Time for council to learn the rules? Nah…

vengeance takes timeBeing a councillor is hard work. You have to scurry around in dark corners looking for places in which to hold secret meetings, you have to plan the destruction of town facilities and services, you have to spend whole minutes calculating how much to raise taxes, you have to wrack your brain for hours trying to determine the best way to discourage business, offend developers (except those who are your in-laws), you have to spend countless hours listening to staff drone on and on and on about boring stuff like planning and finances before you can get back to figuring out how much money to pump into an expense account so the Senator can party around the country without having to fly economy or eat in 4-star restaurants (answer: unlimited expenses!).

You have to plot how to make staff morale crumble even further, how to punish anyone who might have even smiled at someone on the former council, and how to squeeze more from the taxpayer to reward those out-of-town lawyers and consultants you’ve become buddy-buddy with this term.

And then there are all those secret meetings and passing along confidential information and emails to your mouthpieces and sycophants so they can fuel their whisper campaigns.

Whew. It sure is a busy life. Vengeance takes a lot of effort. Let up for even a moment and you fall off your path of malice and mayhem. Being petty and vindictive requires all your attention.

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The destruction of Collus

Council wrecking our townThere’s a story in the online Connection that highlights how much this council has spent on lawyers and consultants to further its vendetta against Collus-Powerstream: more than $400,000 so far. Half of it was spent in 2015 (I have seen a document that shows more than $249,000 spent in 2015) and the cash register is still ringing. By the end of this year it may well top $750,000-$1 million.

That’s $400,000 of your tax dollars already spent for nothing. Not in town, not on local companies or services. We got absolutely no benefit from that expense. It wasn’t spent on anything for the greater good, but to pursue a very personal vendetta.

Remember that promised savings of $500,000-$750,000 the CAO bragged about back in March? It seems it’s all going to lawyers and consultants. And they’ll be getting more, too. The bills just keep rolling in.

This week, we got the news that Collus Powerstream is one of the top-performing utilities in the province. The Ontario Energy Board released its 2015 Benchmarking Report. in it, Collus Powerstream moved from the third tier (of five) up to second. It’s quite an accomplishment – and owed entirely to the efforts of our great, hardworking utility staff (including the former CEO, Ed Houghton).

It’s ironic that Hydro One remains in tier five – the lowest-performing category. Yet this is who The Block has been secretly trying to sell our utility to: the least efficient utility in the province. Powerstream is, by the way, the second largest municipal utility in this province, with more customers than Toronto Hydro. Powerstream has even more urban customers than Hydro One.

Why do I say costs could top $1 million? Because the Block’s aggressive drive to destroy Collus-Powerstream is about to come to an explosive head. I expect that before the end of summer, Powerstream will be so fed up with the harassment from town hall they will make an offer to buy our share of the utility. And then it will be gone.

We will have lost control over our own hydro rates and services. It will relocate out of town, maybe even out of the region. We will also lose the more than $200,000 a year we get for rent from the building. And any future cash dividends. But we will have the inevitable bills from lawyers to close the deal. Ka-ching!

Now while that purchase is likely the best thing for the staff at Collus – it will get them away from the toxic relationship created by this council and administration – and it will probably benefit the consumer too* – it means we lose a valuable public asset: our electrical utility.

And you, the public haven’t been able to even hear the discussions, let alone provide your input. It’s all been done behind closed doors. Screwed again by The Most Secretive Council Ever.

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Whatever became of that angry mob?

Defending our honourLast term, council was presented with an angry, 14-page screed from the “Friends of Central Park” (aka “Build the YMCA a Taj Mahal at Taxpayers’ Expense,” later called Better Together Collingwood…yes, you know who was behind them both!).

The mouthpiece attacked the honesty, the credibility, competence and the behaviour of the former council – all because we chose to build new recreational facilities that were not the expensive option a group of well-off residents demanded we build. And because we didn’t raise taxes or incur significant debt in our choice.

I realize it’s not often one gets lambasted by taxpayers for not raising taxes, but we were severely criticized for choosing the path of fiscal responsibility. Can’t win them all, I suppose. But I think it’s time to see if this current council – elected by that group and their minions – has followed through on the demands made of us last term.

