How Guthrie’s Great Wall prevents the public from knowing the people’s business

By Gerry Barker

January 8, 2018

Note – The following is the opinion of the author based on known facts and history of the administrative management of the City of Guelph.

Donald Trump is still trying to get his $18 billion wall proposed to be built between Mexico and the U.S. but Cam Guthrie has succeeded in erecting a wall to protect his council and city staff from public participation in city business.

Just ask the 22 delegates who opposed at to the open council meeting to approve the merger of Guelph Hydro and Alectra Utilities last December 10. Each delegate outlined why this was not in the best interests of the community and many requested a deferment until all the facts were known, including the final documents pertaining to the agreement.

Council, by a 10-3 majority ignored those citizen delegates. Instead they agreed with the points raised by seven Alectra delegates who offered reasons to merge.

The structure of Guthrie’s Wall of denial

We looked up how the wall was erected initially by the former administration, starting in 2008 when council appointed Amberlea Gravel, located in London, to investigate citizen’s complaints about closed-session meetings of council. The appointment was made when former Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government ordered all municipalities to appoint a closed-session investigator.

Since 2008, Amberlea Gravel, our Local Authority Services (LAS), has processed just three complaints, while being paid a retainer for nine years. The city has not revealed the cost of the retainer. Regardless, it has to be the best deal Amberlea Gravel made to bolster the privacy of council doing the public business.

A few years ago, the Ontario Ombudsman was given authority to act for municipalities. Today more than half have switched to the Ombudsman’s office for investigating closed-session council and local board meetings.

But not Guelph.

I was one of only three complainants requesting a closed-session investigation in early January 2016. I had plenty of reasons for obtaining the minutes of the December 10, 2015 closed council meeting that awarded $98,202 salary increases to the four senior managers of the city.

By now most people in the city know the decision was not revealed until publication of the 2015 Sunshine list which publoshed the salaries and taxable benefits of every city employee earning $100,000 or more.

Guelph Speaks published several posts that decried this blackout decision by city council. For my trouble, I was at first threatened by one of the recipients of our largess and subsequently sued for defamation. That case is before the courts and I cannot comment further.

Four months following my request for the December 10, 2015 minutes, the special closed-session investigator ruled in favour of the city to deny the minutes of that meeting. That’s just one brick in the Guthrie Great Wall of denial to control the public’s business and rightful interest to suit the staff and council. It’s known as shaping the message to satisfy the administration’s interests.

The council code of conduct is the second barrier to open government

Here is an excerpt published on the city website under the title: “Council Code of Conduct/Integrity Commissioner:

The Code of Conduct was adopted by Council to:

  • establish a common basis for the ethical behaviour of Members of Council and Local Boards, and
  • increase public confidence by making a commitment to operate with integrity, justice and courtesy.

I’m sorry; but I can’t make this stuff up.

In 2011, Council appointed an Integrity Commissioner to address the application of the Code of Conduct for Members of Council and Local Boards. The Integrity Commissioner has the power to deal with requests to investigate suspected contraventions of the Code of Conduct. The record shows that all requests referred to the Integrity Commissioner originated with members of council. Council recommend the following penalties:

  • A reprimand; or
  • Suspension of the remuneration of the Council or Local Board member for a period of up to 90 days.
  • In addition to conducting formal Code of Conduct investigations, the Integrity Commissioner also serves as an advisor on appropriate conduct to individual Members of Council or Council as a whole.

The ultimate muzzle on the very people we trust to serve the public’s interests

So, now in his sixth year as Integrity Commissioner, Robert Swazey of Caledon, is judge, jury and prosecutor in cases involving elected officials who may be accused of breaking the code of conduct.

It is an implied threat to any councillor who reveals the contents of a closed-session meeting. It threatens their reputation for protecting the public interests.

In just a few words, this policy was approved by council in, we believe, another closed session. The commissioner, during since 2011 has investigated three cases. His annual retainer is $5,000 and he is paid an hourly fee conduction his investigation and preparing his report.

The one case involved then Coun. Cam Guthrie, who received none of the punishment listed above. It cost the citizens $10,000. The irony of this event is suffocating in tracking the performance of the Mayor and his council.

That was then and this is now

In the past three years of his mayoralty, Cam Guthrie has consistently demonstrated adherence to the Code of Conduct set up by the previous administration. In fact, there has been more closed-session meetings of council and it’s appointed Strategies and Option Committee (SOC) than Noah organizing the Ark.

This is an affront to every citizen of Guelph. It’s a manipulated system to dumb down the electorate and coverup mistakes from public exposure. What they don’t know won’t hurt them.

There is no shortage of information underlying doubt about this Hydro/Alectra merger,

The present council, again in closed-session, approved spending $2.36 million to sell this deal to its own citizens.

The plan was to produce the illusion that most people were in favour of the merge employing leading questions to agree with a phony outcome; sparsely attended town hall meetings and producing a phony 245-page “final agreement” document just 12 days before the meeting. And it was only available online. I charge that fewer than 250 hard copies were distributed to the public.

The communications plan did not put its case forward through Guelph Hydro’s network of 55,000 customers except at the last days prior to the meeting when a tiny resume of the deal’s advantages was inserted in the Hydro/Water bills.

So as city Communications General Manager, Tara Sprigs, described the process of informing all those Hydro customers who were being threatened with everything to lose in return for a boatload of promises.

I would like to think that at least four councillors, those with knowledge and intelligence, would change their vote under the circumstances.

Not one of them is the Mayor.

