Saunderson Failed to Engage Public on His SVJI


Public mneeting on SVJI
Despite his continuing efforts to promote and lavish public funds on the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI), our mayor has again failed to make the public interested in his expensive report. The latest foray into self-promotion was the virtual “public meeting” held last week (the first public meeting about the SVJI since it was called for, more than three years ago!), which, as I predicted, was not a public event as much as another harangue from himself and staff about why it was worth spending more than $8 million (more than $10 million if council was being honest about the true costs) on a digital report about events and processes a decade old.

As exciting as watching cars rustYou can see a video of the “meeting” here. Most of it is just a slide show (with pie charts!) and as exciting as watching cars rust. The first twelve minutes consist of the mayor reading from those slides — seems they are the same slides the CAO presented in her $700,000 as-important-as-clean-drinking-water-report-about-the-report a few months back. This repetition brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department.

Prior to the meeting, the town posted an “engage” page (with incorrect information on it that was later changed) for the public to pose questions about the SVJI which were to be answered during the “meeting.” They received ten questions — eight from one resident alone. But in the “meeting” the slides showed twelve, with no indication who these additional two came from (making me suspicious they came from within council themselves because they seem egregiously self-serving).*

The CAO answered those questions (more or less repeating the answers on the “engage” page), then there were three comments displayed — three very negative comments at that! — about the inquiry’s costs. They, too, were read aloud, although the source of these comments was not identified and doesn’t appear on the “engage” page. I assume these three are from different people other than the three who posted the questions. They were not commented on by our stony-faced council, none of whom like to acknowledge criticism.

So the total town engagement in a population of more than 25,000 (with about 20,000 registered voters including part-time and seasonal residents) is a total of SIX people. If we throw in Tim Fryer and John Megarry, both of whom have asked similar questions of council in public, that brings us up to EIGHT. And the tough questions about costs raised in public by both Fryer and Megarry were not answered then nor in this “meeting.”

That’s EIGHT people out of 25,000. Hardly awe-inspiring. There are more people lined up at a coffee shop take-out window any morning.

At 0:35:12 of the video, councillors are given the opportunity to comment. They don’t bother. After all, why explain yourself in a public meeting more than three years late? Let them eat cake. So the clerk turns it over to the public for comments. Guess how many people speak up? None! That’s real community engagement.

At 0:36:00 the mayor moves on to the second slide show, this one on businesses and lobbying. Like the first one, it’s an exciting time watching slides appear on the screen and hearing them read in a monotone, droning voice. But unlike the previous section, this one spurs the public into action! at 0:38:39 a resident has a comment. Well, it’s mostly to say he posted questions and the mayor says they’ll deal with them at the end. But for a minute or so it was an exciting time in public engagement in this spellbinding event.

Between the heart-racing times where you get to look at these positively gripping slides, the view switched to a mosaic with all of council in little Zoom rectangles. Most of whom appear to be struggling to stay awake while this riveting “meeting” is going on. If you watch carefully, however, you can see them move, or roll their eyes, so you know they aren’t simply mannequins.

At 0:45:15 the mayor asks if anyone in the public wishes to speak on the current topic. And at 0:45:47 John Megarry speaks up.  He says it is his “third attempt to get answers about the costs” of the SVJI.  And he poses three questions, paraphrased here (you should watch the video to hear them in full):

  1. What was the reason for the total secrecy around the calling for the SVJI?
  2. Why was there no formal procedure to conform to the town’s purchasing policies before Mr. McDowell’s firm was retained, single-sourced?
  3. Can Mayor Saunderson explain why he publicly projected the cost of the SVJI at $1 million?

At 0:47:14 Saunderson answers in lawyerly fashion saying all decisions made with respect to the judicial inquiry were done “pursuant to the town’s policies and procedures,” which seems to sidestep the intent of Megarry’s question. Saunderson adds “nothing was done secretly.” I guess he forgot about the 46 (or more) closed-door meetings the previous council had on the Collus-Powerstream sale, including hearing a presentation behind closed doors about why the town should hold a judicial inquiry, presented by the same lawyer who would get the sole-source contract to represent the town at that inquiry. Maybe his mind is too focused on his job-hunting campaign.

At 0:47:36 Saunderson asks Megarry to repeat the second question, which he does. And at 0:47:54 Saunderson tries to justify the implied criticism about sole-sourcing the lawyer’s contract by calling it a “non-standard procedure” and says it “complied with our practices and procedures.”  Hmmm. Just like the sole-sourcing of the Sprung facilities did, and yet that event spawned his $8-plus-million SVJI. There’s that lawyerly deflection again. And never mind his earlier election campaign promise that there would be “no exceptions” to calling for RFPs for any town expense over $25,000. He’s a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kinda politician.

