Why the indelible stain of council secrecy still muzzles our right to public participation concerning public interests
Why the indelible stain of council secrecy still muzzles our right to public participation concerning public interests
By Gerry Barker
June 24, 2019
Opinion based on facts
Here are some of the tools of secrecy and controlling the message as practised by the Guelph Council since 2007:
* Conducting its business in closed-sessions.
* Retaining London-based Amberlea Gravel as special investigators of closed- sessions since 2008 and are on annual retainer.
* Establishing a system of discussing the public business as the Committee of the Whole (COW) eliminating the various committees of council.
* On the pretext of efficiency, using the councillor’s Code of Conduct to prevent any leaks of closed-session meetings or face discipline by the Integrity Commissioner who reports to council and is on retainer.
* Controlling the message by buying advertising space in the Guelph Mercury Tribune weekly newspaper passing it off as “City News” and not labeling it as advertising.
* The city communication staff prepares the content of these ads.
* The impact of this is that the Tribune editorial material rarely is critical of the city administration and rewrites press releases handed out by city staff.
* This results in muzzling any matter that council decides requires a closed-session to discuss responding to public participation with a potential negative outcome.
* The closing of the Guelph Mercury in January 2016 was the end of responsible print coverage of the public business.
* The fallout of denying public participation results in voter manipulation, that in October 2018 civic election resulted in the lowest voter turnout in many years. All of the incumbents who ran were re-elected.
* This was caused by voter suppression by giving Guelph Hydro away to Alectra utilities without the stakeholders being given no specific information about the terms and specific conditions of the deal. And that included most members of council and the sycophantic media.
The denial of online voting by city council also contributed to a lower turnout.
Guelph has been in the hands of successive administrations that used all the tools mentioned above, to obscure the truth and resulting in financial damages.
Why did the CAO drop out?
Let’s talk about recent examples of the fog of obscurity that is employed daily by the senior city staff and city council.
Last March, the Chief Administrative officer, Derrick Thomson, “parted ways” with the city by mutual agreement. The city did not state the circumstances of its CAO leaving.
The 2018 provincial Sunshine List of all public employees earning more than $100,000 a year was published. It revealed that Mr. Thomson received $335,000.
That was some $67,000 plus a taxable benefit of $11,000 more than he earned in 2017. This time, Mayor Guthrie told city council it was a bonus for Mr. Thomson’s role as co -chair of the Strategic Options Committee that was charged with disposing of Guelph Hydro.
Citizens and members of council still don’t know how that worked out.
There is one other detail. In September 2018, Mr. Thomson received a one-year extension to his existing contract that would end in April 2020.
We are not aware of why he suddenly left on a Friday afternoon in March or the circumstances of his $67,000 bonus or the reason for his departure.
There was no succession plan in place as the three remaining Deputy Chief Administrative Officers, (DCAO) were named to handle the duties of the departed CAO. That process is estimated to continue until August when a new CAO will be either named or hired.
The fog of secrecy continues unabated
Again, secrecy is used to cover –up why Mr. Thomson left without a successor in place and received a whopping great bonus for his role in dumping Guelph Hydro.
It is mindful of the games played in 2016. Mr. Thomson resigned in January. CAO Ann Pappert announced her resignation in mid-April agreeing to stay on until a successor was named. She left May 26, 2016.
Behold! Mr. Thomson agreed to a three-year contract as CAO and rejoined the staff in June 2016. Case closed or so we thought.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
In March 2017, the Sunshine List revealed that in 2016, Ms. Pappert received a 12-month salary of $263,000 but only worked five months.
There was no explanation from the Guthrie administration as to why she received a full year’s salary, adjusted for inflation. The only hint came in August 2016 when
Coun. Cathy Downer asked the city HR department for a breakdown of Ms. Pappert’s 2015 salary and benefits payment.
The report stated that Ms. Pappert received a retroactive performance bonus of $27,0000 part of her 2015 salary of $253,000. Again, there is no explanation supporting the bonus.
When compared to the $67,000 in 2018 performance bonus paid to Mr. Thomson, her’s is penny ante.
