Monthly Archives: September 2017

How the city administration is doing it their way with your money

By Gerry Barker

September 25, 2017

Let’s start today’s commentary by introducing the late Marshall McLuhan, the University of Toronto Philosophy Professor whose 1967 book: “The Medium is the Message,” predicted the Internet and its effect on sharing information globally.

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with,” he said.

“By shaping how societies obtain information, the medium (television, telegrams, telephones, etc) shaped people as much, if not more, than the message did.”

This got me thinking about how, in 2017, the city administration uses the Internet to communicate to the citizens. Aside from the Internet, there are other methods of communicating including the old reliable telephone, landline or cell, sending a letter by snail mail or reading the city-paid City News advertising pages in the local weekly. Believe me, those last two methods are old school communications. They are one-way communications that in some cases require a response.

But if a citizen is computer savvy and can send a message to the administration, most times they get a response.

Here’s a recent example of what I am talking about.

Last Thursday I sent the following request to City Clerk. Stephen O’Brien.

Hello Stephen:

I would appreciate a list of all the closed-session meetings conducted by council since September 1, 2016.  It would be useful to also include the reason for the meeting and the authority per the Ontario Municipal Act.

I realize your staff is busy and I’m in no great rush. The closed-session meetings are now published so I may pick up the current meetings as they are announced.

I was talking with a former councillor and he said that when he was on council, whenever a closed-session was held, there was a statement following, outlining the decisions made during that meeting. Understandably, the discussions, details and identity of the speakers would not be included in the brief post-meeting synopsis.

In your opinion is that option still available to the public?

Thanks for your assistance,

Best, Gerry Barker

Here is Mr. O’Brien’s reply sent the following day. It has be slightly edited for space.

To: Cam.Guthrie, Derrick.Thomson, Trevor.Lee, me

Good afternoon Mr. Barker,

Thank you for your email.

Our meetings, associated agendas and minutes, are all posted on line. I’ve provided easy to access links to this information based on meeting type below in order to assist with your request/inquiry:

Council and Council Planning Meetings

Council and Council Planning Meetings (for year 2017)

http://guelph.ca/city-hall/mayor-and-council/city-council/agendas-and-minutes/

Council and Council Planning Meetings (for years 2016 – 2017)

http://guelph.ca/city-hall/mayor-and-council/city-council/agendas-and-minutes/council-meetings/

Committee of the Whole and past Standing Committees

Committee of the Whole (for year 2017 and 2016)

http://guelph.ca/city-hall/mayor-and-council/committee-of-the-whole/

Former Standing Committees (pre Committee of the Whole)

http://guelph.ca/city-hall/council-and-committees/committee-archive/standing-committees/

All of the information/data you require, including the open meeting exception cited, is included on meeting agendas. In fact, section 239 (4) of the Municipal Act requires that before holding a meeting or part of a meeting that is to be closed to the public, a municipality shall state by resolution the fact of the holding of the closed meeting and the general nature of the matter to be considered at the closed meeting.

As such, our agendas list the following as an example:

Authority to move into closed meeting

That the Council of the City of Guelph now hold a meeting that is closed to the public, pursuant to the Municipal Act, to consider:

C-CON-2017.9  Public Appointments to the Environmental Advisory Committee, Water Conservation and Efficiency Public Advisory Committee, and Wellbeing Grant Allocation Panel Section. 239 (2) (b) of the Municipal Act related to personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees.

The vote and associated result of that vote with respect to this resolution to close a meeting to the public is contained within the meeting minutes as such:

Authority to Resolve into a Closed Meeting of Council

  1. Moved by Councillor Van Hellemond
  2. Seconded by Councillor Allt
  3. That the Council of the City of Guelph now hold a meeting that is closed to the public, pursuant to Section 239 (2) (b), (e) and (f) of the Municipal Act with respect to personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees; litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals; and advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose. Carried

To answer your question about the process following a closed meeting, Council does offer a statement following the closed portion of the meeting. This statement is listed on our agendas as “Closed Meeting Summary” and generally occurs either before or after the initiation of the open meeting (i.e. before or after O Canada, the moment of silent reflection, etc.). These statements are also captured in our minutes, an example of which is as follows (my emphasis added):

Closed Meeting Summary

Mayor Guthrie spoke regarding the matters addressed in closed and identified the following:

C-CON-2017.9  Public Appointments to the Environmental Advisory Committee, Water Conservation and Efficiency Public Advisory Committee, and Wellbeing Grant Allocation Panel

Direction was given to staff and recommendations will be introduced later in the meeting when the public report is discussed.