I have deleted some of the specific rec facility-related content in the letter because it isn’t relevant any more. But I think you’ll find what remains (shown in italics) very informative and relevant. My responses follow. I’m sure you’ll chuckle over the evident hypocrisy.

That Council ask staff to report back on the following best practices in municipal good governance.
Answer: Not seen in these first 21 months in office this term. Likelihood of ever being seen: same as winning the lottery twice in a row. Municipal good governance would get in the way of personal agendas and entitlement.

I. clarify the values and respective actions that they interpret to embrace good governance and share these with the public;
Answer: Ditto. Okay, first you have to know what good governance is. The Most Secretive Council Ever has no idea because that would require coming out from behind closed doors. And learning. Toss this one in the bin.

ii. direct staff to revise the Procurement Policy to reflect more stringent guidelines and procedures reflective of other municipal, provincial and federal procedures; specifically articles on sole sourcing amongst a more robust review;
Answer: One of the very first things this council ever did was to approve a sole-source bid for a taxi contract, to the company owned by Councillor Fryer’s brother-in-law. So it’s do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do with this lot.

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322 reasons why we’re better off with PowerStream

$322. More. Every year.

$322. That’s how much MORE the average consumer household using 750 kW/month pays a year when connected to Hydro One, compared to the same household connected to Collus PowerStream. That means YOU will pay that much more, thanks to Collingwood Council. The Block, in particular.

And it could be higher, if you have, say, electrical heat, air conditioning, electrical stove or dryer, or a family. A lot higher.*

This council has been in secret negotiations to sell our utility to Hydro One, knowing that your bills will skyrocket. Not only will it mean higher utility bills, but you have no input into the fate of the utility YOU own. Input is not being allowed by the Most Secretive Council Ever.

In fact, they have only ever discussed our utility and selling it behind closed doors this term. Dozens of times. Until last week, of course, when they publicly announced their plan to sell it. Anyone else see this as corruption and breach of public trust?

Last term, when half of our ownership in Collus was sold to PowerStream, it was all done in public, with public input. How quickly things changed under The Block.

If you’re a senior or otherwise living on a fixed income or with typically low wages, you’ll need to come up with at least $26.80 a month more, or you’ll have to cut it from somewhere else. Like your food. Medicine. Clothes. Or heating in winter.

Plus don’t forget to add in the entirely unnecessary but burdensome tax increases this council has already put through TWICE this term. All part of The Block’s war on seniors.

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The raison d’etre

Maxine“Why do you do it?” A voice asked me, momentarily distracting my attention from deciding between the firm and silky tofu in the grocery store. I looked up to find a woman close to my own age in front of me. Well, perhaps she was a teensy bit older by about 20 years, but once you cross 60, age differences between seniors seem smaller. To my aging eyes, at least.

I couldn’t easily disengage since her cart was wedged up against mine, and because I needed to find my way to the sweet potatoes across the aisle, I responded, hoping to soon untangle without appearing rude.

“Why do I do what?” Always answer a question with a question, or so I was raised. Well, maybe not raised. I think I read about that tactic in a book. I was raised to be seen and not heard, which I suppose is why I’m a writer not a singer. My parents heard me sing once, and that ended my musical career pretty toot sweet.

“Write those things. Online. You know, all those nasty things about council. Why do you do it?” I didn’t think explaining about my writer-versus-singer upbringing would satisfy her, so I took another direction.

“Well, first I don’t think they’re always nasty. Sometimes they’re funny. I hope. You can never tell about humour. Didn’t any of them amuse you, at least a little?”

“I don’t read them all. Not online. I don’t have a computer,” she replied.

“Well then how do you know about them?” I asked in my best Sherlockian fashion.

“My son prints them out and brings them to me. Not all of them. Just the ones he wants me to read. The ones about the people I voted for. The nasty ones.”

Well so much for my career as a satirist, and cultural commentator. Didn’t really connect if no one read it. Maybe I could take up singing after all. You know, busk downtown. With a ukulele. But I couldn’t start my new career until this new critic finished with me. So I responded.

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We’re Screwed. Royally.

Screw the taxpayer!By now you know what I’ve been warning you about all along: Council is selling our public electrical utility. After harassing, bullying and hectoring our utility staff, they decided to simply get rid of a 150-year-old public institution that has served this town so well all this time. We’re screwed.

