Amateur layout and bad ads. Again.

Stinky!I see the Town of Collingwood is still letting the EB layout its full page of ads in the paper.  Tragic. Embarrassing. Cringe-worthy.

The latest back page mashup has as its first ad the worst of the worst sort of ad layout, the sort only amateurs would create. It’s too wide for any human being to comfortably and efficiently read. Then there’s the second page with its fat partner in layout crime.

It’s embarrassing for a municipality to be thus represented. The only saving grace is that no one reads the EB any more, so not very many people see how bad it is. But those who do see it, wince.

Why, oh why, does the town continue to permit amateurs to design its advertising? Doesn’t anyone realize these represent the town? They affect our reputation?

These wide ads – and several of the smaller ads – break pretty much every rule in every design and typographic book. High school students could craft more elegant, readable, exciting ads. Maybe elementary school kids could, too.

I’ve written about these embarrassing, amateur efforts in the past and how they hurt the town’s image. Even a bungling non-designer like me can see they are ill-suited for presenting a professional, polished image. I suspect these are designed by the janitor, or maybe someone who delivers the paper. Certainly not by a graphic designer.

Anyone can read the basic books on layout and design to learn enough to see these are awful. Truly awful. Why can’t anyone in town hall see it?

But, you ask, why would the town give the job to someone trained and experienced in that art? That would break this term’s trend.

Council took the management of the water utility from experienced professionals on the board and gave it to inept councillors. Council kicked the experienced, professional, provincially-recognized winner of several awards and honours, the CEO of Collus, off the board and put the interim CAO in his place. The precedent for replacing people who know what they’re doing with those who don’t was set early in this term.

Council cancelled its individual subscriptions to the monthly Municipal World magazine, the best Canadian journal for municipal governance and politics, read by dedicated municipal politicians across the country. Why? Because council felt it knows everything already and doesn’t need peer advice. Besides, reading is hard work.

Council has turned to obscure one-and-two-person consulting firms few if any of us have ever heard of for recommendations on big, important, strategic issues that affect the town’s well-being, rather than listen to respected, worldwide firms like KPMG.

The arrogance of amateurism is this council’s legacy. The inmates are running the asylum. These ads are regular, graphic reminders of that.

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Muddle-headed editorial palaver

There’s a muddle-headed editorial in this weekend’s Collingwood Connection titled “Citizens, not rich developers should drive political ship” (sic*) that shows (again) how little the chain’s editorial writers understand municipal politics and the laws that govern it. It opens:

Money talks and, in the case of municipal elections, one could argue that all of those cheques, banknotes and e-transfers going toward funding the war chests of various candidates have the potential to speak very loudly.

The writer clearly has never read the Ontario Municipal Elections Act which says in Section 71:

A contributor shall not make contributions exceeding a total of $750 to any one candidate in an election.

No one, whether they are the oh-so-scary “rich developer,” corporation, union or simply your retired neighbour, can contribute more than $750. That’s LESS than the cost of an iPhone. It’s less than the cost of winter tires. It’s much less than the cost of a good ukulele. And it’s a lot less than even the slimiest candidate would sell his or her soul for.

And in my experience through five campaigns, most of the donations are under that limit, be they from private citizens or developers.

Put it another way: to send a campaign flyer through unaddressed ad mail to every household in Collingwood costs about $3,500. Add in the cost to print 10,000+ colour flyers and you easily double that. Then add in taxes. A single $750 contribution covers about one tenth the cost of that single effort.

Sure money talks, but $750 just mumbles a bit under its breath.

Not that candidates don’t appreciate the support, but the law already doesn’t allow anyone to contribute a significant amount to a municipal campaign. Developers have no advantage over anyone else.

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Demagogues and democracy

“I just wish, at some point in time, councillors would show a little more integrity or credibility on the floor of council… It’s like every time we try to do something, there’s criticism, no matter what we do. I’d like to see councillors do the right thing. And in my opinion, these people are not doing the right thing. They’re hypocrites. They’re not telling the truth.”

