"Cowardice asks the question...is it safe? Expediency asks the question...is it politic? Vanity asks the question...is it popular? But conscience asks the question...is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because it is right." ~Dr. Martin Luther King

Thursday 13 December 2007

Weighty Matters

I have served on many councils over the last forty years. I was the last Reeve of Aurora and served on the last County Council .. I held the Office of Mayor and Regional Councillor four years, I served on a government review board for nine years and travelled to just about every city, town and village in Ontario.

I was a member of the Police Services Board, York County Hospital Board, Lake Simcoe Conservation Authority and Childrens' Aid Society and I chaired the York Region Public Health Board.

I have associated with Police Chiefs, Hospital Directors, Planners, Doctors, Engineers, Municipal Clerks and CAOs. I worked as a reporter during a rest period from town politics and covered the affairs of a rural municipality and the York County Board of Education. A Director of Education crossed my path. I've dealt with several dozen lawyers, a few of them outstanding. I've met with cabinet ministers and their deputies, and worked well with a number of Mayors and an army of councillors.

Along the way I learned from everyone but the best lesson of all was to trust my own judgement.

Aurora Council had two external lawyers at the Town Hall this week to advise on separate matters. Both presentations were of course made behind closed doors.

Until recently, no record was kept of proceedings of a closed meeting. It is still true of discussion but now there needs to be a vote to provide direction to staff and that must be a matter of record ,though still not public.

For forty years, I have maintained the confidentiality of deliberations that had the potential of harming the town's interest , sometimes at my own cost politically..

The definition and intent of regulations regarding Conflict of Interest and Pecuniary Advantage are not complicated. There is nothing difficult about knowing if or when one is likely to benefit financially from participating in a discussion or a vote that carries the authority of elected office. There are no pitfalls for honest sensible people. Wealth is not the corollary of power as a councillor in the Town of Aurora ..

As noted above, two lawyers have provided legal opinions to councillors behind closed doors. Staff were permitted to attend. The question now is whether the interest of the municipal corporation would be harmed by public discussion of the issues. Is there a possibility of litigation against or arising from the proceedings?

Is there a person who might suffer loss of privacy from public disclosure?

Are politicians entitled to discuss political matters behind closed doors to weild clout they might not have in a public setting or save themselves embarrassment by loss of face?

The questions are weighty but delicious.

Saturday 8 December 2007

The Debate Begins!

I started blogging in the hopes that people would join the chat about our town's affairs. A year ago, I had no idea how it might evolve. I had hopes but there were no precedents. Before blogging, nobody could ever have revealed what goes on behind the scenes.

I have long argued with people in the private sector that the public sector bears very little resemblance to business. How can it? Periodically in politics, a new board of management is elected. They are chosen for almost as many reasons as there are people in the community.

Residents have told me they are waiting to receive leaflets from all the candidates. Their plan is to read them all and make a selection. Candidates can make hilarious claims to competence in a leaflet and it may be sufficient for a voter to decide in their favour.

A casually written story in a newspaper can create a negative impression. The female candidate "yelled". The male candidate "roared". The female was" bitter". The male was "critical". At times the reporter may be right but mostly it is a societal bias. It happens in every field.

Aurora's politics have always been robust, but there has also been a balance between the duty of political oversight and the responsibility and accountability of the administrative body and a recognition by council that the day-to-day management of town services must rest with the expertise of the professional administration

This term, we do not have that balance. We have elected people who believe they need the expertise to manage the munivcipality. They think they can learn it by questions asked and answered many times over and still without comprehension.This problem has been growing over the last number of years. A steady exodus of senior management has occurred concurrently.

CAO's are a relatively rare breed. Not every municipality has one. They number just over a hundred. Municipal people keep in touch with one another. If a problem rears its head in one community, chances are it has already been dealt with in another. The wheel does not have to keep being re-invented but it is likely more than problem solving is shared. Municipalities can gain or lose a reputation.

