Tag Archives: municipal politics

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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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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Cold Camembert, Collingwood Style

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Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth made comments last week about how awful it is to eat normal airplane food as an excuse why she billed more sumptuous meals to her taxpayer-funded expense account. Cold camembert and broken crackers, she whined, were not acceptable breakfast fare for the likes of a Senator. As the NatPost quoted her:

“There are a couple of times when my assistant put in for a breakfast when I was on a plane, and they say I should have not claimed because I should have eaten that breakfast… Those breakfasts are pretty awful. If you want ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers, have it.”

Oh, how trying it is to be a Senator, having to dine on mere first-class fare at taxpayers’ expense. Her arrogance only made Canadians agonize more over how we really need to abolish or reform the patronage cesspit of our appointed Senate.

Her words also sparked a wave of Twitter and Facebook comments about the Senate’s entitlement and its ‘let-them-eat-cake’ mentality. Barbed editorials appeared in the media and social media. This comes at a time when Mike Duffy is on trial over the very issues Canadians abhor in the Senate: abuse of privilege and self-righteous entitlement.

The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente commented sarcastically about Ruth’s words:

It’s hell to serve your country. Just ask Senator Nancy Ruth, who often finds herself on early-morning flights, schlepping here and there to make the world a better place with nothing to sustain her but crappy airline food. “Those breakfasts are pretty awful,” she explained the other day. “… Ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers.”

But a sense of entitlement among our public officials – elected and appointed – is not limited to Ottawa. Snouts are in the trough at every level of government. Yes, even here: we have our own Senator Ruth.

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Gated Communities

Mariner's HavenI’m not a big fan of gated communities, but even if I don’t personally want to live in one myself, I understand the reason for them, and sympathize with homeowners in those zones.

Apartments are basically gated towers that restrict access to residents or keyholders and no one complains that they isolate the residents. Few people who live in one would welcome strangers walking up and down their halls.

If a home owner in other parts of town has the right to fence in his or her property and keep people out or otherwise restrict access, then why shouldn’t a part of community have that same right – especially if that part is entirely on private land, with no public roads, trails or other access?

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Abdicating Responsibility

IrresponsibilityCollingwood Council has, in its short time in office, abdicated much of its responsibility to the business of government and to the people of this town. Council has sloughed off the duties they were elected to shoulder with remarkable alacrity. Some of that responsibility landed on staff, who assumed control of the budget process and drive most of the initiatives that come to the table. But some of it is being passed along to un-elected residents.

It began early on when this council decided not to put a council representative on the BIA Board of Management. This way, no one can raise issues about the downtown at the council table, or regularly bring the BIA’s messages, events, issues and concerns into the public forum (where it can also reach the media). No one at the table can champion downtown issues or events. Nor can council’s agendas and initiatives be raised at BIA meetings.

Council sidelined and abandoned the BIA, arguably the town’s largest employer (collectively speaking) and the heart of the community, by refusing to have a council representative sit on its board. This is the first time in its history there has not been a council rep on the board, and as far as I am aware, the only BIA in the province that does not have council representation.

The message to the public is clear: this council doesn’t give a damn about the downtown.

Then came the decision to extend the interim CAO’s contract another year – when hiring a new CAO as had been planned last term. This could have saved the town $50,000 a year or more. This was the result of backroom discussions by some members of council long before it was brought to the public. Your tax dollars wasted, and a total lack of openness and transparency by those at the table who promised quite the opposite. But they shrugged off the responsibility to be open and transparent, too.

And then council replaced the experienced, respected CEO of Collus with the town’s interim CAO on the PUC board, and in doing so created a confrontational and highly politicized environment at the utility. Plus the interim CAO is considerably less experienced in critical water and wastewater issues than the CEO was. Council shirked its responsibility to ensure we have the best staff in critical positions.

The 100-year-old relationship with the PUC and the town that worked so well and smoothly for a century, is now toxic. One senior employee has already left for a less-confrontational work environment. The rapidly deteriorating relationship is being further exacerbated by demands to call in the promissory note given when Collus was partially purchased by Powerstream (and is currently paying a handsome dividend in interest).

Council must ensure the municipality operates smoothly and efficiently. They shirked and shrugged while staff took the lead again.

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Closed for Business, Hostile to Seniors

ClosedClosed: that’s the message Collingwood Council sent to business during its recent budget discussions. We’re making it more expensive to run a business here, and by the way, we’re hostile to seniors and low-wage earners, too.

Under the tissue-thin pretense of keeping taxes low (which they aren’t, really), council approved a staff initiative to remove the costs for maintaining hydrants from the general tax levy and add them into your water rates – where they will do the most harm.

Councillor Madigan made the motion to take the costs from the fire department’s budget – where it has traditionally been, which means it came from property taxes, and dump them on your water bill. Other councillors who had previously resisted this move were suddenly turned into nodding bobbleheads, voting as staff directed.

Only a courageous two – Lloyd  and Edwards – voted against it.

These hydrant costs represented approximately 0.5% of the existing property tax levy and would not have increased taxes because they have always been calculated into our taxes. Now it will make your water and sewage rates go up by 5.8%!

An alleged tax saving that shifts the costs onto utility bills is NOT a savings at all: it’s an expense.

For renters, this means a huge increase in their utility costs. Rental rates are controlled and kept low by provincial legislation. Utility rates, however, are not. This will make living here much less attractive, and less affordable for anyone who rents.

