Betraying the Public Interest

Shame on youAt last Monday’s council meeting, Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson maneuvered so that interim CAO John Brown was allowed to publicly speak to the question of his contract being extended before any vote was taken. Even before anyone on council had a chance to comment on whether he should be allowed to speak.

This motion was the topic of my previous post. I believe this is an egregious betrayal of the public interest, but it’s worth looking at the process in more detail, especially to watch the video of the meeting.

In the video, it seems clear to me that Saunderson has little or no interest in an accountable government, just in getting his own way. Hardly news, I realize, but his disregard for public interest was most blatant at that meeting.

Watch it on the linked video, starting at 2:10: you’ll see Saunderson’s motion (seconded by Madigan) to extend the interim CAO’s contract to October, 2017 (the motion that blindsided the mayor and HR staff, while flipping the bird at Collingwood taxpayers).

The interim CAO stays at the table for two minutes while his position is being discussed. That should have set off procedural or at least ethical alarm bells, but the clerk remains silent.

At around 2:12 the interim CAO interrupts to ask to make a comment. At this point the mayor hesitates, then asks council for its approval of his doing so. Coun. Lloyd raises the question of the interim CAO commenting before council makes its decision, suggesting it’s a conflict of interest. It’s the most salient point of the moment.

Of course, Saunderson jumps in to support the request, and, without a by-your-leave to the mayor, turns to Brown to ask Brown to make his comment before council has a chance to debate and vote. Then – after Brown has said it all, so his supporters get the message loud and clear – he leaves the table.

And I believe, by all I know of politics and ethics, that’s wrong. It’s abuse of process for the Deputy Mayor and not an good example of leadership or best behaviour by the interim CAO.

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The $1.2 Million Bird-Flip

Alfred E NeumanOnly 16 months into this term and I’m already worn out from saying “I told you so.” I warned you it would get worse just a few weeks ago. And look: IT DID.

But you’re not really surprised, are you? The whole thing was choreographed by the Bobblehead Block Five through months of secret meetings and emails without any public input. Secrecy, no openness, no accountability – the hallmarks of this term. And it will get worse. Much worse.

I’m going to be saying “I told you so” a lot more through the train wreck of this term. Get used to it.

$1.2 million is the approximate amount Collingwood will have paid its interim CAO by the end of this council term. That’s at $225,000 a year ($50-$100,000 more than what other local CAOs make) plus car, and expenses. And it doesn’t include the stratospheric costs for lawyers (at $900 an hour) and buddy-consultants that have been rung up in the past year. Hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That’s your money. And it’s been used to promote the private agendas and personal vendettas of the Block Five. It could have been used to keep taxes low. It could have been used to pay down the debt. Remember the debt that this group screamed during the election was so out of control that it could only be solved by electing them? Guess what… their solution to fiscal management is spend, spend, spend.

The Block Five flipped the bird at Collingwood taxpayers.

Section 224 of the Municipal Act says council has an OBLIGATION to:

(a) to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality;
(b) to develop and evaluate the policies and programs of the municipality;
(c) to determine which services the municipality provides;
(d) to ensure that administrative policies, practices and procedures and controllership policies, practices and procedures are in place to implement the decisions of council;
(d.1) to ensure the accountability and transparency of the operations of the municipality, including the activities of the senior management of the municipality;
(e) to maintain the financial integrity of the municipality

Council flipped the bird at the province, too. Openness and transparency only get in the way of doing whatever you want. Why obey the Municipal Act? Why practice financial integrity? Spend, spend, spend.

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CAOs: Mene mene, tekel upharsin

Leaders in the ShadowsThe title, as you well know, dear reader, comes from the writing on the wall in Daniel 5, translated as, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Those words came to me as I read David Siegel’s recent book on Canadian municipal CAOs, Leaders in the Shadows.  It’s subtitled, “The Leadership Qualities of Municipal Chief Administrative Officers.” Interesting stuff for any municipal politician engaged in the recruitment of a CAO.*

Siegel suggests CAOs lead from the shadows because, in part, “…a CAO whose name is in the media frequently is probably in some kind of trouble.” I also suggest that such a CAO may also be so I-centric that he or she feels the need to subordinate the politicians and community to be in the forefront of attention; to be in the media simply for the egotistical delight of seeing his or her name in print. Such a CAO is not a good leader.

