Promising to do What’s Already Done

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AccomplishmentIt’s good for councillors to know we’ve already accomplished so much that everyone wants to emulate us. Listening to the all-candidates’ speeches and reading the campaign literature is a real boost to the ego.

A lot of new people are promising to do what’s already been done. Incumbents can comfortably sit back and say, “been there, done that, accomplished that already.” We don’t seem to have left a lot for the newcomers to accomplish.

It’s been a very productive term – remarkably so given that we have so few meetings that last more than two hours. (For a list of just a few things we accomplished this term, see my ACM speech.) But still, some candidates seem to want to repeat our successes.

Take for example the promise to “diligently manage our finances and assets…” Check. Already done. We have an asset management plan in place and we started the long-term financial management strategic plan. But we’ve made our finances sustainable this term, so we don’t have to fret so much about them in future. Our practice of replenishing reserves through internal loans rather than just spending them is one example. (Read more about that practice here)

Same with the promise to “Stop the waste by developing a long-range financial plan and transparently evaluating all capital investments.” Aside from the mystery of how one evaluates “transparently” (does that mean invisibly?), we have an asset management plan in place and the strategic financial plan is in the works.

Staff do any evaluation, by the way – councillors only read and comment on their efforts. And any such evaluations would always be public.

As for waste – this council has trimmed the budget and cut spending for the past four years. We’re kept tax increases down to a blended average of only 0.45% per year – less than the cost of living. We saved taxpayers more than $400,000 a year by stopping the rail service (while keeping the line active for future transportation opportunities). And we topped up reserves from $19 to $30 million! No waste here!

Ditto for creating a “plan that looks at our long term financial health.” Initiated by this council, thank you, and will, I expect, be completed before this term is over. We made financial stability a priority at our first strategic planning session in 2011, reinforced that priority at our second strategic planning session in 2013, and we achieved it.

“Manage our high debt load…” Thanks for the advice, but we have paid down $7.5 million of the $45 million debt we inherited this term without raising taxes. We controlled spending and instituted a sustainable plan to finance projects from reserves through internal loans. And we topped up reserves, too. So cross that one off, too because we’re one step ahead of you.

“Address high taxes.” Done. Average blended tax increase per year over the last four years: 0.45%, less than the cost of living. We’ve been on top of that one since day one. Best council ever for managing to keep tax increases low.

“Execute a strong economic development strategy…” In the works. We hired a dynamic new marketing and economic development director to oversee that, plus created a new small business centre that works in collaboration with our community partners to grow and develop local business. We have strategic goals already outlined and in the planning stages.

Same with “be an active participant in the development of our local economy…” We never stopped being that. No council ever does. We meet with industries, we sit on the BIA board of management, we promote our town, encourage entrepreneurs and work with industries to help them thrive. We raise their concerns with the province. We are part of municipal coalitions and agencies that advocate for business and industry.

Of course the promise to “bring sustainable jobs to Collingwood” isn’t realistic because no one can deliver on a promise to bring jobs here.

A municipality can (and we do) approach potential employers and do everything to attract them to move here. We can promote and market ourselves, we can engage employers in many ways. But no one can truthfully promise to bring jobs here.

Municipalities don’t create private sector jobs: we can only create the economic and social environment that might attract employers. That being said, we have done that this term: we attracted three new microbreweries to open here last year, plus new retail stores in the mall. VOA, Goodall and Agnora Glass have all expanded and created new jobs (and we’re expecting more good news from another local industry soon). We have new businesses downtown, Cranberry Mews is booming. We have new homes and condos being built all over town. We’re booming!

Collingwood has been very prosperous this term and we have had many new job opportunities open. In fact, we can rightly claim Collingwood is finally open for business this term.

“Transportation and environmental issues … require a regional approach with neighbouring municipalities … ” Been done for years, actually. We have had regional cooperation with our airport, with wetlands and environmental issues, with water and power. This term we brought in tremendously successful bus services to and from Blue Mountain and Wasaga Beach. We work with conservation authorities and municipalities on regional environmental issues.

