When is a tax increase not a tax increase?

Shell gameWhen blockheads don’t get what a levy is. This month, Collingwood Council voted for a tax increase that, through the admin’s sleight of hand, the bobbleheads believed wasn’t a tax increase. It was just the old shell game.

According to a story in the Connection (which also didn’t get it), headlined “No tax hike, but assessment increase will add to Collingwood residents’ tax bills”:

(Council) have also agreed to add a 0.75-per-cent capital levy, which will generate about $210,000 for the capital asset management plan.

A levy IS a tax increase. That’s why it’s called a TAX LEVY. Trying to call it by another name doesn’t hide the fact that it all comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket. It IS a tax hike because that’s where it appears: on your TAX bill. We don’t have a separate “levy” bill. We don’t send levy collectors house to house. It’s all dumped on our municipal property taxes. A levy IS a tax!

And Collingwood was reported to be one of the most-overtaxed municipalities in the province according to two of the CAO’s many consultants’ reports in the past 18 months. Wasn’t council paying attention when they were presented?

But hey, money grows on trees, right? Taxes, schmaxes. It’s only money. Your money. But now it’s their money. And they gave themselves a raise out of it, too.

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Time for Closure

OPPThirty-six months ago a small group of disgruntled, angry residents, some with burning ambition to take a seat on council themselves, allegedly complained to the OPP about decisions made by some members of the previous council. Decisions they didn’t like.

They chose to act in secret, through anonymity and stealth, rather than through open, democratic and public processes.

Using biased media, gossipers with their own agendas, sycophant bloggers, protests, ambitious candidates mouthing righteous platitudes, and virulent social media campaigning, they alleged corruption by local public officials.

The OPP must have been mortified at having to investigate a clearly politically-motivated, baseless complaint.

But the law is the law, and the OPP is required to investigate any complaint. The police talked to people. They examined bank accounts, businesses. They interviewed town staff and collected records. In 36 months, nothing has been uncovered to incriminate anyone. Nothing.

In the last 36 months, the police never once confirmed publicly that corruption was the subject of any investigation here. In fact, the police have never confirmed who or what was under investigation, although they did admit they were investigating something. Any other claims about individuals or items under investigation are simply lies.

That something might have been the complainants themselves: under investigation for malicious intentions to do criminal mischief. For costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars to pursue their personal agendas. Taxpayers paid dearly for their schadenfreude.

By now you, too, understand this was just dirty politics. By now you know there was never anything behind the allegations aside from maliciousness, spite and envy. They tarnished the good reputation of this town without the smallest twinge of guilt.

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The Wolf and the Dogs

Wolf in sheep's clothingOnce upon a time, there was a pack of good-hearted dogs who were known for their good deeds, and indeed their good natures. They travelled around the town unmolested, loved by everyone they met, helping with the chores, keeping the town safe from wild animals and intruders.

The humans fed and pampered them, the other animals in the town bowed to them. Their leader, a kindly, gentle dog, was loved by all.

But there were animals in the forest who grew envious of the dogs. They hated their popularity, their good deeds, their companionship with people. They wanted what the dogs had. Most of all they wanted the chickens the humans kept, the tasty chickens the animals could not get to because they were guarded by the dogs.

The wolf gathered his companions around him. The fox came, so did the rat, the snake and the weasel.

“These dogs are not acting like animals are supposed to act,” the wolf told his followers. “They are keeping us from the chickens that are rightfully ours because we are the superior animals. We must make the humans hate these dogs. We must take from them the love and respect they receive and have them banished, if we ever want to get those chickens. I have a plan. You, fox, will be the first to lead us.”

And the fox nodded eagerly and listened to the wolf’s plan.

A few days later, when they were walking around the town, a group of dogs came across the fox whose foot appeared to be in a trap. The fox was thrashing about.

“Oh help me please,” cried the fox. “I have been caught in this terrible trap. If you don’t free me, the humans will catch and kill me because I stole one of their chickens. Please help me. I don’t want to die. I am not so different from you. I will be eternally grateful and stop stealing chickens from now on if you just get me out of this trap.”

So the dogs worked hard to free the fox from the trap. After much effort, they made it open and release the fox, who ran away without a word of thanks. But the dogs didn’t mind. They were happy just to do a good deed, and they continued on.

They never realized the fox had put its own foot in the trap to fool them. They never realized that, as soon as it was freed, the fox ran immediately to a hen house where it stole some chickens.

The wolf, meanwhile, dressed up as a dog ran to the humans and accused the dog pack of releasing the fox. It said the fox had been trapped by humans because it was stealing chickens. But, the wolf said, the dogs had let it go because the fox promised to give them free chickens from its catches, if they would free it.

“I have witnesses,” said the wolf, producing the snake and the rat, both dressed as dogs, who both said what the wolf said was true. They swore the dogs had released the fox and taken chickens from it in payment.

The humans, not suspecting any treachery from those they thought were dogs, believed the wolf and the others. Dogs, they believed, who were protecting them from the renegades in the pack. They didn’t see the disguises. And because there were chickens missing, they took the word of the wolf, the snake and the rat.

They accused the real dogs of releasing the fox to harm their chickens, and also of taking their chickens as payment. You took bribes, they said to the dogs.

“But we were trying to help it,” cried the dogs. “We did no wrong. We never touched the chickens!”

The humans didn’t care, nor believe their innocence. They turned against the dogs and stopped patting them. Stopped giving them extra food. They stopped letting them wander the town as before. They kept them away from their henhouses.

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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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