Another Sad Day for Collingwood

It’s sad to see any council devolve into pettiness and paranoia, but not surprising when this thin-skinned group does.

In a story on CollingwoodToday, council voted 4-3* to censor “fact-check” letters or comments from the public.

It’s so very Stalinist of them that they need staff to ensure the public’s comments march in step with the party line. What next? Purges? Gulags? Show trials? Oh wait, we already had that with the SVJI.

And what qualifications do staff have to read and censor “fact-check” public content? Are they trained for this in any way? Are they educated in journalistic investigative techniques? Are they widely-read polymaths with knowledge of dozens of fields and subjects? Who decrees whether any statement is factual or not?

What if, for example, a creationist comments about the presumed age of the earth? Do staff have to wade into a contentious religious debate and correct them, stating the scientific facts about geology and radioactive isotope dating, crossing out “6,000 years old” and writing in “14.54 billion years old”?

What if, say, a minister writing to ask for support for a food bank, suggests the demand has risen 150 percent. Will staff censor “fact-check” the figures to ensure the council is aware that the demand actually only rose 148 percent? If a resident writes to complain there are hundreds of potholes on their street, will staff race out to count them and censor “fact-check” to note there are actually only 89 potholes? This could easily become the theatre of the absurd (albeit fitting for this council).

Or is this role limited to censoring “fact-checking” only those writers and residents known to be critical of the party line? Perhaps just to those writers who contend that the already-excessive official figure of $8.2 million for the costs of the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) was actually much higher because it didn’t include hidden costs like the payments to sole-sourced consultants and lawyers appointed without proper tendering processes before the SVJI began, or the costs of staff time and expenses to accommodate the SVJI’s needs, or the $700,000 as-important-as-clean-drinking-water-reports-about-the-report that staff will be working on until at least next fall. or even the cost of the OPP investigation (which since 2014 has not found anyone guilty of anything). Why, some might think the cost is much higher, wasting closer to $10 million of taxpayers’ money than the official figure. I’m sure those writers will be sternly censored “fact-checked” for their temerity at challenging the party line.

Will members of the public whose writings have been censored “fact-checked” then be publicly shamed at the council table when the consent agenda is brought up for approval? Will councillors call them out, chastise them, accuse them of mendacity? Did I use the word “Stalinist” yet?

And do staff get to censor “fact-check” members of council as well? If, say, the mayor claims the pool and the new arena only have a ” lifespan of about 15 to 20 years” will staff censor “fact-check” him so the public is aware of the facts: that the outer skin has a guaranteed lifespan of 25 years (the same lifespan as the roof of a standard steel-and-brick building), but the frames have a guarantee not to corrode for 50 years!

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Should Children be Recruited in Party Politics?

I found these lines in Brian Saunderson’s latest job-hunting email somewhat tone deaf:

It is also interesting that a 14-year-old can purchase a membership and vote in the Nomination process. If you have any family members who live in Simcoe Grey Riding who are interested, it is an opportunity for our youth to get involved in the democratic process.

I think it’s a questionable tactic to appeal to underage kids as if politics were a video game with no consequences. It also suggests a certain desperation: perhaps he’s not getting as many adults to back him as he wants, and needs to recruit their teenagers to his cause. I can only hope these kids can’t be dragged away from their smartphones or X-Boxes long enough to vote.

That any party allows children as young as 14 to vote in nominations is gobsmacking. I’m not suggesting teenagers are stupid or oblivious to issues, but at 14 they have had little if any formal education in politics and democracy, let alone the machinations of party politics and nominations. Younger kids will be barely out of puberty, and for the rest, I expect their interests will be more focused on what their hormones direct them towards. I doubt politics is high on that list. I’d be delighted to see more engaged teens like Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunberg in our world, but the sad truth is that they are the exceptions, not the rule.

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The $100 Million Mayor?

