An Honourable Mayor?

DilbertMayor Brian Saunderson has announced he is running for nomination to the provincial Progressive Conservative party in our riding to be able to stand as the candidate for MPP. According  to a story in Collingwood Today, he is not stepping down from his role as mayor, and will not do so even if he wins the nomination:

Should Saunderson receive the nomination, he said he would not be stepping back from his duties as mayor of Collingwood unless he were to be successful and elected in 2022.

I believe that this poses a threat of both real and perceived conflicts of interest and that an honourable, ethical politician should step down immediately after announcing his or her candidacy to another office. Here’s why:

Being mayor is a full-time role even though it is paid as a part-time job. The mayor cannot decide at any time not to be mayor and act as an individual or claim his acts were personal, not official. The Municipal Act does not allow that. The same holds true as a county council member: he is always a representative of the county, even when away from the county council.

A specific date for the local nomination meeting has not yet been set, however Saunderson said the riding association is planning to have it done by the beginning of April.

Saunderson will be in campaign mode from now until the provincial election in June, 2022. Stepping down as mayor shortly before the next municipal election does not absolve him of public scrutiny over his potential conflicts before then. No one can be effective and diligent serving as mayor, county councillor, and outside political candidate and still fulfill the expectations of all three.

And shouldn’t every member of a municipal council be non-partisan? Municipal mayors and councillors do not run for election on party lines. Declaring openly your allegiance to a party, and then serving (should he win) as the party’s nominee is certainly very partisan and in opposition to what I have always believed is the spirit of fair, non-partisan municipal politics.

Saunderson will be campaigning for support and funding for both his nomination and, if he wins it, for his provincial election campaign. During the next 18 months, he or his team will approach individuals and businesses for donations and support. Some of these will be companies that bid for or provide services for the Town of Collingwood or Simcoe County. These may include local engineering and contracting firms, waste management, construction, automobile vendors, and so on. No one will not see him as aw-shucks-plain-old-Brian-the wannabe-MPP: they will see him as the influential mayor of the municipality who also sits on the county council. 

Saunderson’s team during both his campaigns should also be considered as his business associates when considering conflicts of interest. Politics is not a recreation: a campaign is a business venture with large financial rewards for winners at the upper tiers. And some of those team members will be paid for their participation, not simply be volunteers. This adds yet another layer of potential conflict to his position.

In essence, following his announcement, Saunderson became a lobbyist for himself and his party. One has to wonder if he has listed himself as such on the town’s lobbyist registry. Methinks not. And did Saunderson discuss the potential conflicts with the town’s Integrity Commissioner as would be appropriate according to the judicial inquiry’s recommendations? The reporter does not say (nor is it clear if she even asked him).

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Striving for Mediocrity

DullardsOn a council laden with dunces, deadwood, and dullards, it must be some consolation to our elected representatives, that they can at least claim to be less mediocre than Councillor Steve Berman. We all need someone to measure ourselves against, I suppose, and a low bar is so much easier to rise above.

Berman’s first year in office was spent mostly consuming oxygen at the table and saying nothing of consequence. Of so little consequence were his words that even the normally sycophantic local media hardly ever bothered to reprint them. But when the pandemic struck and council retreated into virtual Zoom meetings, he rose to the occasion by occupying a video rectangle with a look of dazed incomprehension. That is something of an accomplishment for him, I guess.

To be fair, I suspect none of our council was elected for their brains, but rather for their unbending loyalty to our mayor: eight wannabe-Guilianis to their wannabe-mini-Trump. And has been made clear in their past two years in office, they clearly were expected not to show actual initiative or advocate for any projects or goals that might transfer the lustre to them and away from their leader. And in that role, Berman has shone along with the rest.

But Berman broke from the herd this week, going far enough into the fringe that Collingwood Today reported him “pushing for town staff and council to make more of an effort to stop the spread of misinformation in the correspondence section of council and committee agendas” and he “referenced the actions of Twitter to add flags to its users’ tweets when the information in the tweet was disputed.”

