(originally published in the Fourth and One Fifth August 2014 issue)
A strange thing happened at the March 25th council meeting. In an attempt to keep an issue off of everyone’s radar, a resolution that wasn’t even on the agenda was slipped in at the last minute. Moved by Counsellor Lees, seconded by Counsellor Turck, that “Council establish a Council Member Remuneration Committee to review and recommend revisions (by no later than June 30, 2014)”. The resolution named committee members but did not provide the terms of reference. It passed unanimously (with Counsellor Burns being absent).
This turned what should have been a routine setting of public policy into a completely secret process.
As I verified with the Mayor during question period, there was no public request for volunteers to serve as committee members, no public meetings, no publically available minutes of committee meetings, and no opportunity for the public to ask questions or provide input during the process. There is also a possible perceived conflict of interest as a senior official from the GRCA, which receives funding from the municipality, was on the committee.
The Mayor provided several misleading answers. She stated that anyone could have asked questions at the COW meeting when the report was presented to council by Jim Hunt, knowing full well that members of the public cannot ask questions of delegations, and any questions of council would have no impact on the report. She stated that they have been appointing members this way since 2000, ignoring their Strategic Plan endorsed by the current council that says they will do things differently.
When I questioned if council was operating in a manner that is consistent with their operating principle of transparency, I received the following unintelligible answer from the Mayor “When they were appointed it was identified which was prior to that and the update to the policies were brought forward”. A direct quote of her entire answer.
I have absolutely no problem with a regular review of council’s salaries. I have a big problem with a totally secret process that runs completely counter to Council’s stated operating principles of transparency, accountability, participation, and communication. I would have appreciated the opportunity to provide input, as I believe that the counsellor’s salaries should be higher.
It is time for council to decide what takes priority, their new set of operating principles or their old way of doing things. They need to decide if these operating principles will hang displayed like a trophy during council meetings, purely for show, or be taken off the wall and used as a road map to steer everyday decision making.
(originally published in the Fourth and One Fifth May 2014 issue)
An explanatory note: I sent a slightly longer version of this as an email to Northumberland News. I would have sent a similar email to Northumberland Today but there is no email address listed for the editor. My concern is that those who still read our local newspapers are being fed a highly slanted and incomplete version of what is actually occurring with our Port Hope municipal government. The reply from the writer said “We always ensure we are fair and balanced in our reporting”. What do you think?
“Please take this email in the vein of constructive criticism. I hope to start a dialogue that will hopefully result in more balance in your reporting of Port Hope municipal affairs.
I have been a Port Hope resident … for the past ten years. While you have usually provided more balanced reporting on Port Hope municipal affairs …, that balance seems to be eroding and has hit a new low point with your “article” on the 2014 budget. The reason that I hesitate to call it an article is that it is just a rework of segments of the press release from the municipality.
Consider the following
There have been rumours that the two papers have been “muzzled”, either directly by the town to stop unflattering reports, or by the papers themselves, to curry favour (and advertising dollars) with the council and municipal staff. Articles like this give credence to such rumours.
(originally published in the Fourth and One Fifth April 2014 issue)
I had little time to review this year’s municipal budget prior to its approval on March 25. The next day they issued a press release full of reassuring phrases like “infrastructure sustainability”, “Strategic Financial Plan”, and “long-term fiscal responsibility”.
Based on all of this, I was hoping for good things. I was disappointed. After even a brief examination it was easy to see that the budget content falls far short of the press release. I was concerned enough to attend the COW meeting April 1 to ask Councillor Austin about the contradictions that I found.
Here are the questions and a summary of the answers I received.
Question: The press release gives relatively little space to the additional increases of 2.1% levy plus 4.6% in assessment, and doesn’t even mention the 6.7% total and the corresponding spending increases. More space is given to the loss of a couple of revenue items totalling about 1%. Are you aware that this is the largest increase in taxation and spending since 2006?
Answer: While he did not answer the question, he did say “We needed to spend more money on capital”. (Note Councillor Austin was partially correct, in that total spending went up $822,750, contributions to capital reserves went up $339,900 or 41% of the total).
Question: The press release mentions the budget has “a focus on infrastructure sustainability” and is in accordance with the Strategic Financial Plan. It does not mention the gutting of reserves (excluding the LLRW funds) to the tune of about 37% during just two years. The best example is the Hydro reserve shrinking to just $3,241,303, or 35% of its initial 2001 value of $9.3 million. Could you explain how this is sustainable?
Answer: “We have over $30 million in reserves and that is sustainable” and councils have said that they will not touch the LLRW principle, just the interest, and that is sustainable. He did not offer a reason why the rest of the reserves are being used at an alarming rate.
Question: The press release does not mention that if you take the $114,000 in increased contributions from levy (relative to the base year of 2012) and add to the $150,000 LLRW interest you get a total of new money for reserves of $264,000. This sounds like a lot, but the SFP stated that a figure of $3.2 million a year was required, or $6.4 million total for the last two years. So you are actually only contributing about 4.1% of the required amount. Do you consider 4.1% a passing grade?
