The third part of the series in Collingwood Today asked members of council what “surprises they’ve experienced so far in their terms.” As a former councillor, I appreciate how stepping into the role for the first time is a bit of a shock; it takes a while to learn everything, everyone, all those policies, bylaws, processes, reports. And, most importantly: how to stand up to staff and represent the residents.
Being on council is far more demanding, complex, and challenging than most people expect when they get into office. Right from the first meeting, councillors are expected to deal with major issues that affect the entire community: taxes, budgets, infrastructure, policing, safety, traffic, snow plowing, parks, labour issues, downloading, provincial and county legislation… but no one said it would be easy, nor that it wouldn’t be contentious at times.*
I was, however, a bit surprised at some of their answers, because I assumed that every candidate prepared themselves for the role diligently so there would be few if any “surprises” if they got elected. Surely they spoke to current and past members of council, spoke to staff and local businesses to assess the workload, outstanding issues, the demands on time and energy, the effect on family and home life, how the public would view them, uncomfortable social media spotlights and criticisms — before putting their name in. Perhaps I was a tad optimistic.
The reporter also asked them to describe the “challenges they’ve faced in office so far.” Since most are in their first year, with no experience in municipal politics, I appreciate that dealing with the complexities of governance, the learning required, and standing up to staff might be very challenging, especially so early. I would have expected the returning members to have overcome most if not all of these by now.
Mayor Yvonne Hamlin says she’s surprised at how recognizable she has become in the community.
Hamlin received 3,469 votes, or about 15% of the electorate; a mere 122 more than I received for my council position, and more than 2,300 fewer than the votes cast for Fryer as deputy mayor. Given that significantly less than half the electorate could be bothered to vote last election (turnout was a mere 39.68%), we no longer have a printed newspaper to show pictures of their council members, and that the flaccid online versions of local media sometimes use the same photos over and over and over, it seems surprising that anyone recognizes her, or the rest of council for that matter. But recognition isn’t respect, trust, or like. Those have to be earned.
Hamlin is also the first mayor in Collingwood who is paid to be a full-time mayor. which makes me wonder why she failed to be at some community events like that pictured in part two of this series. Perhaps if she attended more such events and activities, and went around to retirement homes like Mayor Cooper did to say hello to residents, Hamlin might be even more recognizable. And maybe even liked.
But Hamlin is not reported mentioning any challenges. Either she isn’t looking at what’s happening in the town, or is ignoring the problems the rest of us see. Or perhaps it’s simply hubris: she might see problems like homelessness, the housing crisis, and the water plant debacle as mere annoyances to her reign.
Deputy Mayor Fryer, Couns. Houston and Doherty said their biggest shock in office has been the cost of the water treatment plant expansion. The estimated costs for the project have exploded from the original estimate of $60 million, then doubling to $121 million and ballooning this term to a gobsmacking $270 million. And with no builder yet chosen, costs could top $300 million before a shovel is in the ground. This is the greatest failure of the past two, Saunderson-dominated councils and the biggest debacle in the town’s recent history.
Fryer and Doherty should be well aware of the rising costs, since they (along with Coun. Jeffrey) were on the 2014-2018 council that killed the deal the town had with New Tecumseth and Bradford to build a new plant in 2015. The original cost was estimated at $60 million, $45 million of which Bradford agreed to pay. Until, that is, council sycophants focused all of their attention, and a lot of taxpayers’ money, on fulfilling then-DM Saunderson’s personal vendetta against people who hurt his feelings in 2012, and ignored the water plant.
So their surprise is either disingenuous or an astoundingly coincidental failure to recall their own part in the debacle only a few years ago. Because it was such a major issue recently, I would have hoped Houston had read the history of the plant, talked to the water utility staff to learn how previous councils caused the problem by their deliberate neglect, and allowed it to escalate to this level. Maybe even talked to officials in New Tecumseth. This problem did not happen by accident.
Ignoring the water plant problem, Coun. Jeffrey mentioned “the volatility created by the province with the planning policy changes and potential changes to governance structures such as the County of Simcoe.” What she failed to mention was that our MPP, former mayor Brian Saunderson, has done and will do nothing to help the town deal with such problems as downloading or legislative burdens. In fact, he shrugged them off. But then, why would he? He never gave a shit about this town. He is the first MPP in at least four decades to not have an office here. That speaks volumes about how much he cares about Collingwood. But she soldiers on, a loyal Saundersonite.