Siegel looks at general ideas of leadership within the complex and often byzantine context of Canadian municipal governance, and provides five case studies of successful CAOs from around the country. He examines their careers in depth, their personal attributes, and looks at their leadership skills in leading down (to staff), up (council) and out (community and peers).

That three-way balancing act is crucial to Siegel’s analysis. Good CAOs manage to engage all levels and all directions simultaneously. Staff and council, of course, have more direct interaction with the CAO, thus more opportunities to engage (therefore more opportunities to lead down and up).

I would put leading out under the microscope more because I believe it requires much more effort, more passion, more dedication and more professionalism to be involved in the community outside the office. To actively go out of the town hall doors and engage businesses, groups, to be involved in events, to walk the streets and speak to residents. That’s where a truly great leader would shine, in my estimation. Conversely, any CAO who doesn’t do at least minimal and regular external engagement is not, in my eyes, a leader, merely a manager.

A CAO who isolates himself or herself in the office and does not engage the community would, I believe, be more of a liability to the administration than an asset.

Siegel identifies a municipal CAO with good leadership skills as having “…the ability to move the municipality forward by interacting in a mutually influential way with and motivating council, external stakeholders and organizational subordinates.” This extends a more general definition from Joseph Rost’s book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. The key words here are interacting and motivating; not bossing, not ordering, not demanding.

He notes that good leaders “…minimize their personal ambition and emphasize ambition for their organization” (p256). His exemplars, he further notes, were not I-centric, but during interviews deflected discussions away from their own accomplishments to those of their subordinates and their organizations. I expect they were comfortable working in mutually-beneficial partnership situations (like we had with our own Collus/Powerstream partner until this term) and with staff as valued members of the organization, rather than attempting to destroy any relationship for ideological or personal reasons.

The five CAOs were chosen as role models in different categories and styles of management: the generalist, the task-oriented leader, the relationship-oriented leader, the partnership-building leader and what he calls the “I think I’m a better employee…” leader. In truth, all of the CAOs chosen show some degree of strength in every category. Conversely, I would expect there are those around who have none of these skills but have risen through the ranks by sheer ability to outlast everyone else. One can never lose sight of the Peter Principle in which “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

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Undermining the Mayor, and Theft

There are several changes to Collingwood’s procedural bylaw proposed. They will come up for voting on Monday night. Most are dry procedural stuff that will likely improve or smooth the normally byzantine process.

But one section in particular troubles me: 4.3: allowing the CAO to call special meetings of council by himself:

Special Meetings of Council
The Mayor and/or CAO may, at any time, summon a Special Meeting of Council on twenty-four (24) hours written notice to the Members. Upon receipt of a written petition, hard copy or digitally, from a majority of the Members, the Clerk shall summon a Special Meeting on twenty-four (24) hours written notice to all Members and the media for the purpose and at the time mentioned in the petition. The only business to be dealt with at a Special Meeting is that which is listed in the notice of the Meeting. Special Meetings may be open or closed as provided in the Municipal Act, 2001.

This strikes me as just a cheap way to undermine the mayor’s authority. As I’ve been told, the mayor has already vetoed staff attempts to call special meetings this term. Now council is being asked to give the CAO permission to do it on his own without the mayor’s approval.

If approved, it just shows how the cabal is working against the interests of the community and our democracy. It opens the door to all sorts of future abuses of power.

WHY should any bureaucrat have that authority over elected officials? No restrictions, no explanations are provided, it’s just giving the CAO more, unbridled power. This is a violation of the whole democratic ideal.

Since when do staff get to tell democratically elected representatives what to do? When Collingwood Council gives them that power.

Its a travesty and an abuse of power to allow this to happen. It is the opposite of every notion of accountability. No one who cares about openness and transparency could possibly vote for this change.

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Debunking the Collus Myths

Debunked!I was recently told a member of town council is publicly making two incorrect statements that seriously need to be debunked:

  1. Collus is 100% owned by the town (not 50%), and
  2. Collingwood only received $8 million for the sale of its share.

Yes, I realize that these are contradictory statements (why would someone pay you for something they never bought?), but a member of the public alleges they were told to him by a council member this week. That sort of foolishness cannot go unchallenged. So let’s correct those mistakes, shall we?