Mayors Gone BadNo, that’s not Mayor Cooper speaking about our current council that continues to blindly clear cut its way through the town’s institutions and services, masticate our already battered reputation into spittle-and-chips, and bludgeon staff morale into pulpy submission.

It’s from Mayor Sam Katz of Winnipeg. He is quoted on page 125 in Mayors Gone Bad, a new book by Philip Slayton.

Mayors Gone Bad is an entertaining, provocative look at a handful of mayors across Canada who have ridden into office on a wave of populism and charisma, but who have generally failed miserably to live up to their promise. Some have fallen prey to the temptations that make headlines. Thus their terms in office have often created more of a mess than ever before.

Collingwood might have a future contribution if Slayton ever writes a sequel titled, “Deputy Mayors Gone Bad.”

Katz shares the spotlight with Rob Ford of Toronto, Peter Kelly of Halifax, Larry O’Brien of Ottawa, Gerald Tremblay of Montreal, Susan Fennell of Brampton, Gilles Vaillancourt of Laval, Joe Fontana of London and a few others. All of whom have been star performers in the media circus, and many of whose tales are seriously cringeworthy.

Some are bad in the sense of corruption, bribery, conflict, scandal and criminal charges, or too-cozy relations with developers, but most are bad through ineptness, ignorance, arrogance, entitlement and inexperience. Banal rather than venal. Demagogues whose weaknesses became all too evident when they tried to control the machinery of government.

Some, like Katz, were well-meaning, idealistic and optimistic when they got elected, only to discover the ugly truth of Canadian municipal politics: mayors are not the power, not the movers and shakers, not the sole source of authority they imagined. They can lead, but not rule, as Slayton writes.

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The latest FOI emails examined

paper stackOne hundred and seventy pages of email correspondence between the town’s interim CAO, John Brown, and the Collus/Powerstream CEO, Ed Houghton, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, , 2015, were recently released to the public as the result of a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request filed locally.

I have printed and read through all 170 pages, and marked up many of them. It’s dull reading, aside, that is, from the included “Third Party Review of the Collus PowerStream Strategic Partnership,” which should be required reading for all members of council.

Let’s get something straight: No one at Collus works for the town, no one at Collus is answerable to the town’s CAO or any other town employee. It’s a separate, partner corporation and as such its employees deserve respect and dignity. Collus executives answer to their board of directors, not to town staff.*

I’m surprised, even astounded that these were released by the recipient because, as I read them, they are not complimentary to the town’s interim CAO. In fact, they paint a rather unflattering picture of the administrator’s communication skills. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I expect the top staff people in any organization, CAO, CEO, CFO, CIO or whatever the initialism, to be a good, professional and civil communicator. It should come with the job.

The records show someone who admits he is not a good “typist” in the medium of emails and modern technology (record 8). But also – perhaps there’s still too much of the editor in me – seemingly unconcerned about stylistic conventions of the language – such as capitalization, punctuation or spelling.

Mr. Houghton’s responses show civility, patience, some evident exasperation, but compliance and professionalism.

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Collingwood’s broken committee system, part 2

Coup d'etat
Coup d’etat!

Back in early 2015, I wrote that the experimental standing committee structure adopted by council was broken. Well, wouldn’t you know it, a year later, council finally agreed. And they replaced it with… you guessed it: another standing committee system. But it’s potentially a much more dangerous threat to our community.

The former system had committees of three council members, which met away from the prying cameras that broadcast full council meetings, some of the committees skulking on the top floor of the library to further avoid public scrutiny.

Because a group of three councillors was not a quorum, committees could only recommend a course of action to council. Delegations and presentations had to be repeated in front of the whole council: a pointless redundancy for staff and the public.

In early 2016, old committees were replaced with two, new five-person committees which meet away from the prying TV cameras, in the top floor of the library where few of the pesky public ever go.

Here’s where the danger to democracy gets exposed. Aside from the continued reluctance of council to do public business in the open, that is.

