Monthly Archives: February 2013

Argo, the movie is an exercise in distortion

Posted February 26, 2013

I saw the movie Argo a month ago. The film won the best picture of the year award at the 2013 Academy Awards. It was a production loaded with drama and American hubris that culminated in a monumental lie.

Unfortunately, the real story was distorted.

It portrayed CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by director Ben Affleck, as the key player in the escape of six American embassy personnel from Iran in 1979. When the U.S. embassy was stormed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard six U.S diplomats escaped and arrived at the Canadian embassy for sanctuary. More than 70 U.S. embassy personnel were captured and held as hostages.

When questioned before the Oscar win, Affleck said he did not want to make a movie that celebrated the Canadian diplomatic role in the escape of the cornered Americans. He said that a movie had already been made called “Escape from Teheran, the Canadian Caper”. He wanted to create a movie with an American slant that would excite U.S. audiences. He succeeded despite the facts being bent to such a degree that it is a filmmaking bonanza that will make millions for him and producer George Clooney.

Hey, it’s a good movie, exciting, suspenseful and moves at a rapid pace.

But little of it is true although it purports to be based on historic fact.

Suppose a Canadian filmmaker decided to do a movie based on the battle of The Little Bighorn and this time, Custer won. Can you imagine the outrage if that happened? Maybe it’s an idea whose time has come. General George Custer could be the grandfather of Superman. He possessed special powers to withstand arrows lances and axes as he turned the tide against the Sioux chasing them back to Canada. Who knows, there might be an academy award in it.

Affleck ran into opposition following the screening of Argo at the Toronto Film Festival last September. Former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor protested that the Canadian role in the film was almost non-existent. Affleck promised to amend the ending to reflect the Canadian embassy’s actions in sheltering the Americans and the Canadian government’s role in producing fake Canadian passports and the flight out of Teheran.

Enter Affleck and his team of screenwriters. First, they needed an American hero. It was CIA agent Tony Mendez who, during the crisis of the invasion of the U.S. Embassy and capture of staff as hostages, was a minor player in the outcome of rescuing the six Americans. The reason was the volatile political situation in Iran during those dark days.

Think about it. How could an American CIA agent enter Iran with the hatred and animosity that prevailed during the Islamic revolution? What was his cover?  Iran had unyielding hatred of anything associated with the United States because it gave sanctuary to the deposed and hated Shah.

Remember the abortive attempt of the U.S military to rescue the hostages?  Don’t recall anything in Argo that mentioned that monumental disaster.

Today, those folks rescued by the Canadian embassy personal must feel somewhat embarrassed over Argo, because they know the truth was stretched to suit dramatic license.

This was entirely a Canadian show. The U.S. government could not, in any way acknowledge the existence of the holed-up American diplomats in the Canadian embassy. They were powerless.

So the Affleck crowd doesn’t allow the truth to get in the way of a great story. They manufactured one.

They took a book by Agent Mendez and fabricated an event about a Canadian film crew coming to Iran to recue the six U.S. diplomats. It was all about the money to support the American myth that they are the only good guys in the world.

This event, while historic and dramatic, cannot compare to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the perpetrator of the attack on the World Trade Towers in September 2011.

Oh yes, they made a movie, Zero Dark Thirty, about that episode. But it did not win the Oscar.

The problem here is how history is bent for personal financial gain.

I love movies. But that doesn’t make Argo right.

Yet the point is that great movies like The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan and the Band of Brothers portrayed actuality that was missing with Argo. These recorded historical events of what happened had plenty of dramatic license yet maintained truthfulness.

Shame on Ben Affleck and George Clooney to misrepresent the truth ignoring the role those brave Canadian diplomats played in this dramatic event. Is this the measure of effectiveness in war or storytelling? Is this how we judge our neighbours?

Maybe Canada, only 34 million strong, is not box office.

Don’t call us we’ll call you.

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More short takes

Posted February 23, 2013

Stick handling around the edges

So Mayor Farbridge reacted negatively and got “prickly” when it was suggested that the city tourism staff and job should be outsourced. Is that the same Mayor who starred in the $25,000 Guelph promotional video that was hosted by former NFL Quarterback Terry Bradshaw? How did that work out?