Let’s get into the wayback machine to go back to 2011; the year of a provincial election when all three parties were making promises to reduce the number of electrical distribution agencies (LDCs) in the province. As noted in the EB in January, 2012,

About 15 years ago, there were 320 local electrical distribution companies; today, there are about 80, and the town’s consultant on the process, John Rockx of KPMG, has said on several occasions, the province has concerns about the continued success of many of those operations.

(First, take a moment to read an article in the Canadian Business Journal about Collus, which tells you how well respected in the province our utility was in 2011, and what its stated goals were.)

Start with number one. You can read the application to the OEB for the sale here: written in March 2012 by Scott Stoll of the town’s then legal firm, Aird & Berlis, which oversaw the whole process. Now some history…

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Why We Deserve a Permanent CAO

interim CAO
Collingwood’s interim CAO

First, a little history. Back in the spring of 2012, Collingwood Council terminated the contract with Kim Wingrove, the CAO, according to the terms in the agreement. In her place, council appointed the CEO of Collus, Ed Houghton, as interim CAO. In addition to his other duties, Houghton took the job without any compensation.

In January, 2013, council began the process of recruiting a new, permanent CAO. Houghton, an effective leader who was widely respected by staff and council, stepped down shortly afterwards. A consultant was found to begin the recruitment process.

In July, 2013, on a recommendation from the town’s then legal firm, council approved hiring John Brown, a retired former CAO, for a limited period of two months. As the media of the day reported,

Brown will only be CAO while the town searches for someone to take over the position permanently, but Mayor Sandra Cooper said it was pertinent the town have someone in the job.

In subsequent discussions, council agreed that it would be unfair to any incoming council, regardless of who was elected, to hire a permanent, full-time CAO so close to the next election. A new council, it was argued, should have the opportunity to choose its own CAO. Out of respect for a future council, the former council decided to keep the interim CAO in place so the new council could choose its own, new, permanent CAO.

But that, it seems, was a foolish gesture, soon hijacked by the new council.

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The non-story of the year: the Elvis contract

Face palmThe “big” news in the Collingwood Connection this week is the release of the contract between the town and Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE). Now we all know that Elvis tribute artists can’t engage in pie-eating contests.*

The shame, the shame.

The community reacted with… a loud snore. Really? This is NEWS? Who the frig cares?

Why not cover something exciting, something really relevant? Like the contract for the paint for fire hydrants? Or the contract for aviation fuel? Why not get into the nitty gritty of the photocopier contracts? All of them are at least as important and worthy of your front page coverage.

And yet the paper went to extraordinary lengths – and expense – to get a copy.

I know, I know: local news isn’t always exciting, but making a big deal about obtaining this is like a bunch of five-year-olds showing everyone their boo-boo. Aww did widdle oo get a hurtie? Let me kiss it and make it better…

The contract revealed…. nothing of importance. Really: absolutely nothing worth reporting. Pie-eating notwithstanding. But it still got into print and online. Gotta fill those pages with something, right?

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When is a tax increase not a tax increase?

Shell gameWhen blockheads don’t get what a levy is. This month, Collingwood Council voted for a tax increase that, through the admin’s sleight of hand, the bobbleheads believed wasn’t a tax increase. It was just the old shell game.

According to a story in the Connection (which also didn’t get it), headlined “No tax hike, but assessment increase will add to Collingwood residents’ tax bills”:

(Council) have also agreed to add a 0.75-per-cent capital levy, which will generate about $210,000 for the capital asset management plan.

A levy IS a tax increase. That’s why it’s called a TAX LEVY. Trying to call it by another name doesn’t hide the fact that it all comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket. It IS a tax hike because that’s where it appears: on your TAX bill. We don’t have a separate “levy” bill. We don’t send levy collectors house to house. It’s all dumped on our municipal property taxes. A levy IS a tax!

And Collingwood was reported to be one of the most-overtaxed municipalities in the province according to two of the CAO’s many consultants’ reports in the past 18 months. Wasn’t council paying attention when they were presented?

But hey, money grows on trees, right? Taxes, schmaxes. It’s only money. Your money. But now it’s their money. And they gave themselves a raise out of it, too.

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But wait, it gets worse…

If you're not outraged, you're not paying attentionBy now you know the worst thing that has happened during this term of council: last night, Dep. Mayor Saunderson made a notice of motion to extend the interim CAO’s contract for another year. Yes, the same interim CAO who was originally hired to fill in only until the town hired a permanent CAO. Last year.

