The Crafty Crow and the Doves

Fat CrowOnce upon a time, an old crow lived by the seaside. He had grown fat over the years because he was too lazy to work for his food. He preferred to sit than fly. He followed the other animals to get their leftovers, taking what wasn’t his, and annoying them by begging for some of their food. The other animals shunned him. They had chased him from many places, until he found himself on the coast. He was unwanted and unloved.

One day, a flight of doves appeared. They were young, inexperienced doves fresh from the forest, who didn’t know their way around the water’s edge. They looked confused and worried. The crow flew over to them.

“Are you lost?” he asked them. “Do you need some assistance?”

“Yes,” said the doves’ leader. “We are new here. We don’t know what’s good to eat. We don’t know where to nest so we are safe from the winds and the foxes.”

“I will show you,” said the crow. “I have lived here a long time. I know everything about the shoreline. Listen to me and you’ll be fed and safe. But beware. Don’t listen to other animals. They will try to trick you. Some will hurt you. Only I can keep you safe.”

“All right,” said the dove. “We trust you. You are a nice, old crow. Surely a crow wouldn’t harm doves because we are all birds. We will let you show us the way.”

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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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De Officiis: Cicero on Political Obligations

Cicero: On Obligations

No phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its moral duty; on the discharge of such duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.

Cicero wrote that in 44 BCE in his last work in his last year of life: De Officiis, or in English: On Obligations. The translation from Book 1.4 above comes from the Perseus Project (the 1913 Miller/Loeb translation). In the 2000 edition (Oxford University Press, reprinted 2008, and recently added to my library), translator P.G. Walsh renders that piece thus:

There is no aspect of life public or private, civic or domestic, which can be without its obligation, whether in our individual concerns or in our relations with our neighbour. Honourable behaviour lies entirely in the performance of such obligations, and likewise base conduct lies in neglecting them.

The main theme of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s book is stated here, at the beginning: we are all bound by obligations to one another, and if we are honourable people, then we must act on, and never forget, those obligations. Of course, he has a lot more to say, but that’s the gist of it.

The 62-year-old Cicero watched as Rome was taken over by the followers of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar (whom he criticized). He watched how the republic was subverted to the rule of the autocrats and tyrants (whom he also openly criticized). The result of his speaking out was his being named an enemy of the state. Marc Anthony ordered Cicero’s execution and had his severed head and hands displayed in the forum. Such is the way tyrants deal with dissent.

Cicero’s world and life have parallels in today’s politics: his words still have meaning and relevamce today. One need only look at today’s Republican candidates’ struggle for supremacy, or locally to see what has happened to our own council, to understand those parallels.*

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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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Where Have the Ratepayers’ Groups Gone?

Angry mobWhy don’t Collingwood’s ratepayer groups and associations last? In the 25-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen several come and go. Every one has dissolved, evaporated or imploded within a year or two. Seldom do they last longer than a single term of council.

Is this a normal part of the life cycle of such organizations, or is Collingwood at the unfortunate end of the Bell curve with these brief groups?

Perhaps the answer for their short lifespans is twofold: first, they do not represent the general public, but rather a small and usually elitist group; and second, because they are one-trick ponies that have no replay value once that issue has been addressed or gone away.

Plus, most of these groups seem angry. Nor surprising: they are led by angry, bitter people. That’s not a good basis for creating long-term, cooperative, thoughtful and engaging dialogue. But it goes well with whining, complaining, spreading rumours, frothing about alleged wrongs, and protesters with signs wanting to “inpeach” council (really: that’s how he spelled it!).

Some are localized NIMBY organizations whose sole purpose seems to be keeping intact a status quo situation in their neighbourhood. They are suspicious of, and opposed to, anything that even smells of change. Want to put a new sidewalk in a public park they believe is their private property? These groups will stand shoulder to shoulder to oppose it, even when the rest of the community clamours for it, staff recommend it, and safety requires it.

The first ratepayers’ group I recall was CARR: Collingwood & Area Residents & Ratepayers, if I recall the acronym properly. It raised several thoughtful issues such as the town’s financial sustainability and good governance, but, again as I recall, the main focus was on the proposed CSL waterfront development. Once that development stalled (later taken up by Fram), CARR seems to have withered.

I don’t actually remember any official notice of it being dissolved, but it was gone by the time the next group emerged: VOTE.

