06/17/14

Our 21st Century Library


Collingwood Public LibraryIn the 20-plus years I’ve been on the Collingwood Library board, I have watched the functions of the library and its role in the community evolve and change to keep pace with the needs and demands of its growing number of users. It’s been a remarkable, exciting journey.

Of all our civic institutions, I believe the library has best adapted to the new technologies and the changing community demographics.  In sheer numbers, it is our most popular, most well-used community facility.

And the library continues to grow in popularity as visits, uses and borrowing expands in leaps and bounds. From the Collingwood Public Library annual report for 2013, presented to Council on Monday night here are a few statistics:

  • 190,121 patron visits (up 6%);
  • 283,467 items borrowed (up 3%);
  • 7,580 e-books borrowed (up 44%);
  • 5,095 program participants (up 26%);
  • 10,663 uses of library computer workstations (up 13%);
  • 13,746 uses of library Wifi network (up 34%);
  • 159,150 visits to library website (up 52%).

Did you also know there are many free online courses available through the library’s website? All you need is your library card to take them. I signed up for Latin! Plus there are databases and online magazines you can read or use for research. And, of course, a large collection of movies on DVD, music on CD and even audiobooks you can check out.

All of this is good news for the community: it shows our library remains on the forefront of the technology wave; adapting and enhancing its services – thanks to terrific, dedicated staff and a supportive, active and engaged board. Plus the library has an excellent relationship with the town’s IT superb department to help make technical and technological decisions and upgrades easier and more efficient.*

The growing community use in all aspects and areas of the library show how prescient the 2003-06 council was in approving (albeit not unanimously**) a new, expanded, award-winning, LEEDS-gold-certified library – long overdue, too.*** According to Ministry standards, our library had outgrown its space around 1990. It took more than 15 years to get a new building with enough space to accommodate the town’s growing population and the library’s own collection.

A  modern library is not simply a warehouse for books – themselves often but wrongly portrayed as an aging technology in the era of the e-reader. It is the beating heart  of the community. As a page on the Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS) says about the public library:

Today it is a cornerstone of the community that benefits everyone. Residents of all ages rely on their public library to provide what they need to face the future with the resilience that comes from new knowledge, information, skills, and abilities.

The literacy map for Collingwood is reasonably healthy. According to the Canadian Council on Learning, we’re doing better than much of the country, and the library is one of the main reasons scores have improved over the last several years. But we can’t relax our vigil and take it for granted.

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06/14/14

Why Term Limits Are a Bad Idea for Municipal Government


Term limitsLeo Longo wrote in three recent Municipal World articles (April, May, June, 2014) that it is time to consider setting term limits on municipal politicians.

I beg to disagree.

Is municipal democracy in such dire straits that it needs restrictions that no provincial or federal politician faces?

Are voters so ignorant and ill-informed that they need outsiders to guide their choices?

Applying arbitrary term limits goes against the grain of representational democracy, suggesting the arbitrator knows what is better for the electorate than the electors themselves; that democracy needs outside control because it cannot regulate itself.

What problem would such limits solve that are not already solved by the electorate, and by existing accountability laws? It is certainly not the panacea for voter malaise or low turnout.

Mr. Longo suggests the “status quo has produced many of the negative consequences…” but he fails to identify the negative consequences that occur under term-limit systems.

For example, Mexico has three-year terms and no-re-election policy. Every municipal government is entirely new, with no experienced politicians to help guide the city. The system has been widely criticized as ineffective because “Voters never have the opportunity to pass judgment on the record of their elected officials, so those officials see no incentive to having a record at all, good or bad.”* It is also said to “impede performance.”** I have seen its effects in some Mexican cities: a year of confusion getting to know the job, a year trying to get something done, then a year coasting to the end.

Incumbents are often said to have an advantage, as Mr. Longo notes. Some of this comes from name recognition: but for that to be true, you have to get your name in the community.This is only done by being active at the table and outside. Inactive or lazy politicians don’t get that.