We’ve been on top of regionalism for many years.

“Deliver more transparency…” This council is already open and transparent despite what some people think. We’ve had simply tons of public input on every major issue. We appointed an integrity commissioner  to investigate allegations of impropriety, we have staff and lawyers to oversee our meetings and ensure they meet all legal and ethical standards. And we follow the numerous pieces of legislation, bylaws and our code of conduct required of us. We have fewer in-camera meetings than I can recall in past councils – all for legitimate reasons under the Municipal Act.

Plus we have approved a new governance model that reinforces council’s accountability to the public, makes us more accessible and improves our effectiveness. I guess some folks missed that report.

“Ensure that a master plan is completed for our waterfront harbour…” Already in the works. Provincial funding has been applied for, but the planning will go ahead without it. We already have several reports on the harbour, but this council chose to look at the whole picture: study the entire waterfront, border to border.

“Ensure that the ‘tender and bid’ process is always implemented…” Done. We already have a procurement bylaw that meets all provincial requirements. And we have lawyers and staff to give advice when questions about procurement and tendering arise. We’ve done everything correctly and followed what staff have recommended in our purchasing.

“Assist in the development of an immediate action plan for affordable housing…” Well, affordable housing is actually a county responsibility, not the town’s. And the county already has its plans in place, as well as a very active housing department, which we have participated with for years. The funding for affordable housing comes from the county.

But we have also done what we can at the council level. We have encouraged developers to build more achievable housing like townhouses and apartments. We have permitted accessory apartments (so-called ‘granny flats’) in existing homes. We have allowed rooming and boarding houses in our official plan.

“Ensure that the redevelopment of Hume Street goes ahead.” Already started. We completed the engineering last year and started moving the utilities this fall. We’ll have the rest completed in 2015. You can see the trucks and the workers on the street right now. There were a few dozen announcements about this project.

“Continuing the work that began with our then Economic Development Officer… to meet the needs of our existing employers…” In the works, too. This candidate must have missed the whole bit about the new small business centre, collaboration with community partners, new economic development director, promotions, marketing, meetings with employers and industry and the new strategies we are working on. Our new economic development model is bold and farsighted. This candidate should drop in to the SBC and learn about it.

“Revitalized governance and citizen advisory committees….” We approved both an operational and governance review, with changes in committee structures and how council will interact with the public. It will be much more efficient in the very near future – I guess someone didn’t see the announcement about the upcoming changes.

There are a few things promised we can’t do. One is to take back the permits for the waterfront development and decide on a new course. Remember what happened last term when the former mayor took away the permits for the Admiral Collingwood site? This would be much worse because everything has been approved and some portions even have construction permits. The lawsuits and OMB challenges from repealling those approvals would cost us millions.

What we can do, on the other hand, is ask the developer to come back and discuss new expectations that work with our waterfront and harbour master plan. We can cooperate and collaborate with the developers on mutual goals .

And we can’t afford to expropriate or buy the land and turn it into parkland. We may negotiate for a parcel, however, which could be used for or in conjunction with a marina. However, we first need to get private-sector partners for that. In the meantime, we need to add a few more docks to the harbour – something we can easily accomplish and which we can later move if the master plan recommends it.

Another thing we can’t do is to change a provincial law. The notion of adding terms and conditions to the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act excites a few people, but the municipality has no authority to change or supersede provincial legislation. We have to trust in the wisdom of the lawmakers at Queen’s Park that they have crafted the best legislation, and if not, we can only appeal to them for a change. (A lot of claptrap has been bandied about on conflict of interest: most of it could be easily answered by having people actually read the Act before they comment on it).

