Why are they called The Block?

BlockheadsSeven members of our council are collectively referred to as “The Block” in common parlance. A fitting nickname for a group that includes its leader, the deputy mayor, Brian Saunderson, his five core minions (all newly elected to council this term), and one veteran wannabe (nicknamed the “pledge” in frat house terms).

Most folks assume they are called The Block because they vote as a block. Once Brian raises his hand, the rest raise theirs like obedient little puppets. No need to think, no need to question, analyze or debate: they do what they’ve been told. For which they are also referred to as The Blockheads (not to be confused with the Minecraft-like game of the same name, although a review of the game noted, “A total lack of community renders the game relatively hollow…” which could equally refer to The Block’s behaviour on council).

No, the nickname doesn’t mean they are a crazy, harmless sitcom family acting their antics for the delight of the audience or clunky game ‘toons whose antics you control. Those this term antics have been destructive, self-serving, unethical and often illegal. The harm they have done to this community is more than all other councils in the past 30 years combined. Sadly, we have to put up with more of this for another year, when we can toss the whole lot out on their corrupt ears in the next municipal election. But I digress…

True, sometimes a few of them do seem to act independently at the table now and then, but it’s an illusion, like a ventriloquist’s dummy seeming to speak by itself or a marionette appearing to dance independently. These sycophants use their speaking time to express their oleaginous adulation of The Leader with an ingratiatingly smarmy statement of support. Councillor “Fluffydog” Madigan comes to mind as very well experienced in this practice.

However loudly The Block proclaim their everlasting love of The Leader, however long they bloviate in his honour – eerily similar to speeches made of Stalin by his pet Politburo in the 1930s – these are just verbal piffle. They have no real content or depth, just use up precious oxygen in the council chamber. They are to real democratic debate what farts are in a crowded elevator.

Nor do these comments ever suggest any of The Block might rebel and vote against The Leader. They won’t and express their own opinion, because they have none, aside from what they have been told. These statements are meant to show how firmly cemented to his backside they are. The solidarity of Blockdom.
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The work of politics

Alvin TofflerPolitics is like many other skills, jobs and pastimes in that it requires work to succeed. Hard work, sometimes, for some folk, and easy for others, but always it requires attention, study, and focus. It isn’t something you can do when you’re not paying attention or even when you’re napping at the table (no matter what our own somnambulant councillor thinks… or more likely, doesn’t think at all).

It isn’t something you can do effectively if, like our Block, you try to do it casually, or part-time, or whenever you feel like doing it, without paying attention or without effort.

To become good at it requires consistent, deliberate effort. if, that is, you actually give a damn about your role. Yes, I know: there are those who don’t believe the essence of being a politician is to care for the people who elected you. They think it’s to care for yourself, to feather your own nest, to find funds and appointments for your buddies. But enough talk of The Block for a bit. (Don’t worry: I’ll return to them soon.)

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell postulated that it takes 10,000 hours of effort to excel at anything – music, business, software coding, sports, writing. That has been since debated and, by some, debunked. Some have even expanded his idea to 20,000 hours. But regardless of the numbers, everyone agrees that while some people have innate advantages and skills they aren’t enough: to master a profession they still need to work at it.

And the reverse is true: some people have no recognizable skills whatsoever (see, I told you I’d return to them). So no matter how many hours they put in, they never advance their skill set. Nor, it seems, do they care to. The Block epitomizes the rise of the anti-intellectual in local politics.
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The symphony of government

A good government in operation is like a symphony: disparate parts, dozens of different instruments and performers, each in their own space and place, all working together under the benign management of a conductor. When working in harmony, they are a delight to hear and see. There’s no “me” in a symphony: it’s the result of a remarkably efficient collaboration and trust of everyone involved.

To be good, to sound good, they all have to watch the baton, to play and move in syncopation and in harmony. They all need to be tuned to the same pitch (A440). Singers need to listen to the cadence, the pitch, and sing in tune and on time. There’s a lot going on in every bar, so they all pay attention. They all need an implicit trust in one another that – without each one having to oversee his or her neighbour – they all work together to achieve a common goal. It is a remarkable experience.

But a symphony is not simply an auditory experience: it’s something to be seen, to be felt, to be experienced. That is quadrupled if it is an opera, or choral piece. In the video above, the metaphor shines: here is Verdi’s familiar Anvil Chorus from his opera, Il trovatore, performed by the The Royal Opera Company. It’s a stunning production that looks as lovely as it sounds. Who can help but be moved by it?

That’s what good, effective and efficient government should be like: hundreds of pieces moving together towards a common goal under a single conductor. A symphony, metaphorically speaking.

Life coach Michael Hyatt has a blog post on why life is like an orchestra, but it applies to government as well. He says there are five components to an orchestra:

  1. Diversity;
  2. Space;
  3. Pace;
  4. Common purpose;
  5. A plan.

Ultimately an orchestra is judged by its results: the musical performance, and for that performance to achieve its goal (that is: audience appreciation), all those parts have to be in synch. Most of the audience pay little attention to the individual performers, to the space or diversity or the parts listed above: it’s the music that they attend to. It’s the final result that matters.

This is equally true of government: most people pay little attention to the processes, the procedures, the codes of conduct, the staff reports, the flatulent ruminations of sole-sourced lawyers or the dreary pontifications of CAOs. They see only the result: whether the community is working well. Is it safe? Clean? Are there places to work and play? Schools? Are taxes affordable? Are sidewalks and roads in good condition? Can I drink the water from my tap? Is there housing? Are there jobs?