Are the big banks getting fat on student loans?

There was an interesting study done in the U.S. regarding the ratio of College students who graduate and the number who leave school for whatever reason with student loans. The smaller and lesser-known universities and colleges appear to have fewer students graduating in a class than those who take out student loans to attend college.

The question arises here of applying this study’s findings to publicly-funded Canadian universities and community colleges plus those for-profit institutions in the private sector. I suspect the graduation levels are higher than the U.S. but the key is the ratio between those who graduate and the number of outstanding student loans. Regardless it is time to get the banks out of the student loan business in which the loans are guaranteed by the provincial government. There is no escaping this obligation.

Does anybody have any poker sense at city hall?

Did Loblaws pull the wool over the eyes of the city administration? A letter in the local daily pointed out that an opportunity was missed when Loblaws requested permission to enlarge an existing store on Eramosa Road. With the dire need for a full-service grocery on land in the east end of the city owned by Loblaws, no one in the administration suggested that the Eramosa project was leverage to get the needed store in the East end. That need has now existed for seven years and hundreds of homes have been built in the interim. Talk about dropping the ball!

The tail is wagging the dog … again

One has to be amused by the latest report on bicycles sharing the road with vehicles. In a cross-country survey conducted by alleged researchers, it was determined that “simple” infrastructure changes and lower vehicle speeds would reduce bicycle accidents. In Guelph, fewer than 1,500 adult regular bicycle users have ardent advocates on council demanding more bike lanes to be built. The latest is spending $750,000 to create more lanes. Well, if the last grand project to build dedicated bike lanes on Stone Road is any example, it only cost $2 million. Now that’s a simple solution!

Late breaking news

One of our operatives questioned authorities at a Guelph primary school about the number of students who used bicycles to come to school. The reply was: “we do not recommend students using bicycles”. Is this a contradiction of city policy regarding bicycle lanes? Just what is the reason to spend taxpayer funds on more bicycle lanes when young people are being discouraged? Just asking.

What really happened before the city fired the contractor?

It seems there were numerous “change directives” issued by the city during the 18-month construction of the new city hall that was abruptly terminated by the city in September 2008. What is interesting is the description. When does a “change directive” become a “change order”? It is assumed that the executive word here is “change”. Each “change represents a deviation from the original approved design of the building.  The contractor bid on that design of the building. Now testimony in the civil trials between the city, Rubicon Buildings Group, architects Moriyama and Teshima, Aviva, the performance bond issuer, and subcontractors points to a root problem in the source of these changes that slowed completion of the new city hall.

When is former Chief Administration Officer Hans Loewig going to testify as to his role in the firing of Urbacon? Was he only following orders or was he complicit in the decision?  Were all these changes made for the benefit of the taxpayers or to embellish the needs of the staff who would occupy the new building? These are questions that must be explored by the court to determine cause and effect.

Water use drops. Rates go up.

Will someone explain why water consumption has steadily declined in Guelph but the rates keep going up? It’s classic user fee principle. If you use it, you pay for it. The exception here is that everyone must use water and wastewater must be treated.

Does that same principle apply to Guelph Transit where only some 13 per cent of taxpayers use the system but subsidize it by more than $14 million? Does it apply when the city spends $2 million on bicycle lanes of Stone Road? Cyclists pay nothing toward the capital costs of bicycle lanes although some are taxpayers. The latest council move is to spend another $750,000 on more dedicated bike lanes.

The downtown parking dilemma

When the city gives its employees free downtown parking who pays for it? Well, Revenue Canada says it’s a taxable benefit and the city has already handed out more than $400,000 (of taxpayer expense) with more to be paid because the administration failed to deduct the necessary tax for the freebie. It also exacerbates the downtown parking problem when some 1,300 civic employees have the potential of locking up precious spaces. It has always been a thorn in the side with non-public workers and shoppers who cannot find parking spaces.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Guelph’s Titanic has already hit the iceberg

Posted February 18,2013

In a Brampton courthouse, the case of the city versus Urbacon Building Group Corp. is unfolding as the final cost of the new city hall threatens to possibly double once settled.