And you’ve had how much input on this crucial issue? Right: exactly none. And council has no intention of giving the public a say. This is a fait accompli: an autocratic act so despicable that words fail me. These people are truly evil in the fullest sense of that word. Democracy be damned, say The Block. They will do what they want regardless of the damage it does to you, to staff, to our reputation and relationships.

Everything about our utility has been done in secret, behind closed doors, with administrative staff skulking in the shadows, pulling the strings while the Bobbleheads nod in agreement to what they’re told. Never once thinking for themselves, they’ve swallowed the corporate hook, line and sinker. But that line has been tainted with untruth.

This merely ices the cake of the unmitigated disaster this term has proven. Secrecy, lies, corruption, conniving, destruction, vendettas and personal agendas. That’s the sum total of council to date. What a legacy.

And it will get worse. Much, much worse. The screwing of the taxpayer will continue until we can elect an group that isn’t ethically challenged, in their place. Collingwood deserves much better.

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Reputation, reputation, reputation

Bad reputationReal estate agents and retaillers have a saying: Location, location, location. But for politicians that can be amended to read: Reputation, reputation, reputation. The reputation of the whole community hinges on that of its politicians. After all, the tree is known by its fruit.

Remember the Rob Ford scandals? Talk show hosts around the world used them to turn Toronto into a jokefest. People who had never visited, or never even heard of Toronto before knew about it through Rob Ford’s antics. And although it tarnished Toronto, Ford acted as if it didn’t matter. As Cicero wrote in On Obligations (De Officiis; also known as On Duties):

To disregard what the world thinks of us is not only arrogant but utterly shameless.

But centuries before Cicero, the Greek philosopher Isocrates wrote:

Guard yourself against accusations, even if they are false; for the multitude are ignorant of the truth and look only to reputation. In all things resolve to act as though the whole world would see what you do; for even if you conceal your deeds for the moment, later you will be found out. But most of all will you have the respect of men, if you are seen to avoid doing things which you would blame others for doing.

So this reputation thing is hardly new. We’ve long known that doing the right things builds it, doing the wrong things destroys it.  In Chapter 21 of The Prince, more than 500 years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote:

“Nothing makes a prince so well esteemed as undertaking great enterprises and setting a fine example”

He understood that reputation was precious, and that to build it, the ruler needed to set a good example. In Chapter 8, he criticized the ancient Sicilian leader, Agathocles – not for deceiving, then murdering, the citizens, but because his actions stained his reputation:

“It cannot be called skill to slay fellow-citizens, to betray friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without moral obligation. Such methods may gain empire, but not glory… his barbarous cruelty and inhumanity… do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men.”

Betrayal, lacking a moral compass, faithless, cruel… that sounds all too familiar in our local politics.

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Dirty politics takes its toll

Ed HoughtonBy now you probably have already heard that the CEO of Collus, Ed Houghton, has ‘resigned’ after 39 years of excellent, dedicated service to this community. It’s a huge loss to us, and we should be collectively embarrassed and ashamed at how it happened.

Forced out is more like it; the inevitable result of another evil act by an evil group determined to destroy everything good, effective and efficient in this town. And they are succeeding all too well.

Ed is only the latest casualty in The Block’s ongoing war on our utilities and their staff. The continued, unrelenting harassment finally drove him away. The COO of the water side, Marcus Firman, left in 2015 for much the same reason. And there have been others, too.

Many of those still at Collus and in our water utility are actively looking for work in less hostile, more progressive municipalities. After all, there’s only so much of this unmitigated bullshit and interference one can take. Morale at both utilities is extremely low and no one wants to be the last one left.

You’d know more about it if The Block didn’t have the local media in their pockets. An unbiased investigative reporter would have exposed it all. But you’ll have to settle for my reports, and frankly I am not unbiased about The Block and their malfeasance. Nor should you be. All of this has already wasted several hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars for out-of-town consultants and lawyers whose reports are used to justify the destruction.

Most of this has been conducted in secret, The Block plotting behind closed doors, for the past 18 months. And there’s no end to the damage in sight.

