Irony and cognitive dissonance


Politics is as full of irony as it is full of cognitive dissonance. And I don’t mean simply in politicians and their agencies: it is everyone and every group, every agency and every organization that dabbles in politics. Sooner or later, the irony comes out. And the cognitive dissonance sets in.

Irony is a difference between the appearance of something and its reality. As Google brings up the definition: “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.”

Amusing may be subjective.

Irony surfaced recently in local politics when we received emails first criticizing council for not doing something about the empty Admiral Collingwood Place site, then followed by others from many of the same people, criticizing us for doing something.

The real irony is that many of the people complaining that the site was not developed are the very people at least in part responsible for it being undeveloped in the first place.

Perhaps a brief history is in order (a full timeline can be read on the April 28 council agenda, starting at page 160).

The proposed development was democratically and legally approved by the council in late 2006. That’s critical to note. It was all done openly, transparently, with numerous public meetings, with staff and council in attendance, open discussion and lively debate, all above board.

The heritage impact assessment (HIA) for the site – prepared by an independent expert – was accepted. The community in general loved the idea of the development at that location. The Downtown BIA enthusiastically supported it. People lined up to put deposits down on condos. Only a small – but vocal – number disagreed, especially with the HIA. That’s okay: in a democracy disagreement is allowed.

In the fall of that year, a local special interest group (” VOTE”) filed two OMB challenges against the development. Former councillor (later mayor) Chris Carrier publicly donated a cheque to their legal fund in their battle against the town he was elected to serve. Still, legal and acceptable in a democracy.

You surely remember the special interest VOTE group – sarcastically referred to as “Voters Opposed To Everything” by some local wags (and media). A small group, never more than a couple of dozen strong, but with friends in high places.

They're bloggers instead...
In January, 2007, the new mayor, Chris Carrier, made a motion – itself a precedent – seconded by Councillor Kathy Jeffrey:

THAT By-law 2007-18, being a by-law to repeal By-law 2006-154, be enacted and passed this 15th day of January, 2007. (Admiral Collingwood Place Site Development Agreement Authorizing By-law)

This came as a surprise: it hadn’t been raised in the mayor’s recent election campaign, or raised at any council meeting after the election. No open and transparent discussion beforehand. And very little at the table when it was presented.

It got VOTE off the hook for what could have been crippling legal costs to defend its objection at the OMB.

The motion was approved by a 5-3 majority: Mayor Carrier, and councillors Edwards, McNabb, Foley and Jeffrey voted in favour. Deputy Mayor Cooper, and Councillors Labelle and Chadwick voted against it. Councillor Sandberg declared a conflict.

In rescinding the heritage assessment, that council also kicked the legs out from under the other half of the development – the proposed four-storey seniors’ residence – because they were linked in so many ways. Killing one killed both.

The commercial clients for the first-floor space soon found another location (outside the downtown: a great loss to the BIA). People started asking for their condo deposits back.

Council also refused to remove the holding “H” designation on the property, so development could not proceed. The developer took the town to the OMB.The legal squabble cost taxpayers more than $100,000 .*

Later that spring, council was presented a petition with 2,500 local signatures on it, slamming that motion and asking for the decision to be reversed. The petition read:*

We the undersigned hereby request that the Collingwood Council support the Admiral Place and Admiral’s Village Developments. It is our opinion that the overwhelming majority of full time Collingwood residents want this development to move forward.

We believe that Council needs to recognize the enormous economic and lifestyle impact this development will have in our community.

Finally we do not believe Council should be wasting hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars in fighting the development at the OMB that was already approved by previous staff and Council. We ask you our elected representatives to stand up for the rights of the silent majority and support this development now.

Pretty clearly the electorate didn’t agree with council’s decision. The mayor shrugged off the petition, saying to the local media in an interview published in the EB,

…he was offended by the petition and (Scott) Thomson’s presentation, which impugned the integrity of his fellow councillors. He also criticized the organizers for further polarizing the community with the petition, which he said utilized a divisive approach.

The mayor also dismissed the size of the petition – which included people who supported and even financed the mayor and many of the current council: “Carrier said the majority of council, from himself through Coun. Sonny Foley, captured far more than that percentage of the popular vote.”

