10/3/14

Promising to do What’s Already Done


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.

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10/2/14

A Buddhist Guide for Voters


Kalama Sutra
While it was intended as a general ‘charter of free inquiry,’ the Buddhist Kalama Sutra (or sutta) contains wise words that all voters – especially local voters – should heed during the municipal election campaign.

The Kalamas were a people in ancient India. Gotama visited them and stopped in a town called Kesaputta, where he gave a sermon, now referred to as the Kalama Sutra. At first the citizens came to him with a deep problem: how to trust what people were telling them. They had been visited by many religious teachers who all held divergent views. Not unlike candidates for Collingwood council going door to door. Well, without the spirituality and a few badmouthing other candidates, too. But let’s not get distracted by them.

Here’s how Soma Thera translates what the villagers said:*

There are some monks and brahmans… who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces… Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and brahmans spoke the truth and which falsehood?”

That’s a lot like trying to decide which candidate is the best one(s) to vote for. Some explain what they stand for while others merely revile what others stand for. Some offer hope and a future, others tear it down. Some simply tell lies. Doubt and uncertainty arise. When they come to your door or make statements in an all-candidates’ meeting, how do you trust what they say?

That’s when the Buddha made one of his most memorable speeches, in which he told the listeners they had to decide the truth for themselves, to examine the claims and prove what is right or wrong for themselves, and not make choices based on hearsay, ideology or gossip:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas.

  • Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing;
  • nor upon tradition;
  • nor upon rumor;
  • nor upon what is in a scripture;
  • nor upon surmise;
  • nor upon an axiom;
  • nor upon specious reasoning;
  • nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability;
  • nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’

One might add some modern terms to that list of things that do not offer a suitable basis on which to form an opinion of what is or is not truthful:

  • nor by blogs;
  • nor by speeches;
  • nor by campaign literature;
  • nor by self-written pieces in the local newspaper;
  • nor by innuendo;
  • nor by unproven or unfounded allegation;
  • nor by rumour;
  • nor by email blasts;
  • nor by claims made when stumping;

He then tells the citizens that to learn for themselves what is bad, what is bad, evil and harmful, they must assess everything by asking, “Does this do good? Or harm? Does it lead to suffering?”

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10/2/14

Misconceptions About the Town Debt


Clock TowerYesterday members of council received a letter from our auditors that should clear up any misconceptions floating around about debt and debentures. It is clear and succinct.

I was also forwarded an email from a candidate (sent to his supporters) with misleading statements about how much debt there is. I don’t know if it was deliberately meant to be misleading – I suspect rather that the candidate simply doesn’t understand municipal finance. But it isn’t really a complicated process.

And no candidate should make claims based on misunderstanding or misinformation. It is their responsibility to get and present the facts, not fantasies, nor opinions.

In response to concerns over such inaccurate claims and misunderstandings, we asked for a clarification. Sue Bragg, B.B.A., CPA, CA, and partner in Gaviller and Company, which audits the town’s financial statements every year, wrote the following (emphasis added):

We understand there have been some inquiries regarding the “definition of debt” and how the debt levels have changed during this last term of Council.
Our professional opinion is that debt is external, contractual debt, typically in the form of bank loans, debentures and mortgages. This definition is in keeping with the presentation of debt on the Financial Information Return prepared annually for the Ministry, as well as the Ministry’s calculation of the Annual Repayment Limit.

Okay, here’s the first important point: debt is external. That’s both the professional and the legal definition of municipal debt as defined by the Ministry of Finance.

Debt is what we owe outsiders: money borrowed with interest and bank charges to be paid. It’s what affects your taxes. It’s our debentures.

It is not any internal loans we have. I’ll get to those a bit later and explain how they work. Just keep in mind that they are not debt by any professional or Ministry calculation.

So then what is our actual debt? Ms. Bragg continues (emphasis added):

As per the 2010 audited financial statements: long-term debt was $45,507,356 and there was a bank demand loan in the amount of $664,013 for a total of $46,171,369. As per the 2013 audited financial statements: long-term debt was $36,860,776 and there was no bank demand loan debt.

We are unable to comment on the 2014 balances as we have not audited those transactions to date.

Got that? We started with a total debt of $46.17 million ($45.5 million in debentures) when we took office. As of Jan. 1, 2013, this council and staff had brought it down to $36.86 million. By the end of 2014, we estimate it will be roughly $38 million because we will pay down more this year, but we also need to borrow for two earlier projects).

At the end of our term, this council will have paid down approximately $7.5 million of our debt, as we have been saying for months now. These are the facts verified by the auditor.

Our debt is not the $50,361,230.00 some candidates are suggesting.

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09/30/14

Ke Ji Feng Gong


Ke Ji Feng Gong
Back in 2007, I first wrote about those Chinese symbols in the image above. They spell “Ke ji feng gong.” This is an update to that older piece, because it seemed appropriate to raise it in the midst of our current political campaign.