VOTE allegedly stood for “Voice of the Electorate” but it really represented an elitist group whose main focus was on getting their own members elected to council, while criticizing a former mayor and his supporters. In which effort it succeeded modestly well – getting a mayor and several of his minions on council.

Locals, however, soon called it “Voice of the Elite.” Which was appropriate.

However, it was so acerbic and cranky in its very vocal efforts to get its own way, that it became widely known as Voters Opposed to Everything: a verbal target for wits and the media. And much more appropriate.

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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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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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Our Know-It-Alls

Municipal WorldCollingwood Council obviously knows more than anyone else in municipal governance. More, in fact, than anyone else in the entire country. In fact, they may all be geniuses in local governance issues.

Otherwise, why would council cancel their individual subscriptions to Municipal World magazine at the start of their term?

Previous councils subscribed to an issue for each member of council, plus others for administration. While I can’t say everyone read them, the brightest and most dedicated politicians on council read them cover to cover.

Now the whole town gets one issue. ONE for the entire workforce;  for the dozen or so staff AND politicians. That suggests council must be brighter not only than all previous councils, but brighter than all other municipal politicians, advisers, consultants, lawyers, planners and administrators in the whole country, combined.

Since 1891, Municipal World magazine has been Canada’s foremost source of information, best practices, issues, ideas, challenges, policies and opportunities for local governance. Every issue – 12 a year – is packed with important, informative articles and columns. This is considered the “bible” of municipal governance by every other politician across the nation.

But Collingwood council doesn’t read it any more. Clearly our council are all atheists, when it comes to the municipal bible.

I guess it’s because they already know so much they have no need to learn more. Their heads are just bursting with knowledge and just can’t fit any more in. No need for the ideas of others. No need to obey their own Code of Conduct which states councillors are obliged (underlining in the original) to learn more about their roles and responsibilities:

Members have an obligation to promote, support, pursue and partake in opportunities for professional development…

This council doesn’t need more learning because clearly they all know it all, already.

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Climate Change and Collingwood

Climate changeClimate change is arguably the single most pressing, most important, most challenging issue to affect governments at this time. Our world is suffering and weather is getting extreme in many parts. It’s affecting crops, wildlife, safety, water… everything.

But what are Canadian municipalities doing to combat it, to reign in their use of fossil fuels, reduce their carbon footprint, reduce emissions, pollution, and embrace alternate energy systems?

Not much, according to a study done by the Ontario Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure. OCSI’s 2014 report, “When the Bough Breaks” has some discouraging statistics. According to their survey, only 38% of Ontario municipalities are “incorporating climate change into their asset management planning.” Climate change was a priority in only 13% of municipalities.

Scarier is that, when given a list of relevant activities to choose from, 22% of respondents admitted their municipality was doing nothing to address climate change impacts. Nothing. A fifth of our municipalities aren’t even preparing themselves for catastrophic or severe weather.

In 2008, Collingwood’s now-forgotten Sustainable Community Plan report had this to say:

Over the next forty years, the Town of Collingwood is expected to experience local forces of change such as unprecedented population growth and changing demographic and global forces of change such as rising commodity prices and climate change… Over the next 40 years, climate change may impact the topography, water supply, water levels and climate in Collingwood, and around the world.

The plan went on to address ways Collingwood might act to create a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly community that helped reduce the human impact on climate change. Some, but far from all, of these ideas were incorporated in later town initiatives.

Since then, there have been many initiatives to deal with climate effects implemented by municipalities worldwide (especially to mitigate the threat to municipal infrastructure), and there are whole new trends in areas like stormwater management that have developed and are being shared.

But what has Collingwood done since that report? Not much, if anything.

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Feathers A-Flying in Collingwood

Dead chickenChickengate: despite urban chickens being outre among the trendy these days; a fad long abandoned by hip who are now pursing some new form of glitzy hobby, some folks in town want to raise chickens in their yards. Seems we’re only a few years behind the trendsetters. What next? Urban cows? Urban sheep? Urban bison?

It’s a bad idea, but one this council will likely endorse – not simply because they are prone to nurture bad ideas, but because some of them owe hefty political favours to campaign supporters who, coincidentally, happen to raise chickens here already (in violation of the law, of course, but what are laws when you have friends in high places?).