By the end of this year, maybe even by the end of the summer, I expect Collus will no longer exist: the utility will have been sold to Hydro One (secret negotiations are already underway). After which, your electricity rates will be “harmonized” up another 10% or more. Many of the remaining staff will leave. A century and a half of good service and low rates will be gone.

The Block will use the proceeds from the sale – plus millions from our reserves and debentures – to build the Taj Mahal rec centre in Central Park and turn the keys over to the YMCA. Your taxes will go up, of course, to pay for it.

And you, the residents and taxpayers, won’t have a say in it. How’s that for open, accountable government?

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Rules for The Block, different rules for us

Application formEver apply to sit on a town board or committee? If so, you’ll be familiar with the form to the right. It’s the town’s application form. Click on it to see or download the full form. Everyone who wants to sit on a town board of committee must complete and sign it.

Everyone, that is, except the people The Block appoint to the committees and boards they want to control. One set of rules for The Block, another for the rest of us. How very accountable and transparent.

In June, The Block illegally (not to mention unethically and immorally) “fired” the democratically appointed members of the Collus PowerStream board and replaced them with their own selection of tame staff, ones they could cow into submission. I wrote about this naked power grab earlier.

(I say illegally because there is no mechanism in the town’s Procedural Bylaw to remove appointees, and it clearly states their term is concurrent with the term of council. So to me, it seems they have broken the law. But laws don’t apply to The Block, do they? They’re above such petty considerations. Besides, you’d have to be a lawyer to really understand what they say, anyway…)

The town’s policy has (as long as I’ve lived here and for the entire three terms I served on council) is that all appointees must fill in the form and go through the selection process. Except, it seems, when you’re a Block toady. Then you just get parachuted into the position and screw the public input. We don’t need no steenkin’ rules… laws are for losers.

But wait. It gets more interesting…

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Alger Hiss, Richard Nixon and Collingwood

Nixon calls for new HUAC probe of HissRemember the case of Alger Hiss? I didn’t think so. It was before your time. Mine too. But let me jog your memory, just in case you’re older than I am. Or perhaps just well read in recent history.

Hiss was a US government employee, a diplomat at the centre of a House Un-American Advisory Committee (HUAC) investigation in 1950. He was accused of being a Soviet spy and eventually sent to jail (coincidentally on the same day George Orwell died…). Ring a bell? How about the Pumpkin Papers?

Remember HUAC? You know, the committee investigating Communism in America, the one that brought Senator Joe McCarthy to prominence and eventually proved his undoing. How about the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s? The Cold War? Anything coming back to you, yet? No? You’re probably too young.

Well, so am I. For the Hiss case, that is. Not for the Red Scare, the Cold War, Nixon and the decades of US-vs-USSR ideological squabbles that almost led us to WWIII. That all happened in my time and I remember the news, the stories, the broadcasts,the air raid drills. But the HUAC hearings about Hiss were just before me.

Still, I know something about them, about Hiss, Nixon and the whole HUAC thing from my ongoing reading and studies. The story came up last night as I read another chapter in Anthony Summers’ biography of Richard Nixon, The Arrogance of Power. A good book, by the way, if you are interested in the ‘Machiavellian’ politics of Nixon.

Hiss and HUAC collectively launched the career of the then-neophyte politician, Richard Nixon, newly elected to Congress. It was a milestone for him. Hiss was highly respected and well-placed, with no evidence to convict him. HUAC’s investigation had stalled and the committee was about to throw in the towel when Nixon was appointed to it. Nixon proved a bulldog who, using inside information from other sources, possibly even faked evidence, turned the case around and got Hiss convicted. And he used compliant media to make his case and get coverage.

From an unknown newcomer to the political battlefield, Richard Nixon would leverage his profile as an unrelenting, staunch anti-Communist into the Senate, the vice presidency and eventually, after many false starts, to the presidency. Any lights going on now?

Probably not. Hiss is long forgotten by the public. He died in 1996, a few days after his 92nd birthday, protesting his innocence to the end. Nixon himself died earlier, in 1994, still claiming Hiss was guilty until the end. The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991 and despite a lot of its secret archives being opened for Western researchers, the evidence for or against Hiss remains controversial, contradictory and inconclusive. Even today it’s hard to say for certain if he was a spy or someone’s patsy.