Nor do those at odds with the media, despite their record or experience.

Is this an “unfair ‘tilted’ playing field” as he suggests? I don’t believe so. Sometimes that name recognition can work against a politician, too.

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06/5/14

Twenty years of strategic planning


Town of CollingwoodTwenty years ago – May, 1994 – the Town of Collingwood started a community-based strategic plan. That report was released in October, 1995. Then in October, 2000, Vision 2020 released its Blueprint Collingwood. These two documents are generally forgotten by the general public today, but they have been the basis of planning, of policy and strategic targets by councils and staff ever since.

No particular council or mayor can take credit for the accomplishments; they’ve been achieved over more than two decades of effort and resolve. This post is simply to point out that these visionary documents were neither ignored nor buried on shelves, but rather have been incorporated into planning and policy.

True, not every recommendation was accepted or adopted. Some were impractical – cost or complexity were too great, others involved different jurisdictions beyond the town’s control (i.e. upgrades to Highway 26 or waste management). But many have been used successfully.

Both reports built on an earlier document and process, Focus 2000, dated from (I believe) 1990. Both later documents had similar processes and approaches: task forces, community involvement, focus groups, interviews and workshops. Although they have areas of similarity, they also have differences.

The Strategic Plan identified six key features that residents valued and wanted to retain:

  • Small town atmosphere;
  • Natural beauty and the environment;
  • Recreation and leisure activities;
  • A clean, safe, friendly community;
  • Community activities and special events.

One item – “small town atmosphere” is difficult to manage. One cannot legislate a friendly, welcoming, positive attitude or to post optimistic comments in social or other media. We cannot pass bylaws that require people to say hello, please and thank you, to hold a door open, or to let someone back out of a parking space on the main street. But councils have tried to retain some of the look and feel that encourage at least the aesthetic feel of Collingwood – including keeping green/wild spaces and trees. Otherwise, these features have all been key in the town’s planning and policy development.

On the key issues facing the town, as reported in the study, here’s how we fared. My comments are in blue:

  • Lack of opportunities, especially for youth;
    We have a youth centre, skateboard park and many recreational opportunities, but we don’t have a lot of employment opportunities outside the service and hospitality sectors. We are not alone in this: most Ontario municipalities have struggled with plant and industry closures the past two decades. However, we do have some manufacturing such as Goodall, Sensortech, Pilkington Glass, Canadian Mist, Agnora Glass and others. Two microbreweries are scheduled to open here this year. So we’re better off than many communities our size – these companies employ residents and several are adding new jobs every year.
  • Waterfront development;
    The residential waterfront development started, but collapsed along with the economy in 2008. It’s been on hold ever since while banks and real estate companies attempt to sell off the remaining parcels to a new developer. The town has upgraded the waterfront area in the harbour, and recently added docks to encourage more boat traffic. Falling water levels have been a problem for a few years, but that may be a cyclic pattern. The grain terminals has been up for sale for a few years, but so far no serious buyer has come forward. Meanwhile there have been enhancements to both Sunset Point and Harbourview parks.
  • Lack of cultural activities and facilities;
    The town now has a culture coordinator who helps promote and encourage cultural events and activities. There is no municipal arts centre, but both the new municipal (library) building and the privately-owned Tremont have gallery space. The former newspaper office was turned into a private theatre/gallery/workshop space. Our council chambers now showcase local artists. The Elvis Festival is about to enter its 20th anniversary, and remains the town’s largest summer event. Other events have been promoted, such as the Jazz at the Station weekly show. We have more street art, too.
  • Preservation of the natural environment;
    Ongoing and raised frequently (as recently as the June 2 council meeting). The NVCA has helped preserve wetlands and wild areas from development. It is sometimes tough to balance this with the need for growth. We also instigated and had completed a natural heritage study, done by the NVCA.
  • The economy and taxes.
    Ongoing. It’s always a balancing act between providing services and facilities people want, and maintaining/upgrading infrastructure, and keeping taxes low. The local economy is doing fairly well, but like any small town, we have to watch our money. This term taxes have been kept remarkably low (an average of about 0.5% over four years), while the debt has been paid down significantly without over-burdening the taxpayers ($11 million paid from an inherited $45 million debt). The national and world economies took a beating in 2008, which affected local growth and development, but we have been recovering slowly.