In the summer of 2006, city council led by Mayor Kate Quarrie, awarded Urbacon a contract to build the new city hall adjacent to the then city hall. The contract, worth some $42 million, included not only the new city hall but also renovation of the old city hall into a provincial court facility.

In the 2006 election, the voters threw out the Quarrie council. Former mayor Karen Farbridge was elected along with ten councilors who supported her vision of the city.

Construction of the new city hall commenced in 2007.

As testimony unravels about what happened during the construction period, remember that the Farbridge administration terminated the contract on September 19, 2008, some 15 months after commencement of the job.

The action triggered a $19, 184,181.71 lawsuit by Urbacon for breach of contract. This is when the good ship Guelph struck the metaphorical iceberg. The city counter-sued, claiming $5 million. It also sued the bonding company, Aviva Insurance, for its performance bond of some $3 million.

The next step was for the city to hire Burlington-based Alberici Construction Ltd to finish the new city hall. It then hired a Cambridge company, Collaborative Construction Ltd., to complete the old city hall renovations to comply with an agreement made with the province to create a new provincial court.

The city has not revealed these additional completion costs. Judging from the city countersuit, those costs probably exceeded $5 million.

Next, the subcontractors hired by Urbacon demanded payment for work done on the project. The city, to avoid the embarrassment of have its new city hall with liens against it, paid out $4,825,807.92 to settle the subcontractor issue. Then turned around and sued Urbacon for the amount.

To further fuel the situation, the city sued architects Moriyama and Teshima for $2 million.

To date, only the Urbacon lawsuit is claiming damages of $7 million as part of its $19 million claim against the city.

What all this could cost taxpayers

Here’s a quick and dirty estimate of what the new city hall could cost taxpayers if judgment is in favour of Urbacon: Original contract, $42 million; subcontractor charges $4.8 million (this may be a credit to the city in judgment); estimate $5 million to pay contractors to finish the original contract; legal liability to be determined, $19 million awarded to Urbacon; legal and staff costs attributed to the case, estimate $3.5 million.

That totals $74 million rounded out. That’s an increase of $32 million over six years.

It is difficult to determine actual liability inherent because of the city’s covering up of the real costs of this project. I hope I’m wrong estimating these costs to taxpayers. But what if I’m right or even close?

Regardless, this has been the worst managed project in the history of the city. There were no apparent checks or balances.

The questions now are who was calling the shots at city hall? Why was there a breakdown of communication between contractor and city?

Testimony so far has shown that the city, Urbacon and the architects had communications failure between each other. Each complained that progress reports were either not forthcoming or understandable. And, as it turns out, there were a lot of change orders. Most came from the city, presumably funneled through the engineering department but who else had their finger in the process?. Others changes came from the architects.

A rule of thumb is that changes that exceed 10 per cent of the contract price is judged to nullify the agreement thereby opening the door for renegotiation. That didn’t happen.

In its opening testimony, Urbacon witnesses testified that the change orders delayed completion of the contract. They cited major changes from the architects shortly before the firing of the contractor.

Key senior management staff are let go

Complicating matters, in 2007, the Farbridge dominated council dumped Chief Financial Officer (CFO), David Kennedy. He was a veteran and well-respected senior civil servant. Both he and Chief Administration Officer, Larry Kotseff were shown the door. Both played a key role in 2006, when the new city hall project was being considered by council and awarded to Urbacon.

The dismissal ended up costing taxpayers more than $500,000 in lieu of notice. Translated, they were dismissed without cause.

Hans Loewig, a retired civic employee from Brantford, on contract, replaced Mr. Kotseff to fill the gap at the top. Loewig later was confirmed at CAO but never lived in the city and had an unusual perk in his contract that gave him 12 weeks of vacation time per year. This was in addition to travelling expenses including publically funded overnight stays in Guelph hotels.

Also along the way, City Clerk Lois Giles and City Solicitor Lois Payne retired. This furthered the vacuum of experience at the top levels of the administration.

Margaret Neubaur eventually replaced Kennedy as CFO. But she was fired three years later for yet-to-be revealed causes.  For unknown reasons, the Farbridge dominated council could not maintain continuity of senior financial management in the past six years.

