Collingwood’s Version of QAnon: the SVJI


PaperworkA story in CollingwoodToday titled, Council orders CAO to sift through old COLLUS documents kept by EPCOR shows just how far into the conspiracy pit they have dug themselves. They are so totally obsessed with the events of a  decade ago, that they happily continue to waste administrative staff time and more of our tax dollars digging through the old records of emails that were already subpoenaed and sorted through by the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI) two years ago. 

According to Mayor Brian Saunderson, the records could include financial statements and old emails from when the COLLUS family of companies was running the utility with PowerStream. 
“We don’t know what they’ll include until we proceed,” Saunderson told CollingwoodToday. “When we struck the detail with EPCOR we specifically asked that they retain any information and records they got with respect to the COLLUS family of companies and the operation of those companies.” 

As if town staff had the time or resources to pursue this obsessive, personal vendetta instead of doing their own work and caring for municipal needs (the job they were actually hired for and paid to do). It’s almost like our mayor thinks town staff are his personal minions to pursue whatever whim or hobby horse he comes up with. Of course, since he’s trying to get out of his responsibilities as mayor and take a better-paying job as MPP in Toronto, I doubt he cares if he abuses the system until then.*

Are town staff more qualified to root through the morass of ageing documents than the inquiry’s legal staff? Or better than the OPP, who investigated the transactions in 2014? If so, what was the purpose of spending at least $8.2 million (and likely well over $10 million) of taxpayers’ money in the SVJI if town staff are only going to duplicate those efforts? Perhaps council believes our tax dollars grow on trees.

Consider that council already spent $700,000 of your tax dollars having staff reduce the 900-page inquiry report to a mere 15-page summary in the faint hope our council would grasp it. But even at less than 2% of the original size, council still needed a PowerPoint presentation with limited bullet points in big letters, read aloud slowly to them, plus pie charts to get through it. And now these Blockheads want staff to sort through thousands of emails to do…. what? Reduce it all to a few pages and another PowerPoint presentation with pie charts? What will that cost taxpayers? Another $700,000? Given the number of documents that accrued over the years, it will probably be a lot more.

And how can the town access files that belong to a private corporation without a court order for the release of personal information protected by provincial legislation? This isn’t town property, and never was, and even in EPCOR’s hands, it contains personal information still protected by those provincial laws. EPCOR faces a legal liability if it releases confidential information without a court order (and I suspect any such information will be fed to council’s tame media and bloggers for dissemination). That means the town will have to pay lawyers to get access, then to defend the inevitable lawsuits, on top of everything else.

Saunderson tried to justify this latest foray into the conspiracy sinkhole by blaming someone else:

He said “a lot of the issues” that led council to sell the rest of COLLUS in 2018 and to call the judicial inquiry were the result of “us having difficulty getting information from the COLLUS family of companies.” 

If you’ve read my full submission to the SVJI (the timeline of events that was received but not shared with the public, possibly because it contradicted the official narrative of events) you’ll know this is codswallop.

For example, I reported that on Oct 27. 2013 the clerk’s office corresponded with Pam Hogg of Collus-PowerStream requesting documentation from the sale including the contract agreement and shareholder’s agreement. Hogg got copies from Aird & Berlis sent them to town hall on Oct. 29. But on Dec. 20, 2013, the clerk’s office again requested the same documentation from the sale including the contract agreement and shareholder’s agreement. Hogg sent them to town hall again. Again and again, over the next few years the utility staff provided information to town hall.

What the town couldn’t get, however — the only information withheld — was the confidential information about salaries and benefits of Collus-PowerStream employees because it is legally protected information under Ontario’s Business Incorporation Act. That was explained to the 2010-14 council by former CAO Wingrove at a council meeting back on April 18, 2011. The minutes of that meeting show:

CAO Wingrove reviewed the rationale as to why Collus Power salaries are not disclosed under the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act, advising Council that Collus Power is incorporated under the Business Incorporation Act. In order to be a public sector employee there are several tests that must be passed. One of which relates to funding received from the Province which is not the case for Collus Power. Another relates to the disclosure of salaries and the regulations of the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act as it would be considered personal information.

But while the council of 2010-14 gracefully accepted the limitations imposed by legality, it rankled some of the council of 2014-18 that they could not get (and likely share) that personal information. Brian Saunderson was deputy mayor at the time of the following shenanigans.

On Feb. 24, 2016, after a lengthy closed-door meeting, Collingwood Council voted 6-3, to demand (yes, that word was used), despite the privacy accorded under provincial law, to see the salaries and bonuses paid during the previous ten years to all Collus-PowerStream executives and employees. Council also demanded, “an organizational chart; any bonuses paid to officers; employment reviews; all other compensation; and policies and procedures relating to compensation.” Nope, said the utility board: that’s not legal.

Foiled from getting what they demanded, council resorted to a new trick: in June, 2016, they illegally fired all three of the town’s appointed members of the utility board (including Mayor Sandra Cooper) and replaced them with town staff:  clerk Sara Almas, former CAO John Brown, and former treasurer Marjory Leonard. Two of these didn’t even live in town or were in an area served by the utility. It was the first time in its history the utility board did not have an elected representative on it.