Some additional general information that you may find helpful:

The City maintains a Closed Meeting Protocol to assist Council and staff with questions relating to closed meeting processes. This protocol is available here and is accessible from the City’s Accountability and Transparency page online.

  • The City’s Procedural By-law, which is also available online, codifies many of the above mentioned requirements and actions. The specific section(s) (see section 4.6) the by-law can be referenced here.

I trust this information answers your questions and assists you with your request.

Thank you and enjoy your weekend,

Stephen

Let the search begin

Now I must admit, Mr. O’Brien’s response was thorough but requires some time spent on searching the various components of the response to obtain the information requested. I’m still working on it.

Did Marshall McLuhan ever believe in 1967 that the Internet would transform the distribution of knowledge and the way it was managed to support his philosophical theories?

There are 131,000 people living permanently in Guelph today. Add to that, the more than 20,000 students who attend the University of Guelph for approximately eight months of the year. That group is, for the most part, computer savvy and active on the Internet. That is not the case for many of the permanent residents. In that group, the availability, use and operation smarts using a computer, drops off dramatically. I know because I can’t keep up with tech changes and procedures.

This brings us to the City of Guelph’s website. It is extremely difficult to navigate even by highly qualified computer users. Using a computer requires a high level of proficiency, if for no other reason, to keep up with technological change.

Using a computer is not like riding a bicycle but more like training to be a concert pianist.

The city website is designed to serve the needs of the administration not the citizens. I’m not suggesting to dumb it down but make it open and easier to access. It should be built to serve the citizens not the other way around.

Today, the printed word reflects the diminishing interest in newspapers and magazines

This brings us to the printed word as seen by the younger demographic as being old school communications. The demise of the Mercury is an example of this.

The Guelph Tribune is the sole community print outlet in the city. It has the benefit of having the administration of being one of its largest customers. The city’s full-page ads running in every issue labelled “City News,” average 5 full pages per week. Assuming that pages are deeply discounted at $1,000 that comes to a tasty $260,000 a year account, paid by the citizens.

But that’s only the beginning. There is the city communications staff, Legal department, Finance and Clerk’s office all contributing to the content of those City News ads. The Tribune staff can put the material together but the source has to be generated by the city staff.

In my opinion, this is a waste of the public’s money. Why, you may ask? Because this give the administration complete control of the medium. The editorial content of the twice-weekly paper. is dominated by friendly reports as distributed by the city communications department. When was the last time you read a story in the Tribune that was critical and exposed operational mistakes and loss of public funds?

The owners of the paper will never bite the hand that feeds them. That’s why the paper is rarely critical of the administration. The medium is indeed the message and the city administration owns it.

It’s reflective of the cultural malaise of the administration. They can think of 50 ways to spend your money on their pet projects, but rarely take steps to save your money.

It will not change unless the people decide to change it and to elect knowledgeable, responsible candidates with the political will to change the pernicious culture that has existed for too long at City Hall.

You know we have a problem when the Mayor, apparently assisted by consultant, the Hildred Group, to prepare his explanation why closed-session meetings are important to the public’s business but then only sends the explanation to his council and four other people.

I guess Marshall McLuhan got it right? The medium is the message.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Between the Lines

How the administration’s Cone of Silence closes the door on public participation

By Gerry Barker

September 18, 2017

Today there is good news and bad news

First, it’s my birthday, please no applause.

Second, is yet another confirmation that we the people of this fair city don’t count when it comes to the operations of the administration headed by Mayor Cam Guthrie. The Mayor sent out an explanation of how he “polices and oversees” closed-session meetings of council. He claims it ensures the discussion stays within that which the Municipal Act (OMA) allows. He added that he takes this responsibility seriously.

Or, is he suggesting that the closed-session subject strays into other discussions not realted to the OMA authority?

So what does this mean to us? Well, after three years in office, little has changed when it comes to properly informing the public of city business. The system works like this and was used extensively by the previous administration:

Whenever there is a contentious issue, let’s use the $2.5 million loss by the city-operated recycling plant for starters, the council dives into closed-session. It uses a section of the OMA that defines the criteria for holding such a meeting.

Can the Ontario Ombudsman open the closed-session meetings?