At council meetings, Directors traditionally take their place at the council table alongside their political "bosses". This year in Aurora, they have been relegated to the bottom of the table. No expression must cross their countenance, no speaking without invitation, no matter what idiocy or misrepresentation, they encounter,respect for the elected body must be maintained. . By the luck of an election they may have a balanced council and a chairperson with the skills necessary to keep the business of the corporation on track. And they may not.

Public service is unlike the manufacturing , retail.i or any other industry. A council is composed of nine people of various competencies and principles with agendas which may or may not reflect the best interest of the entire community they serve.

Many citizens are certain of the simplicity of delivering municipal services. Summer droughts, winter blizzards, ice storms. None of that is of any consequence to some people. They just know instinctively the job is a cinch.

And yet, if it were not for the efficiency of municipal services, most of Ontario for much of the year would be uninhabitable. A significant number of residents hightail it to other places to escape the hardship of a Canadian winter. Because of municipal services, the rest of us endure to make a living and raise our families in what might arguably be said, except for some of the weather, to be the best place there is.

As individuals, we do not have much influence in the world. We do not even have much in the government of our country. Influence on provincial affairs is less with each passing year.and the wealth and power of public service unions. But at the local level, we can vote, we can put our names forward for election to office. We can make our contribution to the public debate about the difference between good, bad or indifferent government. We can make our voices heard.

'Tis the season to be jolly.

For days I have been trying to think of something positive to blog about. You have provided it. We are not just observers. We are participants. By posting a comment, you have engaged. Can that be a bad thing? I think not, my friend. I welcome your thoughtful comment.

Monday 3 December 2007

Tis the Season....

Season's Greetings and Merry Christmas Everybody!

Click this link for a wee bit of Christmas Cheer.

Wishing you health and happiness.


Sunday 2 December 2007

Answers to a Reader's Questions

A comment on my Blog asks why I missed the last council meeting. Was I asked not to attend? Could I be made to resign?

I was not feeling up to snuff on Tuesday. There was a Budget Meeting on Monday, a Public Planning Meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Budget for Saturday. Tuesday's Agenda had nothing of any significance so I decided to harbour my resources.

From my perspective, my relationship with council colleagues is not difficult. There is some overt hostility that surfaces occasionally from the Mayor and Councillor MacEachern but since the feeling is mutual it balances itself out.

Communication is formal. Rules of order require civility. There is little room for awkwardness. There are no suggestions I should not attend meetings or hints from anybody that I should consider resignation.

I realize my frankness in this venue.my Letters to the Editor and e-mails to colleagues could be construed as counter-productive to a working relationship. But, time passes, issues are decided in a consistent pattern. The gap between my perception of the obvious and that of some colleagues is relatively constant. I do not claim my judgement to be always right, but I do claim experience and knowledge. For that to be discounted on a regular basis is more than needs to be silently endured. Professional advice is also regularly discounted. Staff must silently accept the authority of the elected body. I do not...have to be silent that is.

There is an option in these days of modern technology. I can present my side of things for those who choose to read. They may disagree vehemently, dismiss with vigour, or share my views as with like minds.

The Mayor and council have decided, wrongly in my opinion, to retain legal counsel at public expense to advise that I do not have the authority to follow my option to continue to share information frankly and freely, boldly and bluntly, as I promised in my election campaign. I continue to believe it is a legitimate option.

Blogging is a relatively new phenomena in today's politics. It is too early to tell what the ultimate effect will be but for now it is dramatic. Before the bllog, politicians were completely dependent on journalists to interpret what they were saying. Journalists are dependent on editors for how much print space might be available for any story. That was always an occupational hazard. As it went, I didn't have a lot to complain about. But it is much more agreeable to have my own conduit through the Blog.

Letters to the Auroran Editor also provide a powerful sense of freedom never before experienced. Although, to be sure, it's not every politician who would consider that an advantage.