In response to question three, at 0:48:22, Saunderson blames his publicly-stated lowball estimates of the costs for the SVJI on the sole-sourced lawyer and town staff. He doesn’t apologize or take responsibility. That would be the mature approach, but did anyone really expect him to? Me either. And his was the only response to Megarry from all of council. I doubt Megarry was satisfied since it sure looks to me like more whitewashing.

The floor is again open to the public for comments at about 0:50:00. Well, not until after those two extra questions (those not posted on the “engage” page) get dealt with. Saunderson wades in at 0:52:28, saying there was “no shortage of malfeasance, inappropriate processes, distortion of reports, and misleading of council,” cunningly throwing out innuendo without actually identifying any event or the people he would blame. That again doesn’t answer the question and is merely his opinion (keep in mind that the entire SVJI is an opinion itself, not a legal decision, and many of its recommendations are irrelevant or redundant.)

Saunderson then claims the decision to build the new rec facilities will continue to cost taxpayers “in the tens of millions of dollars until we have new rec facilities.” He conveniently doesn’t say that the former council’s decision not to give the YMCA the $35 million handout from taxpayers’ money his committee demanded, and instead spend money from the Collus share sale to build two new recreational facilities at no cost to our taxpayers actually saved the town money. Nor does he admit that those facilities have a lifespan equal to or longer than any bricks-and-mortar building (the fabric skin is guaranteed for 25 years). Nor does he note that any ongoing costs taxpayers have to shoulder come from our current council’s spending in their obsessive efforts to promote the SVJI, not from the facilities themselves.

Risibly, at 0:53:30 Saunderson says his SVJI “gave taxpayers confidence in how we’re doing business in town hall.” That seems to contradict the comments and questions posed here. I suspect few residents looking at our crumbling streets and decaying sidewalks, our unrestored terminals, our un-rebuilt waterfront, and compare it to the $8-plus million cost of the SVJI would agree they have confidence in town hall’s ability to spend our money wisely.

After a bit more such piffle, he asks if any other councillor has something to add. Not that anyone ever expected them to contract their Great Leader, but some do. Their few comments are predictably sycophantic.

At 0:54:36 Councillor Hamlin speaks, meandering through a peppering of “you know” to get to a vague point that the legislation to enable judicial inquiries is not really well designed for municipalities. And…? But she also throws in, “There were people running this town for their own financial benefit.” Well, that’s egregious bullshit, and even her beloved SVJI doesn’t make that claim. Like Councillor Berman’s previous cowardly comment, she throws out innuendo without the spine to back it up with evidence or actual names, thus tarring everyone with her brush (especially staff).

But then she goes on to pat herself and the cabal on the back for their alleged openness and says “We are leading in the province for how we conduct business.” Just not in fixing our streets and sidewalks, I guess. Or restoring the terminals. Or upgrading the waterfront. Or anything else residents can see and touch. But they sure do reports and pie charts well.

At 0:57:00 Deputy-mayor Hull says just what you expect from a yes-man: nothing of note until at 1:00:02, when he admits “the lion’s share of people in our community have not even opened up the inquiry.” That speaks volumes to how much the community cares. But I suspect that applies equally to our reading-averse council itself. And like his Great Leader, he shovels blame on “an outdated Municipal Act” rather than shoulder any responsibility (1:04:25) for being part of the decision-making in 2010-14. He also implies that because the Act “allowed these things to happen” (i.e. the decade-old events and processes) that nothing the SVJI investigated was actually illegal (or that after seven years of investigation, the OPP has yet to charge anyone).  He rambles until 1:07:17, huffing and chuffing about why attention is focused on the costs rather than “those responsible” (since, if nothing was illegal, this falls back on the five councillors who voted for the SVJI).

At 1:07:56, Saunderson replies to a written comment (not shown onscreen) about the IT services. These were previously supplied to the town for approx. $140,000-$150,000 a year under a shared services agreement with Collus (and continued with Collus-PowerStream). But the town ended that agreement, hired several (at least three) new employees, bought a truckload of new hardware, rewired the town hall, and took over scarce office space to supply the service in-house (all for a LARGE amount of money). The 2020 budget for IT services was more than $555,000 plus about $92,000 in equipment and software. That’s about four times the cost under the shared agreement. I suspect few residents looking at our previous IT costs and the current ones would agree they have confidence in town hall’s ability to spend our money wisely. I note Saunderson carefully avoids mentioning the ballooning costs of IT services and their impact on taxpayers.