What is conclusive is that Nixon’s obsessive pursuit of Hiss and his manipulations in the background gave him headlines and for a short while star status. It was also the time when Nixon’s political persona was being cast in concrete and his ambitious machinations to climb the political ladder really leapt into high gear.

For a glimpse into the politics of post-war America, the rivalry between superpowers, and a picture into both Nixon’s and the Republican mindset, you should read the Hiss story. It’s fascinating stuff.

But of course that’s not why I brought you here, dear reader, down this meandering path of what must seem like lessons in ancient history spiced by the ramblings of an old curmudgeon. What I wanted to give you was a recap of what Summers writes in his conclusion to the chapter. Why? Not because of Hiss, Nixon or any Cold War story, but because I think you will recognize the local relevance. Read on…

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Power, naked ambition, and corruption

Collingwood sinking...No matter how many times you watch the film, Titanic, the ending is always the same: the ship hits the iceberg. Sort of like watching Collingwood Council these days. They just keep hitting the iceberg. And hitting it and hitting it and hitting it.

But unlike the Titanic’s crew, our feckless crew is doing it deliberately. Their goal is to sink the ship. And they’re doing a bang-up job. Literally. Of course, they don’t plan to go down with the ship themselves: that’s the fate left to our town institutions and facilities. They’re just doing the steering. Into the iceberg.

Although the epithet says power corrupts, I think the corruption had set in among them long before the Block came to power. But their naked ambition, their arrogant disregard for the greater good, have never been so blatant as found in the agenda for next Monday.

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The 50% Solution

Wings'n beerImagine you want to go out for dinner with a friend. Get some wings and beer. You like mild dry rub wings, and a nice, crisp lager. Your friend likes sticky and spicy, with a dark stout. The restaurant will bring out the food and drinks split according to your wishes. And your bill.

That means whoever pays for the meal gets to decide what you both get on the table.

You can’t afford to pay for the whole meal yourself, and you don’t want your friend to pay for it because you don’t want to share a basket of hot and sticky wings and a jug of Guinness. You want your own meal: you want half the food and half the beer, the kind you like. So you know you can’t pay less than 50%, otherwise you’ll give up control of the meal.

And if you pay more, you’ll end up with more than you need and your friend will feel unsatisfied. So you ask your friend what percentage of the bill they want pay before you order.

Your friend feels the same way. Your friend wants a fair share, a full meal, and doesn’t want anything less, and certainly doesn’t want to pay for your food, either. So your friend offers to pay half the costs. Fifty percent. Split right down the middle. That way you both get the wings and beer you want, no fighting. Both walk away from the table happy.

That’s the logic Collingwood used when it decided to sell half of its power utility, Collus, to Powerstream. Sure, the process was a little more complicated than that, but it still boils down to the same thing.

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The Leadership Crisis

The Leadership CrisisIn his latest book, The Leadership Crisis, Gord Hume defines seven characteristics – the Seven Cs – of great political leadership*. See how many you can recognize as attributes within our own council:

  1. Competencies, including people, organizational, business and strategic.
  2. Character, and its traits, values and virtues; integrity.
  3. Commitment, including aspiration, engagement, perseverance and sacrifice.
  4. Charisma, that unquantifiable attribute that political leaders either have or don’t.
  5. Communication, through effective messaging that inspires, informs and influences.
  6. Context, an understanding of what’s going on around them.
  7. Culture, and how to develop, create, change and advance that culture

I think you can see for yourself that these traits are notable by their absence in most of our council. Just take any one of the seven – say, communications. How can a council that conducts so much of its business behind closed doors communicate well, if at all? And how does it communicate? Only through poorly-designed, improperly formatted ads in a newspaper no one reads and via a dull “newsletter” riddled with mistakes but no news.

Culture? There’s more culture in a cup of yogurt than in all of council. Competencies? How can a group that refuses to learn from its peers and hand over control of policy making to staff be competent?

One can, of course, learn and grow on the job, assuming one breaks out of the ideological shell that cocoons them. Which, in 18 months in office, still hasn’t happened. But, like winning the lottery or being struck by a meteorite, there’s still a chance for it to happen. A very slim chance, but we must be optimistic, despite the odds.

