06/14/14

Why Term Limits Are a Bad Idea for Municipal Government


Term limitsLeo Longo wrote in three recent Municipal World articles (April, May, June, 2014) that it is time to consider setting term limits on municipal politicians.

I beg to disagree.

Is municipal democracy in such dire straits that it needs restrictions that no provincial or federal politician faces?

Are voters so ignorant and ill-informed that they need outsiders to guide their choices?

Applying arbitrary term limits goes against the grain of representational democracy, suggesting the arbitrator knows what is better for the electorate than the electors themselves; that democracy needs outside control because it cannot regulate itself.

What problem would such limits solve that are not already solved by the electorate, and by existing accountability laws? It is certainly not the panacea for voter malaise or low turnout.

Mr. Longo suggests the “status quo has produced many of the negative consequences…” but he fails to identify the negative consequences that occur under term-limit systems.

For example, Mexico has three-year terms and no-re-election policy. Every municipal government is entirely new, with no experienced politicians to help guide the city. The system has been widely criticized as ineffective because “Voters never have the opportunity to pass judgment on the record of their elected officials, so those officials see no incentive to having a record at all, good or bad.”* It is also said to “impede performance.”** I have seen its effects in some Mexican cities: a year of confusion getting to know the job, a year trying to get something done, then a year coasting to the end.

Incumbents are often said to have an advantage, as Mr. Longo notes. Some of this comes from name recognition: but for that to be true, you have to get your name in the community.This is only done by being active at the table and outside. Inactive or lazy politicians don’t get that.

Nor do those at odds with the media, despite their record or experience.

Is this an “unfair ‘tilted’ playing field” as he suggests? I don’t believe so. Sometimes that name recognition can work against a politician, too.

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06/5/14

Twenty years of strategic planning


Town of CollingwoodTwenty years ago – May, 1994 – the Town of Collingwood started a community-based strategic plan. That report was released in October, 1995. Then in October, 2000, Vision 2020 released its Blueprint Collingwood. These two documents are generally forgotten by the general public today, but they have been the basis of planning, of policy and strategic targets by councils and staff ever since.

No particular council or mayor can take credit for the accomplishments; they’ve been achieved over more than two decades of effort and resolve. This post is simply to point out that these visionary documents were neither ignored nor buried on shelves, but rather have been incorporated into planning and policy.

True, not every recommendation was accepted or adopted. Some were impractical – cost or complexity were too great, others involved different jurisdictions beyond the town’s control (i.e. upgrades to Highway 26 or waste management). But many have been used successfully.

Both reports built on an earlier document and process, Focus 2000, dated from (I believe) 1990. Both later documents had similar processes and approaches: task forces, community involvement, focus groups, interviews and workshops. Although they have areas of similarity, they also have differences.

The Strategic Plan identified six key features that residents valued and wanted to retain:

  • Small town atmosphere;
  • Natural beauty and the environment;
  • Recreation and leisure activities;
  • A clean, safe, friendly community;
  • Community activities and special events.

One item – “small town atmosphere” is difficult to manage. One cannot legislate a friendly, welcoming, positive attitude or to post optimistic comments in social or other media. We cannot pass bylaws that require people to say hello, please and thank you, to hold a door open, or to let someone back out of a parking space on the main street. But councils have tried to retain some of the look and feel that encourage at least the aesthetic feel of Collingwood – including keeping green/wild spaces and trees. Otherwise, these features have all been key in the town’s planning and policy development.