By which he is referring to Twitter tagging Donald Trump’s outright lies, but that suggests he must think that local residents are also lying when they write their concerns to council. 

Does that strike you as a call for censorship? Berman took to task two local residents whose mildly critical letters had appeared in the council’s recent  “consent agenda.” (Methinks he must be secretly reading my blog, too. Or maybe having someone summarize it for him because it has a lot of words in every post. Well, I welcome all readers, regardless of their literacy.)

And yet, most curiously, he didn’t include for his “fact-checking” tags the letter from Claire Tucker-Reid, on another consent agenda, which I found rife with the sort of “alternate facts” Berman claims to want to correct. But then, she was on the committee that recommended the $35 million corporate handout. And he was all for council making that donation. Not hypocritical of him at all, right?

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The $9 Million Dollar Mayor

Throwing money awayMore than eight million of your dollars have been spent to date on the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI), and it may top $9 million if you add in the costs the town doesn’t include in its calculations, as well as the proposed $700,000 report-about-the-report. And that should stick to our $9 million-dollar mayor.

There is a breakdown of the SVJI costs as of Dec. 18, 2020, on the town’s website. Sort of. The $8,098,547.40 total doesn’t include two key components: first, the salary and expenses of the inquiry’s judge. While that was paid for by the province, not simply by local taxpayers, it’s still a cost we all have to bear in our annual income tax paid to the province. Even the lowest provincial judges make at least $250,000 a year, so the true SVJI costs should be another $500,000 or even higher.

Then there are the unreported costs for town staff, too, and we do pay these: including overtime, time and paperwork to respond to and accommodate the SVJI requests, travel, time and paperwork to respond to residents’ questions and requests about the inquiry, time to set up rooms and hearing space, to provide water, electricity, and advice, to move departments out of town hall, then back again, for any incidental costs to accommodate the inquiry. How much that was I cannot estimate, but because so many senior staff were involved, I’d guess it easily tops $250,000 spread over the inquiry’s time here.

On top of that, there’s that $700,000 additional to be spent for staff to write a report about the report — a task we’re told is as important as ensuring our drinking water is safe. I’m sure you’ve already read my comments about that expensive, bureaucratic codswallop.

And we’re not sure if that’s the final tally or there are still bills to be paid. The town hall cash register keeps singing to the Nine-Million-Dollar Mayor’s tune.

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As Important as Clean Drinking Water?

Dilbert
I wonder how the people of Walkerton would feel about Collingwood CAO’s statement, reported in Collingwood Today, that implementing the 300-plus recommendations of the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) is “equivalent with the top priorities we have, like providing clean drinking water.”

I wonder how many people in our town will be saved from a painful, water-borne illness and possible death if, for example, the town encourages the province to implement recommendation number two:

2 Describing the mayor as both the head of Council and chief executive officer blurs the fact that the mayor is the head of Council and the chief administrative officer (CAO) is the head of staff. There must be a clear division of roles and responsibilities between the mayor and the CAO, a separation of the political from the administrative.

Nothing like a ‘clear division” to make the community safe from evil.

The Walkerton tragedy was the result of a failure to ensure clean drinking water. More than 2,000 people fell ill, and six died. From that event came the province’s Safe Drinking Water Act that makes council members personally responsible and liable for ensuring the water residents receive is safe, and changed the way municipalities managed their water supplies. And can you please tell me how this is equivalent to producing a report-about-the-report?

Seems to me it belittles the people of Walkerton to compare their suffering and trauma with the results of a questionable inquiry that cost taxpayers more than $8 million that could have been better spent fixing our decaying roads and sidewalks, and upgrading our own water treatment plant. And keep in mind that the SVJI report is a summation of opinions, not a legal decision. 

So please help me understand why Collingwood’s CAO thinks that reporting on the 300-plus recommendations that were mostly generic, irrelevant, or appear outside the inquiry’s mandate — and relate to events that are now at least eight years old — are on equal footing to ensuring we have clean water.  