Every one of the 445 municipalities in Ontario is bound by the terms of the OMA. The section allowing closed-session meetings of council is very broad. So broad in fact, that the Ontario Ombudsman, the independent overseer of all Municipal and School Board meetings, handles an estimated 35 per cent of its docket investigating closed-session meeting complaints at many levels

Now here’s a wrinkle. Last December, I requested the minutes of a closed-session council meeting held December 10, 2015. I requested that the Ombudsman investigate this and was told that Guelph had its own “closed-session investigator” known as Amberlea Gravel based in London. After requesting an answer after waiting more than four months, I was told that my request was denied.

Now Amberlee Gravel has been on retainer to the city since 2008. Since then it has investigated three closed-session complaints or requests for information. None were approved. The organization was hired by the Farbridge administration. The amount of its retainer paid annually over nine years is not available.

This was a deliberate move that effectively put the lid on the public being informed of the contents of any closed-session. It remains an integral part of the Cone of Silence that shuts down public participation in city operations.

Introducing the Integrity Commissioner, the second leg of the Cone of Silence

Five years ago, the Farbridge administration hired a Caledon lawyer to act as its Integrity Commissioner with an annual retainer of $5,000 plus time spent investigating breaches of the code of conduct by councillors and staff. The reason was her concern, along with her Chief Administrative Officer, Ann Pappert, of alleged leaks of information that was supposed to be private not for public access.

The irony of this was a demand for the Integrity Commissioner to investigate the action of then Coun. Cam Guthrie. His alleged offence, joining with other opposition councillors at the time, was to request a Freedom of Information release of a public document. The department involved refused to allow Mr. Guthrie to see the document that the province had already released to the public.

Following an investigation, the Commissioner decided there was no reason to pursue the matter and sent a bill for $10,000.

What this accomplished was warning any councillor or staff member that they would be disciplined if it were proved they revealed discussions and decisions made following a closed-session meeting of council. It also had blanket coverage of disciplining any councillor who broke the code of conduct. That’s what occurred in the Guthrie case.

Both those weapons are still in place today. That’s the Cone of Silence that surrounds the administration and prevents public participation in the affairs of its city.

Shutting down public participation using leg three of the Cone of Silence

We now know that Ms. Farbridge as chair of Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc (GMHI) held closed-session meetings during the four years that created one of the greatest losses in the history of the city. The Chief Executive Officer of GMHI was Guelph CAO, Ann Pappert.

During the four years, GMHI paid an annual “dividend” of $1.5 million to the city despite a money losing operation. In fact, GMHI never made a profit and by 2015 was worthless because it owed more money than it could pay its creditors. That essentially wiped out the $65 million shareholders’ equity in GMHI. In this case, the shareholders are the citizens of Guelph whose interests were represented by the city council.

That’s so much for the lack of public participation, accountability and transparency. The citizens are the victims in this betrayal of the public trust for the past 10 years.

Mr. Mayor, let’s drift back to early 2015, your first year in office. A citizen launched a legal complaint against another resident claiming he received an illegal donation of $400 from a citizen’s activist group, Grassroots Guelph.

Susan Watson, a friend and supporter of the former mayor who was defeated in October 2014, asked the Compliance Audit Committee to audit the election financial report filed by Mr. Glen Tolhurst.

An auditor specializing in candidates’ financial reports was hired by the city to investigate. William Molson interviewed the parties involved including my wife and me. It did not take him long to figure out that Mr. Tolhurst was not the target of Ms. Watson’s claim but was GrassRoots Guelph of which I was one of the founders.

Bottom line: Mr. Molson found no evidence that Mr. Tolhurst or GrassRoots Guelph violated the Ontario Municipal Elections Act. Here comes the kicker. The bill for all this was more than $11,000 and council, headed by Mayor Guthrie, ruled that Ms. Watson was not responsible for the costs. The taxpayers had to pick up that bill.

For example, there are five members on this council who benefited from Ms. Watson and her husbands’ donations to their 2014 election campaign. Now you know how it works: It’s whom you know not what you know, that counts.

So where was our Mayor when he claims that he takes closed-session matters seriously? This was a decision made in closed-session and announced by the City Clerk, Stephen O’Brien.

The Mayor speaks to a selected few not the citizens

Mayor Guthrie’s three-page explanation of the necessity of holding closec-session meetings, was sent to 16 individuals including 12 members of council. It was the result of a letter sent to the Mayor by Guelph resident by Pat Fung, CA, CPA asking for an explanation why council conducts much of its business in closed-session. He specifically addressed the $2.5 million loss concerning the city’s recycling centre.

