"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 31 January 2008


Habitat for Humanity has been back to Council seeking a donation of "surplus" land for a site. A Notice of Motion has been filed.

Habitat is an American organization. It serves a dual purpose. As well as helping a family get into the housing market, it also helps to regenerate urban neighbourhoods. There is a desperate need of renewal in many American towns and cities.

I have not travelled much in the States. I have watched vdeos of Habitat's activities. They show the grim reality of run-down neighbourhoods. Abandoned properties with ownership transferred to municipalities for unpaid taxes. From a municipal perspective, Habitat represents a Heaven-sent though meagre solution to assessment sink-holes.

No municipality in York Region shares that problem. Certainly not Aurora. Properties with perfectly well-maintained homes are being sold for $350,000 and up. The houses are immediately demolished to make way for million dollar mansions with assessments three times the previous value. That's a plus from the municipal perspective.

When Habitat asks the town to donate "surplus" land to build a house for a "deserving" family, they are seeking a donation to the value of $300,000 thousand, a conservative figure for a housing lot in Aurora.

The Town has no properties which have come into public ownership because of non-payment of taxes. There are no run-down neighbourhoods in need of a boost from Habitat for Humanity.

Seniors are forced to sell their homes because of high taxes. Young families live in town-houses, with barely a footprint on the ground, and both parents working to pay the mortgage and taxes. Children are in institutional care ten hours a day so parents can provide shelter for their families.

Old neighbourhoods with houses leaning or sinking a few years ago have now become the elite. Fifty year old subdivision track houses are regarded as "Heritage" by some owners.

Habitat tells us they are highly selective when they choose a family worthy of entering the housing market through their enterprise. Of twenty-five families who apply, twenty four are ineligible because they may not "fit" into Aurora neighbourhoods.

Meantime, York Region Housing has a "waiting list" of fifteen thousand which has not altered in seven years. A family selected by Habitat as lucky winner of a house built by "sweat equity" will make no dent in the desperate housing need in our community. People are living in fire-trap basements and attics and paying twelve out of a twenty thousand dollar income for shelter. No level of government is doing anything about their situation. No poorly housed family in our community will benefit from the Habitat concept.

Private charitable donations are admirable. Charitable donations of taxpayers money have no legitimacy.

Councils are elected to provide the best level of municipal service at the most efficient cost. We are not elected to decide for people which charity they will be compelled to support.

There is nothing noble about putting your hand in someone else's pocket for a a donation to a cause they may or may not support.

One per cent of our tax rate is $230,000. The gift of a residential detached building lot represents between one and two per cent added to the tax bill.

A building lot is a liquid asset of considerable value. Same as cash.

Wednesday 30 January 2008

To Market, to Market, to Buy a Fat Pig

The Farmer's Market was started before I came back to Council. It was a creation of former Councillor Nigel Kean and promoted as a way of bringing life back into the downtown core. So far as anyone was aware, it was not costing taxpayer's money and though I didn't have a lot of interest in it, neither did I have any objection to it. I saw little evidence of the historic commercial core returning to its former glory as a result of the Farmers' Market.

Small ads appeared occasionally bearing Councillor Kean's name and phone number as the contact person for The Market. I had heard he was spending his own resources to make it a success. The Seniors were using the Market to raise funds for their new Centre so that was a plus.

Then a full-page ad appeared and my antennae shot up straight. There was no budget for the project. A full-page ad is never cheap. I considered it unlikely the Councillor was digging into his own pocket to that extent. I made an inquiry.

Finally, I took the question to the Mayor's office and was informed the Councillor was using his “Allowance”. It seems the practice was normal, although, frankly I had never heard of such a thing. Councillors have a “Conference” allowance. In olden times it could only be used for the purpose stated in the budget. Yet I had heard Councillors generously offer their “allowance” to pay for this and that. Usually something I was describing as asinine.

Despite all his efforts to put the Town on the map with the Farmers' Market, Councillor Kean failed in his bid for the Mayor's chair and lost no time declaring it was time for someone else to take on the Mantle of The Market.

Last year, seven vendors took out permits. A farmer from Uxbridge came to Council seeking financial support. He informed us the market was not a commercial endeavour. “It is a community event.” he said seriously

It was determined the permit fee was $60, but it had not always been paid. When staff went to The Market collect it, Councillor Kean had run interference. Public money had been spent to promote The Market. The parking lot was closed for its accommodation. Public works provided the barricades. Some vendors paid nothing at all, others paid sixty dollars. There appeared to be neither rhyme nor reason.

Eventually, last year eighteen vendors returned to The Market. A councillor was appointed as go-between. Soon there was a request for money. Nine hundred dollars were allocated for promotional events - taxpayers' dollars of course. The Market became a fabulous success. Vendors were delighted. They sold out every Saturday, a thousand people patronized the locale.

