was staff are forced to go through a repetitive process about a non-issue preparing a report to echo one that was already prepared – an inefficient waste of time and your tax dollars. Asking a few simple questions, and doing a little reading before posting a motion would have prevented such waste.

A major editorial oversight here was not to question the actual purpose of this lobbyist registry in the first place – is it the role of our politicians to raise trivial and pointless issues for staff to scurry about pursuing? To create more work for staff and tie up the public process in needless red tape and bureaucracy? Staff are not there to serve the ideological needs of individual council members.

The appropriate behaviour is also not to raise the issue privately “…outside of a public forum…” because that is not what openness and transparency are all about. It was not Counc. Lloyd’s role to educate or inform the deputy mayor or train him in his responsibilities in some closed-door session. It is the deputy mayor who should shoulder the criticism for being woefully unprepared. Yet the media are strangely reluctant to criticize his failure.

The public forum is the place where members debate, discuss, raise issue and, yes, even criticize one another. That’s how the process works. It’s called democracy. And if you think this was inappropriate, then don’t even bother checking CSPAN for question period because you will probably have a stroke seeing your politicians so aggressively challenge one another.

Media – and many of the candidates who ran and even some who got elected this term – have complained about so-called “back-room” conversations among councillors in the past. Whether or not these actually happened, it is not appropriate to suggest in an editorial that having them now is the best way to proceed.

The author(s) also imply a motive to Counc. Lloyd’s actions, construed solely from their own imaginations:

Without any proof, to level a statement rife with innuendo for the sake of troublemaking in a public forum is inappropriate.

During a later discussion on a motion by Dep. Mayor Brian Saunderson asking staff to look at the feasibility of implementing a lobbyist registry for the municipality, Lloyd waved a 2013 staff report on accountability at the deputy mayor and asked if he’d read it… Instead, he tried catching Saunderson off gaurd (SIC) while the camera was rolling.

This is nothing more than yellow journalism: the media is trying to distract attention from the failings of a favoured council member by lambasting the actions of another. Innuendo? it’s in the editorial, suggesting ulterior motives!

The story that accompanies the editorial doesn’t mention any discussion of motives with Coun. Lloyd nor did it give him an opportunity to explain his actions. But yet the editorial writers impugn him with their own conspiracy theories and evident biases.

And lost in the criticism was a bit of slanted reporting:

…council voted to receive a report from the integrity commissioner, a report that was defeated by the previous council. The person at the centre of the report (former Dep. Mayor Rick Lloyd) is no longer on council, and commissioner Robert Swayze didn’t recommend any sanctions.

The writers neglected to mention that the reason the former council rejected the report was that the commissioner did not follow the clearly laid-out process in the town’s reporting bylaw that required him by law to provide a copy of the report to the person named in it BEFORE it was made public. This was not done.

What this council did was approve not so much the report but approve the tacit breaking of the town’s own laws. And yet that went unremarked.

The editorial ends with a fatuous remark that further discredits the piece and its writers:

It’s time for certain council members to grow up, work together, and start dealing with these important issues.
The taxpayers deserve better.

Saying this in an editorial is itself puerile. Telling councillors to “grow up” – most of whom are older, wiser and more experienced in a wider range of career and personal history than their media critics – is insulting.

Councillors will deal with issues as they arise, but “together” – as in a team – is neither required nor always productive.

The irony here is that the media always highlight the person on the outside, the complainer, the one who doesn’t work as a team member because that adds drama and focus to a story. The counterpoint is always given more media attention. If everyone agreed, they’d complain that it was boring and that people were “block voting” (another infamously vague term used in election campaigns and editorials to criticize those who agree on things).

The media are supposed to be the public watchdogs, not disgruntled schoolmarms chastising errant school kids. To my knowledge, none of the local media have ever sat in the seats of those they criticize, never suffered the attacks on their motives or credibility the media eagerly dish out, never served the public in any capacity, never had to make the decisions councillors are called on to make every meeting then answer for them later.

So yes, the taxpayers deserve better: we deserve a more mature, balanced, informed and objective media to be our watchdogs, not merely these grumpy armchair quarterbacks.

~~~~~

* The point worth attending to was lost in this partisan editorial:

 …it continued a troubling trend in Collingwood of councils rehashing and changing decisions of their predecessors, of the winners attempting to re-write history, or to score cheap political points… Instead of belabouring the past, council needs to focus on the future by starting work on the strategic plan, the budget, and a strategic financial plan.

Yes, belabouring the past, and rewriting history to suit the victors is wrong, although I wouldn’t call it a trend without some documentary evidence of such a longterm practice. What “cheap political points” do they mean? These comments discredit all councils past, not just this one.

As for preparing all those plans – despite what was spun during the election campaign, the town already has them, thanks to the previous council. Of course they may need to be updated and revised as time and the economy dictate, but the heavy lifting was done last term.

What are the standards for journalism or editorial writing that allow such sloppy, unedited work to get published?

** The editorial is unsigned, but it has been suggested that it is the product of at least two authors.

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