Your tax dollars at workIn a story on CollingwoodToday, our mayor, Brian Saunderson, shrugs off the costs of his Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (the SVJI) as being but a drop in the bucket for the town’s annual budget:

He noted the town’s annual budget is nearly $100 million, and the inquiry costs amount to less than ten per cent of the yearly budget.

Perhaps he was flustered by being challenged over the egregious waste of taxpayers’ money on the SVJI and just pulled that budget figure out of his hat. Perhaps he plans to spend a LOT more of your tax dollars on reports-about-the-report-about-the-report so we end up with a $100-million budget. Perhaps he just wanted to inflate his own status so he looks more important as he campaigns to be the next MPP while he stays in office as mayor. But the town’s actual budget, according to Collingwood’s audited financial statement for 2019, shows a revenue of $61.6 million, with expenses of $60.3 million. However, you really need to read an audited report to understand the town’s costs and revenue streams, not simply the projections in a budget.

Yes, I suspect you’re wondering, too, if our mayor is clueless about the town’s finances. After all, $60 million is hardly an unsubstantial amount. In fact, it seems outrageously high for a small town with 24,000 residents. But it’s still a long way from $100 million. And you’re probably wondering why the media didn’t call him out on that, too. So am I.

The town also collects taxes for the school boards and the county: these get passed along to these authorities and are NOT part of the town’s operating budget. In fact, the town’s own operating budget is considerably less than $60 million: page 24 of the audit shows it was $34.1 million in 2019.

You should spend a little time reading the audit, or at least more time than our mayor seems to have spent on it. You might find some interesting data, like how much the town really got from the sale of the airport (page 26): $2,067,531, or about half of what Saunderson and the former council said we’d get (the selling price was $4.1 million). Given that the airport was assessed at around $6 million a few years back, I’d say we lost a LOT of money on that sale. But I digress.

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Saunderson to Flog his SVJI at the County

On the County of Simcoe agenda for Feb. 9 is a motion from our mayor for the rest of the county to support the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) and back his run-on motion:

…Collingwood’s efforts to advocate for the Province of Ontario to make review, and/or commence consultation with the municipalities of Ontario and other stakeholder groups, such as the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, to make changes to the municipal legislative framework including, but not limited to, the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act pursuant to the recommendations of Associate Chief Justice Marrocco in his report, “Transparency and Public Trust: Report of the Collingwood Judicial Inquiry”.

I have a suspicion this will lead to Saunderson later asking the county to help Collingwood pay for this $9-plus-million debacle. After all, if they support it, even in principle, they might be willing to pay for it. 

But for now, I have to wonder: how many of our county councilors will take the time to read the inquiry’s 900-plus-page, legalese-dense report and its 306 recommendations before voting? If they do read it, I expect they will not approve the motion.

A lot of those recommendations, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts and below, are redundant, or even irrelevant. Some are very specific to Collingwood, some are vague, and some are simply inexplicable. A representative from another community should not accept them all in some blanket motion: I expect a thoughtful politician will instead pick out those few that might be relevant to his or her municipality (or the province) and deal with them.

Saunderson, of course, will try to convince the rest of the county councillors this is a grand and glorious thing all about openness, accountability, and best practices. Piffle. For that, I can only warn you: caveat emptor.

As I see it, Saunderson is merely grandstanding: pushing for visibility and media coverage while he campaigns for the nomination as the PC MPP candidate. Not very subtly, either, but he can’t campaign on his record of putting up roadblocks to the hospital’s redevelopment, can he?

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Will Madigan Pay for Inquiry Costs?

lawsuit?In a recent story on CollingwoodToday about the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI), Councillor Bob “Lapdog” Madigan commented that he wanted, “…those who are responsible for this need to be held accountable.”

Since neither the inquiry nor the OPP found anything illegal or criminal in the proceedings (no charges have been laid, although the OPP began its investigation in 2014!), the basis for a lawsuit would be… what? Council’s opinion? Or just Madigan’s umbrage?

