The onerous burden of responsibility

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Drinking waterImagine you’re in high school one day around the end of the year. It’s warm outside, sunny, and you want out of the stuffy classroom. You’re not paying attention. You’re looking out the window, fidgeting. Daydreaming, miles away. The teacher drones on and on but you don’t hear a single word.

Then, the bell rings. Just before the class leaves, you hear the teacher remind everyone that you are responsible for their safety, you are responsible for their wellbeing, for their health. For all the kids in the school. And their parents, too. And if you don’t do everything right, if they get hurt or sick, they can sue you and your parents and take everything you own and even send you to jail. You, the daydreamer, the class clown, the gossipy one who never paid attention.

What? How the hell did that happen? When was this ever raised? You have no idea how you found yourself in this position. Responsible for everyone? You’re never been responsible for anyone or anything in your entire life. How could you suddenly become responsible for everyone, for people you don’t even know? Is someone making this all up?

And what is it you’re supposed to do? Did the teacher say something? You don’t know. You weren’t paying attention. You never pay attention. Whatever it is you’re supposed to do, if you screw it up, you get sued. or worse: sent to jail. But how can you be expected to do something you don’t know anything about?

One big, burning question occupies your thoughts: How do I get out of this? Somehow you got yourself into it, got boxed in. Now all you can think about is how to get out from under the heavy weight of responsibility.

And that’s exactly the position The Block found itself in this term. In the first year, The Block fired (unethically and illegally, by the way) all the members of the town’s water utility service board. An in their places they put five of their own members. Five Blockheads without the slightest interest in, understanding of, or experience in water or utilities.

But they hadn’t been paying any attention. They never paid any attention. They were always too busy gossiping, making wisecracks, clowning around, daydreaming. And then they got scared. Trembling, hide-under-your blankets-and-pee-your-Spiderman-PJs kind of scared.

One of them must have woken up and realized that they had put themselves in a position of great responsibility for the whole community and taken could be a huge personal liability that could see them in court. Or in jail. Personal liability that isn’t covered by municipal insurance.

Now, being cowards at heart, the Block are desperately trying to get away from that responsibility. Pass it off to someone else. Shuck it off, run away. Ditch their roles. Turn over the management to a group of outsiders who don’t have to work in an accountable or transparent fashion. Sell the water services to EPCOR, a private corporation so our frightened councillors don’t have to shoulder that terrible weight any longer.

But it won’t work. That’s because Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act won’t let them off the hook. And they probably haven’t figured that out yet because they never pay attention (and never read).

The Act says (Section 14):

A delegation referred to in subsection (2) shall not relieve the owner of the drinking water system from the duty to comply with section 19 or the duty,
(a) to ensure that the accredited operating authority carries out its duties under this Act and the agreement in a competent and diligent manner while it is in charge of the system; and
(b) upon discovery that the accredited operating authority is failing to act in accordance with clause (a), to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the operation of the system complies with the requirements under this Act.

Got that? Even if they turn the operation over to an outsider, COUNCIL remains responsible to make sure they outsiders do their job in a “competent and diligent manner.” It’s hard for The Block to assess what exactly is competent and diligent, since they weren’t paying attention. They never pay attention.

And then it says if anything goes amiss, COUNCIL has to make sure it gets fixed. It’s hard for The Block to assess what exactly is amiss, since they weren’t paying attention. They never pay attention.

And wait, it gets better. The Most Secretive Council Ever has been doing all of their conniving and manipulating to sell our water services behind closed doors. They won’t like having to tell the details, but S. 15 of the Act says they must:

Agreement to be made public
(4) The contents of every agreement referred to in subsection (1) between an owner of a drinking water system and an accredited operating authority shall be made public by the owner of the system in accordance with the requirements prescribed by the Minister.

Ooh. Can you imagine how it will annoy them to have to tell the public ANYTHING? Especially the details of an agreement cooked up in secret!

Section 19 of the Act lays out the groundwork of responsibility:

Standard of care, municipal drinking water system
19. (1) Each of the persons listed in subsection (2) shall,
(a) exercise the level of care, diligence and skill in respect of a municipal drinking water system that a reasonably prudent person would be expected to exercise in a similar situation; and
(b) act honestly, competently and with integrity, with a view to ensuring the protection and safety of the users of the municipal drinking water system.