The spin is in and it’s with our money
That friends, is why and how successive city administrations continue to flaunt your rights by going to ground through closed-sessions over which we have no recourse. There were 84 such closed-session of coumcil in 2015 and 2016.
I know because I requested the minutes of the December 10, 2015 closed-session meeting of council and received an answer four months later denying my request.
Now I know why.
In 11 days, my legal counsel will present my statement of defence. We will request for a dismissal of the lawsuit accusing me of defamation in 2016. The action was brought in November 2016 by a former DCAO whose legal expenses are being paid by the city.
Thursday morning, April 4, at 10 a.m. in the Wellington County Court House, the motion to dismiss will be heard by a Superior Court Justice.
Based on the current law, the outcome will depend entirely on the facts presented to the judge.
I have already paid a severe personal price for revealing the truth. I am hoping that this hearing will force real accountability and transparency of all operations of our city’s business. This would include a complete public overhaul of the council’s procedural bylaws.
I feel that I underestimated the power of successive administrations to stifle and, cover-up using our money to stop criticism and challenge to public operations.
That is the essence of voter suppression, using secrecy while managing our public business without recourse.
By Gerry Barker
June 17, 2019
Mercy me. The similarities between the two most major construction of city buildings, since the Urbacon debacle that ended with the city being found responsible for firing the general contractor.
In 2014, an election year, it didn’t stop city council from approving the $34.1 million renovation of the 40.7 year-old headquarters. When first built in 1960, the city’s population was 38,000. In 1989, the building was retrofitted and a new wing added.
In 2014, the need was apparent, as the city population is now more than 131,000.
Is it déjà vu, all over again?
The new city hall and provincial court project in the old city hall took five years to complete and a cost overrun of $23 million. Now we have the case of the Police headquarters renovation that was approved in August 2014 and has yet to be completed 4.7 years later. The final cost has yet to be determined as the construction was impacted by excessive bedrock formations for new buildings on the site. Also winter weather conditions stalled construction.
This brings us to a new staff proposal to increase the city debt by $33.1 million. In 2017, according to the city, the debt was $110 million. At the end of 2018, the debt was reported as $96 million.
That’s progress right?
Here are the caveats about increasing the city debt
Council, at its June 24 meeting must approve the new debt terms and conditions. However, the staff will present the final numbers and associated cost to council July 8, 2019 according to the news report.
Is that a typo? The staff report follows council approval? It’s time to jack up the car and change the oil.
The new debt is guaranteed by the City of Guelph and it has a 20-year term when fully repaid in 2039, according to the staff report, the end cost of this new loan is $47.8 million.
The lender is not identified nor is the interest rate or any adjustments over the term of the loan.
If now approved the city debt will increase from $96 million in 2018 to $129 million this year. Is it possible that we ordinary citizens could handle the cost of a 29 per cent increase in our debt over 20 years?
FYI, starting next year, the city will be paying $862,000 per year costing 29 per cent more for its 2019 assumed debt.
So, where is the new money being spent?
Of the $33.1 million, $15.1 million is to be spent on the Police HQ renovation and the Wilson Street Parkade, both under construction; some $1.3 million will be spent replacing transit fare boxes; $1.6 million for fuel tank replacement at the city’s operations facility.
The amount to be spent on the two major projects was not spelled out.
It should be noted that the city approved a $16 million debenture for the Police HQ renovation that started in April 2016. The Police Services Board contributed some $3 million toward the renovation. That brought the outstanding balance to $14.1 million to meet the original approved cost of $34.1 million.
This does not include change orders or other unexpected costs that can increase the original council approval last August 2014.
The Wilson Street Parkade financing is murky. Last year, Mayor Guthrie announced the estimated $350 million Baker Street project would include a new downtown library, that is a key part of the plan. Barely mention, the $22 million Wilson Street Parkade was included in the original Baker Street project estimates.
Indeed, many a promise is embedded before an election.
Putting it all together, the report does not specify how and where the balance of the $33.1 million debt funds will be spent. So far, there is some $14.1 million still not allocated.
The other missing piece of promises made is the fate of the $63 million South End Recreation Centre. The city has already spent $3.5 million on preliminary plans from general revenues.