In his September 8th email, the Mayor detailed why closed-session meetings are needed and the criteria for calling one, more or less.

In his email reply to Mr. Fung’s question, the Mayor claims that a program of service reviews was started by his administration. He says that the reviews are an excellent way to show taxpayers that “we take department reviews seriously.” Well, we certainly hope so.

Further, he says the reviews “look to identify opportunities … to confirm that our services are effective and efficient.” But isn’t that what management should be doing on an ongoing basis?

Last year, it was suggested that an independent audit firm should conduct a staff -rationalization review. That was shot down by the progressive majority on council because of a potential threat to their labour supporters. They claimed it would cost too much. As compared to the loss of $2.5 million in recycling operations, which is only one part in the Environmental Services department, how does that argument stand up today?

Question: Why did the Mayor select a tiny sample of the electorate to convey his explanation of the necessity of holding closed-session meetings of council?

The Mayor agrees with Pat Fung that council has a “may or may not” alternative to hold a closed-session. He then goes on to say that council must vote to discuss items allowed under the Act as exemptions that would be of a “closed” nature. So, by that definition, why is losing $2.5 million operating the recycling plant an exemption?

Moving along the Mayor explains: “In this particular case under Section 239 (b) and (d) states that council can “consider” in relation to personal matters about an identifiable individual, including board employees and labour relations or employee negotiations and potential labour or union impacts.”

What is so private about not revealing reasons for the loss of $2.5 million by city employees? Whose reputation is being protected here?

The provincial Sunshine List lets the cat out of the bag

Flashback: December 10, 2015, council in closed-session, voted to increase the salaries of the four top city managers by $98,202 for 2015. The only problem was, the citizens were never informed. Not until Guelph Speaks posted the details when the provincial Sunshine List was published more than three months later, March 31, 2016. Those increases ranged from 14 to 19 percent.

Chairing that meeting was Mayor Guthrie. Is this what he means when he says he takes the policing and overseeing of closed meetings seriously? The Mayor had to know the details would be eventually published.

What citizens have to question is why was it deliberately covered up and when, there was not one iota of reasons why these four were entitled to have their increases concealed from the public.

In my opinion, it was an abuse of the public trust by its elected officials. So, we will never know which councillors voted for the increase and which did not. They were all bound by the closed session omerta, fear of reprisal for leaking the information. That’s a primary example of how the Cone of Silence protects every one in the administration but not the taxpayers.

The public had the right to know what their senior managers were being paid and they were all identifiable. Instead, council concealed the decision avoiding transparency, accountability and potential negative public reaction.

It gets better, in August 2016, Coun. Cathy Downer asked the Human Resources department for a breakdown of the retired Chief Administrative Officer Ann Pappert’s final salary package. It included unused vacation and sick leave benefits and a $28,000 retroactive performance payment. She left the city May 26, 2016 and received $263,000 in 2016 for five months work.

It was complicated when Ms. Pappert announced in March 2016 about the same time that the news of her 17 per cent increase was revealed in the Sunshine List, that she would be leaving but would stay on to assist her successor. That turned out to be Derrick Thomson who had resigned to take a job with the Town of Caledon. He took over in June as CAO and announced in the fall of 2016, that he would make his salary and taxable benefits public. The 2016 Sunshine list showed he earned $245,000 plus a taxable benefit of more than $9,000.

Of the four senior managers who received that large salary increase Dec. 10, 2015, only one still works for the city, CAO Thomson.

Question: Will the service review of the recycling plant explain how it lost $2.5 million?

Moving along the Mayor explains: “In this particular case under Section 239 (b) and (d) states that council can “consider” in relation to personal matters about an identifiable individual, including board employees and labour relations or employee negotiations. … and potential labour or union impacts.”

Who would know better to keep those details secret than our council? There’s that Cone of Silence descending again.

The case of the missing 53,000 emails

This brings up the case of former Chief Building Inspector, Bruce Poole, who was fired by the former CAO, Ann Pappert. Mr. Poole, a 30-year veteran in the building department, and chief for 20 years, sued the city for wrongful dismissal claiming $1 million.

The alleged reason for his dismissal was because he complained that some 50 building projects being conducted by the city did not take out building permits. He said he would have to take the information to the province for failure of the city to follow the rules. For carrying out his responsibilities, he was fired.

