Where is Collingwood’s Pandemic Response?

StumpedI admit I am stumped. I have been looking online to find something that tells me what Collingwood council has done in response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year. I’m looking for real, concrete, measurable steps, things that benefit our community; things that residents and businesses can point to and say “This helped me survive.”

I don’t want to read about promises, nor bloviations, nor self-serving proclamations with all the substance of a bad dream. We get enough vapid, banal content from our shambolic council already. Watching a council meeting is like being trapped in an elevator with a serial farter who won’t stop talking. This, however, is important. They’ve had a year to create plans, to assign money, to reach out, to help residents, and do something positive and meaningful. I’d like something we, as a community, can boast about. But I can’t find anything.

Now, just because I can’t find any indication of anything substantive online doesn’t mean they haven’t done it. Perhaps I missed it. With such threadbare local media content, I might have simply overlooked a story. So I am calling on my readers to fill me in: tell me what positive, concrete solutions council has approved, how that has helped you, what funds they have used to help the community, how much money you have received. Please, if you know them, answer my questions below.

But before I offer some questions, let’s consider some things about Collingwood. We have a higher-than-average number of seniors here, and a large segment of people working in the hospitality and service sectors. We have a lot of people on either fixed incomes or in minimum-wage jobs who are vulnerable to layoffs and lockdowns. We also have a lot of seniors in long-term-care facilities. Surely all of these are the most vulnerable people in our community, most at risk from challenges caused by the pandemic. Surely a compassionate, caring, moral council would have immediately reached out to help these groups first, right?

After all, the town takes your money: surely council can give some of it back in a time of great need to help the community. That would be the ethical and the moral thing to do, right?

So what did they do? And where are the stories about it? Surely our sycophantic local media would be praising our council to the heavens if they actually did something.

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The Judicial Inquiry and $7+ Million

Show trialWas it worth more than $7.7 million of your tax dollars? That’s roughly $8,400 a page (including, yes, the blank pages). That includes $232,866 in town staff salaries and $48,008 in staff travel expenses. Fifty-seven percent of that total went to legal costs, including $1.58 million on the town’s own legal costs. I can’t tell from the article linked above if the total includes the cost of having to rent commercial space downtown for the treasury department during the inquiry.

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to what a Judicial Inquiry is supposed to do, how it is supposed to operate, or why it did or didn’t do some things. But I can tell you what I personally expected: inclusiveness, fairness, accuracy, objectivity, and recommendations relevant to the municipality. And the rest is just my personal view, of course, but perhaps some of you share it.

I don’t think we got everything I expected from the inquiry and its 23 employees (plus the additional services of IT, website, and audio/visual companies that cost more than $1.1 million).

What we did get after almost two years was 914 digital pages that mostly rehashed what was said in testimonies, in emails, and other documents during the inquiry, all of which was already available on the inquiry’s website. And it came with 306 recommendations, many of which were relevant to the province (changing or amending various acts), many were generic, and others for which the town has either already implemented or has in existing policies and bylaws.

That list, in my reading of it, could have been made without an inquiry spending $7.7 million of taxpayers’ money.  And one has to ask whether the 73 recommendations about the CAO’s and staff’s roles (recommendations 70-85 and 86-143, respectively) were not outside the mandate of the inquiry. (Oddly enough, spending $8,400 a page was apparently not enough to get the editor — if there was one — to include an index.).

Regardless of the wisdom or relevance of these recommendations, I certainly think the town could have spent $7.7 million (and rising: the bills are still coming in) more wisely. Spend it on something constructive that benefitted the community, like fixing the waterfront, repairing our shoddy roads and cracked sidewalks, cleaning stormwater drains across town, planting trees, developing bicycle-safe zones, improving and expanding trails, upgrading parks, upgrading the wastewater treatment plant, funding community businesses and artists during the pandemic shutdowns, or just keeping our taxes from rising again. You know: doing the things that actually matter to residents.

According to Collingwood Today:

“The task is to determine how and why a problem occurred and recommend how a town can prevent similar occurrences in the future,” stated Marrocco on Monday when he released his report.

Shouldn’t the task have been to first determine IF a problem occurred? Deciding before any testimonies that there was a problem suggests a pre-determination of guilt, not an objective inquiry.

Keep in mind that this inquiry was cunningly called for at a council meeting when three of the nine members of council were absent and could not participate in the discussion or vote. It was approved by a razor-thin majority of five: Saunderson, Ecclestone, Jeffrey, Doherty, and Madigan in Feb. 2018, more than three years after that council had been elected, and six years after the last of the events took place. If it was so important, why didn’t they call for it sooner? (A question local media neglected to ask) I suspect it was solely because it was a few months away from another municipal election and they could ride their campaigns on it to re-election. And it worked for four of them.

Keep in mind, too, that council heard justifications for an inquiry behind closed doors from a lawyer who was hired on a sole-source basis (without the RFP required by the procurement bylaw) by the administration, and not in response to a request from council for a lawyer or for said advice. According to my sources, that lawyer never interviewed or questioned any of the utility staff or former board and council members before making his recommendations to council behind those closed doors. And that same lawyer was later given the lucrative role of representing the town in the inquiry on a sole-source basis without a proper RFP for the second time.