Incidently, whatever happened to that $18.5 million so-called dividend to be received from Guelph Hydrp following the merger with Alectra Utilities?
In my opinion, these developments are paying for a horribly mismanaged past that has milked the citizen’s ability to pay their obligations to the administration.
Under the present administration, don’t expect its collective ambition and disdain for professionalism that in the past four years has turned Guelph into an island of managemnt mediocrity in terms of not serving the people’s interests and blithely ignoring the fallout.
After 32 months a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against Guelph resident and blogger, Gerry Barker, will be heard July 4, 2019
The motion to dismiss a lawsuit by a former employee will be heard Thursday, July 4 by a Superior Court Judge in Guelph.
On November 16, 2016, a former City of Guelph Deputy Chief Administrative Officer sued Guelph resident Gerry Barker for defamation. The posts were published in the blog, guelphspeaks.ca.
The lawsuit claimed $500,000 in damages.
The plaintiff announced in November 2016 that the City of Guelph was paying his legal expenses.
The posts were published following the March 2016 release of the 2015 provincial Sunshine List of public employees earning more than $100,000 a year plus taxable benefits.
Details of the defence statement will be revealed at the hearing that involves freedom of speech and the right of public participation in the operations of the City of Guelph’s administration.
The defence is based on the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation legislation of Ontario, known as SLAPP.
The hearing will be held in the Wellington County Court House located on Woolwich Street starting at 10 a.m.
By Gerry Barker
June 10, 2019
I learned last week that the 2019 property tax rate in Guelph was 3.14 per cent. Significantly higher than the 2.63 per cent increase that was announced three moths’ ago by Mayor Cam Guthrie. Check your tax bill and you will discover the increase is higher in the final two payments..
The annual April tax rate adjustments were factored including such increases of property assessments. The Mayor’s December announcement turned out not to be true.
In fact it is a 19.33 per cent increase. Budgets are created to guide management to control the unexpected and revenues of the corporation. After years of going through the process of preparing a budget, one would think that there should be accurate information available to report to the public of the activated financial state of their municipality.
The process begins in October as the staff prepares its estimates and recommendations to city council. There are public meetings and proposals, usually involving requests for funding.
Budgets are not cast in stone but the number of fixed and variable costs must be analyzed and hard numbers developed by staff. It is a complicated and highly detailed exercise requiring insights and accountability both by staff and members of council.
Having said all this for some time, 12 years in fact, the process performance has been fraught with demands from special interest groups within and outside the organization responsible to the public who are the ultimate stakeholders.
What other cities are doing to keep costs under control
I received a detailed study of the average cost of homes in 25 Canadian cities and a deeper illustration of the average 2018 home values and property tax rates in the Greater Toronto Area.
The Canadian study by Zoocasa, is a reputable company that analyzed real estate values and property tax rates across the country. I should emphasize that the following data is sourced directly from each municipality’s official websites.
Let’s compare Guelph’s tax data with a number of municipalities in Ontario.
The average 2018 home price in Guelph is $436,600. The property tax rate is 1.17125.
This would qualify the claim often written in guelphspeaks.ca that Guelph‘s property tax rates are among the highest in the study. In fact, there are 19 municipalities in the Canadian sample having lower property tax rates than Guelph.
Here are two loca cities in the Canadian study:
Municipality Cdn home value property tax rate (less than Guelph)
Kitchener 19 $489,607- 1.12975 (.0415%)
Waterloo 16 $489,607 1,10785 (.0634%)
Guelph, Kitchener and Waterloo all have major universities and a community college with campuses in Kitchener, Guelph, Cambridge and Waterloo.
In the GTA portion of the study, closer to home, here are other comparative property tax rates and home values:
Municipality GTA home value property tax rate (less thanGuelph)
Barrie 20 $479,579 .0000 (.1725%)
Caledon 16 $874,690 .84010 (.330115)
Milton 5 $701,595 .69790 (.47335%)
Oakville 9 $1,074230 .75280 (.41845%)
The exodus from Toronto’s high priced housing
Toronto’s housing prices are forcing confronting young families seeking lower cost dwellings with more space, has caused higher home prices in some, but not all, surrounding cities and towns.