We assume from the story’s headline, “Council wants to know litigation options following inquiry,” that he and others at the table want the town to sue people involved in the events because they made decisions the current councillors don’t agree with. Or maybe because those whose decisions displeased their wannabe-autarch-mayor, who launched this inquiry. Or just because a former council wouldn’t cough up the $35 million handout for the YMCA Saunderson and his committee demanded from taxpayers in 2012?

Well, Bob, when we measure accountability for this ongoing debacle, we must include you and your fellow Blockheads who voted for the inquiry, back in 2018. All of you need to be held accountable because you five started this and who ended up wasting $9 million or more of taxpayers’ money on it. If you’re suggesting that those who are responsible for this debacle should be the ones to pay for it, then open your wallet, Bob, because you’re one of the five.

This inquiry was sneakily called for at a council meeting in Feb. 26, 2018, at a time when three of the nine members of council were absent and could not participate in the discussion or vote. It was approved by a razor-thin majority of five: Saunderson, Ecclestone, Jeffrey, Doherty, and you, Bob Madigan. This is who should be held accountable for the costs. You ordered it, you pay for it.

You and the rest of council were warned then that the costs could escalate very quickly.  Chief Justice Heath Smith – who was originally chosen to oversee the inquiry – provided the report on the Mississauga inquiry with a letter about the potential cost escalation to the town (it was shared with staff and all members of council) to “give some idea as to potential costs.” according to the newspaper. Council blithely ignored her warning. And at least one ditzy councillor back then rather dimly didn’t think it would cost anything at all! 

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My Report About the Report About the Report

Dilbert again
As I predicted (correctly) late last year, Collingwood Council was given a dumbed-down, $700,000-as-important-as-clean-drinking-water-report-about-the-judicial-inquiry-report. More than 900 pages of the original report reduced to a mere 15 to report on the report. And as I also predicted, it would include pie charts.  You can read it here: “STAFF REPORT #CAO2021-02 Phase One – Collingwood Judicial Inquiry Next Steps.

You can also look at the PowerPoint presentation made to council — which, as I also correctly predicted, would have the report “reduced to a dozen bullets on PowerPoint slides, written in a large font and read aloud, slowly, at a council meeting.” Plus it had pie charts! Nostradamus couldn’t get much better than this. 

I get it: Saunderson’s 900-page, $9-million report** with more than 300 often irrelevant, redundant, or vague recommendations, laden with legalese and moral bloviating is simply too much for most of those at the table to process. But, I suspect, so is a 15-page summary. After all, it has to be read and as we know from watching their meetings last term, the majority at the table really don’t like to read.*

Of course, we didn’t elect the A-team to council. We didn’t even elect the B-team. It’s more like the C-Minus-Team. Big fonts, small words, and lots of pie charts for this lot. More cowbell, as the meme goes. Until, that is, staff can figure out how to make the agendas into colouring books and hand out crayons in meetings.

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A Municipal Challenge to Democracy?

Freedom of information?
Collingwood has joined other local municipalities asking the province to revamp its Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA; a guide from the Information and Privacy Commissioner to the Act is also available here) to make the process more restrictive and less open. While some of those changes might seem appropriate to outsiders, I see buried in the wording of the request some dark challenges to our democracy.

The story in Collingwood Today is titled, “Freedom of information rules ‘archaic’ and in need of modernization, says Collingwood clerk.” Democracies depend on some core attributes: openness, accountability, transparency, and privacy. The motion suggests neither the bureaucracy nor our elected officials respect those attributes and want to restrict or remove them from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

It’s bad enough that the majority of our council — including our current mayor — were at the table last term and eagerly participated in the most secretive, deceptive municipal government this town has ever seen. They betrayed the public trust by holding many, many closed-door meetings in which they decided without public consultation to sell our publicly-owned electricity utility to an Alberta for-profit corporation*; they decided without public consultation to sell our publicly-owned airport at less than the assessed value to a private individual; they heard a sole-sourced lawyer advise them behind closed doors to hold a judicial inquiry; they decided behind those closed doors to call for an inquiry without public consultation, then they appointed that same same-sourced lawyer to represent the town without due process of the procurement bylaw, and they planned and schemed to erect roadblocks against the hospital’s much-needed redevelopment. All while hiding themselves from public scrutiny.