So the people most hurt by this move are seniors, people on fixed incomes, low-income earners and the many people who rent their home. This is a remarkably hostile blow towards a large and vulnerable percentage of our population.

And it’s a double blow against business and industry, since they pay the lion’s share of water costs. It just makes it more expensive to run a business in Collingwood and will further deter industry from relocating here. Workers and businesses get hit at the same time.

This comes at a time when businesses are already struggling and Canada’s economy is in trouble. Retail chains are closing and more are slated to close. The governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, recently warned that “…the first quarter of 2015 will look atrocious…”He added that Canada’s economy was unlikely to meet even the scaled-back predictions and hinted the bank could implement “extraordinary measures” – which suggests a significant increase in interest rates. He called our economic outlook “atrocious.”

Apparently most of council doesn’t care. Collingwood Council’s move just adds to existing business and industry woes. Kick ’em when they’re down.

So much for trying to attract more of them to this town. Close the business doors, I guess Council doesn’t want anyone else to come in. And maybe it wants those already here to leave by making it too expensive to operate economically. Attrition by user fees.

But here’s the kicker: there’s no indication that money moved from taxes will actually be removed from the fire department’s budget: it seems like it will be kept there and used for other purposes (maybe that new pumper truck that’s been requested the past few years?). So it looks like the money will stay on your taxes AND your water rates will go up!

So you get punched twice.  Thanks, Councillor Madigan.

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The Bully Pulpit

Theodore Roosevelt“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

US President Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words in office (reported in the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine), coining the phrase ‘bully pulpit’ in referring to the presidency as an ideal platform from which to expound his ideas and advocate his causes.

Of course, in his day, bully – a word with which Roosevelt was very fond – as an adjective meant ‘excellent,’ ‘first-rate,’ ‘jovial’ or just ‘good’ – a usage we still share when we say ‘bully for you.’ His bully pulpit, however, was a moral platform.

Roosevelt wasn’t commenting on having a platform of influence from which to bully people in today’s more common use of the noun to describe “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”*

Both uses of the word bully come from the Dutch boele, meaning ‘lover’ and it was originally a term of endearment. They migrated to their odd, double meaning in the 17th century.

National Post reviewI came across the term recently in the title of Doris Goodwin’s book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt , William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” which I picked up last week, mostly for its references to the historical development of journalism.** But the politics also interest me and, since I am not as well-versed in American history and politics of that era as I am in other periods, I wanted to educate myself.

Roosevelt is fascinating in that he was a Republican and very progressive – yet it’s a party today we associate with backwardness, the entitlement of the 1%, racism, promoting anti-Christian policies while pretending to be devout and religious***, anti-environmental, anti-science, intolerant, corrupt, petty, mean-spirited spokespeople for whichever industry or corporation buys their votes.

Yet remarkably, in Roosevelt’s day, the Republicans were the progressive party, and it was under Roosevelt that the government put limits on corporate greed, stifled the robber barons, sponsored economic and monetary reform, protected the environment and created national parks, passed socially progressive laws for education and labour… quite the opposite of today’s narrow-minded and suspicious Republicans.

In part, I wanted to read Goodwin’s book to understand, if I can, how the GOP fell from such socially responsible heights to become the despicable, misanthropic and misogynistic party it is today. As the New York Times wrote in reviewing Goodwin’s book:

Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan. “There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.” The years covered in this book are such a time. It makes a pretty grand story.

In his career as a politician, Roosevelt had a very good, close relationship with the media. He engaged them in debate and discussion, created a separate room for the media in the White House, and challenged reporters over their stories – Roosevelt also coined the phrase ‘muckraker’. But it was a relationship based on mutual respect and civility. As Goodwin writes:

…Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches.

Goodwin calls the relationship between Roosevelt and the media “collegial” – the New York Times suggests ‘symbiotic” as a better choice. As the NYT tells it, Roosevelt

…allowed reporters to question him during his midday shave. Editors and writers who caught his attention would be invited for luncheon conversations that might last until midnight. With his many favorites, Roosevelt exchanged voluminous correspondence, sometimes two or three letters a week. He shared early drafts of his major policy speeches and legislative proposals, and they briefed him on their reporting projects before publication.

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Email and Confidentiality

CouncillorA story in this week’s Connection titled “Private talk with CAO leads to Collingwood integrity commissioner complaint” sparked the following comment.

No, this is not about what strikes me as the unethical and secretive behaviour of the councillor in question and his defending that behaviour in the media as if the town’s Code of Conduct did not state at its outset that all members of council (emphasis added):

…are held to a high standard as leaders of the community and they are expected to become well informed on all aspects of municipal governance, administration, planning and operations. They are also expected to carry out their duties in a fair, impartial, transparent and professional manner.

Which it seems to me his behaviour was not any of those. Or that the code – which they all signed – also says (emphasis added):

…there are open and proper channels for decision making and approval of policy,

I do not believe having private discussions with senior staff over their employment and emailing one another to build consensus outside the public forum fits the “open and proper channels” requirement.

Or that the Code also says members will:

…conduct and convey Council business in an open and public manner so that the process, logic and rationale which was used to reach conclusions or decisions are available to the stakeholders.

Which clearly cannot be done if you hold your discussions via email or in back rooms. So far this council has not shown itself to adhere to the spirit of the Code, let alone its letter. But council’s hypocritical lack of ethics is something I’ll save for another post.

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