Well a funny thing happened. Mr. Poole’s lawyer, as part of examination for discovery, requested from the city all electronic files pertaining to his client. Instead, he was sent 53,000 emails from the city’s Information Technology department in an external drive that contained personal information about city employees including performance reviews.

To make a long story short, the case was quickly settled in Mr. Poole’s favour and the errant files returned.

Details of the settlement were sealed at the request of city. The city solicitor resigned to take another position. It is yet another example of using the Cone of Silence to paper over incompetence.

Truth or consequences

About a week following the December 10 closed session meeting, council again in closed-session, approved a protective barrier, Bylaw 19995. It is designed to provide legal assistance to any staffer or elected official facing a procedure brought by a citizen or corporation. It was yet another leg of the controlling Cone of Silence.

Question: Has the Corporation of City of Guelph or any employee or elected official ever been sued for defamation, slander, or libel? This is the Mayor’s explanation of the consequences if the corporation failed to not conduct its business in closed-session.

This effectively makes it almost impossible to sue city hall, its hired staff and elected officials. Again, the door is slammed shut and public participation is denied and ignored.

Question: Does the city not have liability insurance to protect employees from civil suits? If so, why is it necessary to have such an offensive bylaw to protect the members of the city administration? It is also interesting to know if the city employees or elected officials have ever been sued.

This mélange of administration stiff arms to protect their own interests and not those of the people who pay their salaries, benefits and guarantees their pensions, has reached epidemic levels.

The shadow of deceit and obfuscation hangs over 1 Carden Street like a darkening cloud of public distrust of its managing institutions that hides behind appropriated OMA terms and conditions.

October 2018 cannot come soon enough.

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under Between the Lines

When Gerry met Sally and other taxing issues

By Gerry Barker

September 11, 2017

Heard from a number of people this week questioning administration decisions that end up costing citizens. Here are three examples.

The pitch to spend $90,000 for security guards at City Hall

The first example is a report that the city wants to hire five security officers plus a vehicle to protect the city staff from the taxpayers who are entitled to voice their complaints at the welcome desk in the foyer of our city hall.

The lead in the local weekly was that the Mayor overheard an individual being rude with the staff at the customer service desk. Turns out, according to the city supplied statistics, that in 2016, there were 448 security calls for staff assistance at city hall and 216 police responses. The occurrences are increasing this year.

The staff is recommending hiring two security guards as well as purchasing a vehicle for their use at an estimated cost of $90,000. The matter was deferred until the 2018 budget negotiations commence later this year.

In the grand scheme of things it could be argued that $90K is no big deal when the whole city operating budget will be more than $350 million. But it is a big deal.

As a public service here are some considerations.

* Under what authority can these proposed security guards act? Will they be armed? Why is a vehicle required if they are stationed at City Hall? What kind of training and background will be required?

The role of the police is quite clear. They are required to protect public property. But it seems that the degree of service staff discomfort in certain situations determines who should respond for assistance.

It is tricky and happens often, totaling 664 calls in 2016 for a quick decision by service staff as to whom to call for assistance. I am curious over those numbers compared to other peer cities and how they handle encounters with the public staff.

The report in the weekly said issues include: “Disturbances, drug related calls, intoxication, trespassing, theft, vandalism, assault against staff and the public.”

It would appear all those occurrences called for police response except “disturbances”. Aren’t all those examples disturbances?

Here are a couple of immediate solutions:

One, select two volunteers from the current staff, train them with no reduction in their previous salary, skip the vehicle and have them in uniform during the hours the city hall is open to the public. No increase in costs because we are already paying them.

Along comes Sally

The other solution is to have a trained Doberman named Sally behind the counter in full view and tied to a quick release button. Sally would become the guardian of the service desk at City Hall but not to be petted. There is a technicality, who walks the dog and who is the handler? Sally could do double duty chasing the geese from the parks when not guarding city hall.

The other benefit is Sally could have pups and begin a Doberman dynasty being guardians of the public places. And the overhead of training and controlling Sally would be dog chow compared to the $90,000 recommended by the staff.

Okay, so I’m being facetious. But this is a management problem that involves personnel training, discipline and police support. The Mayor is right when he says City Hall should be safe and open to the public. He may also investigate why there appears to be an increasing number of incidents at the service desk. Perhaps it may be the increasing dissatisfaction with the city operations?