Those seeking lower housing costs should understand that not all municipalities are equal when it comes to paying property taxes and user fees. Also to be considered is the track record of potential municipalities in terms of the growth of property tax rates and appreciation of home values over time.
If you choose a municipality that has an average annual property tax rate of three per cent, such as Guelph, as your new home value increases you end up paying more taxes every year that increase your real out-if-pocket costs.
A reality check
However, living in a region with a low tax rate doesn’t necessarily translate to paying less tax if average home prices are higher.
For example, the Toronto tax rate is 0.63551 per cent, which translates into $5,532 of property taxes based on the average June 2018 home value of $870,559. In comparison, the Edmonton tax rate is 0.86869 per cent or about 1.4 times that of Toronto’s.
But the average home value in Edmonton is substantially lower at $381,520, which would result in a lower amount of property taxes overall at $3,314.
This is not the case in Guelph where every new property development increase will drive city property taxes much higher.
This illustrates why property tax rate and user fee increases facing Guelph every year.
In 2018 we had a high tax rate of 1.17125 per cent and an average home price of $436,600, any increase in home prices in Guelph will result in higher taxes for all property owners due to existing high property tax rates plus a one per cent special levy for infrastructure costs.
There is also a large range in property rates for Ontario cities: London’s rate of 1.35082 per cent is more than double Toronto’s rate while Ottawa’s rate of 1.06841 per cent is 1.6 times that of Toronto’s.
Underlying this is the effect of rising assessments of properties by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation of Ontario, or MPAC. When properties are assessed higher that impacts on the owner’s cost of living in the chosen community.
The last three Guelph administrations have created a property tax rate crisis by demanding annual property tax rate increases of more than three per cent or 2.5 times the rate of inflation in Ontario. In 12 years this practice has exponentially increased property taxes beyond the rate of inflation.
Ignoring the voice of experience
Two years ago, Guelph resident Pat Fung, a chartered accountant who analyzed the financial data as published by the neighbouring municipalities, sounded the alarm.
The result revealed that Guelph’s operating overhead far exceeded that of Cambridge and Kitchener. His detailed 2,700-word report was presented to city council who ignored the details. The local weekly newspaper turned down publishing the report and also a paid advertisement to explain the details.
Mayor Cam Guthrie campaigned in 2014 how he was gong to reduce property taxes to the level of the Consumer Price Index that was 1.11 per cent in 2014.
In his first budget the city council voted to increase the 2015 property tax rate following the annual spring budget adjustments, was 3.96 per cent.
City council since 2007 has increased property taxes annually by, on average, more than three per cent. There are major cities in Ontario that don’t even come close to those rates.
Guelph’s home development consisted mostly of connected strips homes, plus low-rise condos in a planning principle known as Intensification. The effect of this has resulted in higher property tax per acre revenue plus development fees. This is successive administration denying single-family housing development.
While other municipalities were more prudent in delivering economic development, Guelph’s leadership proceeded to blunder into ill planned and mismanagement of projects and assets.
The majority of city councillors have perpetuated these annual property tax rate increases. Now we see the proof of the disastrous decisions that have been made and the lack of responsible financial planning and execution.
Still not convincd?
Think why the former mayor needed capital projects that every year council bypasses to spend capital on acquiring part of the reformatory lands; was spending millions on underground thermal cooling and heating for large buildings; attempting unsuccessfully, to establish the city as being self-sufficient in terms of electric power under the guise of a District Energy program.
On that last point, the Guthrie administration virtually gave the city-owned Guelph Hydro facilities away to a deep-pocketed private power distributor Alectra Utilities. The whole kit and kaboodle for a tiny piece of 60 per cent of Alectra Utilities profit.
Now that’s coordinating capital planning and directing spending. And we are still waiting for a new downtown library and South End Recreation Centre.
Although the city tapped property owners with a special levy of one per cent to spend on “City Buildings,” read that as preliminary planning for the South End Centre. As of 2018 some $3.5 million had been spent planning the site and facilities to eventually cost $63 million.