Okay, I do understand that it is highly unlikely that most, if any, of our council members have read through the entire 914 pages, and need a precis; perhaps the whole thing reduced to a dozen bullets on PowerPoint slides, written in a large font and read aloud, slowly, at a council meeting. After all, none of them were elected for their intellectual prowess, and reading was never their forte. But is it worth another $700,000 of your money to explain it to them?

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The irony, the hypocrisy

Mob ruleThere’s a letter on the council consent agenda that will either make you shake your head in wonder at the brash irony of it, or laughing at a writer who plays a fawning Rudy Giuliani to Saunderson’s Trump.

It’s from Claire Tucker-Reid, the co-chair of the former Central Park Steering Committee (SPSC; our current mayor was the other), the committee that can be argued to be the cause of this recent and expensive turmoil that led to the town wasting more than $8 million of your money on a vindictive judicial inquiry (or, as some believe, a vendetta). The inquiry enriched lawyers but did nothing for the rest of us. Sure, we got 300-plus mostly generic or irrelevant recommendations, but can we fix the potholes with them? With $8 million we could have.

The letter’s author is also a self-professed member of the small, disruptive, special-interest lobbying group “Better Together Collingwood” (which was neither better than nor together with the rest of the community) that tried to bully council through mob rule into giving the YMCA a $35 million handout back in 2012.

And to top it off, she was the “campaign chair Mayor Saunderson, for the last 2 municipal elections.” No conflicts there, right?

You might recall that the SPSC had its own conflicts, not least from having an employee of a developer who made a competing proposal to build a rec facility as a voting member. It had a YMCA representative voting. What about the personal relationships between the writer and the former director of the PRC? Didn’t the inquiry rail on about how personal or business relationships were “hidden conflicts” even though they weren’t legally recognized as such?

If you accept the conclusions of the judicial inquiry that conflicts of interest exist outside the legal requirements of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, then from what I see, this letter is pretty hypocritical. But there has long been a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do block of Saunderson supporters for whom such considerations of fairness or transparency do not apply.

What about the committee’s refusal to share critical information with council six or more months before the final report was presented? And failed to share its meeting minutes with council, thus keeping council in the dark about its machinations. This knowledge might have caused council to shut the committee down much earlier because it had failed in its mandate (to develop a partnership), or at the very least it should have changed the nature of both the committee and the discussion around building a recplex.

Examining their activities, I find it hard not to conclude that the  CPSC acted in a secretive and deceptive manner. But I digress.

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No Enemies; No Accomplishments

Have you ever read this poem? I hadn’t, until recently. But now it makes sense. Take a moment…

No Enemies

You have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

As Wikipedia tells us, Charles Mackay (27 March 1814 – 24 December 1889) was a Scottish poet, journalist, author, anthologist, novelist, and songwriter, remembered mainly for his 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a copy of which I have buried somewhere on my bookshelves. His other works are pretty much forgotten today.

You might have also have heard his poem spoken while watching the Netflix series, The Crown, season four. In it, Gillian Anderson, playing “the Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher, responds to the Queen’s question about creating political enemies by reciting the poem from memory. Thatcher says, in effect, “bring them on; I’ve earned them.”

I was thinking of that poem and what it meant to have political enemies as I read in the local media* the petty, insulting, Trump-like spume from our own council around the recent Judicial Inquiry report coupled with the fumbling attempts to justifiy the egregious cost.

Enemies, as Mackay tells us, are what to expect when you work hard, do good, and stand up for your beliefs. And, it seems, my former council sure has its enemies at the table today. I doubt the current council has any because they’d have to stand for something or actually do something first.

From their comments in local media, I doubt any of those quoted actually read the report fully, let alone bothered to question any of what was, in my opinion, a flawed process and pre-determined outcome in which guilt would be assigned to those “enemies.” Our council, it strikes me, used the interview not to discuss moving forward or anything constructive, but merely to vent and bloviate (while clearly mis-informed about some salient facts, too**). How very Trump-like they have become. Since when did every councillor get to speak for the municipality? Are their personal opinions now official statements, no matter how ill-informed?

But then, I wondered, how many at the table are even capable of reading anything even a fraction as long as the contentious report, let alone comprehend or analyse it? Few if any, I suspect.

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