It appears several councillors have been conniving in secret AGAIN to extend the CAO’s contact, just as they did last year. Perhaps it was discussed at the secret meeting at a Thornbury restaurant, last December.

No wonder the recruitment process for a new CAO was delayed. It was supposed to start in January, then inexplicably got delayed until March. The recruitment expenses were even included in last week’s budget. April Fool!

Now we know why: councillors have again been doing their sly backroom deals to extend the current “interim” CAO’s contract for a second time. And the Dep. Mayor didn’t even show the basic, professional courtesy to tell the mayor he intended to make a notice of motion. Process and protocol are for losers, right?

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Time for Closure

OPPThirty-six months ago a small group of disgruntled, angry residents, some with burning ambition to take a seat on council themselves, allegedly complained to the OPP about decisions made by some members of the previous council. Decisions they didn’t like.

They chose to act in secret, through anonymity and stealth, rather than through open, democratic and public processes.

Using biased media, gossipers with their own agendas, sycophant bloggers, protests, ambitious candidates mouthing righteous platitudes, and virulent social media campaigning, they alleged corruption by local public officials.

The OPP must have been mortified at having to investigate a clearly politically-motivated, baseless complaint.

But the law is the law, and the OPP is required to investigate any complaint. The police talked to people. They examined bank accounts, businesses. They interviewed town staff and collected records. In 36 months, nothing has been uncovered to incriminate anyone. Nothing.

In the last 36 months, the police never once confirmed publicly that corruption was the subject of any investigation here. In fact, the police have never confirmed who or what was under investigation, although they did admit they were investigating something. Any other claims about individuals or items under investigation are simply lies.

That something might have been the complainants themselves: under investigation for malicious intentions to do criminal mischief. For costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars to pursue their personal agendas. Taxpayers paid dearly for their schadenfreude.

By now you, too, understand this was just dirty politics. By now you know there was never anything behind the allegations aside from maliciousness, spite and envy. They tarnished the good reputation of this town without the smallest twinge of guilt.

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Sloppy Reporting and Secret Agendas

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.

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Aesop is Still Relevant

A MONKEY perched upon a lofty tree saw some Fishermen casting their nets into a river, and narrowly watched their proceedings. The Fishermen after a while gave up fishing, and on going home to dinner left their nets upon the bank. The Monkey, who is the most imitative of animals, descended from the treetop and endeavored to do as they had done. Having handled the net, he threw it into the river, but became tangled in the meshes and drowned. With his last breath he said to himself, “I am rightly served; for what business had I who had never handled a net to try and catch fish?’
This fable shows that by meddling in affairs one doesn’t understand, not only does one gain nothing, but one also does oneself harm.

Aesop's FablesNo, I’m not writing fables for council now, although you’d think it was tailor made for the current group at the table. Most of them, anyway. It comes from a website dedicated to fables (www.aesopfables.com), but the moral at the end comes from a recently-acquired Aesop: The Complete Fables, translated by Olivia and Robert Temple (Penguin Books, 1998). In the book, it’s fable number 304.*

The site offers many more, but I don’t know how many are actually Aesop’s originally, or later additions. Collaters and editors, especially during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were apparently somewhat liberal when building their collections and included much extraneous material. Which isn’t necessarily bad, because it also preserved material which might have otherwise been lost.**

The introduction to that book taught me that most of what I thought I knew about Aesop and his famous fables was wrong. And that many of the stories what I had thought were his weren’t – they were plagiarized from other authors or other traditions. And even those that were Aesop’s had often been rewritten and bowdlerized for Victorian sensibilities. Yet one can recognize the iconic fables within the originals.

What surprised me most is that the originals are bawdier, and often more violent (there’s a lot of death) and sometimes misogynistic. Despite what happened to them in later years, they weren’t meant for children.

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More secrecy, more witch hunt, less accountability

Marie de France“Those who gain a good reputation should be commended.” So starts the Lay of Guigemar, by Marie de France.

It seems like mere commonsense, doesn’t it? We should laud those who achieve good things, who accomplish feats and goals, recognize with thanks those who work for our greater good.