Couns. Baines, Ring, and Perry all said they were surprised by the “sheer volume of reading required of complex reports.” Again, I wonder how they prepared themselves as candidates if they didn’t ask about the workload and volume of reading material that came with the role. And as the town grows, so does the paperwork.
Collingwood has, in the past, had post-literate councillors for whom reading anything longer or more complex than a stop sign was evidently a challenge. In previous terms, councilllors frequently exposed through gormless questions and statements their refusal (or inability) to read all the material given to them, yet seemed to revel in their ignorance. Chris Hedges, in his book The Empire of Illusion, said post-literacy, “…prevents people from seeing what is done in their name or even what is done to them.” The Saundersonsites at the table never realized how easily they were manipulated and used.
I can appreciate that there is not only a burden on councillors to read and ingest a lot of written material, but to do so in a short period of time. Councillors get inundated with paperwork and many simply cannot manage it all. A quick look at recent council and committee of the whole agenda packages (respectively) shows:
- Oct. 16: 81 and 676 pages (757 total)
- Oct 17: 27 pages
- Oct 30: 3 and 378 pages (381)
- Nov 6: 767 and 252 pages (1,019)
Agendas, even such massive War-and-Peace-sized packages, arrive digitally for councillors on Wednesday, sometimes Thursday, for a meeting usually scheduled for the following Monday. I’m not sure if they even get a printed copy any more, although research has shown digital reading is worse for comprehension, memory, and absorption. This is largely why council relies on staff’s or consultant’s presentations and reports to explain and condense the mountain of paperwork. And that’s where staff or consultants can manipulate council: by putting a spin on their recommendations or conclusions to agree with their own agendas. They count on at least some, if not all, of the council not to be able to make their way through everything in such a short time. And standing up to staff is tough enough as it is.
Compounding the matter is that many of the reports are technical, complex, and deal with issues and events outside the councillor’s experience, especially that of rookies. But in many cases, councils are asked to pass judgment and make decisions on them immediately, without having had sufficient time to digest everything, let alone find out how the community feels about them. (Hint to council: you can defer anything to give you time to read it!).
Coun. Ring’s surprise was “how long it takes to finalize all the approvals to complete some developments and projects.” Yes, the process is usually glacial and murky, replete with red tape. But that’s not new. It’s been a bureaucratic and legislative quagmire to get through anything to do with planning for decades. It’s one of the reasons we have a housing crisis, and simple things like a traffic light at High and Third Streets or all-away stop signs at Third and Cedar Streets have still not been installed. Didn’t you pay attention to it in the past?
Coun. Perry was surprised at “the number of community events.” But this isn’t new: councils have been doing photo ops and presenting certificates since the last Ice Age. As I said previously, there have been oodles of photo ops in local media, at least back when we had a real newspaper. Councils have always had a lot of demands on their time. Didn’t you pay attention to it in the past?
Perry also made a comment that “it is important to try and ignore some of the things that we read on social media.” Well, that’s pretty damned arrogant. For many residents, social media is the only platform they have to express their views about the town and council, or to raise issues. They certainly can’t let their feelings be known through the town’s user-hostile website. Sure, comments can be pointed and angry, but for an elected official to just ignore them just because they aren’t complimentary is not engaging with the community. How very Saundersonish of him.**
Coun. Baines was surprised at having ” too many expenditure demands/requirements from many sources on our limited budget.” But this isn’t new: councils have been struggling over budgets and trying to hold back the flood of staff requests since the town was founded. Budget discussions have been the main stories in the media at least since I came to town, even online. Didn’t you pay attention to them in the past?
Councillor Potts said he “hasn’t had any surprises so far.” I can only hope that means that he prepared himself for the role better than the rest of the rookies seem to have done.
What surprised, and frankly disappointed me, was that none of them are reported speaking about the big challenges presented by the climate crisis, our housing crisis, rising inflation, homelessness, our crumbling infrastructure, the water treatment plant debacle, and rapidly increasing traffic and its accompanying pollution, noise, and danger. Frankly, the challenges reported were trivial compared to the bigger issues facing the town, and the reporter should have pushed back on their responses.
Collingwood deserves better.
* A council that agrees with everything and accedes to every staff demand without advocating for their beliefs or for the residents is just a politburo… and we had enough of that servile Saundersonite nonsense from council last term.
** Nemo surdior est quam is qui non audiet: No man is more deaf than he who will not hear.