I know, I know: you’re laughing at the notion of anyone in The Block acting “honestly, competently and with integrity.” Me too. I had to stop writing and catch my wind, I laughed so hard. And in subsection 2, it states:

(2) The following are the persons listed for the purposes of subsection (1):
1. The owner of the municipal drinking water system.
2. If the municipal drinking water system is owned by a corporation other than a municipality, every officer and director of the corporation.
3. If the system is owned by a municipality, every person who, on behalf of the municipality, oversees the accredited operating authority of the system or exercises decision-making authority over the system.

This makes it clear: COUNCIL remains liable even when they sell the service to EPCOR. And what is that liability? That’s outlined in the remainder of Sec. 19:

Offence
(3) Every person under a duty described in subsection (1) who fails to carry out that duty is guilty of an offence.
(4) A person may be convicted of an offence under this section in respect of a municipal drinking water system whether or not the owner of the system is prosecuted or convicted. 2002, c. 32, s. 19 (4).

The Block are hoping this clause gets them off the hook:

Reliance on experts
(5) A person shall not be considered to have failed to carry out a duty described in subsection (1) in any circumstance in which the person relies in good faith on a report of an engineer, lawyer, accountant or other person whose professional qualifications lend credibility to the report.

The last section, however, does not negate the responsibilities outlined earlier in Sec. 19 which still require our Blockheads to do the required “…diligence and skill in respect of a municipal drinking water system that a reasonably prudent person would be expected to exercise in a similar situation.”

Yeah, skill and diligence by this lot. You’re guffawing again. I can hear it. In other words: the only thing The Block sloughs off is their per-diem payments for sitting on the water utility board. Their liability and responsibility to the system still cling to their sagging shoulders. All because they never pay attention.

Section 20 also adds some heft to the weight because it also lays out another level of diligence The Block must continue to uphold. It’s getting pretty heavy by now, isn’t it? Yep: they’re scared. No one ever told them they’d have to be diligent when they got elected!

You don’t get to see what the penalties are until Section XI (sections 137-156) and then they are breathtaking. Here are the two clauses in Sec. 142 that outline the penalties for individuals (corporations have their own listing):

(2) Every individual convicted of an offence described in subsection (3) is liable, in substitution for any penalty provided in section 141,
(a) for each day or part of a day on which the offence occurs or continues to occur, to a fine of not more than $50,000 on a first conviction and not more than $100,000 on each subsequent conviction;
(b) to imprisonment for a term of not more than one year; or
(c) to both a fine under clause (a) and imprisonment under clause (b).

And if it proves a drinking water a la Walkerton, it’s even more punitive:

(2) Every individual convicted of an offence described in subsection (3) is liable, in substitution for any penalty provided in section 141 or 142,
(a) for each day or part of a day on which the offence occurs or continues to occur, to a fine of not more than $4,000,000 on a first conviction and not more than $7,000,000 on each subsequent conviction;
(b) to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years less a day; or
(c) to both a fine under clause (a) and imprisonment under clause (b).

So you can understand why our Blockheads got cold feet after they ousted the water utility board (without public discussion or reasons given, mind you): The Block didn’t realize that in doing so they took on the liability for themselves with no one in between them and jail. And in their best impersonations of the Cowardly Lion, they are trying to flee the scene before anything goes awry.

Ah, if only they had stopped to read the Act first, they might have left our professional and experienced water utility board alone and not jumped into their seats. But that requires paying attention and they never pay attention.

Part IV of the Act, sections 21-29 lay out the accreditation requirements for an operating authority – i.e. what EPCOR will be once The Block privatizes our utility. Do you think a single one of The Block has read and understood that they are responsible to ensure that these conditions are met BEFORE they sell our water utility to a for-profit corporation?

Part V, sections 30-52 lay out the details about what is required to operate a municipal drinking water system, about the finances, reports, alterations, testing and licences. Part VII is about testing, part VIII about inspections, part IX about compliance and inspections. That’s sections 62 to 125. A lot of heavy reading. Slogging through page after page of it. Tough going for a group that never pays attention.

Do you think a single one of The Block has read it? Has understood that they are responsible to ensure that these conditions are met? Of course you don’t. No one does. The Block clearly don’t read their agendas or budget documents, so why would anyone think they would read a complicated piece of legislation?

So I ask: do you think this group of lunkheads is competent and capable of handling this, even after they privatize our water utility to EPCOR? Neither do I.

Collingwood deserves better.

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