How council manipulates the Municipal Act closed-session guidelines

It’s simple really; they made up their own closed-session guidelines.

Now topping Guthrie’s Great Wall of denial are the Municipal Act policies. The following are the legal reasons under the Municipal Act to hold a closed-session council or local boards meetings:

Section 270 of the Municipal Act provides that municipalities must develop and maintain various policies regarding the accountability and transparency of municipal government and its operations.

The key words are Accountability and Transparency

The following have been adopted by Council and are regularly reviewed to ensure compliance:

  • Sale and Disposition of Land
  • Number 1: Only covers the sale and disposition of land not the acquisition of the provincially owned Jail lands
  • Hiring of Employees
  • Number 2 – Yes, hiring employees should be confidential but does not include approving salary increases to staff and then not revealong it to the public.
  • Procurement of Goods and Services
  • Number 3 – This covers a lot of areas and there is evidence it has been used to          blackball certain contractors from bidding on city jobs.
  • Public Notice
  • Number 4 – This is an oxymoron; hold a meeting in closed-session to discuss a public notice? It’s a convenient method of calling a closed-session meeting to discuss almost anything in private.
  • Accountability and Transparency
  • Number 5 – Again, why is it necessary to call a closed -ession meeting to discuss accountability and transparency? The previous administration has already paid more than $500,000 to a Toronto consultant to come up with an A&T plan.
  • Delegation of Authority
  • Number 6 – This dovetails with the administrations’ allowance such as giving $98,303 raises to four senior managers in 2015?

The key story here is that council adopted this collection of reasons to legally hold a closed-session meeting. Seems it’s self-serving giving council and the boards absolute power and control of the public’s business. It’s like turning off a tap, shutting off any information they choose for whatever reason. These reasons would include political liability and criticism, personal benefit, adherence to a political philosophy,

The two Councillors who served for four years of the GMHI board of directors, the operator of Guelph Hydro, were paid over and above their regular salaries. Councillors June Hofland and Karl Wettstein still voted in favour of the merger. They not only benefited serving on the GMHI board but in my opinion, were in a conflict of interest.

The Great Wall is intact and a barrier to the public interests

These “blocks” of the public’s business have been refined over the past 11 years to giving the administration-unfettered control of the message. It denies the public’s access to its right to know and understand the corporation’s operations on their behalf.

In future posts, GS will provide specific reforms covering a widespread grouping of issues that the electorate should consider before entering the voting booth.

The most vital reform is to make the council and administration operate openly and accountable.

This year, October 22 to be precise, we the citizens have the opportunity to return power to the people by electing councillors who understand their responsibility to the people who elected them. That means persuading civic-minded, experienced individuals possessing a universal mature backgrounds to turn this city into the jewel of Southern Ontario.

It means a sharp turn to the centre of the political spectrum, away from the left wing domination of our political management where there have been too many mistakes in judgment, losses of public money due to misguided projects that have set the city back in the past 11 years.

The time has come to elect councillors ready to reform and employ critical thinking managing the people’s business.



Filed under Between the Lines

2 responses to “How Guthrie’s Great Wall prevents the public from knowing the people’s business

  1. Gerry, I fully, fully, fully support what you do to hold the city, and it’s government to account….most folks are too busy to engage….but if I could offer one piece of advice…..don’ be so technical with your writing… have too much ‘inside baseball’ information, and is too wordy that I lose interest following it….here’s a’nickels worth of free advice’, tailor your writing to the masses…..not to your followers….communication is not words, its how the words get the message across……keep up the good work!!! I read regularly..

    • T.A. Girouard: Thanks for the comment. Yep, you and my editor wife agree, my stuff is sometimes too long and technical. Here’s my dilemma: I am dealing frequently with complicated and technical subject matter affecting citizens. This is the case dealing with bureaucrats and elected officials. I view them as the enemy because much of their business is that they do not want the public to know. They even go to great lengths including a bylaw that indemnifies any elected or professional staff from legal proceedings against them by guaranteeing repayment of their legal costs. The key words here is “against them” not “by them” against the public.

      I would describe this as a form of voter suppression. If you are critical of anyone in the city administration and take legal action against them, their legal bills are paid by YOU!

      The most egregious action by city council occurred recently when council approved the merger between Guelph Hydro and Alectra Utilities. By a 10 to 3 majority, members of city council approved the merger without knowong the final terms and conditions of the merger.

      This deal was cooked behind closed doors for more than a year and a half. In my view it is a sellout of Guelph Hydro, owned by the citizens who paid for it and worth some $300 million. Yet, the Mayor says that “we” are not giving anything away. He says it knowing full well that what we are supposed to be getting in return is a 4.63 share of only 60 per cent of Alectra Inc. profits. Oh! I almost forgot about that “special Dividend” of $18.5 milliomn that Guelph Hydro is sending to the city. Translation Alectra bought Guelph Hydro for $18.5 million using our own money

      I cannot explain it any clearer, it’s a terrible deal with the consequences affecting citizens for years to come.

      This makes the Urbacon settlement look tiny in comparison. And we know how that worked out for the previous administration in 2014.

      I agree that I must do better at communicating commentary and the truth to fellow residents. Because we end up paying for a mistake in judgment, arrogance, egos and deliberate secrecy by the very people we elel[cted to represent our interests, not their own.

      On October 22, 2018, we get our chance to voice our concerns and disappointment and elect candidates across the board who believe in accountability, transparency and open government. One thing you can count on is that Guelph Speaks will not shut up as two administrations have attempted.

      Thanks again for the advice, it is well taken.

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