Saunderson to Flog his SVJI at the County

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On the County of Simcoe agenda for Feb. 9 is a motion from our mayor for the rest of the county to support the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) and back his run-on motion:

…Collingwood’s efforts to advocate for the Province of Ontario to make review, and/or commence consultation with the municipalities of Ontario and other stakeholder groups, such as the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, to make changes to the municipal legislative framework including, but not limited to, the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act pursuant to the recommendations of Associate Chief Justice Marrocco in his report, “Transparency and Public Trust: Report of the Collingwood Judicial Inquiry”.

I have a suspicion this will lead to Saunderson later asking the county to help Collingwood pay for this $9-plus-million debacle. After all, if they support it, even in principle, they might be willing to pay for it. 

But for now, I have to wonder: how many of our county councilors will take the time to read the inquiry’s 900-plus-page, legalese-dense report and its 306 recommendations before voting? If they do read it, I expect they will not approve the motion.

A lot of those recommendations, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts and below, are redundant, or even irrelevant. Some are very specific to Collingwood, some are vague, and some are simply inexplicable. A representative from another community should not accept them all in some blanket motion: I expect a thoughtful politician will instead pick out those few that might be relevant to his or her municipality (or the province) and deal with them.

Saunderson, of course, will try to convince the rest of the county councillors this is a grand and glorious thing all about openness, accountability, and best practices. Piffle. For that, I can only warn you: caveat emptor.

As I see it, Saunderson is merely grandstanding: pushing for visibility and media coverage while he campaigns for the nomination as the PC MPP candidate. Not very subtly, either, but he can’t campaign on his record of putting up roadblocks to the hospital’s redevelopment, can he?

Assuming our county councillors are more diligent and less reading-averse than our own council, and they actually do read all, what reason will they have for agreeing with the many recommendations that are Collingwood-specific, or for pushing the province to incorporate them into legislation? For example:

134: “Former Town of Collingwood staff should not accept employment for one year on specific matters on which they worked in their positions at the Town of Collingwood.”
138 Management should “establish and maintain” “systems, procedures, and controls” to support compliance with the Code of Conduct for staff at the Town of Collingwood.
145: “Procurement at the Town of Collingwood should be open, fair, ethical, and transparent.”
230 The Lobbyist Registry should include all those who are paid or represent a business or financial interest whose objective is to influence elected officials or staff at the Town of Collingwood.
241: “The Code of Conduct for lobbyists should mandate that documents in relation to the activities of the lobbyist at the Town of Collingwood be retained and preserved by the lobbyist for a period of 10 years.”
250: “The lobbyist registrar should be independent of the Town of Collingwood Council and staff.”
251: The lobbyist registrar should be appointed for a non-renewable term.
264: “Former Council members and former staff at the Town of Collingwood should be prohibited from lobbying on matters on which they were involved during the tenure at the Town of Collingwood.”
265: “Municipally owned corporations of the Town of Collingwood must be accountable and transparent.”
295: “The integrity commissioner at the Town of Collingwood should be appointed by Council for a fixed non-renewable term of five years.”
304 When the Town of Collingwood retains a solicitor, there must be
a retainer letter.
306 The Town of Collingwood Council should issue a public report on the first anniversary of the release of this Report describing Council’s response to these recommendations.

Why would a representative from, say, Innisfil, Oro-Medonte, Midland, or Clearview want these highly-localized recommendations to become provincial statutes? What sort of legislative changes could accommodate these? And if not implemented province-wide, why would another municipality care what happens to Collingwood’s internal governance procedures and practices?

What length of non-renewable term is the lobbyist registrar to be appointed for? No. 251, above, demands it, but doesn’t give any time frame, nor does it explain why any term should be non-renewable.

In fact, only a few (1, 2, 7-16, 70, 71, 86, 87, 144, and 302, or about 5%) of the 306 recommendations relate directly to changes in existing provincial legislation, mostly about conflict of interest definitions and the Municipal Act, but they are significant and require a full, open, discussion as to whether they are in the best interests of both municipalities and Ontarians in general. They will have major impacts on how municipalities operate and do business, especially in small towns and rural areas. Think long and hard on them, please.

What sort of effort and cost is required for the province to turn the town-specific recommendations into provincial legislation that affects every municipality, and do you really want the province to add even more restrictions on how municipalities operate?

There are many recommendations that county councillors should consider seriously before voting. This wasn’t a sweeping inquiry into provincial legislation or municipal governance, but about a local series of events that took place nine or ten years ago. And the inquiry’s panel of “experts” (none of whom actually served in any elected municipal office) came up with some rather questionable recommendations that strike me as far outside the mandate of the inquiry. Do county councillors really want to advocate for this:

70 The Province of Ontario should amend section 229 of the Municipal Act to mandate that municipalities the size of the Town of Collingwood appoint a chief administrative officer.

That doesn’t take into account local municipal budgets, procedures, or administrative models. Can every municipality afford a CAO? Once legislated, you can bet CAO salaries will be like firefighter salaries: always on the move upwards.

And what exactly is the “size” of Collingwood based on? Area? Census population? Hospital catchment? Full-time residents or both full- and part-time? This, like many other recommendations, is hazy and vague.

How about these two, which could become very restrictive should it become provincial law:

51: “Former council members should not accept employment for one year on specific matters on which they worked as an elected official at the Town of Collingwood.”
134: “Former Town of Collingwood staff should not accept employment for one year on specific matters on which they worked in their positions at the Town of Collingwood.”

