Abdicating Responsibility

IrresponsibilityCollingwood Council has, in its short time in office, abdicated much of its responsibility to the business of government and to the people of this town. Council has sloughed off the duties they were elected to shoulder with remarkable alacrity. Some of that responsibility landed on staff, who assumed control of the budget process and drive most of the initiatives that come to the table. But some of it is being passed along to un-elected residents.

It began early on when this council decided not to put a council representative on the BIA Board of Management. This way, no one can raise issues about the downtown at the council table, or regularly bring the BIA’s messages, events, issues and concerns into the public forum (where it can also reach the media). No one at the table can champion downtown issues or events. Nor can council’s agendas and initiatives be raised at BIA meetings.

Council sidelined and abandoned the BIA, arguably the town’s largest employer (collectively speaking) and the heart of the community, by refusing to have a council representative sit on its board. This is the first time in its history there has not been a council rep on the board, and as far as I am aware, the only BIA in the province that does not have council representation.

The message to the public is clear: this council doesn’t give a damn about the downtown.

Then came the decision to extend the interim CAO’s contract another year – when hiring a new CAO as had been planned last term. This could have saved the town $50,000 a year or more. This was the result of backroom discussions by some members of council long before it was brought to the public. Your tax dollars wasted, and a total lack of openness and transparency by those at the table who promised quite the opposite. But they shrugged off the responsibility to be open and transparent, too.

And then council replaced the experienced, respected CEO of Collus with the town’s interim CAO on the PUC board, and in doing so created a confrontational and highly politicized environment at the utility. Plus the interim CAO is considerably less experienced in critical water and wastewater issues than the CEO was. Council shirked its responsibility to ensure we have the best staff in critical positions.

The 100-year-old relationship with the PUC and the town that worked so well and smoothly for a century, is now toxic. One senior employee has already left for a less-confrontational work environment. The rapidly deteriorating relationship is being further exacerbated by demands to call in the promissory note given when Collus was partially purchased by Powerstream (and is currently paying a handsome dividend in interest).

Council must ensure the municipality operates smoothly and efficiently. They shirked and shrugged while staff took the lead again.

I’ve already mentioned council’s abdication of responsibility to oversee the town’s finances. Council let staff ignore an early council direction to produce a budget showing a 1% and 2% tax increase. By accepting the subsequent budget process, council sent a message to staff that council was no longer in control and didn’t care about it.

The budget process was hijacked, and with rare exception council became a table fulling of nodding bobbleheads acquiescing to staff’s every demand. Councillors weren’t even allowed to ask about questionable expenses – most of them meekly bowed their heads and shut up. Why think for yourself when you can have staff tell you what to approve?

Every vote in favour of the budget next week is a capitulation to staff’s tactics. It says “I am not capable of doing my job. I surrender my council authority and responsibility to staff to do it for me.”

Then there’s The Plan. The Plan that Brian Saunderson – now Deputy Mayor – promised to have ready within the first 90 days of this term. It’s now 125 days and counting… and we can expect to see The Plan… when? Maybe 2016? 2017?

Saunderson launched his own internet survey to start the process on Nov. 16, even before he was sworn in – despite the complete lack of credibility of these self-directed internet surveys. The results, of course, were only available to his own viewing – how very open and transparent.

But only after they had been elected, we found out it wasn’t going to be council’s Plan after all: it morphed into a “community strategic plan” – which threatens to become the sort of dog’s-breakfast that Vision 2020 was.

The Plan requires a consultant hired at $50,000-plus of your tax dollars, to tell council what to think. AND on top of that, just to avoid any close association with having to make a decision, council appointed a committee to oversee the consultant to tell council what to think (does this remind you of the children’s song, There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe…?).

People we didn’t elect have been appointed to tell us what we need in The Plan.

That committee, by the way, will be appointed officially on April 7, and won’t even be able to get itself started, hold its first meeting and elect a chair until close to May. It hasn’t even decided what its goals, objectives and methodologies will be and won’t for have that nailed down for a while. Don’t expect anything significant from that committee for six months or more. I suspect there will be a clash of egos as some jockey for the chair’s position.

A consultant used properly could help facilitate council’s decision-making process and identify priorities – as we used one twice last term for that purpose – but the RFP for this consultant turns the responsibility of creating a vision and setting the town’s priorities over to the consultant instead:

The selected consultant will work with Town Council, staff and the community to create a Strategic Plan which has long-range components (e.g. vision, mission, values), medium term aspects (e.g. objectives and priorities) and short term components (e.g. specific action plans).
The priorities and action plans established in the Strategic Plan will be used by staff to prepare their annual department budgets. Performance measures must also be a feature of the Plan to enable Council and staff to annually monitor the Plan’s implementation. This Plan is also expected to include the format for a report card to be issued in the 4th year of Council’s term.

Council abdicated its own responsibilities here, too. Why think for yourself when you can have a consultant do it for you? And at what fee? Who cares – taxpayers are covering it.

After the fiasco of the flawed consultants’ report on the shared service agreement with Collus, you might have thought council would be wary of consultants and following what may prove to be disastrous advice. But, apparently not – they are more wary of putting their grey matter to use in service of the municipality.

You might ask why is there even a committee (and what qualifications do the members bring to the process? aside from being campaign supporters, I mean…). Councils are elected to represent the community, to make decisions on the community’s behalf; NOT to ask the community to tell it what to think at every turn. That’s not leadership: it’s weakness.

Council simply abdicated its responsibility to LEAD this community. It has turned into a table full of followers and bobbleheads.

Council members are also elected because they expressed some sort of community vision that voters thought was worthy. At least so their campaign literature promised us. Instead, they have ducked that responsibility and sloughed it off onto a committee who can take the blame if it goes wrong.

In its first four months, council has shucked and shirked and shimmied to avoid taking the responsibility of elected office and make the decisions they were put there to make. And as for the promises they gave us during the campaign: they’ve turned the reins over to staff, consultants, and a committee of un-elected residents to lead us forward.

Is that what you expected when you elected these people? Where is the leadership at the table?

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