Promises, promises, promises – all broken

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AccountabilityTwo years ago, in a series in the Collingwood Connection on the eve of the last election, 2014, all candidates were asked to make statements about certain issues. I thought it would be good to examine a few of their promises and see how well they have progressed. Whether they have actually kept those promises. Here is what they said about the topic of accountability and to measure their performance to date.

First, just what is accountability? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing says, “Accountability as a general principle that governments (including municipalities) are answerable to the public and responsible for their actions, decisions and policies.”

Answerable and responsible. But do we have actual accountability here in Collingwood? Or, as Saqib Quershi, writing in the Huffington Post, called it, merely “an accountability façade”? He wrote:

Accountability is a two-way process. Ontario’s public sector often suffers from the sort of accountability… where a public servant is a euphemism for a public master, in charge and unaccountable. We have a cultural accountability problem…

Yes, indeed we do. Ian Lee, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, back in 2008 gave us words that should be carved above every council table in large letters:

Legitimacy is earned through accountability. Accountability is produced through transparency.

Here’s an example of one candidates’ promises:

Ensure all major decisions seek out community input, and ensure there is rigorous staff research and due diligence before any decision is made.

That promise was made by the current Deputy Mayor, Brian Saunderson (although how exactly a decision seeks input wasn’t made clear). And “due diligence” appears from the hospital redevelopment debacle to simply mean delaying tactics.

All of the candidates made similar promises. The Most Secretive Council Ever doesn’t even give lip service to community input. That pretty much sums up The Block’s position on accountability.

But you never really expected these folks to actually KEEP those promises, did you? Neither did I. Keeping promises requires a deep sense of ethics, a strong moral compass and a belief that the community is more important than your own entitlements. And to put personal agendas and vendettas aside for the public good.

Okay, stop snickering. We all know how this has turned out. Let’s examine the promises of those who were elected, shall we? As you read this, ask yourself do the candidates address how they will personally assume responsibility? Do they discuss accountability or process? And do they say how they and their actions will be accessible to the public to measure their accountability? First, The Block.

Here’s everything Saunderson promised. I’ve written about this in more detail in the past:

Open and transparent government will require a fundamental shift in the way our council engages and responds to public input.
Council is elected to serve the residents of Collingwood and is accountable to the residents throughout its mandate. I would pursue the following initiatives to open the doors of Collingwood council and engage the residents of our community in a respectful and meaningful dialogue.
Strengthen the current council code of conduct to include dealing with siblings as a defined conflict and impose consequences for council members who breach the code.
Create a lobbyist registry to ensure anyone lobbying council on behalf of any third party interest is registered and accountable for any and all lobbying activities.
Change the purchasing policy to ensure there can be no sole sourcing of any contract for goods or services over $25,000, no exceptions.
Improve communications to ensure the residents of Collingwood are informed of all council initiatives and engage the residents regularly to get community feedback.
Open public deputations to eliminate any prior approvals or vetting and allow people to address council on a first-come basis at the commencement of each council meeting
Ensure all major decisions seek out community input, and ensure there is rigorous staff research and due diligence before any decision is made.
Ensure the division of labour between council members and staff is respected and eliminate micromanagement.

So how do his promises measure up today, two years into his term as Deputy Mayor?

Open and transparent government? Nope. Public input? Nope. Open doors and engage the residents? Nope (his Block-led council has the well-deserved reputation as The Most Secretive Council Ever). Strengthen code of conduct? Nope (it gets ignored, instead). Change the purchasing policy? Nope (this council has TWICE made sole-source decisions on contracts). Improve communications with residents? Nope. All major decisions seek community input? Nope (everything important is discussed in back rooms with closed doors; we wouldn’t even hear about these decisions is the Municipal Act didn’t require council to vote on motions in public). Eliminate micromanagement? Nope (The Block fired the water utility board and put itself in their places, and fired the electrical utility board and replaced them with pet staff members, all to micromanage our utility operations). Lobbyist registry (Nope: fortunately that wingnut idea was shot down by the realities and legalities of implementing it).

Dear oh dear. It’s not going well at all. All those promises and in two years the only one accomplished is:

Open public deputations to eliminate any prior approvals or vetting and allow people to address council on a first-come basis at the commencement of each council meeting

Boy, I’ll bet having a whole five minutes to address an un-televised committee meeting held offsite where the public seldom ventures just made your day. There were parties across town, fireworks, celebrations when that was announced… oh, you hadn’t even heard about it? That just shows how important it was. And it has nothing to do with accountability: it’s a minor procedural issue. Very minor.

Dilbert

Here’s what Bob Madigan promised:

Openness and transparency are the keystones to this upcoming election. I believe the community as a whole needs to be more involved and have input with key decisions. In doing this, the elected will be accountable for the final decisions they make. It will make our town a better and more harmonious place to be. Avenues such as holding community based meetings and pre-existing boards having a voice should all be involved in decision-making. Another idea is online surveys. People are pressed for time and this would make it easy for them to voice their opinion.

Whole community involved? Nope. Elected officials accountable? Nope. Community based meetings? Nope. Boards having a voice in decisions? Nope. Online surveys? Nope. A better and more harmonious place? Nope (ask the hospital board, airport board, former water and utility boards, utility staff, our municipal neighbours and our own taxpayers angry about two consecutive tax hikes if this is a more harmonious place…)

Kathy Jeffrey:

With the agreement of council I would propose that it review/create/implement a two-way communication strategy with the assistance of the communications manager and in consultation with the residents to provide the most effective and consistent manner for two-way circulation/collection of information.