The firing of Ms. Neubaur came as a result of her concerns about spending particularly on major capital projects without a business plan.

It remains a dereliction of responsibility on the part of the mayor and her council cohorts. Lurking in the background is former CAO, Hans Loewig, who administered the axe on Urbacon in September 2008 and later fired Ms. Neubaur, who allegedly dared to challenge the financial morass in which the city council had submerged itself.

Regardless of who wins or loses, this has been a management disaster that will exacerbate the city’s failed reputation as a good place to do business and its ability to grow responsibly.

The Urbacon affair will linger into 2014 before judgment and consequences of settlement are completed.

Long term consequences

Regardless of the outcome, it will become a major election issue in the city.

There is the possibility that the sides will settle before the case is completed.

No matter what that outcome may bring, taxpayers will still be left holding the bag for additional costs such as legal and court costs, subcontractor settlements and liabilities with other parties in the action.

 

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A day at the Royal Court of Greensleeves

Posted February 17, 2013

We take you now to the Kingdom of Greensleeves Guelph where the court of Queen Karen II of Farbridge is in session.

“Your majesty,” spoke the Lord High Chamberlain, Earl of Hammill, “the peasants are restless and are demanding lower taxes.”

The Queen swiveled her throne, chain of office sliding awkwardly across her chest, and coldly stared at her trusted friend and advisor.

“I will not countenance any resistance to our crusade to change our Kingdom as we see fit,” the Queen stated. “ We are preparing our lands for the future. Surely the peasants should recognize that. Look at what we have accomplished already.”

“With respect Ma’am,” Earl of Hammill replied, “that’s what they are complaining about, that they are being taxed to meet your agenda of spending on favoured projects that they don’t want. They are particularly angry that you have not built a new mid-village library as you promised.”

“Your highness, most exalted one, “ Count Amorosi, the Court Jester opined, “ I have the pulse of the peasants and they are all talk and no action. We still have our supporters who believe in what we are doing … for them. Do not fear this rabble of doomsters and naysayers. Verily, they are of no consequence as we pursue our agenda.”

“Highness, a word of caution here,” a voice from the rear was heard. “We have been careless about our messages to the people. Even when we tell the truth, they don’t believe us. Often perception is more damaging than the truth,” said the Earl of Findley, one of the Queen’s staunchest supporters.

Suddenly the door burst open and Lady Laidlaw stepped off her bicycle exclaiming: “Let then eat Timbits. They wouldn’t know progress from a hootenanny.”

“What’s a hootenanny?” the court asked in chorus.

“Never mind. Majesty, I want horseless carriages banned from Norfolk and Gordon lanes so cyclists can move freely without danger,” Lady Laidlaw said while munching on a leftover ham sandwich from the close session of court. “Waste not want not,” she mumbled as she consumed the sandwich.

“Majesty, can we not resolve this with a public meeting?” Piped up Countess Piper of Universal Accommodation. “ Our royal communicators are adept at managing the news so the flock is mollified.”

“Mollified? What’s that mean?” Mused the Royal Scribe of Letters, Sir Scott of Tracey, as he frantically searched for more feathers for his quill.

“I think it means don’t tell them what they don’t need to know,” dead-panned the Earl of Hammill. “If they question us further, we will call in the High Court Executioner, the Integrity Commissioner.”

“Oh, oh, oh, oh,” chorused the courtiers of lesser rank, those responsible for running the kingdom. “Not the Integrity Commissioner!”

The Queen entered deep thought before responding: “Suppose we just take off, you know, close down the kingdom for three months every year? Methinks the rabble will calm down and forget their specious complaints.”

“Let’s see, January would be a good month for starters. It follows the holy month of December when everyone is busy. It also affords needed rest time for the court after the lengthy budget-making efforts.”

The Queen adjusted her crown that had become askew: “ Verily I think we should add July and August so we may enjoy the warmth of the sun and the Royal Beaches without the peasants challenging our work.”

“Brilliant Majesty!” Exclaimed the Countess Hoffland of the Speed. “Sometimes a rest is better than just keeping our noses to the bulldozer.”