This year, their stated intention is to move to the Town Park. The paved area in front of the Band Shell will suit them fine, they feel. They will have access to power outlets and toilet facilities. They are not offering to pay anything extra.

Oh Dear Me, No.

Instead, there is a request for additional funds. Councillor Granger asked for staff assistance to take care of the vendors. And money for promotional events. $3,500 are allocated in the budget.

The town park is the home of our one and only water park. Families seeking to use that facility in the long hot summer Saturdays will have to compete with vendors and their thousand patrons for use of the space, toilet facilities and parking. Residents around the park will have to endure traffic that does not belong on their streets.

The vendors intend to continue to bring life back into the downtown core. It's not clear how they intend to do that from a couple of blocks away.

Thursday 17 January 2008

Conduct - As in Code

The issue was an item on the agenda of a closed door meeting. I declared it had been contrived to allow continued harassment of Aurora Cable over their plan to erect a couple of wind turbines. An emergency meeting was subsequently called to deal with the problem of a councillor not observing the secrecy of in-camera discussion... The Director of Corporate Services reported rules of order for debate applied also to conduct of councillors in general.. That didn't hold water. The Town Solicitor said issues of liability belong behind closed doors. They do. But there was no issue of liability.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that staff will report as directed by particular political masters. Politics is an art not a science. Whoever appears to have the clout. ,,, has the clout.. For municipal staff, it is a practical reality. People do what they must to protect their jobs so long as they are not breaking any laws. .

But I suspect the outrage that triggered the original "emergency" meeting was about something else I said.

The spokesman for opposition to Aurora Cable plans, had repeatedly and publicly disputed professional advice to council from statutory officers of the corporation. He was subsequently appointed to the Committee of Adjustment, a quasi-judicial body which must make decisions based on hard evidence. . The committee must give weight to comments from Statutary Officers of the Corporation.

The appointment was not supported by four members of council. Notwithstanding, the Mayor notified all , she would inform the appointee of her 100% support. To keep the record straight,I took it upon myself , to inform him he did not have unanimous support . I respectfully provided my reasons. My e-mail was deemed by some to be insulting and outrageous .They were also frustrated to be told by the town solicitor I had contravened no law
That's when a Code of Conduct was proposed.We wold pass our own law to control recalcitrant councillors. The Director of Corporate Services was directed to prepare a report. Eventually it was submitted but not accepted. Council determined after all, it was not appropriate for staff to recommend Conduct for Councillors. A Citizens' Advisory Committeeshould be appointed for the purpose.

So the Code is not yet in place. It is still just a report. But it has some interesting ideas. For example; a member of council should not host or co-host a television show. Nor write a newspaper column. Or Letters to the Editor. It suggests there should only be one spokesperson for council .. Councillors should not make comments to the press.Or harrass staff.

Though there is authority in the Municipal Act to adopt a Code of Conduct,there is no requirement
to do so. Evidence from elsewhere suggests such a code is likely to morph into a complaint forum for councillors to score political points against each other. Toronto . has it's own Act and Integrity Commissioner. He lnvestigates complaints, makes recommendations to Council and they decide whether to follow his advice.. They often don't. They have no method of enforcement.The Commissioner is paid $104,000 a year. Not bad for casual employment. He has an administrative assistant who probably does all the legwork and certainly will be paid accordingly.

Toronto's Code came as the result of The Bellamy Inquiry into a computer boondogle of millions of
dollars in budget over-run that involved a staff person , at least one councillor the brother of a hockey player. and sex.The inquiry went on for months It cost more than 13 million dollars.

Aurora recently retained the services of George Rust D'Eye ,a solicitor .We do not have a Code of Conduct... No complaint was documented . No terms of reference were established. No section of the Municipal or any other Act was cited to provide authority to conduct an investigation..No purpose was ever stated. No advice was sought from the town solicitor.As yet. no report has been made public though the matter is concluded.The cost of the exercise is not yet known.

.It appears an "investigator" has the authority of Advisor, Judge, Jury, Prosecuting Attorney . All of it in secret.

Penalties suggested for non-adherence to the non-existent Code of Conduct are suspension of remuneration for ninety days , being billed the expense of the investigation. And to ensure future secrecy ,Council could create an executive committee
or an" inner circle" .
Any councillor inclined to be forthright has to be prepared to run the gauntlet of disapproval, even personal dislike..It is not considered to be conventional political wisdom. Generally speaking, that's mostly about covering one's posterior.

Being targeted as the subject of a secret investigation with the possibility of being punished like a felon has elements of an Inquisition with touches of comedic farce.. It is not, I submit , a price anyone should expect to pay to participate in the democratic process.

Thursday 3 January 2008

It's All About Ethics - Yours or Mine.