On the key issues facing the town, as reported in the study, here’s how we fared. My comments are in blue:

  • Lack of opportunities, especially for youth;
    We have a youth centre, skateboard park and many recreational opportunities, but we don’t have a lot of employment opportunities outside the service and hospitality sectors. We are not alone in this: most Ontario municipalities have struggled with plant and industry closures the past two decades. However, we do have some manufacturing such as Goodall, Sensortech, Pilkington Glass, Canadian Mist, Agnora Glass and others. Two microbreweries are scheduled to open here this year. So we’re better off than many communities our size – these companies employ residents and several are adding new jobs every year.
  • Waterfront development;
    The residential waterfront development started, but collapsed along with the economy in 2008. It’s been on hold ever since while banks and real estate companies attempt to sell off the remaining parcels to a new developer. The town has upgraded the waterfront area in the harbour, and recently added docks to encourage more boat traffic. Falling water levels have been a problem for a few years, but that may be a cyclic pattern. The grain terminals has been up for sale for a few years, but so far no serious buyer has come forward. Meanwhile there have been enhancements to both Sunset Point and Harbourview parks.
  • Lack of cultural activities and facilities;
    The town now has a culture coordinator who helps promote and encourage cultural events and activities. There is no municipal arts centre, but both the new municipal (library) building and the privately-owned Tremont have gallery space. The former newspaper office was turned into a private theatre/gallery/workshop space. Our council chambers now showcase local artists. The Elvis Festival is about to enter its 20th anniversary, and remains the town’s largest summer event. Other events have been promoted, such as the Jazz at the Station weekly show. We have more street art, too.
  • Preservation of the natural environment;
    Ongoing and raised frequently (as recently as the June 2 council meeting). The NVCA has helped preserve wetlands and wild areas from development. It is sometimes tough to balance this with the need for growth. We also instigated and had completed a natural heritage study, done by the NVCA.
  • The economy and taxes.
    Ongoing. It’s always a balancing act between providing services and facilities people want, and maintaining/upgrading infrastructure, and keeping taxes low. The local economy is doing fairly well, but like any small town, we have to watch our money. This term taxes have been kept remarkably low (an average of about 0.5% over four years), while the debt has been paid down significantly without over-burdening the taxpayers ($11 million paid from an inherited $45 million debt). The national and world economies took a beating in 2008, which affected local growth and development, but we have been recovering slowly.

On the opportunities and goals:

  • Attract light industry and high-tech business;
    We face some competition, but we have been successful in attracting Agnora Glass, two new microbreweries, and celebrating an expansion of the Goodall rubber plant. The former ethanol plant is available for re-use for such purposes as fertilizer manufacturing. We have been fortunate to retain some of our industrial base. Our new Marketing and Economic Development manager will help us in the task of promoting Collingwood.
  • Increase tourism – promote Collingwood as a  4-season tourism resort;
    This is ongoing and has been the priority of groups like the Georgian Triangle Tourism Association.
  • Improve and develop the waterfront and make it accessible;
    Pedestrian and public access was built into the new development, although not fully completed when the development stalled, in 2008.
  • Promote arts activities and special events; build a theatre;
    We have two private theatres and private gallery spaces, plus the municipal space in the library.
  • Improve the downtown and heritage buildings;
    Done and ongoing. We now have a heritage district with strict building controls and bylaws.
  • Promote seminars, conferences and retreats.
    While we currently lack sufficient public facilities for such events, the current revitalization of the Eddie Bush Arena will provide an opportunity to host such events in the near future.

Most councils since the Strategic Plan was released have actively incorporated many of the ideas and suggestions into their operation and policies.

Everything, of course, comes with a challenge. The growth plan that will see Collingwood grow to about 31,000 in a few years may reduce some of the “small town atmosphere” that we treasure. That growth will see higher demand on services and facilities, which may mean greater costs. But I don’t think the overall well-being will be adversely affected because of the solid base that has been built over the last 20 years..

The waterfront Shipyards property has gone through its ups and downs, with development started – with great optimism then halted by the 2008 Recession. There are still approved plans for future residential and commercial development there, but no developer has taken the reins. Like with the Admiral Collingwood site, the fluctuating economy and slow recovery has curtailed its completion. Development is always at the mercy of the economy.

All councils wrestle with retaining as much of the natural environment as possible, although it sometimes conflicts with other strategic goals, like growth and development. We try to balance community interest with the rights of the developer.

