As Important as Clean Drinking Water?


I wonder how the people of Walkerton would feel about Collingwood CAO’s statement, reported in Collingwood Today, that implementing the 300-plus recommendations of the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) is “equivalent with the top priorities we have, like providing clean drinking water.”

I wonder how many people in our town will be saved from a painful, water-borne illness and possible death if, for example, the town encourages the province to implement recommendation number two:

2 Describing the mayor as both the head of Council and chief executive officer blurs the fact that the mayor is the head of Council and the chief administrative officer (CAO) is the head of staff. There must be a clear division of roles and responsibilities between the mayor and the CAO, a separation of the political from the administrative.

Nothing like a ‘clear division” to make the community safe from evil.

The Walkerton tragedy was the result of a failure to ensure clean drinking water. More than 2,000 people fell ill, and six died. From that event came the province’s Safe Drinking Water Act that makes council members personally responsible and liable for ensuring the water residents receive is safe, and changed the way municipalities managed their water supplies. And can you please tell me how this is equivalent to producing a report-about-the-report?

Seems to me it belittles the people of Walkerton to compare their suffering and trauma with the results of a questionable inquiry that cost taxpayers more than $8 million that could have been better spent fixing our decaying roads and sidewalks, and upgrading our own water treatment plant. And keep in mind that the SVJI report is a summation of opinions, not a legal decision. 

So please help me understand why Collingwood’s CAO thinks that reporting on the 300-plus recommendations that were mostly generic, irrelevant, or appear outside the inquiry’s mandate — and relate to events that are now at least eight years old — are on equal footing to ensuring we have clean water.  

Okay, I do understand that it is highly unlikely that most, if any, of our council members have read through the entire 914 pages, and need a precis; perhaps the whole thing reduced to a dozen bullets on PowerPoint slides, written in a large font and read aloud, slowly, at a council meeting. After all, none of them were elected for their intellectual prowess, and reading was never their forte. But is it worth another $700,000 of your money to explain it to them?

More Dilbert
The article tells us that, on top of the 914-page SVJI report (averaging $8,800 a page), town staff are preparing a report-about-the-report. This must be an initiative of the Department of Redundancy Department (or we’re trapped in some Dilbert cartoon…). After wasting more than $8 million of your money on the inquiry already, it seems staff (and most likely our spendthrift mayor) think spending another $700,000 of your money, on a report-about-the-report will make it all worthwhile. As CT reported:

Skinner said the 2021 budget of $700,000 would provide the resources “to do a good job on the judicial inquiry follow-up.”

After all, it’s only money, right? Not their money. of course: yours. That will bring the cost of the SVJI to close to, if not more than, $9 million.  And if the initial $1.2 million estimate for the cost of the SVJI escalated to almost eight times that, to what heights will the $700,000 escalate?

But let us look at some of those pressing issues that make this report-about-the-report as important as providing life-saving clean water to our residents.

How many of our residents will sleep soundly in their beds knowing they are safe from having a lobbyist registrar with a non-renewable term (of undefined length)?

251: The lobbyist registrar should be appointed for a non-renewable term.

Or thank their gods in prayer every day that the CAO’s employment should be limited to a mere six, non-renewable years (although why six is never clarified)?

82 The chief administrative officer’s term should be a six-year nonrenewable term.

And what about this, compared to the due diligence of staff to protect our water supply:

138 Management should “establish and maintain” “systems, procedures, and controls” to support compliance with the Code of Conduct for staff at the Town of Collingwood.

Nothing like a well-maintained Code of Conduct to protect our residents from, say giardia or cryptosporidium.

And maintaining an integrity commissioner’s website is apparently as crucial to your life and health as safe drinking water.:

65. The website of the integrity commissioner should contain the Code of Conduct, FAQs, and other educational material on the ethical obligations of Council members.

And then there’s this groundbreaking recommendation on which our collective welfare hangs:

301 An external auditor should periodically review the operations” “of the integrity commissioner.”

Which, of course, means spending more of your tax dollars for someone to watch the watcher. No doubt employed by the same Department of Redundancy Department. But for a town that hired a customer service manager, and recently approved hiring a climate change specialist, rapidly increasing staff and staff costs was never a worry. After all, it’s only money, isn’t it? Last term during one of their many closed-door meetings, council hired a whole IT department, instantly increasing the town’s IT costs from $140,000 a year to more than $600,000, and then bought them a skid full of new equipment to do their jobs! Ka-ching! Ka-ching! The cash register sings at town hall. It’s only your money, right?

But wait, the SVJI seems to want towns to spend more money on staff, even when they aren’t necessary:

70 The Province of Ontario should amend section 229 of the Municipal Act to mandate that municipalities the size of the Town of Collingwood appoint a chief administrative officer.

Telling municipalities what staff they must hire seems rather a long distance from the terms of reference of the SVJI (recall that the motion to call for an inquiry was cunningly presented by then-deputy-mayor Saunderson when three members of council were absent and could neither join the discussion or vote).