On a television chat I referred to Councillor Doug Holyday of Toronto. I was talking about a complaint filed with the Toronto Integrity Commissioner. Councillors Holyday and Rob Ford had had an official complaint against them because they had NOT made a claim for office expenses. I said it appeared they were both “rich” and had paid their own expenses. I received a friendly correction from one who knows Doug Holyday. He is not rich.

My knowledge of City politicians is what I pick up from the media. My comment would probably never reach Councillor Holyday or matter in the least to him. But just in case, I do want to correct it. And it has made me think.

Councillors in York Region have an allowance for office expenses and administrators. In Markham for instance, an office and a staff person is shared by two ward councillors.. In Aurora,where the whole town is the size of a ward and we have eight councillors, we have a new administrative assistant shared by all councillors and we just refurbished office space complete with a reception area at a cost of almost $60,000.

If the cost of the new facility and staff were to be assigned to councillors who use it, I would not be making a claim for expenses. I have only seen the facility once since it was completed and I have never discovered a need for an administrative assistant. That is not a reflection on the person occupying the position.

I see my role as a personal conduit between residents with a problem and the appropriate town department, to resolve the problem or provide an answer to any query I might have on their behalf. My research means paying attention to what is going on in other municipalities. Councillor Marsh drew my attention to a service on the internet called Munimall. It culls news items about municipalities across Canada.

If I need to know another municipality's experience on a particular issue, I pick up my own phone and call the relevant department in that city. I just say who I am and they treat me like one of their own. Municipal people are always happy to share information. It is the nature of public service.

I make no use of the phone, desk, computer or laptop in the councillors' room. Last term, it was discovered by monitoring that the room was almost never used except for Councillors Morris and Keane, who had separate rooms of their own. I've never thought about that before but I really have no idea what they did there.

In the last budget, we included the cost of refurbishing the councillors' room.and providing an administrative assistant. The budget was not finished until May. It was a tedious process. By the time terms of reference , advertising and selection took place, the job was not filled until the end of the year.For reasons of privacy rights, a person's salary cannot be divulged and I will not do that. But, by the time all factors are considered, space, equipment, benefits and use of other town facilities, . a conservative budget figure for the service would be in the region of $75,000 .Along with re-furbishing the room they werenew budget items and represented an increase in taxes.

The new council committed to it. They had no experience to guide them. But that did not stop them.

With the same absence of experience, they took other things out of the budget. A playground had been listed three years in a row in need of replacement. The cost was $70,000. The councillor who lives in the area said her neighbours would be wondering why we were wasting taxpayers' money that way. On the night we passed the budget, a mother from the neighbourhood came in and asked when so many beautiful things were happening elsewhere in our beautiful town, why could the children in her neighbourhood not have a playground they could safely enjoy?

The councillor promptly pointed at the Leisure Services Director. “You said it was safe” she said.

“It is.”, he said, “because we remove what is unsafe. That's why it is in need of replacement.”

When I started this blog, it was my intention to write about new provincial regulations and the requirement to appoint an “Investigator” to support the regulations. The stated Provincial objective is greater transparency and accountability of municipal politicians.They have their caucuses and party discipline which does not allow elected members to speak except in support of government policy. And they presume to talk about transparency and accountability at the municipal level.

To conform to the new regs,a Code of Conduct will be necessary to give the “Investigator” a standard of measurement against which to judge the behaviour of council or any councillor about whom there may be complaints..The devil is in the details. .

Councillors Ford and Holyday were complained about by colleagues who make claims for office expenses of around $56,000. Ford and Holyday did not claim . They have now been directed by the Integrity Commissioner to reveal their sources of finances which cover their office expenses.

One wonders what might happen if they claim to have paid out of their own pockets or, alternately, don't have office expenses. Will either explanation be accepted or will that also be considered a Breach of the Code?

We have a clause in our Code of Ethics which requires councillors to educate themselves about municipal matters. Maybe , a councillor who doesn't attend the variety of workshops available at commercial rates could be considered in breach of The Code for not educating him or herself

So you think that's just being silly? Well, you have no idea how silly things are.

We have adopted a system to have Investigators available which will cost $600 a year and $1250 a day .. An investigator could quite easily take a day to decide if a complaint is frivolous...or not...and whether or not an investigation is necessary.

Most municipalities are not anticipating complaints. But if Toronto's , East Gwillimbury's, and our experience is a gauge, we will have councillors complaining about councillors on the basis of tit- for- tat or spite, or because they can't handle criticism or all of the above.

How, I wonder, will the public's confidence in elected officials be enhanced under these particular circumstances?The people who designed this monstrous mechanism should not escape being held accountable .The people who exercised their franchise in the last municipal election should be interested in learning how their authority is being circumscribed.