Where Have the Ratepayers’ Groups Gone?

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Angry mobWhy don’t Collingwood’s ratepayer groups and associations last? In the 25-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen several come and go. Every one has dissolved, evaporated or imploded within a year or two. Seldom do they last longer than a single term of council.

Is this a normal part of the life cycle of such organizations, or is Collingwood at the unfortunate end of the Bell curve with these brief groups?

Perhaps the answer for their short lifespans is twofold: first, they do not represent the general public, but rather a small and usually elitist group; and second, because they are one-trick ponies that have no replay value once that issue has been addressed or gone away.

Plus, most of these groups seem angry. Nor surprising: they are led by angry, bitter people. That’s not a good basis for creating long-term, cooperative, thoughtful and engaging dialogue. But it goes well with whining, complaining, spreading rumours, frothing about alleged wrongs, and protesters with signs wanting to “inpeach” council (really: that’s how he spelled it!).

Some are localized NIMBY organizations whose sole purpose seems to be keeping intact a status quo situation in their neighbourhood. They are suspicious of, and opposed to, anything that even smells of change. Want to put a new sidewalk in a public park they believe is their private property? These groups will stand shoulder to shoulder to oppose it, even when the rest of the community clamours for it, staff recommend it, and safety requires it.

The first ratepayers’ group I recall was CARR: Collingwood & Area Residents & Ratepayers, if I recall the acronym properly. It raised several thoughtful issues such as the town’s financial sustainability and good governance, but, again as I recall, the main focus was on the proposed CSL waterfront development. Once that development stalled (later taken up by Fram), CARR seems to have withered.

I don’t actually remember any official notice of it being dissolved, but it was gone by the time the next group emerged: VOTE.

VOTE allegedly stood for “Voice of the Electorate” but it really represented an elitist group whose main focus was on getting their own members elected to council, while criticizing a former mayor and his supporters. In which effort it succeeded modestly well – getting a mayor and several of his minions on council.

Locals, however, soon called it “Voice of the Elite.” Which was appropriate.

However, it was so acerbic and cranky in its very vocal efforts to get its own way, that it became widely known as Voters Opposed to Everything: a verbal target for wits and the media. And much more appropriate.

Around the same time as VOTE was brewing its concoction of misinformation, complaints and accusations, there was a condo owners’ association, whose name I now forget. It was created to promote and defend condo owners’ rights, but its leadership was hijacked by a group closely associated with VOTE. As such, it proved equally bitter and grumpy.

This group engaged in the 2006 municipal election by sending letters to its members recommending a slate of hand-picked candidates that, not coincidentally, was the same as VOTE’s preferred group of bobbleheads. At their “all-candidates” meetings, only the chosen minions were invited. Not unlike what happened last election, at Blue Shores.

The condo group’s sole political issue, as I recall, was removing the charge for garbage pickup from condo owners’ tax bills. Since waste and its charges are a county issue, not a municipal, there was nothing municipal politicians could do aside from beat their chests and cry solidarity over an issue outside their jurisdiction.

The condo group apparently vanished from the scene shortly after that election, but their puppet masters in VOTE remained. These attempted to pull council’s strings, again with modest success. At one council meeting, the mayor – in a move of dubious legality and certainly low morality – handed over the chair to the president of VOTE, who grilled and chastised council for not being good enough little robots.

I refused to attend what I considered an illegal meeting and a highly unethical process. VOTE hated independent thought and despised any councillor they couldn’t bully into submission.

VOTE was pulling the strings when the Admiral Collingwood development was halted. Nine years later, we can still see the empty lot that remains the proud legacy of their efforts. Yes, they are proud of that: although it would have meant jobs, tax revenue, and a revitalized downtown, they’re happier with an empty lot that matches their ideology.

But although VOTE tried hard to ignore the abuses and mistakes of that former council and its mayor, these were increasingly exposed in the media, causing public dissatisfaction. When asked to explain why the group was silent on these very obvious problems everyone else was talking about, its then-leader said, disingenuously, that the group was about “process, not issues.”

But the process was rotten and everyone else knew it. VOTE, instead, pretended all was well. The public wasn’t fooled. Membership evaporated quickly. The organization sputtered along with a core cabal of a half-dozen cranks until it finally imploded.

But if the flesh was gone, the skeleton remained. Several of those members who remained in the bunker at the end re-emerged in the next group: Better Together Collingwood.

This was an even more elitist organization whose main goal was, again, to elect its chosen, ideologically pure few to the next council. In particular, the group plumped its founder who expressed righteous anger when his beloved dream was not fulfilled. He wanted the town to build a $35 million Taj Mahal rec centre and turn it over to the YMCA while tax payers paid all the bills. Wiser heads prevailed and it didn’t happen.

But the hatred ran deep.The group was, like VOTE before it, fueled by anger, and a witch’s brew of misinformation and unfounded allegations, stirred by a vituperative online campaign of lies, rumour, gossip and paranoia.

And like its predecessor, BTC succeeded in getting several of its minions elected; most of council, actually. After which, some locals started referring to the group by a new, more appropriate name: Big Trouble Collingwood.

As a group, it has not spoken one word of criticism against the abuses, unethical behaviour, bad governance, conflicts of interest and corruption in the current council. Yet it was very vocal making allegations about the last council – unproven and unsubstantiated, of course. Which makes it unsurprising that, like VOTE before it, after the election the organization evaporated, leaving only a core of conspirators who still meet in secret.

Are we not better together any longer? Apparently not. Its job was done. It never was about good governance, after all, just about personal ambition.

And where has the media been in all of this? Why hasn’t the local media chased this group and its leaders, and asked what happened, when did they stop pretending to represent the people of the town, why they went silent when this council broke its own laws, codes of conduct and oaths of office. Why they spread untruths and rumours.

Oh wait, the media is close friends with the founder and endorsed him in the campaign.Well, who needs unbiased, objective or even investigative reporting, anyway?

Holding groups accountable is never easy, without media help. Unlike the politicians they chastise, berate and belittle, these groups never have to live up to promises, show proof of any allegations, or be accountable in any way. They get away with lies because the media doesn’t hold their feet to the fire the way they do politicians (or at least politicians they aren’t friends with).

Too often these groups get created through personal agendas and private ideologies. They do their damage, they ruin lives and reputations, smear the town’s reputation, then they dissolve while the havoc they created remains. And the rest of the community is left with the result. The media? It looks the other way.

Perhaps then it is a good thing such groups have such a short half-life. Were they to remain intact longer, imagine the disaster they could create.

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