And as for taxes and the economy: this council has a record of an average 0.5% tax increase over the past four years, paying down the town’s $45 million debt by $11 million AND building new recreational facilities, a new fire hall, purchased Fisher Field, a new Public Works building with 30 acres of property.

This term’s exemplary fiscal management should be a model for future councils.

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05/24/14

The ACDC/AVI Site Remediation


Admiral CollingwoodEarlier this week, members of council received this email from Ian Adams of the Enterprise Bulletin about the upcoming motion on remediation of the empty property at Hume and Hurontario Streets:

I was wondering if I could get your thoughts with regard to extending/not extending the site remediation agreement for the ACDC/AVI property, and whether an extension should be granted/not granted. Ian Adams, Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin

The site remediation agreement is unique: it is, as I have been told by the Planning Department, the only one of its kind ever made on any property in this town. It was made at the request of the AVI developer, not the town, but the town agreed to it as the third party. At that time, it seemed reasonable that development would have started within the three-year term of the agreement. That proved overly optimistic, in light of the sluggish economy.

As the town’s lawyer stated, this is a tripartite agreement that requires the agreement of all three parties to change (and, if any party wished, to discard). Any single party has the right to challenge one or both other parties in a court over the terms.

While the onus for enforcement unfortunately falls to the town under its property standards bylaw (section five), the town is given the discretion when and even whether to enforce it (section four). Any enforcement would be a costly legal challenge and a lengthy court battle for taxpayers. Potentially several years.

Keep in mind the expensive legal battles that arose when the former council removed the legally and democratically-approved permits from the site. Those cost taxpayers more than $100,000. Plus there were subsequent costs to restore and amend some of the agreements to allow the developments to proceed. That doesn’t even mention the costs the developers went through – to get the initial permits, approvals, heritage impact studies, architectural drawings and the properties themselves – and for ACDC to have to pay for a redesign and new heritage impact study last term.

To return the site to what it was before those permits were rescinded last term could cost much more. And we would be no further ahead than we were in late 2006 when we had approved a signature building on the site. Except without the prospects of that beautiful building.

Would this benefit the community or the town? Or just waste more taxpayers’ money to pursue what might be better and more effectively gained through negotiation and compromise?

Conflict and confrontation are not good – nor wise – negotiating tactics. And they are not what a municipality should be known for.

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05/4/14

Irony and cognitive dissonance


negativity
Politics is as full of irony as it is full of cognitive dissonance. And I don’t mean simply in politicians and their agencies: it is everyone and every group, every agency and every organization that dabbles in politics. Sooner or later, the irony comes out. And the cognitive dissonance sets in.

Irony is a difference between the appearance of something and its reality. As Google brings up the definition: “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.”

Amusing may be subjective.

Irony surfaced recently in local politics when we received emails first criticizing council for not doing something about the empty Admiral Collingwood Place site, then followed by others from many of the same people, criticizing us for doing something.

The real irony is that many of the people complaining that the site was not developed are the very people at least in part responsible for it being undeveloped in the first place.

Perhaps a brief history is in order (a full timeline can be read on the April 28 council agenda, starting at page 160).

The proposed development was democratically and legally approved by the council in late 2006. That’s critical to note. It was all done openly, transparently, with numerous public meetings, with staff and council in attendance, open discussion and lively debate, all above board.

The heritage impact assessment (HIA) for the site – prepared by an independent expert – was accepted. The community in general loved the idea of the development at that location. The Downtown BIA enthusiastically supported it. People lined up to put deposits down on condos. Only a small – but vocal – number disagreed, especially with the HIA. That’s okay: in a democracy disagreement is allowed.

In the fall of that year, a local special interest group (” VOTE”) filed two OMB challenges against the development. Former councillor (later mayor) Chris Carrier publicly donated a cheque to their legal fund in their battle against the town he was elected to serve. Still, legal and acceptable in a democracy.