Most of the same group that betrayed the public trust last term is back at the table this term. Little wonder they don’t want FOI requests to expose them. And at least one of the newcomers wants to implement a form of censorship on public comments. 

Do you notice a trend here? Do you see those campaign-trail promises of openness, accountability, and transparency being broken before your eyes by a group of callous, self-interested politicians? Democracy under siege?

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An Honourable Mayor?

DilbertMayor Brian Saunderson has announced he is running for nomination to the provincial Progressive Conservative party in our riding to be able to stand as the candidate for MPP. According  to a story in Collingwood Today, he is not stepping down from his role as mayor, and will not do so even if he wins the nomination:

Should Saunderson receive the nomination, he said he would not be stepping back from his duties as mayor of Collingwood unless he were to be successful and elected in 2022.

I believe that this poses a threat of both real and perceived conflicts of interest and that an honourable, ethical politician should step down immediately after announcing his or her candidacy to another office. Here’s why:

Being mayor is a full-time role even though it is paid as a part-time job. The mayor cannot decide at any time not to be mayor and act as an individual or claim his acts were personal, not official. The Municipal Act does not allow that. The same holds true as a county council member: he is always a representative of the county, even when away from the county council.

A specific date for the local nomination meeting has not yet been set, however Saunderson said the riding association is planning to have it done by the beginning of April.

Saunderson will be in campaign mode from now until the provincial election in June, 2022. Stepping down as mayor shortly before the next municipal election does not absolve him of public scrutiny over his potential conflicts before then. No one can be effective and diligent serving as mayor, county councillor, and outside political candidate and still fulfill the expectations of all three.

And shouldn’t every member of a municipal council be non-partisan? Municipal mayors and councillors do not run for election on party lines. Declaring openly your allegiance to a party, and then serving (should he win) as the party’s nominee is certainly very partisan and in opposition to what I have always believed is the spirit of fair, non-partisan municipal politics.

Saunderson will be campaigning for support and funding for both his nomination and, if he wins it, for his provincial election campaign. During the next 18 months, he or his team will approach individuals and businesses for donations and support. Some of these will be companies that bid for or provide services for the Town of Collingwood or Simcoe County. These may include local engineering and contracting firms, waste management, construction, automobile vendors, and so on. No one will not see him as aw-shucks-plain-old-Brian-the wannabe-MPP: they will see him as the influential mayor of the municipality who also sits on the county council. 

Saunderson’s team during both his campaigns should also be considered as his business associates when considering conflicts of interest. Politics is not a recreation: a campaign is a business venture with large financial rewards for winners at the upper tiers. And some of those team members will be paid for their participation, not simply be volunteers. This adds yet another layer of potential conflict to his position.

In essence, following his announcement, Saunderson became a lobbyist for himself and his party. One has to wonder if he has listed himself as such on the town’s lobbyist registry. Methinks not. And did Saunderson discuss the potential conflicts with the town’s Integrity Commissioner as would be appropriate according to the judicial inquiry’s recommendations? The reporter does not say (nor is it clear if she even asked him).

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Striving for Mediocrity

DullardsOn a council laden with dunces, deadwood, and dullards, it must be some consolation to our elected representatives, that they can at least claim to be less mediocre than Councillor Steve Berman. We all need someone to measure ourselves against, I suppose, and a low bar is so much easier to rise above.

Berman’s first year in office was spent mostly consuming oxygen at the table and saying nothing of consequence. Of so little consequence were his words that even the normally sycophantic local media hardly ever bothered to reprint them. But when the pandemic struck and council retreated into virtual Zoom meetings, he rose to the occasion by occupying a video rectangle with a look of dazed incomprehension. That is something of an accomplishment for him, I guess.

