Category Archives: Municipal politics

A truly open and accountable municipal government would totally do this…

I’ve had a couple of calls today — in response to our story on local public employees earning more than $100,000 (can’t remember if it’s online or not yet) — about Ontario’s Public Sector Salary Disclosure legislation, and why Collus employees aren’t listed (or, at least, why ‘one’ isn’t listed. But anyway…).

Well, here’s the scoop…

Back in 1996, when the Conservative government passed the legislation, Ontario Hydro employees were included. However, municipally-owned entities such as Collus that fall under the Ontario Business Corporation Act didn’t have to reveal salaries (even though, in a sense, they’ve public employees as well).

Now, when the provincial government changed up the electricity marketplace and created three corporations to replace Ontario Hydro, those companies fell under that same Act and were no longer required to publish salaries — that is, until the Liberals came along and decided a light needed to be shone…

However, when the Liberals revised the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act, they only applied it to the provincial electrical entities, and not municipally-owned electrical distribution companies.

Here’s where our municipal government comes in…

The Town of Collingwood does not have the ability to unilaterally reveal the salaries (if they’re over the $100,000 mark) of Collus employees, because of the Ontario Business Corporation Act (or, at least, that’s what I’m told). However, town council does have the ability — nay, the responsibility, the moral obligation, etc., etc. — to consider a motion asking the province to revise the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act to include municipally-owned electrical distribution companies. Said motion could then be forwarded to every municipality in Ontario, as well as the Minister of Finance…

Let’s see which councillors “has the guts, has the nuts,” as Councillor Joe Gardhouse once commented at the council table, to put forward that particular notice of motion…

Pre-election thoughts: countdown to regime change…

So far, according to the note from the Clerk’s office, 7,286 votes have come in, or 43% return… which means I’ll be pretty close to my prediction of 7,400 votes by the close of polls at 8 p.m. on Monday.

The last few days, I’ve fielded a few emails from people who’d like to know who to vote for; the general attitude is they don’t want to vote for any incumbents – not even Ian Chadwick, the leader of the Rebel Alliance…

I’ll just say this: I’m glad to see the end of this term of council. In 20 years of covering municipal politics – and this is the seventh council I’ve watched and reported on – I have never run into a group that had such potential, turn out to be so dysfunctional, arrogant (let’s not forget Tim McNabb’s comment that a ward system was “too complex” for voters to figure out), and out-of-touch (Dave Labelle’s comment that “maybe we should tip more”)  with the electorate. On his blog, Rick Crouch notes how ridiculous it is the patio issue turned out to be so big. I agree; in the grand scheme of things, the patio issue is very minor – but it’s gripped the public consciousness because it reflects everything that went wrong with this council – an attitude of ‘we know best’.

I always like to refer to this paragraph in a letter from VOTE: “We believe the political process in Collingwood is hampered by divisiveness and distrust rather (than) being consistently involved in effective civic engagement. We need leadership that is inclusive, that empowers and represents its citizens, that is open and accountable.” Oh wait, that was about the previous council; I can only wonder what they think of this council… oh, never mind…

Or how about this quote: “It is arrogant and wrong for politicians to think their decisions should not be questioned by taxpayers and the citizenry.” I don’t think I need to say who said it, but what I can say is that I found what occured in reality to be exactly the opposite.

I realize Chadwick would point to the head of the council table as the root of the problems, and he would be mostly right. But the mayor is only one person at the council table, and it takes at least another four people around the table to enable him. Let’s not forget, when the mayor authorized an audit of councillors’ emails at the beginning of this term, Norman Sandberg leapt to his defence: “Nothing has shaken my confidence nor trust in you …” Or how about this one: A year-and-a-half after certain councillors were chomping at the bit to conduct a judicial review of the town’s purchase of the Simcoe Street properties (a process that was termed ‘sloppy’, but certainly not even close to being illegal) in 2005, a process that would have cost taxpayers a minimum of $150,000, those same councillors vote against a compliance audit of donations to the mayor’s election campaign (again, a matter that was far from being illegal, and more related to a lack of clarity in provincial legislation) that would have only cost $10,000.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some good. The downtown looks very nice, in spite of the absence of restaurant patios. While they should never have been standards – and I predict a bit of a backlash just because they are ‘standards’ – the idea of implementing urban design guidelines with an eye to creating a greener, human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly community is admirable and ambitious. And, this council was able to score a little bit of cash for affordable housing, creating 18 units.

The rest? Aside from the third floor, the library project was launched by the previous council; this council made the determination that rather than something bold and daring, we would build a red brick box. The buses were purchased by the previous council; this council just took delivery. Environmental initiatives such as limiting pesticide use and automobile idling came out of the previous council. First Street? That process started under former mayor Terry Geddes’ watch.

The hole at Admiral Collingwood. The hole at heritage park. The continued decay of the town-owned fitness facility. These are things this council can take full responsibility for.

We will see what happens Monday night; at the very least, we know there will be a new mayor. If it goes as I expect, we will have four years of a steady hand on the rudder – there will be no ‘grand’ vision (as Chadwick notes in the comments), no flash, no wasted money on ‘branding’ exercises, no being needlessly confrontational with media types, no chasing some ‘governance ‘bogeyman’ — but that’s OK. We’ll have respect and common sense, and at this point that’s all that matters.

