Tag Archives: ethics

Another Secretive, Self-Serving Committee

CouncilThis week, Collingwood Council passed a motion to appoint the Block Five to a new standing committee. The standing committee system, you will recall, is a system of secretive committees that operates predominantly out of the public eye, with limited council attendance, and often without even media presence. Committees conduct town business beyond the pale of accountability. Here’s what they passed (in a 6-3 vote*):

THAT Council approve the Striking Committee recommendation and appoint the following members to the Environmental Services Standing Committee: Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson, Councillor Tim Fryer, Councillor Cam Ecclestone, Councillor Kathy Jeffery, and Councillor Deb Doherty.

Saunderson and Fryer are, as you might also suspect, two of the three striking committee members.

This is the same group of five that voted to remove the long-standing CEO of COLLUS from the Collingwood Public Utility Services board – a man with 35-plus years experience in water services and highly respected across the province for his expertise, talents and his management skills – and replace him with the town’s interim CAO, a man with (as far as I know) little to no experience in those services and no vested interest in the community’s long-term sustainability or well-being.

It’s the same group that previously voted to extend that interim CAO’s contract by another year. Coincidence? Hardly.

Over the past several months since taking office, council has let – perhaps even encouraged – the relationship between the utility board and its staff, and the town’s administration deteriorate significantly. It has allowed a once-productive and mutually-beneficial relationship to grow into a toxic, confrontational environment. The head of the water services, another staff person highly-respected around the province, fled for a better working environment in another municipality.

Consultants were brought in to provide what clearly seemed to outsiders as pre-determined, very negative but erroneous reports about the utilities. Critical comments and responses about the inappropriate and even false conclusions, and the incorrect data used were ignored or buried. This was, metaphorically, Collingwood’s burning Reichstag: the self-created excuse to justify the Block’s subsequent slash-and-burn actions (although outsiders were able to discern the self-serving political motives behind these reports, this group took them at face value).

Then, in a move calculated to destroy the solid, 150-year-old working relationship between the utility services and the town, the same Block Five voted to dissolve the utility board – a group with decades of combined experience in utility services, politics and law – and replace them with a group of inexperienced, novice and ideologically-motivated politicians – themselves. Self serving? Don’t ask….

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What’s Up With Tim Fryer?

Fledgling councillors may be excused for gaffes, gaucheries and solecisms they make in their first month or so in office. They’re new, inexperienced, dazzled by their recent election success, so we cut them some slack. And there are all these shiny things to distract a councillor: procedure, voting, reading, motions, shuffling paper, approving minutes, showing up…

But after more than six months, one expects them to know what they are doing and get down to the business of the municipality. And we expect them to have read ALL the relevant legislation, policies and codes that govern them.

Councillor Tim Fryer doesn’t seem to have done that. And you’d think a guy who campaigned on having 35 years of municipal experience would know better.

Monday night, Fryer declared a conflict of interest over the opening of Third Street into the commercial land west of High Street, because, in his words, his sister was a member of the corporation run by his brother-in-law, and the business of that company was being discussed. Wait a second…

In at least four previous votes this year involving his brother-in-law’s company, Fryer did not once declare a conflict. He voted on several issues (even going in camera to discuss them) that affected and benefitted that company. So why the change now? A sudden burst of conscience?

Calling a conflict on this issue is tantamount to admitting all of his previous votes were improper. But were they?

Not according to the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. Sisters, brothers and in-laws do not pose a legal conflict. The Act says very specifically that only spouses, parents and children count for conflict:

Interest of certain persons deemed that of member
3. For the purposes of this Act, the pecuniary interest, direct or indirect, of a parent or the spouse or any child of the member shall, if known to the member, be deemed to be also the pecuniary interest of the member.

Yes, I know, some folks think they know better than the law, think they can interpret it to suit themselves, and believe you should declare a conflict when any relative is involved. That’s codswallop: councillors have to obey the law, not what some NINJA* blogger or coffee shop gossiper says is right or wrong. Those folks are only pushing their own, narrow, private agendas of spite and malice.

Legally, as per the Act, Fryer did not have a conflict.