But it ain’t necessarily so, Marie warns.  The 12th century French poet and fabulist known only as Marie de France wrote fables and poems with stories and morals – the earliest woman in France to do so. And what she wrote still has resonance in today’s world. She continued:

“But when there exists in a country a man or a woman of great renown, people who are envious of their abilities frequently speak insultingly of them in order to damage this reputation. Thus they start acting like a vicious, cowardly, treacherous dog who will bite others out of malice.”*

Words to consider when you examine local politics and the continued leavening of spite and malice against some people and organizations in our community by a small group of malcontents and ideologues. Some of whom sit at the council table.

And consider those words, too, when you read the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting of council. Yet one more in-camera session continues the witch hunt meant to finally destroy the once-strong and mutually beneficial relationship between Collus/Powerstream and the town. This destruction has been the landmark activity this term.

Earlier, this term, this council destroyed the productive and mutually beneficial 150-relationship between our hydro and water utilities, throwing both utilities into turmoil, shattering staff morale and exacerbating the rift between the town and its utility partner, Powerstream. The provincially-respected COO of the water service quit and fled town. Others in the water service have resigned or retired early.

This move will cost more jobs, and could force our utility to move its offices and operations out of town. And, of course, it was all done without any public input at all.**

In return for the turmoil and plunging morale, Collingwood gets… nothing so far. The CAO and his consultant promised it would save more than $700,000 a year, but that figure wasn’t mentioned once in the preliminary budget meetings. It seems to have vanished. April fool! Wiser heads tell me they expect it will cost the town a lot of money. Smart move, eh?

Personal agendas should not be allowed to interfere with governance, should not set the terms for how a town behaves. These ideologies and personal agendas have already reduced the town’s once-sterling reputation to tatters, made us the laughingstock of the province, and despised by our neighbours and local developers.

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Collingwood’s Finances: Great Shape!

Doom and gloom consultants

There’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom bandied about over Collingwood’s alleged dire financial picture this term. There have been the-sky-is-falling presentations and nightmare-inducing consultants’ reports that paint a bleak picture of the town’s debt and financial status. Hand-wringing and hair-pulling.

These jeremiads are enough to make a taxpayer wake up in the middle of the night and weep. If it were true.

Fortunately, it isn’t. I’d like to think that someone got his or her numbers wrong, read someone else’s information, added or subtracted when they should have been doing the opposite. Or maybe was just pulling our collective legs. A practical joke. Whatever the reason, it’s not true (and I sincerely hope someone didn’t do it deliberately!).

How do I know we’re in great shape? From reading an impeccable source for financial information: the province of Ontario’s own multi-year fiscal analysis, about which the province’s website explains….

The Multi-Year FIR Review (2009 On) – By Municipality provides selected FIR information by municipality for the years 2009 and greater.
In 2009, the Public Sector Accounting Board introduced new accounting and reporting standards which required municipalities to adopt full accrual accounting practices. As a result of these changes, municipalities must now account for and report their tangible capital assets in their Statement of Financial Position. The FIR also adopted these new reporting standards effective 2009…

The data runs from 2009 to 2014 for more than 500 municipalities, each one a separate file. It doesn’t encompass the previous year (2015), during which our council laboured under what seems to be false information about our debt and finances.

But you will be pleasantly surprised, I trust, to learn Collingwood is actually pretty well off in almost every category and performance indicator. Sure, we can always do better, but you won’t find any doom and gloom in this. So take heart and relax.

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Monday’s Limited Choices

choices, choicesHere are the choices Collingwood Council faces, Monday night, when dealing with the unethical, immoral and probably illegal actions of the two renegade members of council.

You’ll recall that these two sent out an unauthorized, and what I and others believe was a highly inappropriate media release late in December, without showing them to council first, bypassing the mayor, and pimping their own personal political agendas, while disingenuously presenting them as town positions. This also implicated staff in what looks like inappropriate, partisan actions on behalf of the two council members.

This violated the town’s code of conduct, council’s oath of office, and the expectations of the electorate for honest, ethical representation. And so far no one has explained anything in public, let alone apologized.

Selfish, anti-social behaviour cannot be ignored. Council must deal with their actions, and do so publicly, if it is to retain even shreds of credibility this term (not to mention discussing a media release in camera is illegal under the Municipal Act).

The public is waiting for something appropriate to be said, something appropriate to be done if there is to be any confidence left in this council and administration. Ignoring it is not a viable option. Monday will tell us everything.

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