Sloppy Reporting and Secret Agendas

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Bad journalismOne really doesn’t actually expect sterling journalism, good, investigative reporting or excellent editing from a community newspaper, but we do expect factual accuracy. And we expect reporters and editors to do at least the basics of their jobs.

Some parallel stories in the local papers show just how inaccurate – and sloppy – local reporting and editing can be. And how this is letting council get away with its secret agendas unreported.

The first story, in the Connection, is headlined, Collingwood calling on Collus Powerstream to divulge salaries of executives, employees. It opens:

Salaries paid to executives and employees of Collus Powerstream may soon be divulged, after Collingwood council passed a motion, Wednesday, asking for the information.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so – Collus is a private corporation and it may require costly legal action to divulge more than just salary ranges. But, as you’ll read below, they won’t be “divulged” to the public, just to council. And you’re okay spending tax dollars on an essentially pointless quest that will (allegedly) be kept secret?

But why should employees earning under $100K be forced to divulge their salaries? The province’s ‘sunshine’ law doesn’t require it (only municipal salary ranges below that are ever released). Why do some people think they are above provincial law?

Collingwood Council passed a shareholders’ directive on Wednesday, requesting a host of information from Collus Powerstream as part of the development of a new shared services agreement.

Okay, first it’s a shareholder’s directive, singular, since the town has only one share and it belongs to the community as a whole, not to multiple shareholders. It’s only plural when both shareholders pass it.

Why didn’t the reporter ask the simple question: what have salaries to do with shared services? In fact, they are irrelevant to the shared service agreement. It’s supposed to be about services, after all. But don’t let facts get in the way.

Why didn’t the reporter ask why none of this was ever raised in public before, or what public interest was being protected by all this secrecy? Why didn’t the reporter ask if it’s proper procedure to demand such information outside a formal shareholders’ meeting (yes, plural because there are two)? Or ask whether it’s wise to engage in a pissing match with your partner through the media?

(Does such a ‘directive’ requires both parties to agree, if so, the reporter might have asked, what happens if the other refuses?)

Why didn’t an editor send the reporter back out to finish the job? Asking why is a key part of any story. There are five Ws that must be answered to complete every good story: who, what, where, when and why. Just because council said so, or the CAO demanded it, isn’t the answer to why. Good reporters dig deeper. Good editors make sure they do.

Exposing Collus staff salaries has long been a personal quest of some former politicians, and at least one local reporter. Apparently it’s also the personal mission of some currently at the table.

That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to sniff out what is paid to staff at Collus in order to make a political point. It’s not relevant to anything, including our hydro rates. And I refer back to the sunshine law, mentioned above: there is some reasonable expectation of privacy for those under the threshold.

Whether that information should be public or not, it is not related in any way to services provided to the town by Collus. That question should be discussed in public with all parties, not in one of council’s many secretive, closed-door meetings out of the public eye.

Those services in question have been billed according to industry-wide standards since 2003, and, until this term, were mutually agreed rates in a document signed by both parties.

Can you explain how this is anything more than just a personal vendetta against Collus staff, rather than anything even vaguely useful? Or why the reporters didn’t ask who is behind this?

The town is also looking for a list of all employees, salaries and bonuses paid to employees over the last 10 years; an organizational chart; any bonuses paid to officers; employment reviews; all other compensation; and policies and procedures relating to compensation.

Well, that’s interesting because it wasn’t part of the motion made in public, which said simply:

THAT Council herein authorize the Mayor and Clerk to execute a Shareholders Agreement and Shareholders Directive together with PowerStream to Collus PowerStream to acquire needed information with respect to the Shared Services Agreement.

Information: that’s all. No mention of salaries, bonuses or benefits. It looks to me like someone blabbed confidential information to the media about what was discussed in secret. That violates the oath of office. But the reporter never acknowledges that this part was not made public. Frankly regardless of whether that was a council member or staff who revealed it, he or she should resign immediately for such an unethical breach. That would be the honourable thing to do.

But again, ask yourself: what has any of this to do with a shared services agreement? And why do we need to look back 10 years, when the merger with PowerStream only took effect in early 2012? What use will 10 years of salary data have?

The piece goes on to note “…the information will not be made public.” Which again should inspire the reporter to ask why council feels it necessary to get this information, spend tax dollars on additional lawyers, harass our utility and our partner, all the while crowing about “openness” in public when it’s going to be kept secret?