The rest is a bit of a crapshoot. I think I know who will be in the top four council spots, maybe even the top five. But there’s so many people running that there’s at least seven people who could be jockeying for those last two or three spots.

But, as Chadwick noted in his latest post: “Teams are not elected any more than leaders are born. Both are made. Both require effort, skill and patience to accomplish. And the next term offers new opportunities to restore both to Collingwood politics.”

Bring on the 2010-2014 term of council…

Nothing free about Freedom of Information…

Agree with them or not, it still rubs me the wrong way to hear the Not Pretty River folks (by the way, bad name for a website; they really shouldn’t centre out the school) will have to pay up $450 for documents from the Town of Collingwood requested under Freedom of Information.

According to an email this morning from the group’s lead rabble-rouser Lorne Kenney, the town is charging the group $4-fity for photocopying and staff time for the 300 pages or so of material that will be handed over to the group (I’ll be interested to know if any of that content will be redacted).

A couple of years back when I was but a lowly blogger and nothing much else (e-media wannabe, shurely!), I was told to submit an FOI request — and pay $5 — in order to obtain the town’s costs in its negotiations with the Admiral Collingwood Place. When I finally got the info (27 days after submitting my request), they followed my request to the letter and only provided the information they had as of the date I made the submission — even though the town received bills in the interim between when my request was made, and when the information was provided to me.

(Councillor Ian Chadwick was told to do the same thing; he’s just in the process of reworking his website, otherwise I would provide a link to his rant…)

Basically, I had to pay in order to find out what the town was doing with my tax money; what really burned me is the mayor commented on his phone-in program on the Peak two months later that anyone was welcome to the information.

So what if we ding a group of people $450? What if it was an individual with limited means: do we deny them the right to public information on the basis of income?

Like I said, this is nothing to do with the position of Lorne & Co.; if it’s information within the public realm, then there shouldn’t be any argument about — or hurdles to — making it open…

Heritage district… or Disneyland?

This has produced some interesting discussion in the Espresso Post this week; I’ve been watching the brick go up on the town’s new library (conveniently located across from the offices of the Enterprise-Bulletin) and thinking to myself, “So?”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited about the new library, and I’ve always thought the library was one of the important assets of a community — just as important as roads and sewers. I’m certain the inside will be thrilling, just as stoked as I am that the building will be LEED gold.

The exterior, however, is drawing a big shrug — and I’m not the only one.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big supporter of the heritage district. But I’ve been a little leery about the whole red brick thing since Loblaws rebuilt its store about 10 years ago. I mean, Loblaws is OK, but as I said in a column several years back, “it complements the rest of the downtown, and fits in the with overall theme of blandness as promoted by town council.” Otherwise, the place looks like the town armoury.

We went through it again when the Temple building; what the original had in grace and charm, the new building — built after the fire in September, 2000 — has made up for in sheer, uh, bigness, for lack of a more appropriate term (well, actually, I can come up with a more appropriate term, but my publisher — quite rightly — has provided me with a list of words that I shouldn’t even be using on the Internet).

And now the library. Watching the brick go up the last week or so, and all I can come up with is ‘warehouse’. Inside will be bright and airy, full of wonder and literature and art. Outside? Ho-hum.

The town is trying to create heritage out of thin air, and it can’t be done. Look at any of the existing buildings in the downtown that the owners have restored: Espresso Post, Ed Christie’s, Clerkson’s, Feminine Touch, Smart’s Flowers. While effort and new material have gone into those buildings, they still retain that organic quality of being, well, old. Just look at what Rick Lex is doing with the Tremont; there are people who think he’s crazy trying to fix the building up, but at the end of the day I have no doubt that what Rick will create will be authentically ‘heritage’ because what he starting out with is authentically historic. (I also have no doubt that, based on his other buildings in the downtown, that he’ll do an amazing job.)

As another example, the canoe club’s Watts Boathouse. I know there are some (well, only one person) who would call it an ‘ugly old building’, but it is an essential piece of our maritime boat-building history. The club could build a new building in the same style, but it would never have been able to recreate the sense of heritage; step inside, and you can literally smell and feel the wave of history wash over you.

We’re so hung up on this idea of ‘having’ a heritage district that we’ve lost sight of ‘why’ we should have a heritage district — and how the plan for the district directs how future development should look:

A Heritage Conservation District designation is not intended to prohibit or discourage the changes required by contemporary needs. Its purpose is to guide those changes so that change contributes to the District’s architectural and historic character.

The library? Not so much. All it will look like is a new building with red brick. No charm, no soul.

The town (i.e., council) lost an opportunity to create something new and exciting when it had architect John Shnier. The town hired Henry Wong, and while Wong is a great architect, he basically delivered what he was told to by council.

The great cities of the world are great — architecturally — because of the way they’ve been able to blend old and new. The past has been cherished and protected, and the present has been embraced and encouraged. In Collingwood, we seem to be scared of the present; we’ve creatively stymied ourselves for some misplaced romantic ideal of what the community once was.

For if that’s the case, we might as well just encase the whole place in Lucite…