It is an example of voodoo money management by taking $700,000 budgeted for new parking meter heads on downtown streets. To most people it was another backroom deal to reduce the number of fossil-fueled vehicles on the city. Millions werespent on expanding bike lanes, lane shrinkage to accommodate the bicycles and environmental projects such as the failed roof garden on top of the new city hall.
Speaking of parking. Why did council approve spending $22 million on a multi-storey parking garage next to city hall? Who does it serve? You may ask. With the majority of spaces being assigned to monthly permit holders, it isn’t downtown shoppers.
Here is the formula to remember:
Annual increases of intensification mixed use development;
Plus – annual increased property tax rates;
Plus – increased market values of property;
Plus – increased property assessments;
Equals = increased annual cost of owning propert in Guelph.
The key to stopping this annual bleeding of property taxpayers is to lower operating costs, freeze special interest spending, focus on building capital projects that people need today, not years from now. Conduct a review of all operations by a professional firm.
This last point is the tough one. It will be opposed by the majority of the present councillors who, in all probability, will block any outside study of operations. However, it is the only way that can assess the operational problems and report the solutions.
By Gerry Barker
June 6, 2019
I was a 13 year-pld patient in the former Hospital for Sick Children on College Street in Toronto.
I had been in a coma for two weeks with a massive undetermined infection and I was in an isolation ward. My mother was not allowed in the room and had to stand on a fire escape platform and talk to me through the window.
My first recollection of coming out of the coma was looking up at the front page of the Globe and Mail with the Headline:
D-DAY ALLIES LAND IN NORMANDY
Over the next few days my condition improved with one exception. I had developed an abcess behind my left eye that had to have a rubber tube inserted to drain the matter. Periodically, the tube passage behind the eye would close and had to be forced open with forceps.
What saved my life was Penicillin that entered my body through long gold needles inserted around my ankles and supplied it intreveniously.
I was six weeks in the hospital and my mother was told that I had osteomelitus in the bone orbit around the eye socket. He said they would have to graft bone from my forearm to cure that situation.
My mother was not prepared to have me go through that procedure and requested a second opinion.
I’ll never forget Dr.Phillips who burst into my room followed by a group of nurses and medical students. He removed the eye bandage and poked a needle-like device and inspected the orbital area.
“Where do you live Gerry?”
I told him in Aurora.
“Good” he said, “that’s on my way to the cottage. I’ll drop in and check you out in a week.,” he said. “ You can go home.”
I never heard from him again. But I’ll remember those words to this day. Maybe he had a flat tire and couldn’t replace it. It was wartime and everything was rationed.
My best friend came down to see me and said I looked terrible, just skin and bones.
By September, my mother and grandmother were involved in war services to pilots in training and then young women navel personnel known as WRENS in Ottawa. We had an apartment across the street from the Prime Minister’s residence and next door to the famous World War 1 pilot, Billy Bishop.
In 1945, we returned to our home in Aurora. I had recovered and developed a sudden interest in girls.
In 1947, I enlisted in the Queen’s York Rangers, 1st American Regiment, Royal Canadian Armoured Corps as a trooper. In 1951, I graduated as a First Lieutenant at the Armoured Corps school in Base Borden. I spent nine years in both active duty with the regular forces and the reserves.
When I joined the staff of the Toronto Star, my military career ended in 1957. That lasted until 2007 when I was invited to join the Ranger’s Regimental Council. I met many former colleagues with whom I served. The council was engaged in fund raising for projects that lay outside government funding.
My association with the military remains a part of my life and still has a great influence.
Four members of the Barker family served in World War 1. Two, John and Thomas were killed in action. Mt father served in France and Siberia while my Aunt Gladys served as a nursing sister overseas in that period.
My mother and father named me after John and Thomas, uncles I never knew.
I will never forget June 6, 1944. It was the beginning of Canada’s new age and growing into a major economic power in the world. Let us not forget those men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice on on our behalf.
By Gerry Barker
June 3. 2019
Opinion and commentary
The definition of free speech is covered under the Charter of Rights of the Canadian constitution.
