Striving for Mediocrity


DullardsOn a council laden with dunces, deadwood, and dullards, it must be some consolation to our elected representatives, that they can at least claim to be less mediocre than Councillor Steve Berman. We all need someone to measure ourselves against, I suppose, and a low bar is so much easier to rise above.

Berman’s first year in office was spent mostly consuming oxygen at the table and saying nothing of consequence. Of so little consequence were his words that even the normally sycophantic local media hardly ever bothered to reprint them. But when the pandemic struck and council retreated into virtual Zoom meetings, he rose to the occasion by occupying a video rectangle with a look of dazed incomprehension. That is something of an accomplishment for him, I guess.

To be fair, I suspect none of our council was elected for their brains, but rather for their unbending loyalty to our mayor: eight wannabe-Guilianis to their wannabe-mini-Trump. And has been made clear in their past two years in office, they clearly were expected not to show actual initiative or advocate for any projects or goals that might transfer the lustre to them and away from their leader. And in that role, Berman has shone along with the rest.

But Berman broke from the herd this week, going far enough into the fringe that Collingwood Today reported him “pushing for town staff and council to make more of an effort to stop the spread of misinformation in the correspondence section of council and committee agendas” and he “referenced the actions of Twitter to add flags to its users’ tweets when the information in the tweet was disputed.”

By which he is referring to Twitter tagging Donald Trump’s outright lies, but that suggests he must think that local residents are also lying when they write their concerns to council. 

Does that strike you as a call for censorship? Berman took to task two local residents whose mildly critical letters had appeared in the council’s recent  “consent agenda.” (Methinks he must be secretly reading my blog, too. Or maybe having someone summarize it for him because it has a lot of words in every post. Well, I welcome all readers, regardless of their literacy.)

And yet, most curiously, he didn’t include for his “fact-checking” tags the letter from Claire Tucker-Reid, on another consent agenda, which I found rife with the sort of “alternate facts” Berman claims to want to correct. But then, she was on the committee that recommended the $35 million corporate handout. And he was all for council making that donation. Not hypocritical of him at all, right?

Berman (left) and lizard
Councillor Steve Berman (left) and lizard.

One of the bees in Berman’s bonnet over which he took umbrage was a figure of $10 million suggested in one of those letters as the true cost for the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka SVJI — I have previously estimated it is over $9 million):

Berman asked staff if the town had spent $10 million on the inquiry.
“The costs have not been fully compiled,” answered Almas. “I think there were a few items coming in. I understand, at this point, it has not exceeded $8.5 million.”

Let’s digress for a moment. Costs are not yet compiled? Items still coming in? That circus left town more than a year ago, and its lawyers probably went out shopping for a new yacht as soon as it ended. The final report was emailed to the town 11 weeks ago. How can the costs not yet be “compiled”? Are there still bills coming in? Who is still being paid? Are there some people or companies still sucking on the SVJI tit? If so, how much longer must taxpayers shell out for this egregious expense?

But let’s talk about costs to date. If, as the clerk carefully noted, the cost — originally estimated at around $1.5-$1.6 million — has not exceeded $8,5 million (more than five and a half times the original estimate), then you can bet it’s an admission we’re very, very close to $8.5 million already. And, as I’ve written in the past, that does not include two years of municipal staff time and expenses, nor the costs of the town’s sole-sourced lawyer who presented the case for the SVJI before it was called for by council (and then was appointed its lawyer for the SVJI without the RFP required in the town’s procurement bylaw). There are many indirect costs not included in the accounting.

Nor does it include the $700,000 for the important-as-clean-drinking-water-report-about-the-report being written by senior staff right now.  Add just that onto $8.5 million and taxpayers have spent well over $9 million on the SVJI. I suspect that if the actual costs of staff time and the judge’s salary (paid by provincial taxpayers) were included, it would top $10 million. But for taxpayers, the difference between $8.5, $9, or even $10 million is marginal: it was OUR money spent on a personal vendetta because a former council refused to give a $35 million handout to a corporation.