To be fair, I suspect none of our council was elected for their brains, but rather for their unbending loyalty to our mayor: eight wannabe-Guilianis to their wannabe-mini-Trump. And has been made clear in their past two years in office, they clearly were expected not to show actual initiative or advocate for any projects or goals that might transfer the lustre to them and away from their leader. And in that role, Berman has shone along with the rest.

But Berman broke from the herd this week, going far enough into the fringe that Collingwood Today reported him “pushing for town staff and council to make more of an effort to stop the spread of misinformation in the correspondence section of council and committee agendas” and he “referenced the actions of Twitter to add flags to its users’ tweets when the information in the tweet was disputed.”

By which he is referring to Twitter tagging Donald Trump’s outright lies, but that suggests he must think that local residents are also lying when they write their concerns to council. 

Does that strike you as a call for censorship? Berman took to task two local residents whose mildly critical letters had appeared in the council’s recent  “consent agenda.” (Methinks he must be secretly reading my blog, too. Or maybe having someone summarize it for him because it has a lot of words in every post. Well, I welcome all readers, regardless of their literacy.)

And yet, most curiously, he didn’t include for his “fact-checking” tags the letter from Claire Tucker-Reid, on another consent agenda, which I found rife with the sort of “alternate facts” Berman claims to want to correct. But then, she was on the committee that recommended the $35 million corporate handout. And he was all for council making that donation. Not hypocritical of him at all, right?
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What would $9 Million Buy Our Town?

Back a few years ago, the 2010-14 council led by Mayor Cooper approved building for the community several important structures and buying for public ownership several properties, any of which — indeed, several of which — could have been built for less than the $9 million cost we taxpayers are burdened with paying for the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) this term.

For example, the new firehall we commissioned in 2012 cost $4.75 million. For roughly twice that amount, you know what you got from this council? Right: a report. And not just any report: we got a digital report, that, despite being full of vague, generic, and irrelevant recommendations, we’re told is as important as providing clean drinking water. Excuse me while I do a facepalm over that claim.

When we built the firehall, we also upgraded the OPP station — which the town owns — to meet the province’s operational standards. That cost another $800,000. A new firehall and a renovated police station: $5.55 million. Not even close to $9 million, and they’re still standing, still in use, still publicly owned. This term, you got a digital report.

For $5 million, the 2010-14 council upgraded and covered our swimming pool for year-round use, and added a warm-water therapy pool to it for our seniors, had the change rooms rebuilt, added a viewing area, seating, competition diving boards, upgraded HVAC and water systems, and paved the parking lot. That’s $4 million less than this council’s important-as-clean-drinking-water digital report.

And then for $8.5 million, we commissioned and built a new, publicly-owned hockey and skating arena and rink, with dressing rooms, a canteen, benches for spectators, and meeting rooms, all so local teams and clubs didn’t have to drive out of town to practice, and the community had a year-round space to skate and play.  The builder even threw in $500,000 of extras for free. Still cost us less than the $9 million digital, important-as-clean-drinking-water report and it’s there today for the whole town to use.

And we did both of these publicly-owned recreational facilities without costing taxpayers a penny. Two top-rated, environmentally-designed, publicly-owned recreational facilities for about $13 million that will be providing the whole community with service and enjoyment for many more decades. Compare these to the as-important-as-clean-drinking-water digital report you got this term that will be with us for… maybe a couple of months? If that.

In 2013, we also bought Fisher Field for about $500,000, which was then privately owned, securing the town’s soccer pitches for the community, and making future upgrades viable because the public now owned the land. And we also upgraded and rebuilt two public tennis courts to meet community demand, and built a new public park and playground called J.J. Cooper Park.

You got a report this term. A digital one at that.
More Dilbert

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