The latest FOI emails examined

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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.

For example, record no. 20, sent July 17, 2015 at 7:57 a.m. Subject line: “CPU. Decision to accept shares in pipeline in lieu of 5.6million repayment”:

Can you please provide an explanation/documentation /confirmation of any  decision making around an apparent acceptance of an interest in the New Tech pipeline of 18percent (sic) in lieu of their repayment of town /CPU debt of approx 5.6million . (sic)

This is needed for a report to council.

Thanks you (sic).

Sent from my iPhone

No name or signature line, no spaces before percent and million, but frequently found before periods.

New Tecumseth is variously identified by Mr. Brown as New Tec (record 21) New Tech and New Teck (record 22) in his emails. Former mayor Doug Garbutt is sometimes referred to as “Garbett” (record 2). A staff person who works in Brown’s office, Christa Carter, is sometimes called “christa” (record 6) and even “christen”. Collus PowerStream is called CollusPowerStram (record 3). Board member David McFadden’s name is also written as “Mc Fadden” and “mar mc Fadden”.

Here is record 23, sent August 24 at 3:38 p.m. in its entirety. Subject line: “Thanks .”:

John.

Sent from my iPhone

A quote often attributed to the late American educator, Dale Carnegie, reminds us that how we say something is important, not just what we do:

“There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it.”

The emails – admittedly only a fraction of his regular correspondence – document a deteriorating relationship between interim CAO Brown and his peer – someone who is not an town employee, but rather  an experienced, provincially-respected professional in both water and electricity sectors – at Collus. They appear increasingly curt, peevish, hectoring and splenetic, while Mr. Houghton keeps his cool.

Record 9, sent Apr. 28, 2:49 p.m.:

Ed,

Do  you want me to copy the mayor on our correspondence to save you the trouble ? I don’t have a problem doing it . just let me know.

John

Why would the CAO not automatically copy the mayor – to whom he reports – on all important correspondence, especially between himself and his peer about a major issue? Surely even an interim CAO respects the mayor’s office?

If it is sarcasm, is that appropriate when corresponding with a peer?

I understand: the demands and complexities of municipal governance can be stressful. I don’t claim to understand all the pressures Mr. Brown is under, especially since last month’s vote to extend his contract showed he doesn’t have the confidence of all of council. But it’s the old “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” adage. Based on what I’ve read about leadership, I expect top executives to rise to the challenge, and not let pressures affect their relationships with peers and staff.

Twenty-one of the emails in the dossier that came from the CAO were sent after 5 p.m., some after 9 p.m. Two were sent before 8 a.m. I don’t think a chief bureaucrat, even an interim one, should be corresponding about non-emergency issues with any staff, Collus or otherwise, much less demanding responses or work from them after or before normal working hours. It poses a liability to the town.

According to legal opinions in Canada, it could justify overtime pay to demand colleagues do business outside the work place, after hours. Executives, too, are eligible. Natalie MacDonald and Stuart Rudner wrote in the Globe & Mail:

Contrary to popular belief, entitlement to overtime pay has nothing to do with how an individual is paid; salaried employees are just as entitled to overtime pay as those paid by the hour. By default, all employees are entitled to overtime pay or time off in lieu thereof. Certain categories of workers are exempt, but the exemptions are based strictly upon job duties, with the most common being that of managers or supervisors. The person’s title doesn’t matter – it’s the nature of their duties that counts. For example, a “manager” who routinely engages in non-managerial work will be entitled to overtime pay.

To their credit, neither Mr. Houghton nor the other staff copied have claimed overtime for receiving and responding to emails before and after reasonable work hours. However, that could change any time.

In none of those released emails, does Mr. Brown identify himself as the town’s CAO. He has no signature line with title and contact information, no legal disclaimer about confidentiality. Sometimes he signs “John” other times it is “john” and once just “J”. Most of Mr. Houghton’s emails – aside from those sent by smart phone – have such signatures.