But when they got to the meeting, these staff members were told they could not see the personal information without signing a non-disclosure agreement to protect the rights of its staff (which they refused to sign).

The firing of legally appointed members and the appointment of staff was in violation of the town’s procedures for appointing board members. It prompted an investigation by the Ontario Energy Board into unethical practices by the town, in September, 2016. Chastised by the OEB, council was still determined to hound the utility to release the personal, confidential information and get past the law.

Council’s next move was to remove the recently-appointed CAO and treasurer from the board. and replace them with two others to do its bidding. In November, 2016, council again went behind closed doors to illegally appoint two out-of-town lawyers with no relationship to Collingwood to the utility board. Once again, the town’s proper process for appointing board members was ignored.

But despite even their efforts, the confidential information could not be pried out of the utility. So in May, 2017, needing someone more compliant to do their bidding, council again illegally replaced one of the board members (an out-of-town lawyer) with Councillor Doherty to push its devious agenda. Yet even their third swap of board appointees failed to break down the barriers of the law and get them the confidential information they craved. But by then the process to sell the utility to EPCOR without any public consultation was underway, so the matter rested until this term.

So when our mayor whinges about “having difficulty getting information” he means they could not get private, personal information protected under provincial law. Nothing else. Not even the inquiry, if it even received it, could divulge that information. But Saunderson still fumes over the refusal of the now-defunct utility to divulge protected, personal information. As the article notes council is still trying to get around the law that protects even former staff from a breach of confidentiality:

He expects the documents will contain financial records and possibly emails not previously provided to council when requested. 

And this guy wants to be an MPP? Shouldn’t a lawyer know better? Does the notion of ethical behaviour bypass him completely? This isn’t about the transaction or the process behind the share sale in 2011-12: that was all examined under the inquiry’s microscope. This is about revealing personal and private information that the previous council was prevented from getting. And how is that not part of a vendetta?

The motion to waste tax dollars and staff time came from Councillor Berman, but it’s not difficult to guess who put him up to it. It was snuck into the meeting using a procedural trick to waive notice of motion, likely so that the public would not be aware it was coming ahead of time. Councillor Jeffrey, the wannabe-replacement for Saunderson if he gets to jump ship as MPP, sloughed off concerns over the burden to taxpayers, saying:

…the motion was a “low cost” option to continue to fulfil council’s promise to “turn over every stone.” 

Low-cost to whom? She might as well have complained that while we taxpayers only shouldered the burden of council’s prolific spending, she has to manage on “ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers.” We taxpayers have already shelled out at least $10 million for this debacle. This will add another line to be added to the continually rising costs as our council spends wildly and extravagantly to pursue this obsession. The only stones are those under which this obscurantist council keeps hidden the true costs of the SVJI

Our council is clearly mired in the past, unable to escape the events of a decade ago and deal with today’s issues and problems. They are wasting money on an obsession that could be better spent helping local businesses survive the lockdowns, fixing our decaying streets and crumbling sidewalks, upgrading the waterfront, repairing the terminals, making residents safe with more stop signs and traffic signals, or any number of things that would actually help the community.

I want to close with a selection from the book, 13 Ways to Kill Your Community**  The eighth item in the authors’ list is “Live in the Past.” Read this and see how well it applies to our current mayor and his minions:

Not everyone holds onto the past with visions of glory and perfection, however. The majority of those who hold onto the past do so by identifying some historical wrong; they see every moment from that point forward as being a miscarriage of justice, and every moment into the future as a deliberately perpetuated mistake that will persists until the ancient wrong is fixed… those looking for for “justice” over a past wrong and stubbornly refuse to let it go are often overtly angry and hostile. They are the great grudge holders who feel someone or something wronged them, and everything in their life that has ever been bad or will go bad in the future can be tied to that one wrong.

Bertrand Russell wrote that “Political opinions are not based on reason.”*** We can observe the truth in that statement at every council meeting,

Collingwood deserves better.

* I have not seen any indication that Saunderson has repudiated the endorsement for his MPP job hunt from a local blogger who was cited in a human rights court challenge against Maclean’s magazine over alleged racism. Perhaps he does not realize the implications of having ostensibly racist supporters.

** By Kelly Griffiths and Doug Clemmer, Friesen Press; 2nd ed. edition published Nov. 8, 2016. On their website, the authors also summarize this chapter:

The world is always changing, and it always will. Successful communities find ways to adapt to the change, or adapt the change to them. Those that fail often do so because they choose to ignore, deny, resist, or hide from inevitable change. The fear of adapting to change drives people and communities to live in the past, or at least to hold onto it until their last dying breath. That fear breeds anger, and anger is always evident in those who live in the past. They are angry about something that happened 20 years ago, or about something in their world that is about to change. It is always unjustified, however. Mistakes are part of the past, solutions are only found in the future, and inaction is the biggest mistake you can make. Inaction means your community is unprepared for what is coming and that means your community will change, but not the way you want it to. Living in the past will ensure your community becomes part of the past.

I first mentioned this book in relationship to council in a post from 2016.

*** Bertrand Russell: Psychology and Politics, published in Sceptical Essays, Routledge Classics, 2004.

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