However, if you, as councillor, feel there is an ethical conflict that should be addressed, and that by declaring a conflict you are making the proper ethical choice, then by all means, stand away from the table, But you have to do it consistently. You can’t decide to be part of discussions and votes on some issues surrounding your sister’s company, and not others. You can’t decide to vote when something matters, but cop out when you think it’s trivial. Conflicts aren’t based on the phase of the moon.

If it represented a conflict of interest this week, were all of his previous actions where he voted for his sister’s company now proven unethical?

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Connection Got It Wrong

Block 9The story in this weekend’s Connection about Block 9 underground parking incorrectly suggests council is doing something right when it was actually trying to do something wrong. But they tried to take credit for doing good when their efforts at malice failed.

I expect mistakes like this from the Enterprise-Bulletin because it doesn’t have anyone on staff with a history that goes back very far (aside, that is, from the generally bad, mistake-prone writing that makes it painful to read…), but not the Connection.

The story notes:

After a short in-camera session, council voted unanimously to allow the developer to build underground parking on property on Huron Street.
Assaff owns block 11 of the former Shipyard lands at the corner of Heritage Drive and Huron Street, and under the master plan for that site, underground parking is allowed.

Let’s leave aside the dubious legality of going behind closed doors over parking for a moment (which the media didn’t question…) and discuss the parking issue.

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Openness and Transparency?

Closed door policy

Legitimacy is earned through accountability. Accountability is produced through transparency.

Those words are from an opinion piece by Ian Lee, published in the Ottawa Citizen, back in 2008. Important words; words that should be carved above our own council table in large letters.

Although it seems like he was writing about Collingwood Council, Lee was actually writing about the need for more accountability and openness in the public sector, especially about stating expenses and costs of federal government projects and initiatives. Lee wanted to “…ensure the accountability of public policy expenditures to Canadians – who pay the bills – thereby ensuring the legitimacy of our democratic system.”

Prescient words they are, given the current investigations into the Mike Duffy and the Senate entitlement, spending and expense scandals currently in the courts.

But of course, his comments have parallels here, in the local municipal sphere.

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The Not-My-Fault Dance

There’s a story in this weekend’s Collingwood Connection about the PUC board meeting this week. The board confirmed that council’s dumping unexpected costs on the utility will mean an unplanned increase in the cost of your water this year. One of our council representatives tried to dance around it as if he wasn’t among the causes of that increase.

This hurtful rate increase happened because council unwisely moved the budgeted cost of hydrant maintenance from the town’s fire service budget – where it had had been for years with no additional impact on taxes – and stuck it on the PUC (without consulting the PUC board), where it will cause rates to rise. That’s in part due to the unplanned $400,000 cost of repairing frozen pipes this past winter, which ate up any of the utility’s spare funds.

I wrote about that budget debacle in early April. This particular move was done to satisfy some hidden political agenda promoted by town hall, not for any real budgeting reason or at the request of the PUC. Some of those at the table did a 180-degree shift when it came back, approving what they initially opposed.

Obviously some more backroom lobbying went on to get that change.

Council still put your taxes up, so nothing was saved. But to make sure those at the table weren’t affected by the rising water costs or taxes, council voted themselves a raise. Plus they threw $40,000 of your taxes at Coun. Jeffrey’s expense account so she could wine and dine herself around the country in pursuit of her own glorious political career.

This rate increase will hurt local businesses, seniors, renters, low-income earners, industry… but not councillors. So much for accountability. L’etat c’est moi.

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The Four Books


ConfuciusFor many centuries, the core of Chinese education was focused on four classical works from the Confucian school: The Analects, The Great Learning, The Mencius, and Maintaining Perfect Balance. This didn’t really change until the arrival of the West and the industrial era was forced onto China in the 19th century.

These were sacred books and intimate knowledge of them was considered the mark of a literate, civilized person the same way knowledge of the Bible reflected the literate and cultured Christian in medieval times, as Daniel Gardner mentions in his introduction to his translation of The Four Books (Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 2007). He also describes how Chinese literati shifted their attention from the earlier canon of The Five Classics to the new canon of The Four Books over many years.