However, there are other measures that protect the right of citizens to freely address the issues of the public’s business. And do it without fear of retaliation by deep-pocketed institutions. These include governments at all levels, corporations, and the public servants who claim defamation with their legal expenses paid by their employer.
For example, I learned last week that the 2019 property tax rate in Guelph was 3.14 per cent following the annual April city budget adjustments, including applying increased assessments.
It happens every year.
When the budget was passed last December, Mayor Guthrie proclaimed the 2019 property tax increase of 2.63 per cent was the lowest in years.
That friends, turned out to be not true. It is an example of fake news that was spoken by the Mayor knowing full well there would be adjustments when all details are finalized by the financial department.
We are already aware of the staff senior manager’s salary and benefit increases that are never disclosed until reported in the annual provincial Sunshine List. The names of very public employee in Ontario earning more than $100,000 are published each March.
Why do we have to wait for the Sunshine List to learn of the the Guelph salaries for the previous year? The city files the staff information to the province and must realize their decisions will be available to the public. Not even the Sunshine list reveals the reason for changes in salary and benefits..
It should be noted that negotiations with the Chief Administration Officer, the only senior manager who reports to council are held in closed session. The council authority is the Ontario Municipal Act, 2001-239 (2) (b) and (d). That information is not readily available to the public and lacks accountability and transparency (A & T)?
Does that qualify to meet the city’s own pledge to maintain an open government?
This is only the tip of the iceberg that our civic government continues to manipulate pubic information to serve its interests. It is done by concealing the details of a perceived potentially contentious issue behind a barrier of arcane regulations. Or otherwise failing to provide the public with the details of the final outcome. Is this not the epitome of Fake News?
Don’t get me wrong. There are certain conditions in which discussion must be withheld from the public
Here’s another example of message manipulation
The former CAO, Derrick Thomson’s, 2018 salary was revealed in the 2018 Sunshine list. His salary was $335,081.60 plus a taxable benefit of $11,393.57.
Shortly after the Sunshine report was published, in a March 18, 2019 meeting of council, Mayor Guthrie advised that Mr. Thomson received an additional $67,703.59 in compensation in 2018 as per Staff Report CS 2019 – 53.
This increase stated the Mayor was in recognition of Mr. Thomson’s work as co-chair of the Strategic Options Committee, concerning the merger of Guelph Hydro and Alectra Utilities that was finalized in January 2019.
Mr. Thomson’s co-chair on the SOC was Guelph Hydro Chair, Jane Armstrong, who was appointed by council to be the city’s representative over five years on the Alectra Utilities Board of Directors. Her reported compensation is $25,000 salary plus travel and per diem expenses when attending Alectra meetings.
Council knew in February the CAO was leaving in March
The most interesting part of Mr. Thomson’s career in Guelph was the meeting in February this year in which city council and Mr. Thomson agreed to “part ways,” The result was that the public was not informed of the impact of this decision until March 18 when the 2018 Sunshine list was published.
It appears the cat was out of the bag. But why?
The Mayor’s March 18 explanation to council about Mr. Thomson’s generous $67,703.59 bonus in 2018 seems strange and was awarded before the Ontario Energy Board approval was completed in January regarding the merger of the two utilities.
Speculation is rampant of Mr. Thomson’s sudden departure in March and the reasons remain unknown.
It has always been a mystery to me why the City of Guelph has stifled public participation concerning issues of interest to which the public is entitled.
This is not the first time that senior managers have received large increases and bonuses, withholding the details until the Sunshine List is published.
The administration continues to baffle the public using misinformation, publishing information on its website without informing the public, paying to advertise the “City News” in the only print publication remaining. This alone casts doubt of control over the news pages where advertising and editorial departments should operate separately from each other.
The citizens of Guelph deserve an administration that is competent, devoid of self-serving projects, function as a an open government, accountable and transparent.
* * * *
One a personal not: My wife, Barbara Barker, has been invited to display her artwork in the Evergreen Seniors Centre on Woolwich Street. With the assistance of Ted Pritchard, she is displaying 21 paintings she has completed in the past 25 years. The gallery will be on display for the month of June. For further information, call 518 763 7993.