Such sweeping generalities don’t take into account how individual municipalities may be structured, their financial situations, their management styles, or anything else. It doesn’t even explain why a municipality needs a CAO or why towns shouldn’t consider alternative management structures, or even why they shouldn’t strive to operate with a reduced bureaucracy (and have fewer staff on the Sunshine List, on which two-thirds of our current staff are found). 

Recommendations 72-85 are all about the roles and responsibilities of the CAO in Collingwood and how the town must have one. Collingwood has had a CAO (acting or permanent) since the mid-1980s, but, apparently, the SVJI overlooked that and wants to put it all into a bylaw that requires the town to “appoint” one (rather than hire one, it seems), but only for a “six-year nonrenewable term” (recommendation 82), without explaining why it should be six years or non-renewable. But the folks that cobbled these together were “experts” (albeit without any experience in elected office, it seems) so it must be a good idea, right? And of course, dear resident, having this fusty bureaucracy enshrined in a bylaw is as important to you and your family as having safe, clean drinking water, right?

The town also needs to “appoint” a lobbyist registrar (249) for a non-renewable term (251). Why he or she can’t be hired and kept on isn’t explained. But it must be as important as safe drinking water to appoint one.

A crucial step to community wellbeing and safety is found in number 273:

273 Appointments to the board should be staggered to ensure continuity.

Imagine how the town would fall to wrack and ruin if we didn’t stagger board appointments! Oh, right: we already do that. Silly me, I thought the “experts” would have actually known that. But wait, what have board appointments to do with the terms of reference for the SVJI? And why does the CAO need to prepare a report-about-the-report — at great expense — about it? Probably nothing to do with propping up the mayor’s lackluster attempts to defend the inquiry’s excessive costs. Isn’t that just lipstick on a pig?

Surely you will agree number 11 is also as important to you as having the town pipe safe drinking water through your taps:

11. The Province of Ontario should amend section 246 of the Municipal Act to state that, if a member abstains from voting because of a real, apparent, or potential conflict of interest, this should not be deemed a negative vote, but instead recorded as an abstention.

Uh… I’m not sure which “expert” penned this, but when a member has a conflict, they already have to step away from the table and not participate in any discussions or votes. Their vote isn’t counted at all, not as a negative.

And an “apparent” conflict is an opinion, not legal decision. Although the term is used in many recommendations, it’s not defined by the SVJI (12 leaves it to the province to define it). Nor does the SVJI say who gets to decide if the opinion is valid or even truthful. Can any resident with a grudge (like those in Saunderson’s “Better Together Collingwood” mob) decide a councillor has an “apparent” conflict and force them from the table? Qui iudicat? Cui bono?

And yet despite this vagueness, somehow staff are to have the legal responsibility for sorting things out, although with what legal authority and what action they can take are also undefined:

105 Staff must take immediate action to prevent or resolve real, apparent, or potential conflicts of interest.

I doubt that the staff report-about-the-report will delve deeply into the inquiry’s vagueness or inaccuracies because it’s an obfuscatory quicksand of undefined terms and contradictions. But let’s spend the money anyway, right?

Reading through some of the recommendations, you might get the sense the “experts” on the panel didn’t think our staff were capable, or even honest, and might have been engaged in some shady behaviour that needed to be corrected. You’ll surely sleep better knowing that they laid down the important-as-safe-drinking-water laws like Moses and his tablets for staff:

96 Staff have an obligation to speak the truth to their superiors and to Council.
97 Staff must not conceal or manipulate information. Staff must never intentionally misrepresent facts or information.
98. Staff must not use intimidation or fear in the workplace. Staff must not inappropriately disclose or share confidential information.

The flogging will continue until morale improves. But wait, why produce a report-about-the-report now? Didn’t the report’s final recommendation say to do it later (emphasis added):

306 The Town of Collingwood Council should issue a public report on the first anniversary of the release of this Report describing Council’s response to these recommendations.

So not only is the report-about-the-report a continued waste of your tax dollars, it’s premature. The SVJI itself directed the town to wait until next fall, in no small part because as of now our do-nothing council has done (yes, you guessed it) nothing so far about the original report aside from some self-aggrandizing bloviation and flaccid rationalization of the expenses. And in about a year, staff will have to do it all over again to prepare the report-on-the-report the SVJI recommended. Ka-ching!

Is there any pressing necessity for a premature report? Is there someone at the table planning to very soon announce their candidacy for the MPP’s slot in the Conservative Party to replace Jim Wilson, and wants the report to be a jewel in their crown when they run for that position? Could this be nothing more than a shallow, selfish attempt to boost their election chances using taxpayers’ money? Are staff bending to political pressures that the very SVJI rails against?

Groundhog DayI suspect it’ll be like the movie Groundhog Day for the bureaucracy: where we wake up to get the same as-important-as-safe-drinking-water report-about-the-report presented over and over and over… only the costs will keep getting higher and higher each time, like Bill Murray becoming a better piano player every day.

Then one day we’ll awaken, there will be an election, and we can vote this sorry lot of sycophants out of office.

Collingwood deserves better.

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