You surely remember the special interest VOTE group – sarcastically referred to as “Voters Opposed To Everything” by some local wags (and media). A small group, never more than a couple of dozen strong, but with friends in high places.

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02/28/14

Conspiracy Theories: 2014 Update


Conspiracy theoriesIt’s time to update a piece I wrote in December, 2012, outlining the secret deals, backroom negotiations and “barbecue politics” that our council has been involved in since that date, more than a year ago.

So here comes the update, the emperor without his clothes:

  • Secret meetings: none
  • Backroom negotiations: none
  • Barbecue deals: none

Sorry, I know this is a disappointment to local conspiracy theorists and bloggers, coming hard on the failure of the world to end as per the Mayan Calendar, or the failure of any number of predicted ends of the world, coupled with the lack of any substantial conspiracy proof against council despite dozens (hundreds?) of Freedom of Information Act requests filed (sorry if the clerk didn’t tell you what sort of lubricant one councillor uses on his chair, though…).

Aliens didn’t make contact in 2013. Bigfoot wasn’t found. Tom Cruise is still in Scientology. Stephen Harper didn’t quit politics and join a monastery. Council didn’t hold any secret meetings.

It was a tough year for psychics and conspiracy theorists alike.

Back at the end of 2012, I wrote:

I can only offer a glimmer of hope that we still have two years left to go, so there’s still a chance we might fail to live up to our oath of office in future. A slim chance, mind you, but those odds don’t stop people from buying lottery tickets.

I have to say, I don’t think it’s going to happen now. We’re sticking stubbornly to the oath. Not only that, we brought in an Integrity Commissioner to ensure the public knows we stay on the straight and narrow.

I also wrote then:

I understand that from the outside, it may look like we’re doing the double-double-toil-and-trouble routine in the “cone of silence” but all we were doing is just treading the slow path of bureaucracy and legality, under the watchful eyes of staff (who wield a rather mean Municipal Act when we stray). We call it “due diligence.”

Not to mention a rather stern CAO who has little tolerance for inappropriate behaviour by councillors, no matter how well-meaning.

Political conspiracy theories get spun by those who don’t participate in or understand how the process of governance works. And like all conspiracy theories ever coined, despite lack of proof, they keep resurfacing and circulating among people who are sure that their government – any level of government – is up to no good.

Clandestine meetings and secret deals  are more exciting, more titillating to believe in than the rather pedestrian, but convoluted process of governance.

You think the truth is out there? The way to find out is to get involved. Working on a committee or sitting at the council table sure strips you of your illusions about government conspiracies. At the very least, sit down with someone who is involved and ask how things work.
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02/21/14

Collingwood’s municipal debt and 2014 budget


Aging infrastructureTuesday, Council got a combined debt-and-budget presentation that set the stage for the upcoming, fuller 2014 budget deliberations starting next week. CAO John Brown gave us a recap of a report (produced by BMA Management Consulting) about the town’s debt situation and financial wellbeing. It was a mix of good news/bad news.

The good is that it’s not as bad as it seems, certainly not as bad as some other municipalities, but mostly in the middle of the peer group selected for the report. The bad is that it’s not as good as we’d like it to be. But barring a big tax increase to reduce the debt and funnel more into reserves, I don’t see how it could be a lot better.

His report also included a comparison of Collingwood’s financial situation to six other municipalities:

I have to wonder why several of these were chosen as comparators by the consultants. The majority are not at all like Collingwood:

  • Wilmot Township, according to its own website, is “…approximately 20,000 persons living in small towns, settlements, and on farms.”
  • Springwater Township “…consists of both urban and rural communities, with a population of over 18,000 people. There are nine settlement areas, with Midhurst and Elmvale being the largest with a population of 3100 and 1700 respectfully. Other settlement areas include Snow Valley, Centre Vespra, Minesing, Anten Mills, Phelpston, Orr Lake and Hillsdale.”
  • Prince Edward County is similarly not one urban centre, but a collection of small, rural communities, the largest of which is under 5,500 population.
  • Innisfil is similar: small communities, some bedroom residential development close to Barrie, but mostly rural. Cookstown, one of the largest centres, has a population of about 2,000.