Imagine for a moment the conductor in the performance above waving his or her hands randomly. Imagine different parts of the orchestra trying to play different songs. Imagine the performers striking the anvils at will, each on his or her own time. Imagine the instruments playing at different time signatures. Or different sheet music entirely. It wouldn’t be a symphony: it would be a cacophony.

Such is the state of Collingwood’s municipal politics today. While council should be the collective conductor acting through the mayor, we instead have multiple conductors, each trying to force the orchestra (staff) to play their own tune. While Mayor Cooper tries to wave the town baton in time with the municipal music, the deputy mayor has gone rogue, madly waving his own baton to a tune only he can hear, while behind him the interim CAO props up Brian’s arms to control the motions according to his own corner-office theme song. And there are sole-sourced lawyers and consultants brought in to wave their batons at the same time. It’s chaos.

Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 60.

This is also translated as an imperative: “Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish.” (Lin Yutang translation). In other words: delicately. With subtlety and attention. Carefully. Not the hamfisted stumbling and fumbling of The Block. Not with the flailing clumsiness of the deputy mayor and interim CAO duo.
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Betrayal by the Block, again

Betrayal of the public trustMonday night, The Block will engage in their favourite political activity: betraying the public trust. In fact, it’s the only political activity they’ve engaged in this term, in which the public has been concerned. Everything else they’ve done has been to further their own personal agendas or entitlement. But Monday, they’re doing it up in style. And, of course, in secret.

At the council meeting, Monday, there is what promises to be a lengthy in-camera session:

Items for Discussion: a) Hydro Share Sale; b) Committee/Board Applications; c) Sale of 70 Huron Street property; d) Proposed Land Acquisition; e) Airport Lands f) BMA Report

During this closed-door session, council will get a presentation from its sole-sourced, $700-an-hour lawyer, and from the for-profit, out-of-province corporation EPCOR, with which the town is negotiating to buy the public’s share of our electrical utility. And I expect The Block will vote to sell the utility to EPCOR, knowing full well it will end any pretense of accountability with the utility and will result in skyrocketing electrical bills in the very near future. EPCOR will have a clause in its contract GUARANTEEING them a profit. And if you conserve electricity as you should, and the usage goes down, they will be able to raise rates to get their money and the town will be forced to pay the difference (via your tax dollars). All done behind closed doors.

The Block have never discussed in public why they want to sell the utility, what the town will get for it, what the benefits are to the residents, why they chose EPCOR instead of our partner PowerStream, or whether local people will still continue to have jobs after the sale. Nor do we know whether any of them, any staff members, or any of the sole-sourced lawyers and consultants involved will get a commission or any other kickback from the sale. The Block have never once reached out to the council of the 4,000-plus Collus-PowerStream customers outside Collingwood, to even inform them of the sale.

We, the public, deserve to know. It’s OUR utility. But The Block don’t give a damn about what we think. They’ve proven that over and over and over.

Compare Collingwood’s secretive, highly deceptive and unethical process with that of Wasaga Beach. The Beach council recently decided to investigate selling its electrical utility and went through a lengthy process of open public meetings, online surveys, public engagement and presentations. But then, Wasaga Beach has an ethical council – that’s the difference. Not once in the past two-and-a-half years has this council done any of that. And the local media, in collusion with The Block, have remained silent on this abuse of power.
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Taking credit for the work of others

PlanningA short while ago, I received an unsolicited email from the interim (and soon to be departing) CAO, John Brown, with the subject, “Ideas. Observations. Musings  . Opinions  . Facts ?” (yes, written just like that…). Although he says he never reads my blog, it inspired me to write this post.

He wrote (copied in its original form and punctuation):

I  was wondering if you might  be interested in the towns (sic) recent building permits statistics  reflective of  highly positive growth  in the tax base during the recent past ?  As you are aware from your time on council our financial position has not been  robust in the past  however you will be glad to hear that  it is now showing clear signs of significant  improvement  .

Last  year the total construction value was   115,560 999 dollars – the highest ever I believe  .  I am advised that this year is tracking  , potentially  , higher  . A good  news ‘ economic development ‘  story about the high level of investment in the town based on confidence in the local economy  , based on facts  ,  might be of interest  ?  You can let me know  and I will have them forwarded to you.

(Yes, I too wince at his inability to communicate effectively in writing, but at least he seems to have learned how to use the shift key since his last emails to me, even if the apostrophe still eludes him. But proofreading and clarity are likely overrated… just assume it’s all labelled ‘sic’…)

Now, anyone who follows municipal politics at all knows that council has little if anything to do with private building or construction (unless you’re voting for your brother-in-law’s projects). It is the work of developers, it is not done overnight, but generally part of long-term planning and investment over several years, especially where subdivisions and large scale projects are concerned. So this council cannot take any credit for recent construction. Balmoral Village, just as a single example, was approved last term, although the fees are collected this term.

Plus the fact that none of The Block have ever advocated, championed or even suggested anything resembling the whisper of a ghost of a hint of an economic policy should be considered at any time this term. Not just growth-related: crafting ANY economic policy has so far escaped their attention and grasp. Not surprising, since the collective business and economic acumen of The Block is somewhat less than that of the average anteater.

So why try to pretend this growth is the result of anything The Block has accomplished? To date their greatest intellectual achievement is a bylaw that prohibits throwing birdseed on your driveway. Everything else they have done has been utterly negative, selfish and destructive.

What, then, was the interim CAO’s motive to inspire me to write about this? Surely he knew I’d present a factual counterpoint to his spin.

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