Of course, staff know who John Brown is, but outsiders will not. Reading the emails offers no indication of his role or responsibilities. Professionals and administrators should always have signature lines in their emails.

The tone sometimes seems irascible. In Record 25, email sent Aug. 31, 6:57 p.m., Mr. Brown comments:

Sure I can ask for that to be done if your memory continues to fail you on perhaps the most critical document of the whole process.

Record 26, Sept. 1, 4:17 p.m.:

As you appear to not recall much of what happened about the above report , I can provide you with the specific  changes you made if you would like . they are substantive in my opinion.

Just let me know.

John.

Record 29, sent Oct. 1, at 6:57 p.m.:

May I suggest you re read my e mails (sic).

I did NOT say that I wanted any particular document I said I wanted ANY and ALL documents.i am concerned that you would even think that I confirmed anything other than what I have just repeated ,in capitals.

Please respond to what I asked for by tomorrow . I cannot make it any more clear .

John

Also in Record 29 (p. 145), he asks (the email was unsigned),

…can you please send me a copy of the above Agreement noted above. I don’t imagine it will take too long just as was the case for my last request.

The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, College of Arts and Sciences, has some advice about good email communications. Two of its suggestions:

Think about your message before you write it. Don’t send e-mails in haste. First, decide on the purpose of your e-mail and what outcome you expect from your communication. Then think about your message’s audience and what he/she/they may need in order for your message to have the intended result. You will also improve the clarity of your message if you organize your thoughts before you start writing. Jot down some notes about what information you need to convey, what questions you have, etc., then organize your thoughts in a logical sequence. You can try brainstorming techniques like mapping, listing, or outlining to help you organize your thoughts.

Reflect on the tone of your message. When you are communicating via e-mail, your words are not supported by gestures, voice inflections, or other cues, so it may be easier for someone to misread your tone. For example, sarcasm and jokes are often misinterpreted in e-mails and may offend your audience. Similarly, be careful about how you address your reader. For instance, beginning an e-mail to your professor or TA with “Hey!” might be perceived as being rude or presumptuous (as in, “Hey you!”). If you’re unsure about how your e-mail might be received, you might try reading it out loud to a friend to test its tone.

Mr. Brown notes that the town doesn’t have some records which it should have, but for some unknown reason points the finger at Collus for this deficiency, not town staff for failing to collect them at the time of the sale or the town lawyers for not advising it should be done.

For example, record 14, sent May 26, 7:34 p.m.:

The town still does not have all of the invoices it requires related to the sale… To be totally candid Ed , I am increasingly concerned that the towns (sic) records remain incomplete and that this would not have been recognized by you long before now… Please complete the towns (sic) record needs immediately.

To which Mr. Houghton replied (because of redactions, not all to-and-fro responses have been issued, so I cannot reprint them one-to-one):

What invoices are not there? I asked for all of the invoices to be given to you. Please help me understand which ones you are talking about. I’m truly not trying to withhold anything. Have you not received all the invoices from KPMG and A&B?

I am personally baffled why the interim CAO would expect the CEO of Collus to know the state of the town’s records. Does Ford know what state Toyota’s records are in? Record 14 again, May 26, 9:02 p.m.:

I told you very clearly what the town needed as a record of this major financial transaction.

The town had no no records at all relating to an 8 000 000 (sic) dollar transaction… So long after the sale I find it hard to understand that the town… had no records whatsoever of the sale of one its most valuable assets .

He adds,

“To be clear, you do not work for the town anymore and the town has an independent need for its own records of this transaction, a transaction which appears to have been delegated by the former council to you ( in my view inappropriately).

Please have Cindy to comply with the  towns (sic) request for its own records to be provided , including all payments made by collus solutions inc (sic) on the towns (sic) behalf .

Again, I cannot fathom why town staff did not ensure copies of these documents were made and kept at the time of the sale – four years ago. And that was the responsibility of a former another CAO to oversee. Blaming that oversight on Collus strikes me as very unreasonable.

