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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More Bad Ideas

Doh!Arguably the worst decision ever made by a Collingwood Council in my memory was to rescind the heritage permits from the Admiral Collingwood development, back in 2007. The results of that motion – moved by former Mayor Carrier and seconded by Councillor Jeffrey (the same one who sits at the table today)  – can still be seen in the empty lot at the corner of Hume and Hurontario Streets. Locals called it Carrier’s Pond for years, before it was filled in.

Had that council not put personal ideologies over the public good, the site would today be a thriving downtown development with residences,  businesses and a seniors’ home. For the past nine years, our town has had to live with the legacy of that stupid, selfish decision, and the legacy of an unwise council.

But neither the town nor the council is short of bad ideas.* The latest comes via the debate about the proposed airport development that has been hamstrung by this current council in keen pursuit of the same anti-business mentality that killed the Admiral Collingwood. I’ve written about this several times in the past few months.

A comment was posted on Facebook by one of my “friends” who wrote:

Why don’t the developers sign a letter of intent?
Interesting point: Why not make the developers promise to deliver?
Think back to The Shipyards residential development, now sitting there one-third (or thereabouts) completed. A letter of intent would not have resulted in the project being any further developed. The Shipyards project fell victim to market conditions.
Perhaps the same thing could happen a few years from now with an aviation business park. I hope not!

Aside from being surprised that someone I thought had more business (and common) sense than this, I was amazed that anyone who had even a modicum of understanding about business, development, economics or governance would propose something so overtly anti-business. Not to mention daft.

It’s also an attempt to sidestep the facts by making the disaster council created into someone else’s fault. Blame the developers instead of the problematic, unethical behaviour of council. The writer didn’t even mention the law-breaking media release sent out by renegades Saunderson and Edwards – but then, how do you defend the indefensible?

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The Litmus Test

Ethical behaviourTwo renegade members of council broke the town’s Code of Conduct by sending out an unauthorized media release to defend their own, personal positions – but presented them as “town” positions. You already know that reprehensible story.

Clearly this is unacceptable behaviour by any elected officials in any community. But where are the angry protesters marching with signs demanding officials “inpeach” council, screaming “corruption” and demanding councillors resign?

Oh wait, they got themselves elected to council this term… They promised us openness, accountability and transparency… and this is what we got instead.

Councillor Doherty's spouse on right
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That WTF Moment

WTF. Those three letters crudely but superbly sum up the two-page response made to the Laurel and Hardytwo members of council who recently sent out an inappropriate media release, pretending it came from the town. The letter was written by Remo Niceforo, President of Clearview Aviation Business Park. It starts by saying,

Having sought diligently over the past 18 months to obtain an access agreement, this is the first time I have learned (through a media release) of the criteria to be met which might lead to an access agreement.

That’s the first WTF moment. Here’s another:

Your statement that, “the Town does not want to prejudge any negotiations by issuing a statement of intent at this time” confuses me. It is generally accepted in the business community and the courts that a ‘letter of intent’ by its very definition does not prejudge negotiations. It merely speaks to the intent or vision of a particular matter, and identifies a context within which negotiations will occur.

In case you haven’t read the release, you can read it here or read my previous comments on it here. It’s signed by Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson and Councillor Mike Edwards – Collingwood’s own Laurel and Hardy team. You can read the response here. And, of course, you can read my continued opinion about this debacle below.

You’ll note that instead of simply calling the company, talking to someone one-on-one, and explaining what they wanted – i.e. doing their job as elected officials – the two council members chose to send out a vague, meandering, poorly-written (extremely poorly written), confrontational and highly defensive release to the media.

How open and transparent is that?

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The Blackened Nose

Buddha's faceThere’s a famous Zen tale that I was reminded of as I was reading the media release about the Collingwood Airport this week. It somehow seemed remarkably fitting.

It’s about the folly of selfishness, of thinking yours is the only way forward, of possessiveness, of narrow views.

I first came across this tale in the late 1960s, in a copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. I still have that book; a battered paperback I have carried with me ever since. This story is only one of more than 100 in the book. It’s number 48: Black-Nosed Buddha, and, in the spare way such tales are told in the book, it goes like this:

A nun who was searching for enlightenment made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she went she carried this golden Buddha with her.

Years passed and, still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a small temple in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense before her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to the others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the Golden Buddha making it especially ugly.

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Lessons from the paper

Another fine messThere’s a story on page B2 of the January 1 Enterprise Bulletin (not online yet*) that offers us three lessons. Two lessons on how the local media fails us, one on cringe-worthy political ineptitude. Those lessons are:

  1. How far the credibility of the paper has fallen;
  2. How little respect there is for real reporting and investigative journalism in the local media;
  3. How pusillanimous and dysfunctional council has become.

Let’s start with number one. The article on page B2 is headlined “Business centre strategic board takes flight.” Now you might think you were reading a light piece about the development of the Clearview Aviation Business Centre (CABC). Good news, right? After all, the news about the airport has been pretty much all bad until now.

What you’re actually reading is two distinct media releases from very different sources cobbled together into one incoherent and contradictory mess. You have to read a full ten inches of copy before you get the first reference to any of it being copied verbatim from a media release. It isn’t news at all.

And even then it states the release came from “Collingwood council” when that is not true: it was released by two members of council alone (see below).

That is deceptive. The piece should start by clearly stating that the content comes from two separate media releases authored not by the paper but by the proponents. It should also clearly identify which is which and the sources of the content.

Because of their very different nature, the two items really should have separate headlines, and not doing so suggests editorial laziness. This is simply bad cut-and-paste stuff.

It’s acceptable for a paper to reprint media releases, as long as they are properly identified. We used to call this stuff “advertorials” when I was editor. But to publish it on a page labelled “Local News” in 144-point type as if it were reported by an independent, trustworthy source is disingenuous and underhanded. It discredits the rest of the material in the paper.

It’s also an editorial mess. Or rather a mess that apparently had no editor.

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Council’s First Year Reviewed

DilbertAs we come close to the end of 2015, it’s time to take stock of what your Collingwood Council has accomplished in its first year in office.

Let me start by saying it’s up to you to decide whether we have the best people at the table to represent our needs. Or  are they gormless, brainless, pursing a political agenda set for them by unelected outsiders, and/or blindly following the lead of administration staff? It is up to you to decide whether they have lived up to their election promises or led this town astray.

First, here’s the complete list of everything council has done for you: for your benefit, for the greater good, for the good of the whole community, for the welfare and wellbeing of you, the resident and voter. Scroll down to see the full list:

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