On the opportunities and goals:

  • Attract light industry and high-tech business;
    We face some competition, but we have been successful in attracting Agnora Glass, two new microbreweries, and celebrating an expansion of the Goodall rubber plant. The former ethanol plant is available for re-use for such purposes as fertilizer manufacturing. We have been fortunate to retain some of our industrial base. Our new Marketing and Economic Development manager will help us in the task of promoting Collingwood.
  • Increase tourism – promote Collingwood as a  4-season tourism resort;
    This is ongoing and has been the priority of groups like the Georgian Triangle Tourism Association.
  • Improve and develop the waterfront and make it accessible;
    Pedestrian and public access was built into the new development, although not fully completed when the development stalled, in 2008.
  • Promote arts activities and special events; build a theatre;
    We have two private theatres and private gallery spaces, plus the municipal space in the library.
  • Improve the downtown and heritage buildings;
    Done and ongoing. We now have a heritage district with strict building controls and bylaws.
  • Promote seminars, conferences and retreats.
    While we currently lack sufficient public facilities for such events, the current revitalization of the Eddie Bush Arena will provide an opportunity to host such events in the near future.

Most councils since the Strategic Plan was released have actively incorporated many of the ideas and suggestions into their operation and policies.

Everything, of course, comes with a challenge. The growth plan that will see Collingwood grow to about 31,000 in a few years may reduce some of the “small town atmosphere” that we treasure. That growth will see higher demand on services and facilities, which may mean greater costs. But I don’t think the overall well-being will be adversely affected because of the solid base that has been built over the last 20 years..

The waterfront Shipyards property has gone through its ups and downs, with development started – with great optimism then halted by the 2008 Recession. There are still approved plans for future residential and commercial development there, but no developer has taken the reins. Like with the Admiral Collingwood site, the fluctuating economy and slow recovery has curtailed its completion. Development is always at the mercy of the economy.

All councils wrestle with retaining as much of the natural environment as possible, although it sometimes conflicts with other strategic goals, like growth and development. We try to balance community interest with the rights of the developer.

And as for taxes and the economy: this council has a record of an average 0.5% tax increase over the past four years, paying down the town’s $45 million debt by $11 million AND building new recreational facilities, a new fire hall, purchased Fisher Field, a new Public Works building with 30 acres of property.

This term’s exemplary fiscal management should be a model for future councils.

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05/24/14

The ACDC/AVI Site Remediation


Admiral CollingwoodEarlier this week, members of council received this email from Ian Adams of the Enterprise Bulletin about the upcoming motion on remediation of the empty property at Hume and Hurontario Streets:

I was wondering if I could get your thoughts with regard to extending/not extending the site remediation agreement for the ACDC/AVI property, and whether an extension should be granted/not granted. Ian Adams, Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin

The site remediation agreement is unique: it is, as I have been told by the Planning Department, the only one of its kind ever made on any property in this town. It was made at the request of the AVI developer, not the town, but the town agreed to it as the third party. At that time, it seemed reasonable that development would have started within the three-year term of the agreement. That proved overly optimistic, in light of the sluggish economy.

As the town’s lawyer stated, this is a tripartite agreement that requires the agreement of all three parties to change (and, if any party wished, to discard). Any single party has the right to challenge one or both other parties in a court over the terms.

While the onus for enforcement unfortunately falls to the town under its property standards bylaw (section five), the town is given the discretion when and even whether to enforce it (section four). Any enforcement would be a costly legal challenge and a lengthy court battle for taxpayers. Potentially several years.