DilbertAs for the report-about-the-report, I realize that asking our council to actually read, let alone comprehend and analyse, more than 900 pages of dense, sometimes repetitive, sometimes redundant, sometimes irrelevant legalese, testimony, and recommendations might be a challenge to their skills. I’m sure they would benefit from a PowerPoint presentation in large type with no more than a handful of bullets, some pictures of town hall, and maybe some pie charts. But $700,000? That’s got to be added to the total costs. (I could probably write that report and build the PowerPoint presentation in a single day and likely wouldn’t charge them more than $100,000… and I’ll add pie charts, too.)

Our sanctimonious councillor pressed on:

Berman said he has “no problem with opinions,” but suggested numbers aren’t opinions.

Well, numbers can be included in opinions. Saying the Earth is 6,000 years old is an opinion with numbers. Saying the judicial inquiry will only cost taxpayers $1.5 million (or wouldn’t cost them anything at all) was an opinion with numbers, too. And how wrong that number was!

And then Berman let loose with what will be remembered as his most quotable epigram this term:

“One plus one equals two,” he said.

Churchillian words of wisdom from our councillor. I’m sure that will be on the internet quote sites soon. He continued to whinge:

“We have a permanent record of these letters on our website and it’s not fair to expect people to know there was a debate about some things that were incorrect.” 
He said he wanted to see staff explore options for pointing out factual inaccuracies in items submitted to council so they could be flagged in council meeting minutes. 

So it seems he wants staff to fact-check residents’ letters to council? So they agree with the administration’s ideology and whatever alternate ‘facts’ he agrees with? He might believe that if council says it, then it must be so, and no dissent is allowed. Very Orwellian, but that’s not how democracy works. Nor how free speech works. Not that I ever expected him or the others at the table to read up on how democracy and free speech work, but I had hoped staff might guide him better, instead of playing along:

Almas told council she and the CAO had discussed the issue of misinformation more than a month ago and staff are investigating options, which could include a disclaimer on council agendas noting the content in the correspondence is not verified by the town.

One would think then that any semblance of fairness required a disclaimer on all the recorded meetings and comments to indicate that whatever councillors said was not verified, either. We’ve all heard outrageous, even mendacious claptrap fall from the lips of politicians (and not just from Donald Trump, Erin O’Toole, or Doug Ford). Why can they get away with it while politicians are not held accountable? But fairness and objectivity were apparently not on Berman’s mind when he wanted more constraints on what the public says:

Berman reiterated he would like items to be flagged with a note to say the information is disputed.
“Only on specific black-and-white things,” he clarified. “Not because someone doesn’t like the colour of my suit or something… I don’t want to stop anybody from writing anything.”

That last bit came as a surprise because I wasn’t aware he even owned a suit.

But where was his call for such strictures on public comment and administration correcting figures when he was a blogger attacking and insulting councillors, and spreading misinformation? Or when he was in front of town hall shouting a demand for the council of the day to give a $35 million handout to the YMCA (for which he once worked and his wife still does)? 

“I hope we are acutely aware of what misinformation is causing all over the place,” stated Berman during a council meeting on Jan. 18.

Such hypocrisy is unflattering, but not unexpected. Try to think, councillor, what your own misinformation caused to the 2010-14 council. What was good for him then should be good for council now. Seems he’s another of those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do politicians. 

If you think I’m being unreasonably critical of a first-term councillor, I suggest you read the comments following the article. Many of them point out that Berman doesn’t address the substance of the letters, but rather whinges about them being “not fair.” Put on your big boy pants, Councillor Berman: no one said life or politics were fair. You’re merely getting a very mild taste of what you put many people through before you took office. You should be thankful that neither you nor your fellow Blockheads at the table today have to face the undeserved vituperation and attacks we did.

I suggest you continue to strive for mediocrity this term, Councillor Berman, in your usual disheveled way, and eschew the Trumpian notion of censoring public comment. Maybe you could turn your efforts into getting our decaying streets and crumbling sidewalks fixed instead.

Collingwood deserves better.

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