(Saunderson also says that there was never any information given about the breakdown costs of each of the services in the agreement or the salaries of employees. I recall seeing such a breakdown when I was on council, and I recall asking specifically about the IT costs from the Collus staff, which is how I got my figure, above. As for the salaries — I am surprised a lawyer is not aware that personal information like that is protected under provincial legislation. I am also surprised he would raise this because the town never asks the salaries of employees for any other contract. Sadly, the mayor doesn’t get censored fact-checked like the public does in this town.)

By 1:10:20 it’s all over: no one else from the public wants to speak. Which pretty much says it all about public interest in the SVJI. But at 1:10:34, Councillor McLeod chimes in to ask for clarification on question six (on Sec. 290 of the Municipal Act). She goes on to call the rec facilities a “bubble.” Perhaps she is poorly informed about the nature of the town’s rec facilities and how they were built, or simply making a petty ideological insult for her Leader’s benefit. I suspect the latter.

The next step: ANOTHER staff report on the SVJI is coming forward in May (1:16:40). So we’ll get a report-about-the-report-about-the-report, but it wasn’t clear if this one will be another as-important-as-clean-drinking-water-report or just a plain report-about-the-report-about-the-report. Nor was it mentioned how much more this will cost taxpayers. And at 1:20:24 Saunderson warns the town will be “reporting back on that many times” before the annual report-about-the-report comes next November. Ka-ching! The council cash register never stops throwing money at this thing. 

Before the plug gets pulled, Councillor Doherty speaks up (1:18:54) to reiterate what the Great Leader just said, embellishing it somewhat, before she loses her train of thought and gets derailled in her own speech. Four members of council sat mute throughout the time, which probably spared us a lot of self-congratulatory repetition.

And that was it. About 80 minutes of heart-pounding excitement in which two residents spoke, six made written comments (possibly seven), slides got read aloud, and pie charts got shown. And at no time were the ACTUAL costs of the inquiry presented, including the sole-sourced lawyers and consultants, the $250,000 secret deal with EPCOR, staff time and resources, and the pricetag for bringing the legal team and former CAOs to town to defend these costs.

Sure doesn’t seem like the community really gives a damn about this, aside from the egregious costs and council’s continued throwing money at it.

Maybe residents are tired of council rehashing and bloviating on it while important issues get ignored. Maybe the events are just too damned old for anyone to care about. Maybe residents just want their streets and sidewalks fixed for their tax dollars and no more reports-about-the-report. Maybe we’re all too focused on the pandemic and we’re waiting for this council to actually do something meaningful to help. After all, it’s been a year and they still haven’t done anything useful or positive for local businesses and employees.

Collingwood deserves better.
* Question 11 (0:26:50) asked about other municipalities pursuing judicial inquiries against the publicly (snarkily written in quotation marks) owned utilities “involved,” mentioning only Alectra. This was the company that was created when several municipal utilities, including PowerStream merged in 2017 to form the province’s second-largest utility corporation, fully-owned by its member municipalities. Collingwood could have been a partner, but the previous council decided instead to sell our utility to EPCOR, an out-of-province, for-profit corporation. And they did it without any public consultation or input.  Alectra was not even in business a decade ago, when Collus and PowerStream created their strategic partnership. I suspect the question came from someone on council who really likes spending public money on judicial inquiries.

And FYI, in Sept. 2012, the EDA Magazine — a respected industry journal for the electrical distribution industry — carried an article praising the Collus-PowerStream partnership and its strategic goals. The Collus-PowerStream partnership was rated very highly by the Ontario Energy Board in its 2016 scorecard and report, which noted,

Collus PowerStream was placed in Cohort 2, in terms of efficiency. Cohort 2 is considered above average and is defined as having actual costs less than 10-25% of predicted costs. Overall our ranking has improved and the goal is to maintain our position within this group for 2016.

And an independent third-party review of the partnership in 2016 praised the utility, noting,

The strategic partnership between Collus PowerStream and PowerStream is an example of an innovative, pioneering, collaborative structure that can be a viable alternative for other local LDCs to understand and discuss as they determine the most appropriate path for their LDC in the future.

The report concluded that it was “encouraged that the Collus PowerStream unique strategic partnership [is] a viable option that can be adopted by other LDCs in the industry.” Neither of these reports were shared by town hall with the public or covered by the local media.

PS. To date, only the Connection has had a brief story on this event; nothing has been on CollingwoodToday’s site a week later. The Connection story doesn’t mention the remarkably low public participation, or the very few public questions or comments received, doesn’t mention the ongoing reports-about-the-report the public will be subjected to, didn’t interview any of the public participants afterwards, or question any of the responses. I know it’s only local media, but surely we deserve more comprehensive coverage from local media.

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