How dare these people, these residents – with at least 100 times more signatures on their petition than the VOTE group ever had members – polarize the community by objecting to a council decision? VOTE wasn’t polarizing the community when it filed the OMB challenge, right?  Wasn’t being divisive when it demanded the approved development be stopped, right? ***

You can also see the irony here. And the cognitive dissonance.

Over the next 18 months the developer struggled to meet the town’s new demands, slug it out with planning, heritage advocates and politicians, and finally come up with a new design – not the grandiose, elegant and attractive six-storey original plan but a rather plain, industrial, frankly unattractive five-storey design that the OMB accepted, and the site’s opponents grumpily accepted by June 2008.

(The groundwork actually began in mid-2007 when the hole was dug for the foundation and parking lot.)

Then, in the summer, the 2008 recession hit.

Had the plan been allowed to go ahead as approved, when the recession slammed the economy, the building would have been built, occupied and held a place of pride downtown. There may also have been a beautiful seniors’ residence on the eastern half of the property by then.

But when the recession hit, everything halted. Not just there: across the community, and the province and the nation.

The pit collected water. It was soon tagged by a local wag with a sign that called it “Carrier’s Pond” – a name that still sticks.

That hole is the legacy of those actions. That and the lost economic impact for the downtown, the potential tax revenue and permit fees, the lost jobs and the lost assessment value: millions of dollars the town could have received.

But that was then. This is now.

In early 2011, this current council dissolved most of the agreements for the two sites, so the developers could prepare revised plans. The hoarding agreement remained in place. And, as per the request of the developers – not initiated by the town – town staff mediated (and council approved) a site remediation agreement, optimistically assuming that the economic picture would be rosy and development would have occurred within three years.

In February, 2012, there was a public meeting in support of the development that drew more than 350 people. This council received a petition with 800 signatures on it supporting the Admiral Collingwood development and asking us, “…to approve amendments to the heritage district plan to allow Admiral Collingwood Place and Admiral Village to go ahead.”

Clearly again, the greater community was in favour of the development and wanted it to go ahead.

All council can do is lay the groundwork. We cannot force anyone to build; we cannot make the economic conditions viable; we cannot force people to purchase condos or lease commercial space. Despite best efforts and a glittering grand opening for the condo sales office, after many economically weak months, the project faltered and went cold.

So what next? Assuming there would be progress before now, the two developers had agreed between themselves that, if nothing moved ahead in three years, the site would be cleaned up. In April, 2014 as the deadline approached, both developers requested an extension to allow them to develop additional options and strategies for the future. Which may include development or simply selling the properties.

That’s not up to the town. Our options are simple: agree to the mutual request and find a solution the town and the property owners can accept, or be heavy-handed and force the issue.

Some former VOTE members want the latter. One of a number of accusatory and angry letters, after damning council for being accommodating and trying to help facilitate the development, demanded,

The “blasted” hole should be filled in. The hoarding should be removed. The property should be appropriately landscaped. An open, treed, green space would be much more welcoming as an entry to Collingwood.

Is an empty lot what we really want downtown? Instead of a bustling mix of commercial and residential uses? A fenced empty lot? That’s what we already have. It’s private property, so we cannot force a developer to make it an open park. I doubt we could enforce any more than minimal landscaping, and it could still be hidden behind the hoarding or at very least a fence.

And we certainly can’t afford to buy it.

Another writer said,

…the entire community is affected by this project-in-limbo and now, only you can do something about it.

Well, we are doing something, even if these writers don’t approve of it. Council and staff are trying to resolve the issue in a non-confrontational way.

We all want a positive outcome, we all want a beautiful and welcoming development with more commercial and residential space downtown. Which we would have had by now, if efforts had not been made to halt it, seven years ago. Now we’re trying to work out an amiable solution both developers and the town can agree to; one that benefits the town; one which will avoid costly legal battles if we take a confrontational approach. A solution that will help the owners either move forward with the development or sell their property to someone who will take on the task.

Forcing the issue, acting like a police state, won’t help anyone, won’t make anything get built. Punitive action will hurt our already tarnished reputation. We need to take an approach that builds confidence in our willingness to be reasonable, open and positive.