The NatPost published a story back in 2013 that presages what Collingwood will see in the future if council allows residents to raise chickens in their backyards:

…municipalities across North America are just now starting to see the unforeseen consequences of allowing hipster farmers to raise chickens in their urban backyards: Hundreds of birds are being abandoned by their owners after they’ve become more of a burden than a blessing.
More than 500 chickens were dropped off at animal shelters across the United States, according to Chicken Run Rescue, an operation based in Minneapolis. At least 400 to 500 chickens turn up annually at the Farm Sanctuary, headquartered in Watkins Glen, N.Y. that has sanctuaries on two coasts. National Shelter Director Susie Coston told NBC there are around 225 chickens now waiting for homes.

That’s right: people give up their fad pets once their attention span gets distracted by the newest fad.

It has ever been thus. Pets have always been a fad among the fashionista; a trendy accessory to show off with. Remember the fad for urban (potbellied) pigs? Remember Collingwood’s Wilbur? That fad left thousands of the little porkers abandoned when they grew too big and proved inconvenient as pets. Remember when hedgehogs were all the rage? Ferrets? Gophers? Dalmations? Cock-a-poos? Sea monkeys? Tamagotchi? Now it’s urban chickens.

Imagine the local humane society flooded with unwanted chickens in a couple of years. And, yes, that will happen. It happens with every pet, fad or not, but especially with fads taken up by people entirely ignorant of the work, complexity and responsibility involved.

Hens don’t lay eggs continually: two to three years at best, but they live well past their egg-laying prime. And then what do you do with them once they’re not laying? Allow backyard slaughterhouses? Will parents teach their children all about killing their pets? Maybe let them kill their pet chickens themselves?

Or will the owners abandon them (just consider how many people already abandon their dogs and cats) and find some new, shiny thing to occupy them?

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Apps are making us criminals

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Og3PjvcR1Pc]

Uber protestAlmost every week you read in the news about another taxi driver protest against Uber and its drivers. Taxi drivers go on strike, some rage against Uber and attack the drivers or damage their cars.

Similar protests – albeit not yet as violent or large – have been made against Airbnb for its effects on local property values and changing social conditions like the loss of rental properties.

These are just two of the apps whose effect on our society and culture are challenging laws and policies. There are others now that attempt to clone the success of their competitors with similar service (like Lyft and Homeaway – but I’ll concentrate on these two as examples of what can and does happen).

And in the process making criminals of its users.

That’s right: using these apps, both as a service provider for the companies and a user of those services often breaks existing laws, such as zoning or licensing. Renting your home for short-term rentals through Airbnb, for example, is illegal in many Ontario municipalities – including Collingwood – because zoning bylaws prohibit short-term rentals in residential areas.

Municipalities worldwide are increasingly challenged by these and similar programs that function counter to municipal bylaws, policies and operations. And they eventually cost taxpayers money.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFgAsUQXYAA]

It’s not a small deal. These can hurt our economy, kill jobs, and put people and property at risk. The corporations that operate them don’t give a shit. They’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank every time you use them.

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17 Pages of Blather

Snake oilZero point zero zero zero three eight. That’s the percentage of the population of Collingwood who made the effort to comment on council’s much-touted, revised, 17-page code of conduct before it was approved, Monday night. That’s 0.00038%, based on an estimated 21,000 residents. In other words: eight people.

Only eight people out of 21,000 cared enough about council’s efforts to pump the bureaucracy to comment on the proposed code.

Eight people. I hope they were all residents. One, I’m told, was a member of council, so if you take that person out of the equation because that’s what he or she was elected to do, that leaves a mere seven residents commenting. That’s only 0.00033% of the population.

Hardly a tsunami of public engagement.

The rest, I suppose, were more concerned about things that actually matter: taxes, water rates (both of which this council raised), roads, sewers, sidewalks, potholes, parks and so on. These things are, however, not nearly as important to council which prefers to waste its time on grandstanding initiatives like revising the code of conduct.

For eight people it was stirring stuff.

The other 99.962% of us  – 20,992-plus residents – clearly couldn’t give a damn.

Apparently this low response was such an embarrassment that the actual number of respondents is not mentioned anywhere in the staff report. The public just didn’t care. But around the council table, backs were patted and laudatory, saccharine statements were made for having accomplished such another landmark in governance ennui.

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