And the local media never questioned any of this — nor was it raised during the inquiry.

Nor were witnesses or lawyers during the hearings allowed to raise the secretive and deceptive nature of the later sale of the utility by the previous council to a for-profit, out-of-province corporation, done without any public input or consultation. If anything was an utter betrayal of public trust, that certainly was. So it remained unspoken during the inquiry. And the media let it slide, too. But I digress. Back to the report…

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Collingwood and cannabis stores

Buffer zones

Credit where credit is due: Collingwood council this week voted unanimously to allow a cannabis store to open here. That came as somewhat of a surprise given earlier negative comments from come councillors, but in the end they all agreed to it. It made sense to say yes, given that pot is now legal in Canada. Saying no would have made the community seem both out-of-touch and fusty, and would have reinforced the resolutely-closed-for-business reputation that last council gave our town.

But the staff report also shows that there is still a deep prohibition-era thinking in town hall. Take a look at the map, above, showing in blue the 200-metre buffer staff thinks need to created to prevent stores from opening nearby. Like parks, for example. Although there is no logical reason to ban sales near parks, the proposed 200 meter buffer basically rules out all of the commercial space and strip malls along First Street.

And who decided 200 metres is appropriate for anything? Would anything change if it was reduced to 100? or 50? How about 1.5m, the width of most sidewalks? Is there some scientific research that says a community is safer, more morally upright if cannabis stores are 200 metres from, say, an arboretum, bench or labyrinth? I half-expected staff to show council a clip from the 1936 film Reefer Madness as the reference to back up their recommendations.*

Within those very buffer zones, the town already has retaillers selling alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs. You can get drunk in a dozen restaurants and bars along First Street, but staff think someone selling pot nearby is a threat? Do staff really believe that selling legal pot will corrupt park visitors in ways that, say, legal opioids or cheap whisky don’t? Or that strollers walking their dog along a trail will suddenly be overcome and engage in crimes of moral turpitude when they inadvertently come within 200 metres of a cannabis store? I say we got trouble my friends, right here in River City… **

And as for tobacco – it’s the most insidious, nasty product you can buy legally: addictive, cancer-causing, and dirty. Our parks, streets and beaches are already heavily littered with toxic cigarette butts. Butts are the ocean’s “single largest source of trash” according to data collected by NGO Ocean Conservancy. Smokers are universally dirty – I’ve never met one in all my years who didn’t litter. Just take a look at the sidewalk in front of the coffee shops downtown, or the deep reefs of discarded butts beside Wal-Mart or other box stores where staff go to smoke. Do town staff (who do nothing about the toxic butt problem let alone smoking on public property) really think a single pot store is worse than all those smokers and the outlets where they can buy their drugs?

Personally, I would prefer to see a store downtown because it would be good for the downtown economy. But I don’t think it should be the only viable area offered for a retail outlet: location should be the retailler’s choice based on their business model and own studies (and concerns like parking). Arbitrarily limiting its location might be a fine way to do things in the old Soviet planning system, but those of us who still believe in free enterprise have always found that system rather stifling.

Cannabis should be treated the same way as alcohol and other drugs. We already have zoning in place to limit where retail or commercial operations can take place. Why create artificial buffer zones when we already have all the necessary planning rules? All that will do is add another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to the process in a town already labelled closed for business.

But maybe that’s the goal.
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SVJI costs continue to skyrocket

BureaucracyAs I predicted earlier, the costs for Saunderson’s Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) are going to climb through the roof. And of course you, the taxpayer, are going to pay for it.

Last month local media carried stories that the SVJI – scheduled to begin this month (November) – wasn’t going to meet its deadlines. It was delayed and would not start until the “new year” (apparently not until February, 2019). Bayshore Broadcasting notes in its coverage*:

The inquiry team had hoped they would start this fall, but Inquiry Counsel Janet Leiper tells us that won’t be possible and that it will be the new year before the public hearings can start. She says that’s because the rest of some of the necessary documents aren’t expected until the end of November.

Three more months of lawyers being paid $400-$700 an hour, plus travel and accommodations , plus the other staff, computers, phone, office space… That’s going to hurt the town’s budget but hey, it isn’t Saunderson’s money he’s spending. And it helped him win the election, so he doesn’t care what it costs you.

The piece also noted the inquiry had already received about 11,000 documents and interviewed more than 60 witnesses, some of whom may need to spoken to again. Ka-ching!**

Alectra – the company that came from the merger of PowerStream and other Ontario utilities – has already submitted more than 4,000 documents, sorted out from about 40,000 the company had from the time period in question. But that’s not enough: the SVJI wants more paperwork from more people.

Alectra’s lawyer, Michael Watson, said that could mean sorting through 100,000-200,000 documents from that period.  Big job. So why not do it twice? The Connection noted:

(Judge) Marrocco suggested the company provide the documents and allow inquiry staff to do a search while Alectra does the same.