Hold “regular informal gatherings” of council is another. The Municipal Act, Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and our Procedural Bylaw regulate all meetings and require a very strict formality about how, when and where they are conducted. I’m sure someone would cry foul if council met “informally” to deal with “citizen advisory committees.” We are careful not to constitute a quorum if we meet informally.

We can, however, continue to hold informal engagements to meet the public like our current “coffee with council” events. But in those events nothing gets decided or debated by council as a group. Perhaps this candidate never attended one, so isn’t aware they have been held.

“Focus on… clean air and water…” We already have the best municipal water in Ontario – maybe even all of Canada. The annual report we in public session get shows that clearly. Our water operation is superbly managed by some of the province’s best and most talented people. And the air – just go outside and take a deep breath.

“Focus on… beauty, heritage and safety.” We have a new fire hall and  renovated police station to serve residents better and improve our safety. We have a heritage district and an active heritage committee, as well as numerous homes and buildings designated as heritage sites outside the district. I’m surprised a candidate would be unaware of these.

As for beauty – well, we can’t regulate taste, but I’d say we’re already a beautiful community. Or maybe the candidate wants more spas and hairdressing salons. I can’t be sure.

Another thing we can’t do is manage the details. Staff do that. They see to the day-to-day operations of the town, its finances, its parks, its building codes, its property standards. And they do it very well without our interference. Councillors don’t give out parking tickets; we don’t tell businesses what hours to open. We don’t take property owners to court, we don’t cut the grass, decide what accounting software to use or what photocopiers to lease.

Council gives direction on strategies and polices with expected outcomes; we do not micromanage the details. We approve budgets, but don’t manage them afterwards. We approve bylaws and site plans, but staff create them and manage them. Our input may be requested in any project or initiative, and our skills sets may be called upon to comment on or contribute to something, but we do not order staff around. We don’t walk into offices and tell people what to do or how to do it.

We can certainly meet with and discuss issues, activities, policies and procedures with staff. However, as our code of conduct tells us, only council as a whole can direct staff (something a few previous council members either forgot or ignored at times).

In all, I suppose incumbents should be pleased. So many candidates seem to want to imitate our successes they are promising to do them again. Imitation is, I suppose, the sincerest form of flattery.

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2 Replies to “Promising to do What’s Already Done”

  1. Promises We Can’t Keep
    There’s a wrap up in the Connection this weekend with candidates’ comments on “accountability.”

    One candidate wrote, he would “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.”

    Council cannot make a law that supersedes provincial law, not can council impose any penalty outside the Municipal Act and Conflict of Interest Act. In fact, alleged breaches of those acts can only be dealt with through provincial authorities.

    I would have thought a lawyer would realize these limitations.

    You’d think a lawyer would know this.

  2. There’s a wrap of in the Connection this weekend with candidates’ comments on “accountability.”
    (http://www.simcoe.com/news-story/4909489-collingwood-candidates-talk-accountability/).

    One candidate wrote, “I asked council almost two years ago to create a lobbyist registry, improve the procurement policy, create a social media policy for council, and to make councils expense accounts public.

    None of these have happened, and I will ask for them to be done immediately, if I’m elected.”

    Nonsense.

    Council expense accounts have always been public and are presented for public reading at an open council meeting, at least once a year. They are available at town hall for anyone to examine (they are usually also online). The total and the amounts for each council member is set at budget time. They include conference attendance and cell phone use, mileage to events outside town. The most recent statement was made to council on March 24, 2014. Se the agenda here: http://www.collingwood.ca/node/8393

    We have a social media policy. We have a communications officer. Ask her for it.

    We have a procurement bylaw that was crafted in collaboration with the town’s legal services and an asset management policy.

    Citizens have no authority to demand anything of council, but demanding what is already in existence is hardly going to get you anywhere. And even if he gets elected, it requires a majority of council to approve any request (unlikely since he’d be requesting something already done…).

    Are you planning to vote for someone who doesn’t know what is going on in the municipality? Might want to reconsider your choices.

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