Was it just to continue council’s relentless campaign to bully and intimidate Collus staff over information that isn’t relevant to anything aside from personal curiosity? Reporters should ask.

Saunderson said the town should have had the information all along.
“We were the 100 per cent sole shareholder and we were entitled to that information, and I think now we should have that information. Why we didn’t get it before is really beyond me,” he said.

Claptrap. Why didn’t the reporter challenge this statement? It is an opinion, not backed up by anything even resembling fact. No public discussion has even been made about that information, about why it might be relevant or important or how it serves the greater good. What document or law entitles anyone to that information?

The town is now only 50% shareholder. Partners. I wonder if council knows what that word means. You know: working together for mutual goals that benefit the community? I guess that was tossed out the window with openness this term, too.

But the reporter knows something about it, because he wrote that Collus was formed under the “…Ontario Business Corporations Act and (salaries) are therefore have never been subject to the province’s Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act.” In other words, they have been legally protected under provincial law, and were established that way many years ago. You’d think a lawyer would understand how the law works.

Yes, the story actually says, “…and are therefore have never been…” Again, a competent editor would have caught that.

And then the worst:

Last year, it was discovered that Collus Solutions – subsidiary of Collus Powerstream – had signed a share services agreement with the municipality, providing a number of services for Collingwood Public Utilities, including billing, accounting, engineering and human resources.

Simply wrong. It wasn’t “discovered” last year at all. The town has had a formal, signed shared services agreement in place since around 2003. It has been raised every time Collus presents its annual business plan. It has been included in every annual town budget since.

However, because staff has refused to let this council examine the full budget, it’s somewhat  understandable that only the veterans on council were aware of the agreement. The rest simply didn’t bother asking or investigating further (i.e. doing the job they were elected to do). But not having the full information didn’t stop anyone from voting for a budget they didn’t understand, nor from making chest-thumping fulminations over something well outside their ken.

Last January, Rienk DeVries of True North Consulting, raised concerns with the agreement. This raised the ire of Marcus Firman, then Chief Operating Officer of Collingwood Public Utilities, who was critical of the findings in the report.

Partly true. The report was, in my opinion and that of several others who were asked to provide input, deeply flawed. So flawed that several respondents wrote reams of paper challenging the data, correcting the information, arguing different conclusions, and providing a completely different view of the shared services agreement.

However, staff refused to make the massive, 100-plus-page rebuttal public (likely because it contradicted someone’s agenda…). Under pressure, a single copy was grudgingly put in the locked council room for a few days. It was marked confidential and councillors were not allowed to remove it to study further or do followup. Then, shortly after, it was removed. The media never once mentioned it, nor asked to see a copy. It’s all been done so secretly and slyly. A good reporter would have sniffed it out.

As a result, council again remained woefully uninformed about a major issue on which they voted despite glaring ignorance of the whole picture. The COO of the utility railed in public in front of council about how painfully inaccurate the report was – if I recall his comments correctly, he warned the report bordered on “fraudulent.” Not long after, he quit for a job in a community where such shenanigans are not tolerated.

But, still, council embraced the consultant’s report, as it has every consultant’s report this term regardless of its irrelevance or correctness. Doing so makes it much easier than having to think for yourself, of course.

Council later voted to draw up a new shared services agreement.
CAO John Brown didn’t expect the process to take too long but was asked what would happen if Powerstream declined to provide the information.

“Later” was, if I recall correctly, last spring. Almost a year ago. The shared services agreement was supposed to be in place before Dec. 31, 2015. It is still in limbo: more lawyers were brought in to run the cost up and delay the process. A more diligent council would demand a performance review and likely keel-haul (metaphorically) the CAO over his inability to accomplish this task. Instead, admin staff keep demanding more information – often, I’m told, the same information Collus has provided several times already.

“I would be very surprised if they said no, I wouldn’t know why they would say no,” he said. “I have had conversations with the president with Powerstream and his view is that we should have this information.”

Which is more claptrap. Why didn’t the reporter ask a single person at Collus for a comment, nor ask the president of PowerStream what his views were? Or even if that statement was true? That would just be doing a reporter’s job, don’t you think? You should not let one person speak for another – especially when that person is in an apparently adversarial relationship with the other.