“That’s grindstone,” muttered the very junior Sir Guthrie of Blue Shield, who has been locked in the stocks for daring to question the Queen.

“It would save a lot of money,” said Count Amorosi. “ Just think, no hiring of lawyers and consultants for 20 per cent of our work year. The treasury will grow to meet the expenses of previous times when we had no money.”The scene shifts to the far reaches of the Royal Court to see Sir Wettstein of South End and his sidekick, Page Dennis, asleep and snoring softly.

“Methinks the Kingdom is in good hands,” commented Court Musicman, James Gordon, fresh from the Grammy’s. “I feel a song coming on.”

 

 

 

 

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Announcing the first annual guelphspeaks limerick contest

Posted February 14, 2013

Composing limericks is always fun and we guelphspeakers are full of ideas and comments on the city politic. There is no shortage of material. And the brilliance of our growing number of viewers and commentators indicates there is hidden talent out there.

Here’s your chance to display your skills composing limericks about our city, its leaders and foibles.

The basic ground rules are: No profanity, suggestive material or personal attacks. Keep it clean, satirical and humorous.

Here are a couple of limericks your editor cooked up as an example (he does not pretend to be any expert in the limerick writing field). Please be kind.

There once was a city called Guelph

With a council that was full of itself

With a mayor so dramatic

And a staff so enigmatic

The people were left on the shelf

 

We once had a mayor who had dreams

Who imposed her impossible schemes

The people revolted

Then they bolted

And she lost her desire to be queen

I know, I know, not the stuff to win a spot on the Daily Show.  Let’s see our talented viewers strut their stuff and share with our growing audience. The experts tell us guelphspeaks is the most popular blog in the city now attracting hundreds of viewers a day.

An independent committee will select the winners.

First prize is the new, exclusive guelphspeaks tee shirt plus $20

The next nine contributors will receive a guelphspeaks tee shirt.

Join the fun and start your limerick engines.

All accepted contributions would be published in our new limerick corner feature on the guelphspeaks.ca blog.

Here is your opportunity to make your point(s) in an entertaining and concise manner.

Send your submissions to guelphspeaks.ca as a comment. The deadline for this year is April 15, 2013.

Good limericks!

Gerry Barker

Editor – guelphspeaks.ca

 

 

 

 

 

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Gasp! Is Maggie Laidlaw’s dream coming true?

Posted February 11, 2013

A few years back Coun. Maggie Laidlaw, an ardent cyclist, predicted that there would be no cars in Guelph in 20 years. Looks like that prediction may be closer to the truth than most folks realized.

This week it was bolstered with the announcement that on-street parking is to be banned on some arterial roads to accommodate new bike lanes. In fact the city’s proposed Cycling Master Plan, calls for an additional 150 kilometers of dedicated bike lanes. Council approval of the Master Cycling Plan is expected at the end of this month.

The plan was developed by the city’s Transportation Demand Coordinator, Jennifer McDowell with a little help from the federal government with a $127,000 grant. This money was spent on hiring an outside non-staff consultants and a summer student to conduct a survey. Details of the survey methodology are not forthcoming. This includes sample criteria, vehicle use tracking in the past five years, number of cyclists using public roads and the times they use the streets for basic transportation.

Keep in mind the $2 million spent of the stimulus funding on turning Stone Road into dedicated bike lanes and so-called bike boxes.  Converting Guelph into a cycling paradise is not only an expensive proposition but panders to a minority of cyclists who believe it is their right to share the road. This despite the fact that they are not required to be licensed to use public roads.

Cycling has become a trendy avocation that the city council majority deems to have given priority.

But here are some common sense-based facts about cycling in Guelph. The city has distinct seasons including very cold weather, snow, sleet for four months of the year. Copenhagen it isn’t.

Did the survey determine how many cyclists use the roads 365 days a year? Further, did the survey ask the ages of the recipients to obtain a realistic profile of who is using the roads? Has bicycle use been tracked for frequency on major routes? What is the usage of bicycles on existing dedicated bike lanes?