Okay, let’s do some cost and time estimates on the effort required to search through 100,000 or more documents.
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What about climate change? No. 2

Climate change
A few of the apocalyptic headlines from the past few days:

Final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’ – BBC news

Landmark UN climate report warns time quickly running out – Al Jazeera news

Scientists Just Laid Out Paths to Solve Climate Change. We Aren’t on Track to Do Any of Them –Time magazine

Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn – CNN

Earth has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn – ABC news

UN report on global warming carries life-or-death warning – CBC news

Terrifying climate change warning: 12 years until we’re doomed – New York Post

U.N. Panel Warns Drastic Action Needed to Stave Off Climate Change – Wall Street Journal.

Unprecedented action needed to curb global warming – UN report – ITV news

UN report on global warming carries life-or-death warning – Victoria Times-Colonist

A major new climate report slams the door on wishful thinking – Vox

Climate Report Warns Of Extreme Weather, Displacement of Millions Without Action – NPR

Alarming as it is, this is hardly the first time scientists have warned us that we have to make changes or we face a catastrophe. And it’s not like we can’t see it coming: record tornadoes, record hurricanes, record typhoons, record temperatures, record tsunamis, record droughts… this summer we were warned “2018 Is Shaping Up to Be the Fourth-Hottest Year. Yet We’re Still Not Prepared for Global Warming” (New York Times).

As the BBC story notes:

Preventing an extra single degree of heat could make a life-or-death difference in the next few decades for multitudes of people and ecosystems on this fast-warming planet, an international panel of scientists reported Sunday. But they provide little hope the world will rise to the challenge.

A SINGLE degree. Can’t we strive for at least that?

In the US, the NOAA reported:

August 2018 was characterized by warmer- to much-warmer-than-average conditions across much of the world’s land and ocean surfaces. Record warm temperatures were present across parts of each major ocean basin, with the largest portions across the Barents Sea and the western Pacific Ocean, and small areas across Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. During the month, the most notable temperature departures from average were present across Europe, central Asia, the northeastern contiguous U.S., and southeastern Canada, where temperatures were 2.0°C (3.6°F) above average or higher.

All of which makes me wonder why we’ve heard so little about climate change and Collingwood during this election campaign. Aside from what I wrote in my earlier post, I’ve heard only one candidate mention it. And that concerns me.
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Ten points on affordable housing

I was invited, along with the other candidates for this municipal election, to address residents at Rupert’s Landing this week. Each candidate was provided a list of ten questions and given three minutes to respond to one of them. I will comment on the other nine in a future post, but for now, I wanted to talk about question two, which I chose to answer:

There is insufficient affordable housing in Collingwood. What are your plans for increasing affordable housing for low-income adults?

Three minutes is a very short time in which to address a complex, challenging issue. I had made a list of ten points but only managed to get into point three or four before my time ran out. Below are some of the notes I made on the issue and my thoughts about housing. This is by no means a comprehensive post on housing and raises more questions that it provides answers; most of these are simply the points I wanted to raise at the event, and some are simply bullets.

I chose this topic because I felt is was the most important one on the list and that it had so far received little attention this election. I served on Collingwood’s Affordable Housing Task Force a few terms back, where I learned a lot about the needs and the politics. Housing should not be just a campaign topic- it should be on council’s radar all the time.

  1. “Affordable” housing isn’t just an issue about subsidized housing. It’s also about rental unit and rooming house availability, but it’s also an issue that affects development charges, property taxes and home prices. It’s really about housing in general. And it affects every municipality in Ontario.
  2. The term affordable is imprecise – the word means different things to different people. As the CMHC website notes: In Canada, housing is considered “affordable” if it costs less than 30% of a household’s before-tax income. Many people think the term “affordable housing” refers only to rental housing that is subsidized by the government. In reality, it’s a very broad term that can include housing provided by the private, public and non-profit sectors. It also includes all forms of housing tenure: rental, ownership and co-operative ownership, as well as temporary and permanent housing.
    For a couple earning minimum wage working 35 hours a week, their take-home pay will be about $19,500 a year each or $39,000 total. Thirty percent of that is $11,700 or $975 a month. A quick search on Kijiji and other sites showed most local apartments were $1,200-$1,700. That’s between 36% and 52% of their income. And a lot of people working in the regional hospitality and retail industries don’t get the full 35 hours a week.
    A mortgage on a house will be much more. On $375,000 it is more than $2,000 a month. And that’s not considering the downpayment required – hard to save for when all your money is spent on just getting by.
  3. Housing is a regional issue. Too many people who work in Collingwood can’t find a place here – or afford it if they find one – so they have to live in Stayner, Wasaga Beach or even further away. Their transportation costs to and from these communities makes affordability an even bigger challenge. We need to have a regional approach to housing because our neighbours are involved in it, too.
  4. Simcoe County has jurisdiction over subsidize and social housing. They fund it, build it and manage it. The county has other housing initiatives like support for home ownership, housing retention and rent supplements. The role of the deputy mayor and mayor at county is to advocate for funds and projects in Collingwood and to bring opportunities back to council. Having good regional relationships for a stronger united voice makes it much easier to get support for local initiatives.

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