Tag Archives: municipal politics

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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Why Elvis Matters to Collingwood

Elvis festival

There are some things that are pointless to argue, it seems. Creationism with a fundamentalist. Anti-vaccination with a New Age wingnut. Reason and logic with local  bloggers. The value of the Elvis Festival to Collingwood with a closed-minded resident.

I recently heard complaints about the cost of the 2014 festival: $74,000. More than double what the Integrity Commissioner cost taxpayers to investigate bogus, politically-motivated claims last year.

And what did we get for that $74,000? International recognition and widespread media coverage, more than 30,000 visitors, increased revenue for our hospitality sector, a full downtown, busy restaurants and hotels, people shopping in the stores…

One cannot help but be reminded of the Monty Python skit in Life of Brian on “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

And what did we get for the almost $33,000 we spent on the Integrity Commissioner last year? Aside from humiliation, puerile finger pointing, adding another smear on our reputation and titillating the sycophant bloggers? Nada.

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Councils and Their CAO

A good relationship between a municipal council and their town’s CAO is crucial to smooth, effective and efficient governance. The CAO is the liaison between council and staff, responsible for directing staff to implement council’s direction and overseeing internal personnel issues. If the relationship is rocky, then governance and Council’s interactions with staff – and therefore the entire public’s interests – all suffer.

To fill this role well, a CAO has to be scrupulously objective and neutral, calm and wise – not push any one person’s or side’s agenda, and certainly not promote his or her own, act Solomon-like with both council and staff, and never be a bully.

The CAO has to balance staff needs and goals with council’s and manage competing demands equitably, all balanced on the teeter-totter of taxation. Councillors, however, not the CAO or other staff, should drive the strategic process, and  the initiatives, but the CAO has to steer this boat through the competing shoals of wants and needs. A good CAO can do all of this and still remain calm.

There’s always a learning curve for any new council members: they have to learn to work with staff, and they depend heavily on the CAO to make it a smooth process. Councils inherit staff and few ever have the opportunity to set up the relationship their way. There’s also a learning curve for staff to get to know what the new council wants and expects. It can often be prickly if a new council is elected with different goals or agendas from a previous one, forcing staff to make changes in direction.

It can be more difficult for everyone if departments heads or administrative staff like the CAO are replaced mid or late term. There is seldom enough time for both sides to gel fully and build constructive relationships.

Last term, Collingwood council made a deeply ethical decision mid-term when the contract with the former CAO ended: not to impose its choice of a permanent CAO on a new council. Regardless of who might be elected, the decision was made to allow the new council to make its own choice.

It would have been easy last term to hire a new CAO and make the new council work with that choice. But that was seen as ethically inappropriate, at least by most of the former council.

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Collingwood council’s committee system is broken

Last term, council approved a recommendation from the CAO to dump its traditional structure of council and public committees, to an internal system of standing committees filled only with politicians. The structure is used in several other – mostly larger – communities. It sounded intriguing, bold and exciting, so council said yes, let’s try it. Let’s be innovative.

But, despite recommendations to the contrary, it wasn’t implemented until this new council took office. And that implementation isn’t working.

In fact, it’s created a worse-than-ever disconnect between politicians the the public.

Instead of engaging the public more, instead of creating more openness and transparency, it is doing the opposite: alienating us. Members of the public who used to contribute to the process through boards and committees are now shut out.

It needs to be fixed or scrapped and a more open system restored.

Three standing committees – Development & Operations, Community Services, and Corporate Services – meet once a month, on different days (Monday, Wednesday and Monday, respectively). Each has only three council members on it.

To their credit, sometimes non-member councillors also attend these meetings in the audience, but not all. Nor do all senior staff attend every committee meeting. But isn’t that redundant?

There is also a Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee, comprised of all of council, which has met only once so far (on a Thursday), to discuss budget matters. Plus there are separate budget meetings.

Council itself – all nine members – only meets twice a month. Recommendations and reports from those standing committees are then brought forward and often re-discussed. This is neither efficient nor good governance.

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The tail wags the dog again

In January, the CAO coupled a ‘sky-is-falling’ presentation about the town’s debt with a proposed 5.11 percent tax increase. *

Councillor Kevin Lloyd made a motion to have staff bring back two options for council to consider: a one and two percent increase to the general tax levy, with comments on how these would affect services.

Council approved the motion and directed staff to prepare them.

Instead, what council got at its Feb. 24 budget meeting was a wish list from staff for additional spending. The direction from council for a report on 1% and 2% increases was totally ignored by placing this material ahead of the report. (This report should have been presented this week so council could assess the wishlist in context, not as an afterthought.)

Council did not even get to see any department’s full, line-by-line, preliminary budget so it could make an informed decision on whether these items should be budgeted.

As a result, council wasted five hours wrangling over items and requests without even the slightest understanding of how these decisions would affect the overall departmental budgets or what their impact on our taxes would be. This is backwards.

Council also received a brief notice that the overall tax increase would start at 2.37 percent, but these additions are on top of that. All the savings made by the last council could be wiped out in a single budget this term.

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What’s Wrong with Municipal Bonusing?