Early this week I stumbled across a small treasure trove of books about Confucianism in a local bookstore, including translations and studies of these four books. One of these was the translation of the Analects by Arthur Waley; a book that had once been in my possession, now long departed. Plus I found a translation that includes selections from all four titles. This was timely: I have been meaning to study Confucianism and read its texts for the past year or two, but was always sidetracked by some other interest or hobby.

Like many Westerners, I grew up with a Charlie Chan-inspired image of Confucius as a caricature: a wise-cracking master of the one-liner, a Chinese Will Rogers, whose humourous words often concealed real wisdom, if you dug deeply enough. That impression was erased in the late 1960s and early 70s when I studied Eastern philosophy and religion more seriously. And with such knowledge, grew respect, if not necessarily wisdom.

Over the intervening years, my attention focused more specifically on Buddhism and I let my understanding and appreciation of other schools of thought lapse. Now, semi-retired, I have the time to rekindle my interest and restore my studies.

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Not Getting It

ConfusedIn a recent opinion piece in the Enterprise Bulletin titled “Swayze overused by council?” EB reporter/editor Paul Brian comments,

I think the overuse of Swayze is outlandish and it is not congruent with the tough financial situation of the town.*

Like much of the EB’s increasingly vague reporting since former editor Ian Adams left, the paper’s current editorial staff doesn’t seem to understand municipal politics. The reporting on many local matters raised at the council table show a naïve ignorance of both the issues and the processes at stake. The EB’s budget reporting this year was so flawed it should have been posted as satire, not news.

The EB just doesn’t get it.

That “tough financial situation” Brian mentions allowed council to approve a $40,000 increase in Councillor Jeffrey’s expenses so she could pursue personal political goals outside of town. The EB was ominously silent on such abuses of power, and has been equally silent about council’s apparent failure to actually read the budget documents they were voting on.

And now this… the EB continues to dazedly tread deep water. Its writers struggle vainly to regain what little relevance the paper once had to the community, by pretending to know what’s going on. Well, they don’t.

One suspects this myopic editorial approach is bolstered by the ideological need to support the few council ‘friends’ of some of its writers.

Brian apparently doesn’t understand why an Integrity Commissioner was hired. It’s not for council’s use – although councillors can file complaints like anyone else – it is for the public. It is to provide a mechanism for any member of the public to question or challenge the behaviour of their elected representatives.

Is Brian suggesting the public is ‘overusing’ the IC by filing legitimate complaints? That would smack of arrogance and autocracy. The public has every right to file any number of complaints. The IC is there for them. The public perception of council is at stake.

And what price do you pay for accountability? Brian suggests there should be some sort of cap on it. What, stop investigating public complaints once the budget is used up? That’s hardly accountability. But perhaps Brian thinks that’s what council wants, since the results are embarrassing to them.

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We Need a Different Integrity Commissioner

Monday night’s council meeting again underscored why the town needs someone new in the role of integrity commissioner. Lawyer Robert Swayze presented his report about a complaint filed against councillor Deb Doherty and it was accepted by council in a recorded 6-2 vote*. But his report shared the same flaws his previous report about former Deputy Mayor Lloyd had, and kudos to the two (mayor Cooper and Coun. Lloyd) for rejecting it.

The IC’s report was presented to the public (and thus to the media) before it was presented to the council member (Doherty) about whom it had been made. The town’s bylaw 2014-042 clearly states:

The Integrity Commissioner shall not issue a report finding a violation of the Code of Conduct on the part of any member unless the member has had reasonable notice of the basis for the proposed finding and any recommended sanction and an opportunity either in person or in writing to comment on the proposed finding and any recommended sanction.

But neither the former Deputy Mayor nor Coun. Doherty were presented with the final report/findings before they went public. An IC who does not obey the rules set out for his participation is a liability and this town deserves better oversight. This is exactly why the former council rejected the first report.

By accepting the report in public before the member has had that “reasonable notice” and before that member has had “an opportunity… to comment on the proposed finding,” the majority of this council has approved breaking the bylaw. Twice, now. That is NOT accountable or open government.

The irony here is that Coun. Doherty herself brought the report against former Deputy Mayor Lloyd back to the table this term, and voted to accept it.

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