*            *            *            *

After six years, why is Guelph’s recycling operation losing $2.5 million a year?

A report by Tony Saxon in the online report Guelph Today, says that the blue box system of collecting recyclable materials is costing $2.5 million annually less than the $4.9 million that the facility recovers after sorting.

Here are a couple of problems. One is the revelation that Environmental Services is accepting containers of recyclable material from Simcoe County. The other is another area of the deal struck with the Region of Waterloo to process 20,000 tonnes of wet waste to be processed in the $34 million organic waste compost facility. That target has yet to be reached but volumes of wet waste from Waterloo are increasing.

While the two are not related they are part of the six departments of the city’s waste management organization. What connects them is decisions by the previous administration turning Guelph into a waste dump for other municipalities. Why do citizens have to finance overbuilt facilities costing an estimated $55 million in capital funding to service other municipalities?

Neither of these facilities has met its operating costs since inception. In the case of the organic composting plant, it is not operated by city personnel but by a subsidiary of Maple Reinders, the builder of the facility. It’s ironic that Guelph citizens who financed the facility cannot even obtain any compost provided by the plant. It’s sold elsewhere.

Did waste management not learn anything about accepting recyclables from Detroit that cost some $1.5 million when the alleged contract was shut down? Solid Waste General Manager, Dean Wyman, told council that an extra shift was needed to process the Detroit material but the city would make $370,000 per year. The fallout of this and other mismanagement issues included the retirement of former Executive Director Janet Laird of Environmental Services, and GM Wyman who resigned to take a job in Edmonton.

The historical reasons for this waste management failure to deliver results costing millions of dollars rests with the former Farbridge administration. Public funds invested in a variety of projects and schemes were designed to slow delivery of garbage to the land fill site.

That target alone has failed, as there is still a high percentage of waste still going to the landfill since 2011, when the organic processing facility became operational.

This was all the doing of the council of the period headed by former Mayor Karen Farbridge. She was aided by a cadre of supporters who believed that the money they were spending was making their city a world-class leader in waste management.

The decision to import other municipalities’ garbage to Guelph was an example of the terrible business plans associated with these waste management projects. Already there are rumblings of outsourcing the operations to private enterprise. The unions that could be affected are readying their opposition.

Here is a one example of how outsourcing will pay off and save up to $4.9 million per year. Cut a deal with Waste Management to process Guelph’s recyclables in their upscale automated plant. Depending on the terms of the Simcoe County contract, wrap it up. Shut down the Guelph recycling facility.

All that is required is political will. It’s something to think about when the 2018 budget is being crafted for next year’s civic election.

The people are the key to making change. They did it in 2014 when Cam Guthrie defeated the former Mayor by more than 5,000 votes. It can happen again.

*            *            *            *

Guelph Transit route changes map is like interpreting a Salvador Dali painting

The city news section of the local weekly printed a full-page diagram of the new route changes of Guelph Transit. I do not use Guelph Transit but if I did, I would need an interpreter trying to follow that ad illustration.

Someone commented that the new routes are designed to serve the 20,000 incoming University students. There is no doubt they are imporant customers as they must pay $75 per semester for a bus pass. The average course includes two semesters per school year that amounts to $3 million in revenue every seven months.

The next questioin is what is the total budget of Guelph Transit? The last time I checked about four years ago, the city was subsidizing the system by $12 million. That being true, it would appear that the citizens are paying a huge price every year to supply public transportation. It is a system used by less than ten per cent of the permanent population.

Guelph needs a system of public transit, if for no other reason than to cope with the growing mobile population and changing demographics. But it went off the rails in the previous administration. As long as I can remember in ten yeas of commenting, there has been a transit strike by the union representing the workers. Also there was the matter in 2013 when an audit by the internal auditor of the system’s overtime charges revealed a cost of $1 million for a staff of about 350. That year it averaged $2,857 for each employee.

More worrying is the number of Guelph Transit general managers who have been employed and released. So what’s wrong? The first thing is to bring clarity and transparency to the table. This could result in everyone on staff being accountable.

It is unreasonable for a system this size with our city geography to be profitable. If, as former councillor Maggie Laidlaw once predicted, there would be no cars on Guelph streets within 20 years – I believe we have ten years to go to fulfill her prediction. Maggie was an ardent cyclist, rain or shine and believed that fossil-fueled vehicles had to go.