According to this recommendation, no former politician or staff person will be able to work for a year in the areas of housing, infrastructure, taxation, debt and financing, traffic, libraries, schools, planning, parks, recreation, downtowns, weed control, property standards, parking, personnel, water, electricity, wastewater, sidewalk maintenance, sewers, bylaws, pets, communications, local boards, sustainability, the environment, the waterfront, boats, swimming, flood control, urban design, law, source water protection, conservation authorities, airports, traffic, construction, farmers’ markets, parades, festivals, street lighting, transit, policing, firefighting, paramedics, museums, IT, paving, waste disposal, animal control, hospitals, conferences and conventions, memberships, and a few hundred other topics every member of council will have dealt with in office, and that staff deal with daily.

Codswallop. What justifies such a restriction on a person’s employment? This would prevent every staff person who wants to move from taking a job in another municipality for a year.

There are other recommendations that make the reader wonder why they are in the document. For example:

65. The website of the integrity commissioner should contain the Code of Conduct, FAQs, and other educational material on the ethical obligations of Council members.

What has this to do with provincial or even municipal legislation? Isn’t this simply an internal policy issue to be dealt with in the contract negotiations with a chosen integrity officer?

Some of the recommendations could have significant impacts on municipal governance and budgets, though, and not necessarily positive:

82 The chief administrative officer’s term should be a six-year nonrenewable term.
301 An external auditor should periodically review the operations” “of the integrity commissioner.”

Why only six years for a CAO? Why non-renewable? The report doesn’t tell us. Nor does it mention how the costs of an “external auditor” will affect a municipal budget, nor what the term “periodically” means. Every six months? A year? Five years? Every full moon? And what sort of qualifications should such an auditor have? Legal? Municipal experience? Accounting? Do such auditors for the IC even exist as a job classification today?  Should you advocate for something so murky and questionable?

And if the CAO’s tenure is limited to six years (as per 82), won’t that discourage potential candidates from moving to the municipality with their families, since they will have to move again in six years? What happens when you get a really good CAO, who has a great relationship with staff and council, but can’t stay on because their non-renewable contract is up? What if there are no equally good candidates applying for the job?

This next recommendation, too, could affect other municipalities if it becomes incorporated as a generic rule for all communities:

295: “The integrity commissioner at the Town of Collingwood should be appointed by Council for a fixed non-renewable term of five years.”

Why only five years? Why non-renewable? Why not require the IC to be renewed concurrently with the start of the new council for the term of that council? What if a municipality uses the county IC?

And are these next recommendations really the stuff of grandiose legislative changes a county councillor should be advocating the province make into legislation:

96 Staff have an obligation to speak the truth to their superiors and to Council.
97 Staff must not conceal or manipulate information. Staff must never intentionally misrepresent facts or information.
98. Staff must not use intimidation or fear in the workplace. Staff must not inappropriately disclose or share confidential information.
105 Staff must take immediate action to prevent or resolve real, apparent, or potential conflicts of interest.

Aren’t these or something like them already in current labour and workplace legislation? Shouldn’t they be a given in local HR policies? How can the province make them into legislation? And what about these:

234: “Sanctions should be imposed on lobbyists for failing to register.”
243: “Lobbyists must be transparent about who they are representing and the purpose of their lobbying activity. The Code of Conduct should prohibit lobbyists from misrepresenting for whom they act or the subject matter of their lobbying activity.”
266: “The selection process for board membership on a municipally owned corporation… must be robust.”
267: “The selection process must be applied consistently.”
273 Appointments to the board should be staggered to ensure continuity.
293: “The board of directors of a municipally owned corporation should not have a direct role in the decision of the municipality to sell its asset.”

What sort of sanctions? Exile to the lobbyist gulag? Freeze their assets? What legal authority does a town have to impose sanctions on any person or business? And how? Who is supposed to tell lobbyists they need to register first? 

And more important: who is a lobbyist? Is a minister who wants to open or get a donation for a food bank a lobbyist? As a paid professional, the minister meets the conditions of 230 (above): “all those who are paid or represent a business or financial interest whose objective is to influence elected officials or staff …” What is the difference between asking for support and lobbying? Like many others, this recommendation is too vague to be adopted as presented.

I’m a bit confused as to why a lobbyist would pretend to represent a different company or purpose (243). Would they lobby staff or councilors about fishing when they are secretly there to lobby about infrastructure? Would they lobby for a competitor? Clarity is required.

And there are the questionable recommendations that deserve a more robust discussion about their effect on municipal governance, and should not simply be approved without considered debate:

11. The Province of Ontario should amend section 246 of the Municipal Act to state that, if a member abstains from voting because of a real, apparent, or potential conflict of interest, this should not be deemed a negative vote, but instead recorded as an abstention.

As I recall, a member must step away from the table after a declared conflict of interest. They can’t vote, and don’t get counted as a negative vote. Only when a council member abstains at the table is it counted as a negative vote. 

Recommendations 265-294 are about municipal corporations, which, if your municipality has none, are not relevant. But should they be adopted as provincial standards? That needs a full debate, not some thoughtless hands-up-all-in-favour vote.

Far too many of these recommendations read like they were written by people with no experience in municipal office or administration. Should our county council be supporting those?

I could go on, but you can read my previous posts about what I think and why I believe this report and the SVJI failed in its mandate and responsibilities — despite costing Collingwood taxpayers $9 million or even more. If you’re a county councillor, I can only ask that you consider the report in this light and reject Saunderson’s blanket plea for support. If you feel there are recommendations worthy of your support (and not all are bad or undeserving), I ask that you pull them out for discussion and deal with them independently of the overall motion.

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One Reply to “Saunderson to Flog his SVJI at the County”

  1. Thank you to all the considerate, thoughtful county councillors who voted to defer Saunderson’s motion today so that the county’s legal team has an opportunity to assess it. I have been told only four county councillors Mayor Saunderson and Deputy Mayor Hull among them) voted not to defer it. Twenty eight voted for a deferral.

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