But wait, there’s more. In a piece headlined, Collingwood asks lawyer to look at options for Collus Powerstream shares, we read that,

Collingwood council has asked its lawyer to look at options for the town’s 50-per-cent stake in Collus Powerstream.

This is not the town’s lawyer, but another lawyer hired by the administration (at your expense… the total cost for all these lawyers and consultants this past year is astronomical…). But why not ask exactly what it means by “options”? You can’t go back and rewrite a deal inked four years ago. So what options are there?

Selling our only share, it seems, and surrendering control over our hydro utility and our low electricity rates. That’s the sole option. This only comes out in a third story, in which we learn council has been plotting to sell town assets like our hydro utility, in secret (naturally). No public input, not public discussions, no openness or transparency. Secrecy: standard operating procedure this term.

That sale would likely cause the hydro utility to close up shop and move most of its operations out of town, too. Loss of jobs to the community, plus the town would have to shell out millions more to hire new staff and buy new equipment to perform the shared services we had before this term. The net result: higher taxes, money wasted, jobs lost, reputation besmirched. Par for the course.

And what would council use that money for? Another question the reporter never asked.

Not paying down the town’s debt – that would incur a hefty penalty. Those rates are fixed and early payments cost the town more than the scheduled payments. Council has been mum on what it would do with that money – probably because these discussions have all been held behind closed doors. But that hasn’t stopped the rumour mill.

[pullquote]If this is true, why hasn’t it been discussed in public? Why is so little of importance discussed in public this term?[/pullquote]Street talk suggests the money will be used to build a publicly funded expansion for the YMCA as compensation for the $35 million Taj Mahal the last council refused to build for them. You can guess whose initiative this is, if true. It’s only rumour, at present, but if true, it will be unspeakably unethical and corrupt.

Then the piece notes:

In 2013, the town sold 50 per cent of the shares of Collus Power to Powerstream to create Collus Powerstream. The town received about $15 million.

Nope. The date was 2012, as this previous story relates. The process itself was started in 2011 on the initiative of the utility’s board of directors.

The year-long campaign to harass and bully Collus, plus the loss of the income from the water utility through shared services, has likely resulted in a seriously diminished share value. So selling it would be at a loss.

Ditto with the airport – having alienated our municipal neighbours and local developers, and weakened the argument against nearby wind turbine placement because of our anti-business attitudes out there, who would want to buy it?

As for the BCRY rail line, council was probably unaware that its future is dim, as Barrie – owner of the southern portion – is looking to trim its operating  costs and may even pull out. Instead of looking for a quick sale, council should be exploring economic development opportunities and talking – openly and in public – with Barrie council. Ah, but there’s the rub: open and public discussions about anything crucial simply aren’t on the books this term.

A story in the Enterprise Bulletin, is headlined, Council OKs Collus shareholders deal. In it, you read:

Collus Power, a municipal electrical distribution company, was solely owned by the Town of Collingwood until it sold 50% ownership to PowerStream back in 2012, creating Collus.

PowerStream in a deal worth about $14 million.

Why the bizarre sentence break? An editor should have spotted that. And it’s not a deal as the headline suggests, but a demand. A deal requires at least two parties, not simply a unilateral demand. But here’s the worst part:

Last year Collus Solutions, a subsidiary of Collus Powerstream – took over several services for Collingwood Public Utilities.

Once again, completely wrong. Like I said above, the shared service agreement has been in place since 2003. It ended January 1, 2016, and only then because this council decided last year to terminate it. There has been no replacement yet (see above).

The morale at both Collus and our water utility has tanked, the services are in chaos over who is supposed to do what and pay for what, the unions are unsure of roles, and staff are stressed by the constant interference and bullying from the town. It’s been a disaster. Neither paper has covered any of this.

In both papers, the majority of comments – in some stories the only quotations – came from Deputy Mayor Saunderson and the CAO. In such a contentious issue, a good reporter would get a better balance of comments from all sides. Yes, yes, I know all about the Pollyana-ish affection for these two that colours most council-related stories. It wouldn’t, in a fair and unbiased media with firm editorial control.

Both papers can do better – and have done much better in the past. We, the readers and residents deserve better than pedestrian reporting and mediocre editing.

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