There are many books on leadership on the shelves these days. What makes Hume’s book different is the context of leadership within Canadian municipal politics.** You can read an excerpt of the book here. As Hume writes on his website:

Ego, ambition, fear, doubt, passion. Politicians may have a fervent belief in the rightness of their position or a visceral dislike for another person, party or platform, but these should always be tempered by the need to inspire collective action to move any agenda forward.

Hume’s books are among the most thought-provoking, engaging books I’ve ever read on municipal/local politics. It’s sad to note that perhaps only one or two (at most) on our own council will read this book. It is another important publication on municipal governance they will actively ignore. This council already stopped subscribing to the Municipal World magazine because they already know everything – despite most of them being new to the position – and doesn’t want their preconceived views polluted by advice from peers or experts. So exhorting them to read it will fall on mostly deaf ears (I have hope for two of the nine…).

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The CAO’s expenses

Expense accountsEarlier this year, I filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request to see the expense records of Collingwood’s Interim CAO for 2015 and 2016 to the end of March. You can read these records by clicking on the links above.

Let me start by saying a few things: first, the interim CAO is paid $225,000 a year – roughly $50,000-$75,000 more than his peers in similar and local municipalities – PLUS, as I understand it, he gets a car allowance paid by taxpayers. This council has twice extended his contract, after secretive backroom discussion among themselves.

Second, the town pays mileage of $0.55/km based on the cost of operating a vehicle: its wear and tear, not simply fuel costs. So when someone claims the full $0.55/km for travel using a vehicle already paid for by the taxpayers through a car allowance, is that double-dipping?

I question both the reason for some of these claims, and the ethics of others. I also question why our council refuses to assume its legislated responsibility to act in an oversight role.*

Unfortunately, most of the entries in these documents are only dry monetary facts, no explanations as to why the interim CAO – who rarely leaves his corner office when in town – has to drive to Hamilton, Toronto, Waterloo or Burlington for something that might have been more efficiently and economically handled by a phone call or email. They were not trips for conferences or workshops. So what were they for?

Who or what is in Burlington that needs the top town official to visit personally and spend a day away from the office? In Hamilton? Toronto? Waterloo? Did any of our councillors go with him (It has been suggested that at least on one occasion, one did… but if so, why? And why was it not made public?)

Effective delegation is a skill top leaders have and must have to be effective in their role. Top leaders don’t spend days driving themselves to meetings a long way out of town instead of dealing with the day-to-day activities they were hired to manage. Is this the best use of time for the top executive? What happens to the rest of staff or to town business on days when he is driving to Burlington or Waterloo?

Why are these meetings more important than attending to   the business of the municipality in. town hall?  Why can’t he delegate these tasks? What issue could not have been equally handled by a subordinate? Or is there no trust in the staff’s abilities or professional ethics?

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The stench of entitlement

EntitlementYou’d think politicians would learn from the recent investigations into Senate spending and the Mike Duffy trial, that Canadians have no tolerance for the gimme, gimme, gimme of politicians. Canadians don’t like the smell of a sense of entitlement.

A lesson lost, it seems, on our own Collingwood Council. The stench of entitlement is strong at the table these days. And much it emanates from Councillor “Senator” Jeffrey.

Last year, Jeffrey cut the cheese when she decided to pursue personal political ambitions by getting onto the board of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Since the FCM board meets all over Canada – except, of course, in Collingwood – she needed more money in her expense account  – limited to $4,500 tax dollars annually for councillors – to attend.

Plus, campaigning for the board – printing those flyers and schmoozing – was too expensive for a mere $4,500 if you still wanted to get in a few bottles of bubbly and some canapes. Better to have taxpayers pay for it.

So she got the Politburo – aka the Ideological Block – at the council table to back her request to add another $10,000 from taxpayers’ pockets every year onto her expense account. That’s $14,500 a year of your money!

Now she would be able to fly, wine, dine and party around the country in style, at your expense, without shelling out of her own pocket. No cold Camembert and stale crackers for our councillor!

And during the discussions about council giving her more money, she stayed at the table, spoke in public in favour of her own entitlement and, yes, voted to give herself more money.

You’d think it couldn’t get much stinkier than that – entitlement dripping with unethical juices and topped with a heaping of conflict – but it can. And it did.

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