Only Orillia and Owen Sound are similar, small urban centres. Why would we not compare ourselves to Midland or Wasaga Beach? Brockville? Uxbridge? Huntsville? Orangeville? Surely these small urban centres would provide more of the apples-to-apples comparisons.

I’d also like to have seen such data as how  many employees are on the municipal payrolls in each; if they have their own or use OPP police service (and how much their police and fire budgets were – our services for 2014 will consume 22%, or $6.1 million, for policing, and 16%, or $4.4 million, for fire: more than a third of our budget in the combined costs).

I’d like to know their total budget, including operations, capital, how many buses they run, and so on. What are they spending their money on and why? What reserves do they have, what assets? Municipal finance isn’t so simple it can be reduced to a few lines.

Rural communities have very different needs, infrastructure demands, growth issues, etc. that make it difficult to adequately compare them to Collingwood.

We are also a combined retirement and tourist destination centre, which creates different sorts of challenges for services and infrastructure. Our percentage of people 65 and older is about 23% – much higher than the provincial average of 14.6%, and our percentage of people under the age of 55 is lower than the provincial average. That has implications for housing, employers, services, and commercial and industrial growth.

On page 8 of the report, it notes that the average percentage of farmland by assessment value in our comparators was 5.2%, while the amount is only 0.1% in Collingwood. But if you look at the maps, the actual, physical amount of farmland in those four “peers” significantly dwarfs the whole area of the Town of Collingwood. Farmland is the lowest on the assessment ladder, so having less is good for potential tax revenue.

We also have a higher percentage of commercial and industrial assessment, which is equally good for tax revenue.

What we never learned from the report was how much money had any of them invested in major infrastructure projects or municipal facilities over the past decade or more. Collingwood has had an ongoing infrastructure upgrade and replacement program, as reflected by the projects paid for by debentures. Plus we have a fairly modern museum, a new municipal building (library and planning services), a new fire station, upgraded police station, new parks, new recreational facilities, new trails, new works building, an airport, a harbour and a comprehensive municipal transit system. Not many municipalities can boast all of that.

Our CAO explained that debt wasn’t all bad – debt means you are building, upgrading and maintaining infrastructure, erecting new facilities. We maintain our infrastructure constantly else face higher costs when it fails. Debt isn’t operational: it’s used for capital projects.

But, the CAO cautioned, it’s important to manage that debt wisely. Which this council has been doing. And, he said, we can’t continue the status quo; we don’t want to push our debt capacity to its limit.

First, of course, we have to manage our spending. The initial overview of the budget has a projected 2.1% increase (about $67 per average household). However, in light of the CAO’s sobering presentation, I would not be surprised if department heads were told to come back with lower budgets, even in the negative area. I will certainly argue for a lower amount in many areas.

Personally, I’d rather see an overall increase in taxes no more than 1.2%, but even better would be a small reduction, say -1% or even -2%.

Of course, it may mean a reduction of non-essential service in some areas. You cannot continue to provide certain levels of service without paying for them – and costs always increase. Utility costs, inflation, fuel costs, food, wages, benefit costs, materials – they all go up. So to maintain even a zero-increase-based budget, you need to cut something or someone. Essential services won’t be affected.

Therein lies the rub. Quality of life is measured by some of those services. Taxpayers pay for a good life – and we do have a good life here in Collingwood. So what, if anything, are they willing to forego in order to avoid any increase? Or would they rather pay a little more to retain these services?

What can council or staff find in the budget that is non-essential and can be removed or reduced without affecting that perceived quality of life?  We need to find more opportunities for shared and contracted services.

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