Well, the opposite has occurred and there are more cars and trucks on our streets than ever before. And the traffic congestion has been exacerbated by the previous administration’s policies to reduce vehicle traffic lanes on major routes to accommodate wider bicycle lanes that frequently start somewhere and end nowhere.

This social experiment has cost millions at the expense of ignoring badly needed infrastructure repair and replacement. The city staff recently stated the cost to carry out necessary infrastructure needs was more than $400 million.

There are a number of bus pull-offs that could allow buses to pull off the main road to load and unload patrons. These pull off inserts would halt the stopping of all vehicles when a bus must stay on the road to allow passengers to load or unload. Costly? Yes, but a necessary accommodation for traffic to move without delays.

We need the system but not at this price. It is difficult to understand why buses are running routes mostly empty daily, particularly in the summer months. In my opinion, indicates that Guelph Transit needs to do a serious rethink of its task based on total city usage by residents and the students.

 

 

 

16 Comments

Filed under Between the Lines

Let’s talk taxes, spending and accountability as the 2018 budget process starts this month

By Gerry Barker

September 5, 2017

In the fall of 2015, Guelph resident Pat Fung CA, CPA presented council with a financial analysis that compared the operating and capital spending costs of Guelph, Cambridge and Kitchener.

His information came from two sources: The official audited financial statements of the three cities and a report prepared for the city of Guelph from consultants BMA.

For his trouble he was mocked behind his back after leaving the chamber. Now you can deduce two things. Either the councillors did not understand the presentation or they didn’t want to.

This council dominated by a majority of seven supporters of the former Farbridge administration has proved to be the least responsible and effective in the ten years I’ve been covering city politics.

Recently I was sent a report about the City of Santa Monica in California. The cost of employees in this upscale community was astronomic with the assistant librarian receiving a total of $220,000 in a pay and benefits package. City bus drivers earn $109,000 in total compensation.

These two examples reflect the operation of a city council that rarely discusses spending issues in public shutting the door to debate by the stakeholders. Even as affluent as Santa Monica, there is a limit of letting city costs soar.

Does any of this sound familiar? Guelph is also an affluent community due to the high compensation packages enjoyed by an estimated 6,500 public service workers. Add to that the penchant for council to conduct their public business behind closed doors echoes the Santa Monica experience.

But when a city official claims that the per capita costs of operating the city are not relevant, you know our spending and operating costs are going nowhere but up. The last ten city budgets have growth compounding property taxes and user fees to make Guelph one of the highest taxed communities in the country.

The truth is the per capita operational costs to Guelph citizens in 2015 was $3,213. That was a 56.2 per cent increase in just seven years. It is a statistic that is relevant.

The root of this is the high cost of overhead, the cost of running the city in which 80 per cent of employees are unionized. That percentage is even higher than Santa Monica’s civic workforce.

It is a problem that city council ignores and to its peril.

Here’s a personal real life story from a pensioner.

The elephant in the finance department is the silent liability of guaranteeing payment to hundreds of former employees if the pension management of the various plans fails to meet their obligation to support retirees for life. Council cannot take away defined pensions. Because this situation has been building for years, today there are growing numbers of retired employees, many of whom retired in their mid 50’s. This has lengthened the time they can draw their pensions that in most cases are indexed.

Here is an example that our family has experienced. My wife, the widow of a deceased Metro police officer, is a member of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Benefit Fund (MTPBF). It is a closed fund for the officers who contributed to the plan and their spouses. It is closed because the City of Toronto converted its various municipal pension plans to the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Services (OMERS) for its police officers some 30 years ago. The MTPBF members were exempted from the OMERS merger.

The City of Toronto is sponsor of the MTBPF and is responsible to ensure solvency and payment of benefits to pensioners under the provisions of the Ontario Pension Benefits Law.

And the city has had to fund the amount of capital needed to accomplish this. More than $14 million has been added since 2014. Keep in mind there is a diminishing number of beneficiaries due to death. Eventually, as the numbers decrease, the costs of benefits reduce as well. In 1998, there were 2,430 members of the MTPBF. December 2015, there were 1,828 members, a reduction of 594 or 24.44 per cent.

It appears that the obligation of the City of Toronto to pay the MTPBF members is diminishing to the point where it will no longer have to guarantee the fund benefits. Because eventually there will be no pensioners alive to pay.