That same letter says,

…enough fodder has emerged that could make a great TV movie about what happens when municipal planning is combined with political mismanagement.

Again with the irony, since that mismanagement occurred last term and resulted in the hole we see today. But like I said: old news.

The community – and the electorate – knows the story and the players. Last election, candidates heard what the community wants very clearly: to see this site developed. And we are doing what we can towards that end.

Oh and that cognitive dissonance I mentioned above? It’s what happens when people try to hold two opposing views in their mind. Like believing in creationism when you own a computer, cell phone and use other modern technologies to work and play. Like believing someone else was responsible for stopping the Admiral development.

Cognitive dissonance produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore internal balance. People change the meaning of what they perceive in order for it to fit into their existing preconceptions and relieve that discomfort. Facts don’t matter: they have to be adjusted to fit the comfort zone in your personal belief system.

People tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions. So what happens when one of our beliefs conflicts with another previously held belief? The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance

* A figure I personally had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get because of resistance at the table to having the costs made public. That’s aside from the $400,000 wasted on legal fees last term fighting the mayor’s battle against education development charges. We lost, lawyers got richer. Fighting pointless legal battles is never the best use of taxpayer dollars.

** The preamble of the petition, still available online, said, rather presciently (emphasis added):

In 2005, after the Simcoe County Board of Education received no interest from any government agencies or municipal governments, the Admiral Senior Public School was considered surplus and put out for competitive bid.

In 2005, two Collingwood businessmen were the successful bidders for the property. After an exhaustive environmental and architectural review the building was determined to be both environmentally and structurally unsafe and
needed to be torn down.

Following the Planning Act process the developers obtained the following; a demolition permit, proper rezoning of the property, a comprehensive historical impact study and finally an approved site plan in November of 2006. The project was being tendered and ready for construction starting in the spring of 2007.

Meanwhile, a new town council was elected and took office in January 2007. The newly elected Mayor and several elected councillors were endorsed during the election by a special interest group who adamantly opposed the Admiral project.

In a unprecedented motion, the newly elected Mayor introduced a motion to rescind the site plan and the Historical Impact Study. This motion narrowly passed by a 5 to 3 margin effectively reversing all the approvals granted by the previous council.

By revoking the approval of the project, a significant breach of promise has occurred. Businesses now thinking of relocating or expanding in Collingwood will be skeptical that an unstable local council can rescind prior approved building permits based upon the whims of a special interest group.

*** You might recall the time last term when the mayor called a special meeting of council in the Leisure Time Club, at the request of the VOTE group, to give the special interest group an opportunity to grill council on its activities. He  handed the council meeting over to the VOTE representative. I refused to attend something this partisan. (And if anyone thinks there were not partisan politics at play last term, then you weren’t paying attention last term.)

PS. As always, I speak for myself, not for all of council and these are my interpretation of events; your mileage my differ.

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  1. PS. Here’s a story from the EB about council’s unanimous decision to support the Admiral Collingwood development, on February 6, 2012 (emphasis added):

    COLLINGWOOD – Town council has approved changes to the downtown heritage district plan that will pave the way for a six-storey project at the corner of Hume and Hurontario.

    Council voted unanimously in favour of amending the the district’s bylaw, which would normally limit building height to a maximum of three stories…

    “We need to be flexible as a community when someone comes forward with an opportunity,” said Councillor Keith Hull in a lengthy dissertation that kicked off debate on the two bylaw amendments. The people he associates with, said Hull, have “made it abundantly clear that we need to get on with it…”

    Even Councillor Joe Gardhouse, who had raised concerns over the last several weeks about the town’s role as applicant for the zoning and official plan amendments, supported the bylaws…

    He also emphasized that if the project ultimately doesn’t get built, “it’s not because of the actions of this council.

    “Council has gone well beyond normal procedures (to move the project forward),” he said.

    According to a piece on the AWARE website, the number of residents’ signatures on the petition supporting the Admiral Collingwood Development, was 1,200, not 800. The petition was presented by former mayors Ron Emo and Terry Geddes.

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