Answer: “We have a lot of expenditures … we have done our job … people say we waste taxes but we don’t”. Councillor Austin did not answer the question.
He seemed to miss the overall point of the questions which was that press releases shouldn’t try to mislead people into the mistaken notion that you are doing a good job, when the facts say otherwise.
Note that our local newspapers printed the press release essentially verbatim, without any additional information from the budget document, or even asking any questions of council or staff. Just reformatted as news. They do a disservice to all those wanting a balanced picture.
(originally published in the Fourth and One Fifth February 2014 issue)
A year-end newspaper article quoted our Mayor Thompson as saying “Councillors can be proud we have developed our strategic financial plan and identified the municipality is in good shape”. This puzzled me, as I had a different interpretation of the events of the past year.
The Strategic Financial Plan (SFP) was created by a consultant in late 2012 and called for reducing the infrastructure funding gap. This would enable us to fund the replacement or refurbishment our aging roads, sidewalks and facilities as required in a sustainable fashion. This is a huge challenge as in 2012 this deficit exceeded $3.6 million dollars annually. (All facts from the Port Hope website).
Liz Araujo, the former Finance Director mentioned “It represents the first step in developing an approach to address anticipated financial pressures and the infrastructure funding deficit”. Just the first step mind you.
While the plan is a good one, the reality is that things did not go well last year.
The 2013 budget took us in exactly the opposite direction of the strategic financial plan by reducing contributions to capital by about 12% (from 2.4 million in 2012 to about 2.1 million in 2013), while using up 27% of available reserves. Council made the gap bigger!
But it got worse when in February there was a council motion to “adopt the policy statements of the Strategic Financial Plan and direct staff to include them in a … by-law update to be presented to Council by September 2013.” This gave staff six months to get it done. After over 10 months the bylaw has not been prepared and even the chair of the finance committee seemed surprised that anyone would ask about it. Clearly implementing the plan is not a priority. So we have a plan that was adopted but not implemented.
One of the top policy statements in the adopted plan was that “Capital Reserves will be used to fund the replacement or refurbishment of existing assets”. Yet when it came to funding the Jack Burger Centre revitalization, about two thirds of the cost would be borrowed money. Mayor Thompson was quoted “In keeping with our Strategic Financial Plan, we have developed a funding model that balances the use of existing funds with appropriate long-term financing”.
Clearly the plan, and council’s words and actions are not in sync. This points out another gap that needs to be addressed. Council has created a credibility gap by claiming success while actually making the situation worse. The funding gap is larger, the accumulated funding deficit is greater and we are now in an election year when traditionally good financial management takes second place to getting re-elected.
I would urge council to at least partially implement the plan by increasing contributions to the capital program and to address the credibility gap by tackling and describing the implementation challenges in an open and honest manner. Please be more generous with the truth.
(originally published in the Fourth and One Fifth November 2013 issue)
The thrice-yearly town hall meetings are one of the best ideas that our current council has implemented. They give citizens a chance to get things off their chests and talk directly to them without any intervening bureaucracy. In spite of a motion to cancel these meetings (moved by Councillor Ellis, seconded by Councillor Austin) cooler heads prevailed and they have continued with a new set of guidelines and a five minute per question time limit. Obviously residents agreed and packed the Canton municipal building,
The overall tone this time was much calmer than previous meetings which could get a little rowdy at times. The biggest change was in the behavior of council. In earlier town halls it often seemed that council wasn’t listening. Some councillors would simply state that they were elected to make the decisions. Period.
This time councillors not only listened, but they talked, and talked. So much so that after the first fifty-two minutes of the two-hour meeting only three people had been given the opportunity to speak. All told only fifteen residents managed to make it to the podium. This was a 25% reduction from the previous meeting that did not have the five minute limit, so this limit appears unnecessary. Perhaps we should try a limit for council.
There were three topics of interest. Twelve people (eleven from Ward 2, one from Ward 1) talked about the current area rating “can of worms” (to quote Deputy Mayor Gilmer). Two talked about the Entech-Rem incinerator proposal. One talked about the strategic financial plan.
The major concerns with the area rating proposal from Ward 2 residents include the lack of sufficient facts to justify a 46% tax increase and a switch from a service usage based tax model to an access based model. The lack of services and deterioration of services was a common theme. The only Ward 1 resident to speak mentioned that his ward also suffers from service issues, but he agrees with the access based proposal. Councillor Burns and Deputy-Mayor Gilmer had some new information and ideas concerning the area rating issue. There seemed to be a lot of pre-election posturing by many council members. I suspect this issue will get punted down the road until a compromise solution is found.
Those who spoke about Entech-Rem pointed out that the Australian company that developed the technology had never built or operated anything, and that there were many planning errors in the screening report that were not caught by the peer review team or the municipal planning staff.
This was a valuable exercise in democracy. At least one councillor seems to have changed his approach from being elected to make decisions to being elected to make informed decisions.
Elections are only a year away.