The problem is that only city council can approve any increase in the payout to MTPBF pensioners. As a result the amount paid to pensioners remained fixed for some eight years with no cost of living increase allowed.

So what has this to do with Guelph?

With a municipal staff of 2,200 of which 80 per cent are unionized and members of OMERS, there is another group of non-union employees representing a variety of managers and members of other associations.

It is this group, many of whom are senior managers working under tailored personal contracts who are eligible to have their pension payments guaranteed by the City of Guelph.

An example is the retirement of Police Chief Rob Davis. When he stepped down, he received a sick/vacation benefit of some $40,000. His indexed pension was some $130,000 upon retirement. To be fair the former chief used the rules to end his days on active duty.

This example portrays the point that the citizens are obligated to guarantee his benefits in retirement if his underlying pension system ever becomes insolvent.

Here are some suggestions to return our city to the people

* Reduce spending by staff in all areas. This would exclude police, fire and EMS. Freeze all hiring across the board including part-time and occasional staff. Specifically, demand all departments to reduce staff in two stages: Three per cent in the first six months of 2018 and four per cent in the last six months of the year. Total reduction is a 147 Fulltime Equivalent Employees out of a total of 2,200.

* Instruct legal staff to negotiate outstanding legal issues including labour negotiations to bring them to reach a settlement.

* Freeze hiring consultants for 12 months. Any exception would have to be justified by the Chief Administration Officer and approved by council. Close out current contracts.

* Instruct all departments to reduce non-staff expenses by 3 per cent in 2018. Have a staff report regarding the status of all mandated projects including infrastructure requirements and the affect on future cash flow.

* Cut city advertising and public affairs budgets, including a communications staff reduction by 25 per cent in 2018.

* Require River Run Centre and Sleeman Centre to be self-sustaining within one calendar year. These two public operations are being subsidized by the city of an estimated $783,000 annually.

* Review and suspend all public financial support of community groups until January 2019.

* Consult with the provincial government to increase the property tax deal enjoyed for 29 years by the University of Guelph to help meet the city’s 2019 financial needs. The amount is $75 per student has not been adjusted since 1987 when it was enacted.

* Suspend the Well-being funding program for one year or until a public review of where the money is being spent is completed and approved by an independent board.

* Pass a by-law to reduce the number of ward councillors to six in 2018 and make the job a fulltime position with appropriate remuneration and support. Following the Milton example of having a nine-member council, the Mayor and two councillors would be elected at large.

* Abolish the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer rank. Return to a two level system eliminating the costly DCAO designation. Replace it with department managers reporting directly to the CAO.

* Report quarterly, informing the public of the cost of all travel and associated expenses by staff and elected officials. Report all details of staff credit cards including all communications using city-supplied equipment.

* Publish an easy to understand financial summary every quarter detailing spending, new projects, budget deviations, current financial status.

* Appoint a citizen’s committee under the leadership of a qualified and respected library expert to study and recommend a public private partnership for a new downtown library.

* Form a task force composed of citizens and staff to study a public and private partnership to build the south-end recreation centre.

* Get aggressive to collect taxes in arrears and uncollected traffic fines.

* Take the necessary action to open a large grocery store in the east end of the city.

* Hold a conference with property developers and builders to explore ways and means to increase assessment through careful planning.

* Speed up the approval process for developers and new businesses.

* Provide budget support and incentives to the staff’s commercial and industrial development team to seek business and encourage candidates to settle in Guelph.

* Renegotiate the deal with Maple Reinders re operation of the organic wet-waste plant.

* Invoke a sunshine bylaw that opens all council meetings to the public. Cancel all in-camera council meetings held before the public council meeting. Exceptions would be negotiations regarding city-owned real estate, all employee contract negotiations and problems associated with employees. Council, in advance, would have to explain to the public why such an in camera meeting was necessary.

* Have the Mayor give a monthly status report on the city with an overview of finances and status of major projects. It should be real news oriented and not propaganda.

* A customer service team should be trained to answer public questions and complaints. This group would follow-up to ensure the affected department handled the query promptly.

* Abolish the present security system at city hall so that any person can enter and access council and staff at any time. This is a public building owned by the people.

* Amalgamate the response teams for police, fire and EMS to a singular administration and call centre.

* Review the operations of the fire department to reduce operations that are often duplicated by other public safety services.

* Review all bylaws with the city’s legal team to reduce the obfuscation and redundancy of current business practices.

 

10 Comments

Filed under Between the Lines