It’s an ancient Chinese saying that means:

“Work Unselfishly for the Common Good.”

An alternate translation, but similar in intent, is

“Self-restraint and devotion to public duties; selfless dedication; to serve the public interest wholeheartedly.”

Typically in the translation of Chinese characters, the phrase has a multitude of shadings. It can also mean,

“Place Strict Standards on Oneself in Public Service.”

I found another reference to it as “shared success.” It is sometimes written as “fèng gong kè ji.”

Regardless of which flavour appeals to you, it defines everything that I believe in about municipal political service: we are here to serve the public good; the greater good.

Every member of council should get this emblazoned on our desks, our computers, and our business cards to remind ourselves that our duty is to the greater good, not to serve friends, colleagues or whatever group you may belong to.

Maybe we should get one of the scrolls placed in our council room as an admonition, too.

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09/26/14

My Rogers’ Cable TV Speech


Each candidate was given three minutes to speak for a spot on Rogers Cable TV recently. Here is what I said (in about two minutes):

Municipal politics is really quite simple. It’s all about people.

Caring about the people you live and work with.

Caring if seniors can afford their taxes. Caring if the sidewalk in front of your neighbour’s house is in good repair.

Caring about parents who had to drive for hours on dark, snowy roads to get their kids to hockey practice in another town because there was no place to play here.

Caring whether the garbage gets picked up, or if there enough places to park your bicycle.

And caring if we have enough doctors and nurses to take care of everyone.

It’s about caring for everyone of every age, and trying to do what’s best so we can all benefit.

It’s also about caring for the places and spaces where people play and work.

Caring about our beautiful parks where you take your dog and your family to.

Caring whether there are empty stores downtown, or if the roads are too bumpy.

Saving a few pieces of green space from development so families don’t lose everything wild and natural around them.

It’s about making sure our trails are safe to ride on. Making sure our streets are safe, and that our homes are safe from fire and vandalism.

It’s about making sure people can afford to live here and that we have industries and business so people can work here, too.

I care about all of these.

But caring alone isn’t enough. You have to do something about it. You need to take action. And that’s what I do as your representative.

I make the decisions I sincerely believe are in the best interests of the whole community.

The decisions that matter most to everyone. Not just to my friends, or my colleagues, or some group I might belong to.

I have the experience to help guide this town through another four years. I have a solid, clear vision of how I want this community to grow and develop. And I am passionate about my role as councillor.
Please re-elect me. I will always put the interests and the needs of the greater good first because that’s what politics means to me.

Thank you for listening and I look forward to your support.

09/19/14

The OPP Investigation


In order to clear up the misinformation, rumours and outright lies about the OPP investigation, spreading on social media by some candidates and among the angry bloggers, let me set the record straight.

Here’s what we know:

  1. Approximately eighteen months ago, someone local went to the police and and filed a formal complaint. The police opened an investigation.
  2. The police have not interviewed the Mayor, Deputy  mayor, Councillors Lloyd, Cunningham, West, Edwards or myself in that time.
  3. After more than 18 months, no one has been charged with anything. No one has gone to jail. No one has been in court.
  4. The police have not made any public statements about the details of the investigation.
  5. The police are competent enough to know when dirty politics are presented to them.

Here’s what we don’t know:

  1. What the police are or were investigating (the police refuse to divulge this information).
  2. Who the police are or were investigating (the police refuse to divulge this information).
  3. What allegations have been made (the police refuse to divulge this information).
  4. When the police will issue a public report on the investigation.*

Those are the facts. Period. All the rest is rumour, gossip and allegation. Mostly malicious.

The CBC reporter who first broadcast this did not confirm any of these details with the OPP, simply broadcast allegations.

The CBC reported that one person on council went to the police. That person was not named in the broadcast. No one on council admitted to doing so. That remains an unproven allegation.

The EB asked each member of council if that was him or her who went to the police. All but one member replied, “no.” The other member refused to comment, allegedly because of legal advice.

When or if the police formally provide any results or publicly say the investigation is closed, there will be several FOI requests filed to get the name of the person who filed the complaint.

It has been more than 18 months since the complaint was filed, and to date nothing has happened. Nor is anything expected to happen, outside of a statement of closure. If anyone had done something illegal, he or she would have been charged by now. Instead, this council has been able to continue doing ‘business as usual.’

And here’s the final thing: no one on council did anything wrong. There is no basis for any charge of any sort. Simply because someone doesn’t like what council does, simply because someone doesn’t like the way a decision was made, or the way a vote went doesn’t mean it was wrong, illegal, immoral or improper.

Everything done by this council has been aboveboard, open and transparent, completely legal and democratic.

~~~~~

* Update: OPP Sergeant Peter Leon stated on Sept. 23, four days after this post had been written, that the investigation is still ongoing and the OPP will release a statement when the investigation is finished. He did not speculate on when that would be.