OntarioUntil the early 1970s, municipalities in Ontario were involved in a free-for-all competition to attract business and industry. They offered tax breaks, free land, free infrastructure, utilities or services, housing — whatever it took to get a plant or office to open within their boundaries. A lot of small Ontario communities were able to attract businesses that way, and many got major industries.

Of course, the local taxpayers paid for these benefits, but the towns subscribed to the theory that eventually the extra jobs and tax revenues coming into the municipality would pay for the up-front largesse through increased revenue across the community. The plants would bring jobs, which would translate into new homes and property taxes, and the increased population would create a demand for other businesses such as retail stores, restaurants, and the service industry, themselves creating new jobs.

For a while, that system worked, mostly to the advantage of municipalities which could both afford the largesse, and had the land and services readily available. Not everyone considered such competition the best way to run a province, however, and there were arguments that through bonusing, municipal taxpayers were increasing the profits of private enterprises.

Then, in 1974, the provincial government stepped in and said the practice wasn’t fair. All municipalities, the province decided, should compete on a level playing ground: bonusing of this sort was made illegal in Section 106 of the Municipal Act. The Act even makes loans illegal:*

Assistance prohibited
106. (1) Despite any Act, a municipality shall not assist directly or indirectly any manufacturing business or other industrial or commercial enterprise through the granting of bonuses for that purpose. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (1).
(2) Without limiting subsection (1), the municipality shall not grant assistance by,
(a) giving or lending any property of the municipality, including money;
(b) guaranteeing borrowing;
(c) leasing or selling any property of the municipality at below fair market value; or
(d) giving a total or partial exemption from any levy, charge or fee. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (2).

David Sunday, a lawyer writing on the Sorbara Law website, noted in late 2014:

Section 106 of the Ontario Municipal Act, 2001 is a much worried about “anti-bonusing” provision of broad application. It is worrisome because its limits and applications are far from clear. By its terms, the provision purports to create an unqualified prohibition on municipalities directly or indirectly assisting any manufacturing, industrial, or commercial enterprise through “bonusing”. The scope of prohibited “bonusing” extends to the giving or lending of any municipal property, including money, guaranteeing borrowing, leasing or selling any municipal property, or giving a total or partial exemption from any levy, charge, or fee.

The change was made more than a generation ago. Since then, the Auto Pact has become defunct, the Canadian dollar has risen too high to offer the economic benefit that once attracted U.S. firms and its recent slide came too late to turn things around. Many factories closed in North America and reopened in Asia, creating massive unemployment everywhere. Consumer buying trends have shifted from quality products to the least expensive on the big-box store shelf. Wages, especially in unionized plants, have escalated to uncompetitive levels compared with Asian workers. It’s a different, more challenging world today.

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Whitewash

In early January, Council was presented with a report by outside consultants on the state of the shared service agreement between Collus/Powerstream and the town. The report, however, was rejected by council as flawed – wisely, it turns out – and the following motion was made (emphasis added) that night:

THAT the motion be deferred for one month to allow the president and CEO of Collus/Powerstream to review and comment on the report, and that the report be further circulated to the interview participants and CPUSB to provide any corrections/clarifications that may be reflected in an updated report.

This report, however, was now public and widely seen as negative in the community, although few realized how flawed and inaccurate it was. But council made it clear in the motion that it wanted to see ANY corrections or clarifications and to have them all included in an updated REPORT. It got neither.

As one of those interviewed, I was sent a copy of the report and asked to comment on it according to the motion above. My response, provided to staff on Jan. 26,  was 27 pages long, detailling what I saw as numerous factual and perceptive errors. I’ll get to my concerns, a bit further below. The Collus/Powerstream board also provided a 12-page response highlighting inaccuracies and misconceptions it found in the report, plus there were several other responses.

Council was provided only two of these responses by staff prior to last week. The majority of the responses were not provided to council by staff until late Friday, Feb. 13, and only then a single copy was placed in one binder in the council room, labelled ‘confidential” by the administration, with instructions not to remove the contents from the room. This despite several emails I sent to staff requesting my comments be shared with council.

How many councillors do you think spent several hours in a small, dingy room in town hall on a holiday weekend reading these comments? Consider, too, that they also had 295 pages of agenda to crawl through before Tuesday’s meeting. Looks to me like the administration didn’t want them read. How utterly open and transparent.

Instead, what council got in its agenda – and the only thing to enter the public record – was merely a two-page letter from the consultants – not the updated report council as directed – that said, basically, that the concerns raised by the responses were ignored. A list of minor word changes was included – not the full list of ANY corrections and clarifications as council directed:

Based on the responses received, the recommendations and conclusions in the Report remain the same.

That was followed by 17 pages of self-aggrandizing resumes to let us know how experienced the consultants are at this sort of report. La-dee-dah. None of this was what council directed staff to provide.

In my opinion, the administration whitewashed this one, in part because it looks like the administration made a serious strategic error in releasing the report prematurely and is now trying to cover its collective ass. In part, It’s also my opinion that there is a political agenda at town hall that I see causing a growing rift between admin and Collus staff and the water operations. Morale, I’ve been told, has plummeted.

And the result may end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

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