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Undermining the Mayor, and Theft

There are several changes to Collingwood’s procedural bylaw proposed. They will come up for voting on Monday night. Most are dry procedural stuff that will likely improve or smooth the normally byzantine process.

But one section in particular troubles me: 4.3: allowing the CAO to call special meetings of council by himself:

Special Meetings of Council
The Mayor and/or CAO may, at any time, summon a Special Meeting of Council on twenty-four (24) hours written notice to the Members. Upon receipt of a written petition, hard copy or digitally, from a majority of the Members, the Clerk shall summon a Special Meeting on twenty-four (24) hours written notice to all Members and the media for the purpose and at the time mentioned in the petition. The only business to be dealt with at a Special Meeting is that which is listed in the notice of the Meeting. Special Meetings may be open or closed as provided in the Municipal Act, 2001.

This strikes me as just a cheap way to undermine the mayor’s authority. As I’ve been told, the mayor has already vetoed staff attempts to call special meetings this term. Now council is being asked to give the CAO permission to do it on his own without the mayor’s approval.

If approved, it just shows how the cabal is working against the interests of the community and our democracy. It opens the door to all sorts of future abuses of power.

WHY should any bureaucrat have that authority over elected officials? No restrictions, no explanations are provided, it’s just giving the CAO more, unbridled power. This is a violation of the whole democratic ideal.

Since when do staff get to tell democratically elected representatives what to do? When Collingwood Council gives them that power.

Its a travesty and an abuse of power to allow this to happen. It is the opposite of every notion of accountability. No one who cares about openness and transparency could possibly vote for this change.

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Debunking the Collus Myths

Debunked!I was recently told a member of town council is publicly making two incorrect statements that seriously need to be debunked:

  1. Collus is 100% owned by the town (not 50%), and
  2. Collingwood only received $8 million for the sale of its share.

Yes, I realize that these are contradictory statements (why would someone pay you for something they never bought?), but a member of the public alleges they were told to him by a council member this week. That sort of foolishness cannot go unchallenged. So let’s correct those mistakes, shall we?

Let’s get into the wayback machine to go back to 2011; the year of a provincial election when all three parties were making promises to reduce the number of electrical distribution agencies (LDCs) in the province. As noted in the EB in January, 2012,

About 15 years ago, there were 320 local electrical distribution companies; today, there are about 80, and the town’s consultant on the process, John Rockx of KPMG, has said on several occasions, the province has concerns about the continued success of many of those operations.

(First, take a moment to read an article in the Canadian Business Journal about Collus, which tells you how well respected in the province our utility was in 2011, and what its stated goals were.)

Start with number one. You can read the application to the OEB for the sale here: written in March 2012 by Scott Stoll of the town’s then legal firm, Aird & Berlis, which oversaw the whole process. Now some history…

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Why We Deserve a Permanent CAO

interim CAO
Collingwood’s interim CAO

First, a little history. Back in the spring of 2012, Collingwood Council terminated the contract with Kim Wingrove, the CAO, according to the terms in the agreement. In her place, council appointed the CEO of Collus, Ed Houghton, as interim CAO. In addition to his other duties, Houghton took the job without any compensation.

In January, 2013, council began the process of recruiting a new, permanent CAO. Houghton, an effective leader who was widely respected by staff and council, stepped down shortly afterwards. A consultant was found to begin the recruitment process.

In July, 2013, on a recommendation from the town’s then legal firm, council approved hiring John Brown, a retired former CAO, for a limited period of two months. As the media of the day reported,

Brown will only be CAO while the town searches for someone to take over the position permanently, but Mayor Sandra Cooper said it was pertinent the town have someone in the job.

In subsequent discussions, council agreed that it would be unfair to any incoming council, regardless of who was elected, to hire a permanent, full-time CAO so close to the next election. A new council, it was argued, should have the opportunity to choose its own CAO. Out of respect for a future council, the former council decided to keep the interim CAO in place so the new council could choose its own, new, permanent CAO.

But that, it seems, was a foolish gesture, soon hijacked by the new council.

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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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