Quidnuncs on Council


Taking Back Our CitiesA quidnunc is “a small-minded person, focused on petty things.” That’s how Gord Hume describes them in chapter five of his book, Taking Back Our Cities (Municipal World, 2011). Hume adds, “We have far too many of them on municipal councils across Canada.” I wonder what he’d say if he learned we had nine of them on ours? Hume continues:

It’s the councillor who pops up with odd little motions, or quibbling about a word in a motion, or can’t keep up with the agenda, or has trouble contributing to the debate, or focuses more on the process than the substance. Too often their attention converges on personality, rather than issue…

Sound familiar? To me, too. Hume adds that quidnuncs, “tend to seek out like-minded people on council for support, and form little pacts and alliances.” Remember The Block from last term? The ideological monolith that voted like the politburo, following their leader’s wishes at every turn? Well, they’re back with even more members this term. In fact, it’s difficult to impossible to identify anyone NOT part of The Block Version 2; they all seem to march in lockstep far too often these days. Dissension and real debate at the table are rare. Hume adds,

The local media often play them up because they’re always good for an amusing headline or two about their latest nutty idea, even as the public is shaking its collective head at the level of debate at council. The community’s national reputation is wounded once again… Quidnuncs can make councils look absolutely ridiculous.

Did Berman’s “nutty” (aka Stalinist) motion to censor “fact-check” public comments come to mind when you read that? I’m sure for many readers it did. 

Hume’s book is one of several of his I have on my bookshelves, along with numerous other books on municipal governance, marketing, branding, communications, planning, leadership, ethics, and broader issues like water, transportation, urban design, gambling, traffic, accessibility, and intergovernmental relations. I’m putting them all in boxes as I downsize my library to a more manageable amount of books.

Susan saw Hume’s book in my growing pile of municipal affairs books as I sort through my shelves. She asked why I didn’t donate them to town hall. Then we both laughed at the idea of any of our council with a book. It was quite amusing. Imagine them reading!

When I was in office, councillors had individual subscriptions to Municipal World magazine, and we often discussed issues raised in it at the table. Most of us looked forward to receiving our next copy. But in early 2015, the 2014-18 council (most of whom are on our current council) cancelled these subscriptions. I guess they didn’t want the advice, the ideas, the experiences, or the wisdom of other municipal leaders and experts to cloud their ideological fixations. And, I’ve been told, that obstinate refusal to be informed by peers carries on with this current council.

This would seem to contradict Section 14 of the town’s Code of Conduct (CoC), which says in part,

Members have an obligation to promote, support, pursue and partake in opportunities for professional development… Members are encouraged to stay updated on issues and trends so that they can be as efficient and effective as possible in the carriage of their duties and responsibilities.

I know, I laughed aloud too when I thought about how reading-averse our councillors are. How do they stay informed and updated without reading? They can’t. But you’ll note that the CoC doesn’t actually encourage reading. It’s okay to go to conventions where you can avail yourself of various hospitality suites and dinner parties, as long as you don’t learn anything (like previous councils learning about Sprung structures). But I digress.*

Hume’s books — especially his latest, Getting Cities Right — should be required reading for every new councillor. In fact, I would recommend them to anyone who even thinks about running for council. Read before you run. We need informed, savvy, well-read, and community-minded councillors who see the bigger picture, who understand what they are getting into, not more quidnuncs. I know: too late for this lot, but there’s always hope for next term.

Hume quotes Jeff Fielding, London’s former City Manager, as saying,

I believe the reason for the democratic process — to serve the public good, as opposed to the interest of a few — has been lost in local government at times… the interest of the few dominates in place of the broader agenda.

Bullseye! To me, that perfectly defines Collingwood Council, as it continues to lavish taxpayers’ money to promote the vendetta arguably flawed report into decade-old events with its many irrelevant or redundant recommendations (that has already cost taxpayers $10 million or more), while conducting their own redundant “investigations” into documents already examined by the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI). All this expensive pettiness simply because a former council refused to give the YMCA a $35 million handout. Meanwhile, the town’s roads crumble, sidewalks decay, the terminals rot, businesses suffer from lockdowns, the waterfront remains untouched, and nothing gets done for the greater good. But since you’ve already read my previous posts documenting this ongoing travesty of municipal governance, let’s move on.

I’d also recommend George Cuff’s two-volume Making a Difference: Cuff’s Guide for Municipal Leaders (Municipal World 2002 and 2007), as well as reading his regular column in Municipal World magazine. I know, I know: there I go with that reading thing again. If only it was presented to council in a PowerPoint presentation with big fonts, and only a few bullet points read aloud slowly, with colourful pie charts to capture their attention.

Cuff makes too many solid points to quote them all, but here’s one example: in Vol. 2 (The Case for Effective Governance), he says,

Anyone thinking of running for public office needs to begin at a  common point — a very strong desire to serve others… One of the greatest challenges of any council member is not only understanding, but also accepting, the fact that the opinions of others may be in direct contradiction to one’s own and, equally importantly, that those opinions may be more correct or appropriate.

Can you imagine a council that votes to censor “fact-check” public comments being understanding or accepting of other opinions? Neither can I. Cuff adds,

The ability to handle differences with others is the mark of a mature mind.

Mature mind? Yes, I laughed at that, too, when I thought of our council.

Mea culpa: I admit to the tendency to longwindedness. I  won’t go on with quotes from these and a dozen other relevant books because I fear my point might become too diffused. And that is: we need councillors who read, respect the opinions of others, learn, look for advice and ideas outside their own little circle, and who think about issues outside their own interests and ambitions. We don’t need a council full of quidnuncs who push their own petty agendas while ignoring the real needs of the community. Maybe next year we can elect new, community-minded councillors — and preferably ones open to reading and learning — to the table.

Collingwood deserves better.


* The CoC also has this:

16. Council will periodically use formal and informal opportunities to seek public input as a component of the decision making process which have broad impacts on the community. The purpose of the exercise will be to provide stakeholders with a mechanism to provide opinions and advice so that the widest range of views and information is available before final decisions are made.

A requirement for public input? That would be anathema to our obscurantist council, given their record of secrecy and deception (last term, council held forty-six closed-door meetings about selling our publicly-owned electricity utility to a for-profit corporation, sixteen closed-door meetings about selling our publicly-owned airport to a for-profit corporation, and not one open meeting to consult with the public on these sales. Plus they had four closed-door meetings about blocking our hospital’s redevelopment plans). This becomes just another section for our quidnuncs to ignore. 


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  1. Jeffrey Brydges

    Maybe Mr Hume could use Adjala-Tosorontio, Collingwood, Essa, Innisfil, and Midland as case studies for his next book. There are so many “unprecedented” examples to choose from in Simcoe County … Too bad that there are so few positive examples in local municipal politics.

  2. Jeffrey Brydges

    Why is this town council committing millions of dollars of public taxpayer money to another of their pet projects to service the private elite yacht club?
    Why is this town council committing millions of dollars of public taxpayer money to another of their pet projects to re-develop the contaminated concrete grain silos for the benefit of select developers in stead of demolishing them to make way for more public open space at the waterfront?
    Self-fulfilling, self-serving prophecy; so much for public consultation and seeking public input!

  3. Pingback: Hypocritical Candidate Wants to Return to Council – Scripturient

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