How many residents aged 65 and older are biking on city streets? Would you push your baby carriage down a bike lane on a street? Many cyclists drag their children in trailers behind their bikes without regard of the risk. What basic equipment must cyclists have including bell or horn, adequate lighting and clothing for night biking?

With only 13 per cent of the city population using Guelph Transit, did the writers of the survey consider that the overwhelming majority of Guelph residents use motor vehicles, including motorcycles?

So, what are the priorities?

The Cycling Master Plan includes street widening, and building bike boulevards on Woodlawn and Edinburgh at an estimated cost of $750,000 spread over a “number of years.” If you believe that, then I have a bike to sell you.

An example of planning and design bungling was the restructuring of Norfolk Street in which vehicle lanes were reduced from four to two between McDonnell and Woolwich. It created a bottleneck of epic proportions on the main north/south access road through the city. It also took almost three years to complete.

This administration’s track record of estimating costs is a sick joke.  Examples: The Organic Waste Plant, Market Place civic centre, the never-ending downtown development plan, ad nauseum.

This city suffers from too many master or strategic plans and not enough control over cost management.

That’s why Guelph faces a serious financial crunch that is coming like a freight train. Huge debt increases, an oversized and growing staff, few checks and balances, all add up to saddling Guelph citizens with future costs that are growing exponentially.

Citizens have every expectation that after six years, the council majority won’t get it because most of them don’t understand what is happening, or they refuse to understand.

It’s called the ostrich syndrome.

 

 

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The plot sickens

Posted February 8, 2013

As the trial between the City of Guelph and its city hall contractor, Urbacon Buildings Group Corp drones on in Brampton, the multi-million dollar lawsuits testimony is increasingly becoming more revealing and complex.

It is not just one lawsuit, it’s five actions all rolled into one.

Number one is Urbacon’s claim for $19,164,181.71 for termination of contract in September 19, 2008 and the city’s counterclaim of $5,000,0000.

There is a separate suit against Aviva Insurance for recovery of a performance bond that was taken out when the project contract was awarded to Urbacon..

Architects Moriyama & Teshima are being sued by the city for $2 million.

Two actions brought by subcontractors including a payoff of $4,825,807,92 by the city to remove title liability. The city is suing for reimbursement from Urbacon.

How did this happen?

Evidence has shown that there were a number of change orders during construction that delayed the opening of the new city hall. Some of those orders came late in the construction cycle and were initiated by the architects. Others could have only come from city staff. This is where the waters muddy. It turns out that apparently council was not informed of these changes. Who authorized them?

When former Chief Administration Officer Hans Loewig closed down the contractor, ordering the company to remove workers and equipment, whom was he acting for?  Did the Mayor and council know what was about to happen?

Did the city obtain a legal opinion of its action before firing Urbacon?

It is still too early to judge the outcome of this mess, as both sides will present more evidence. The trial was supposed to conclude before the end of this month but is now being scheduled into March.

Is former CAO Loewig going to be called to testify to his role in the action?  As centerpiece of these lawsuits he should testify. Also is Mayor Farbridge going to testify as to her role in this termination?

The former Chief Financial Officer at the time, Margaret Neubaur, who was subsequently fired by Loewig, could provide testimony leading up to the reasons for terminating Urbacon.

My guess is that this will not be settled before judgment. That point has come and gone with the failure of a two-day mediation process in September 2012, aimed at settling the matter..

The bottom line is the taxpayers of Guelph have a potentially expensive settlement hanging over our collective heads. Our fate and responsibility will be in the hands of a judge once the trial is completed. That judgment will come sometime in the late summer or fall.

Whatever the outcome, taxpayers will be stuck with huge legal costs estimated to cost between $2,500 and $4,000 per week during trial, plus prep time and expenses. That does not count legal costs incurred since September 2008, the date of the termination.

Also, it does not include the cost of hiring two contractors to complete the new city hall and renovate the old city hall into a provincial courthouse.

The possibility exists that the judge finds for Urbacon. Then the legal costs of the trial and Urbacon’s counsel will be charged to the taxpayers.

Was this a case of political interference in a major construction project or a careless miscalculation of the fallout of such a decision?

What we do know is the buck stops at the desk of Mayor Farbridge.

 

 

 

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