Two way communications? Nope (there isn’t even one-way communication from The Block). Consultation with residents? Nope. Collection of information? Nope. But she sidesteps the question. Her reply is about communications, not actual accountability. Remember: she’s the councillor granted an unlimited expense account to wine and dine across the country at your expense and she doesn’t have to account to you, the taxpayer, for her jaunts. Entitlement: 1, Accountability: 0.

Deb Doherty:

We urgently need to restore trust in our elected officials and renew citizen engagement in the current and future affairs of the town. These are some of the steps I will take and policies I will promote. I intend to strongly promote effective citizen participation within the new model of governance that we will be adopting.
The number of in-camera meetings must be kept to the minimum necessary to legally conduct council business. The role of the integrity commissioner must be acknowledged as critical in upholding the integrity, transparency and fairness of council and staff.
Long-range plans must have measurable long-range goals. Measurability provides accountability. I am promoting a new forum called Evenings with Council, which will be regular informal gatherings and information exchange between council and residents. I commit personally to honest, straightforward communication and to always doing what I say I will do.

Restore trust in our elected officials? Nope (quite the opposite: this group is widely seen as corrupt and self-absorbed). Citizen engagement? Nope. Promote citizen participation? Nope (quite the opposite: everything is done away from citizen scrutiny and in secret). In camera meetings kept to a minimum? Nope (The Most Secretive Council Ever has held more closed door meetings in less than two years than most councils hold in their whole term). Integrity commissioner? Nope (Recall that she voted to fire council’s integrity commissioner, thus The Block avoided having to deal with increasing numbers of citizen complaints about its behaviour). Long range plans? Measurability? Nope (their vaunted “community based strategic plan” was mere a wishlist from a committee of their friends and was neither strategic nor a plan). Honest, straightforward communication? Nope. The rest? Guffaws all around.

Tim Fryer:

As a member of council I will work to ensure proper process is followed including providing to the public, at the appropriate time, all pertinent information pertaining to any decision by council. Guidelines have been put in place to establish how decision-making should be completed. These should be followed to ensure the proper steps are undertaken in any endeavor.
Short tracking proper process runs the risk of missed opportunities, which can add to overall cost or you can lose out on considering valuable options. Proper process for a municipal council does sometimes require in-camera sessions because the municipality has to operate like the $70-million corporation that it is and protect its interests on behalf of its citizens. Once those interests have been fully protected though, then Council should provide the protected information to the public. That is how Council can show it is accountable and prove to the public it has made the best decision possible.

Proper process followed? Nope (the procedural bylaw and code of conduct have been ignored so often they are seen as local jokes). protecting public interests? Nope (quite the opposite: the public trust was broken when this council discussed the airport, the hospital redevelopment, selling Collus-PowerStream in camera). The rest is mere bafflegab about process that says nothing about accountability.

Cam Ecclestone:

The new model as presented by John Brown and adopted by council of the four standing committees that will be always open to the public will go a long way to being completely open and transparent. At council meetings in the future council should make a point of telling the viewers at home and those attending the meeting exactly and specifically why they are going in-camera, in my previous experience the only reasons for an in camera session should be a) disciplinary action regarding a town employee b) real estate transactions were the valuation would be affected by making it public and c) legal action against and individual or corporation that has not previously been made public.

Oleaginous sycophancy even before he got elected… but the committee process has done the very opposite: it has distanced council and staff from the electorate, alienated council from residents, not improved openness Telling the audience “exactly and specifically why they are going in-camera”? Nope. Like others, he says nothing about accountability: this is all about procedural practices.

Are any of The Block answerable for not keeping their promises? Responsible to the public for their actions? Are they in any way accountable? I have to answer that with a resounding “no!”
Dilbert

Here are the two non-block councillors:

Mike Edwards:

Openness and transparency are responsibilities all members of council must practice if they are to be effective and creditable leaders of our community. A commitment to this is adherence to their responsibilities under the Municipal Act, the code of conduct, and the procedural by-law. Failure, or perceived failure of these responsibilities can be challenged through the complaint process to the integrity commissioner recently appointed to the town. I believe measures are already in place to promote openness and transparency but like all processes they can be improved. A review of the code of conduct and procedural by-laws should be conducted by the new council within the first six months of any new term.

Integrity commissioner? Nope (fired by council to avoid public scrutiny). The rest is filler about the past, with no personal commitment to accountability. But to be fair: Edwards (and Lloyd, below) were right about previous measures: the process for accountability was already in place and recognized. All anyone had to do this term was to actually follow it.

Ah, but that’s where The Block fell down. Tripped by a bunch of rules that got in the way of their personal agendas.

Kevin Lloyd:

To begin with, the current council is open, transparent and accountable to the community. We are governed by legislation, a code of ethics and bylaws strictly monitored and enforced by our clerk’s department. All our meetings, debates, and committees are public and open except for those instances where in-camera is necessary as governed by provincial law. We appointed integrity commissioner, and have a county investigator to handle the complaints concerning closed meetings. We employed a staff person to efficiently and effectively respond to freedom of information requests. I have been reassured by our CAO that the new governance model adopted for next term will enhance public input at all levels of our operation.

Well, at least he and Edwards didn’t beat their chests making empty promises or sidestep the question.

No surprises here: you already know those in The Block promised but didn’t deliver, and have taken no responsibility for not doing so. They have busied themselves with secrecy and entitlements. After two years, here is what they have accomplished for the greater good of this community: nothing. But as you know, dear reader, the list of the things they have ruined or made toxic is long. Very long.

The Block unaccountable, taking no responsibility for the damage they have done to this once-great town. They are like unmoving barnacles anchored on the hull of our town, simply feeding themselves as it rusts under them.

Collingwood deserves better.

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