Keep in mind the expensive legal battles that arose when the former council removed the legally and democratically-approved permits from the site. Those cost taxpayers more than $100,000. Plus there were subsequent costs to restore and amend some of the agreements to allow the developments to proceed. That doesn’t even mention the costs the developers went through – to get the initial permits, approvals, heritage impact studies, architectural drawings and the properties themselves – and for ACDC to have to pay for a redesign and new heritage impact study last term.

To return the site to what it was before those permits were rescinded last term could cost much more. And we would be no further ahead than we were in late 2006 when we had approved a signature building on the site. Except without the prospects of that beautiful building.

Would this benefit the community or the town? Or just waste more taxpayers’ money to pursue what might be better and more effectively gained through negotiation and compromise?

Conflict and confrontation are not good – nor wise – negotiating tactics. And they are not what a municipality should be known for.

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05/18/14

Song arrangements for CPLUG


CPLUG songbookI have arranged several songs for our local ukulele group (CPLUG – the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group) over the recent months, and put them online for our members and for any other ukulele aficionados. The most recent was prepared for our May 21 get-together. Links are below.

Some of these are my own arrangements based mostly on my reading of the original song sheets or the music itself, others are based on those of other modern groups or players (albeit generally changed or updated by me).

I search online for variations of songs – other arrangements – so I can make sure the one I put together is both playable by the group, and sounds right (to my tin ear).

The songs offer a mix of old and modern material – modern I suppose being relative, because none of the songs I’ve arranged are post-2000 (yet). Mea culpa, but they are those of my own preference and my taste in pop music tends to thin out post-1990. If anyone in the group wants modern recent songs, he or she is going to have to work with me to help make it work.

Not that there aren’t good musicians and songwriters today, just that the majority of stuff I hear on the radio is derivative pap that fits into formula-istic, computerized play lists. What passes for R&B today is especially dreary. Nothing like the great, powerful music that R&B was in the 60s and 70s. And to me the “new country” is equally sleep-inducing: repetitive and vapid. Trucks, booze, girls in tight jeans… rinse and repeat…

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05/4/14

Irony and cognitive dissonance


negativity
Politics is as full of irony as it is full of cognitive dissonance. And I don’t mean simply in politicians and their agencies: it is everyone and every group, every agency and every organization that dabbles in politics. Sooner or later, the irony comes out. And the cognitive dissonance sets in.

Irony is a difference between the appearance of something and its reality. As Google brings up the definition: “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.”

Amusing may be subjective.

Irony surfaced recently in local politics when we received emails first criticizing council for not doing something about the empty Admiral Collingwood Place site, then followed by others from many of the same people, criticizing us for doing something.

The real irony is that many of the people complaining that the site was not developed are the very people at least in part responsible for it being undeveloped in the first place.

Perhaps a brief history is in order (a full timeline can be read on the April 28 council agenda, starting at page 160).

The proposed development was democratically and legally approved by the council in late 2006. That’s critical to note. It was all done openly, transparently, with numerous public meetings, with staff and council in attendance, open discussion and lively debate, all above board.

The heritage impact assessment (HIA) for the site – prepared by an independent expert – was accepted. The community in general loved the idea of the development at that location. The Downtown BIA enthusiastically supported it. People lined up to put deposits down on condos. Only a small – but vocal – number disagreed, especially with the HIA. That’s okay: in a democracy disagreement is allowed.

In the fall of that year, a local special interest group (” VOTE”) filed two OMB challenges against the development. Former councillor (later mayor) Chris Carrier publicly donated a cheque to their legal fund in their battle against the town he was elected to serve. Still, legal and acceptable in a democracy.

You surely remember the special interest VOTE group – sarcastically referred to as “Voters Opposed To Everything” by some local wags (and media). A small group, never more than a couple of dozen strong, but with friends in high places.

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