Record 17, p. 43:

…the clerk has checked all of the in camera minutes and no reference can be found to any direction from council with regard to a sale of 50% of the shares . as you are no doubt aware , council direction is made formally by motion and voted on . without this , no decision can be attributed to council.

This criticism should be levelled at the clerk’s office, since the clerk, Collus, is responsible for recording council’s minutes, in camera meetings, or resolutions.**

Record 29, sent at 4:55 p.m., page 141: “…such agreements would have been in the towns (sic) files and should not have had to ask you for them .however,  I would imagine that they would be easy for you to have Pam locate for you and send them to me. I would like them by tomorrow.”

While no time for delivery is noted, I assume “by tomorrow” means before tomorrow, like “by noon” means by noon at the latest. Since it was sent at 4:55 p.m., that seems an expectation Collus staff will work after hours to accomplish this demand before the next day.

Record 32, Oct. 26, 11:51 a.m.: “Had the clerk been provided with all of the information related to this transaction instead of having it retained in your filed (sic) ,all of my info requests would have been unnecessary .” This was signed simply “J”.

Perhaps if the former CAO had requested those records four years ago when the deal was made, this would not be an issue today.

Also Record 32, p. 156, Oct. 21, 2:25 p.m. sent to both Ed Houghton and David McFadden, chair of the Collus PowerStream board: “If I should not receive a response by the same date as the clerks (sic) request on behalf of council for the business information (addressed to both of you)  is due , I will assume both of your response (sic) is negative and will advise council accordingly.”

Record 33, Dec. 18, 8:50 a.m.: “I therefore assume that you are not interested in understanding this important matter.”

Mindtools offers some tips to writing effective emails, such as don’t over-communicate and make good use of subject lines, but also:

4. Be Polite
People often think that emails can be less formal than traditional letters. But the messages you send are a reflection of your own professionalism Add to My Personal Learning Plan, values, and attention to detail, so a certain level of formality is needed.
Unless you’re on good terms with someone, avoid informal language, slang, jargon Add to My Personal Learning Plan, and inappropriate abbreviations. Emoticons can be useful for clarifying your intent, but it’s best to use them only with people you know well.
Close your message with “Regards,” “Yours sincerely,” or “All the best,” depending on the situation. Recipients may decide to print emails and share them with others, so always be polite.

5. Check the Tone
When we meet people face-to-face, we use the other person’s body language Add to My Personal Learning Plan, vocal tone, and facial expressions to assess how they feel. Email robs us of this information, and this means that we can’t tell when people have misunderstood our messages.
Your choice of words, sentence length, punctuation, and capitalization can easily be misinterpreted without visual and auditory cues.

To me, several of these seem very confrontational, while the responses seem polite and professional, if at times somewhat strained. Perhaps once we have a permanent CAO, we will see a different communication style.

I don’t believe the town’s interests are best served by confrontation. Perhaps the oversight of this issue should be passed to the mayor or someone else who might be able to put some civility back into the discussion and help mend the “mutual erosion of trust” between the town and its partner utility.

~~~~~
* Collus (now Collus/Powerstream) was formed in 2000 as an independent corporation under Ontario business laws. The town was the sole shareholder, and is now a 50% shareholder. Shareholders are not bosses, nor have they right to micromanage the corporation’s employees. Shareholders do not have the legal right to obtain personal, private information about the corporation’s employees.

** The RFP that was sent out asked bidders to offer proposals up to 50%. Council did not, to my recollection, resolve to accept any specific percentage until all four RFPs came back in at exactly 50%. There was clearly no interest among respondents in bidding for a lesser share. The decision to accept this percentage would have been made by council at its in camera meeting in Dec. 2011 – the one I had declared a conflict for, so was not at. Any records of that meeting and subsequent resolutions would have been kept by town staff, not Collus.

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