Monthly Archives: February 2019

Is the Tribune a newspaper or a paid lackey of the city administration?

By Gerry Barker

February 25, 2019

Opinion, based on Facts and News, written by a taxpayer and is Non-Profit

In a recent column written by Doug Coxson in the weekly Tribune, he used the word transparency in running his editorial department. There was no mention of Open Government or Accountability, aka TOGA, the other points of public responsibility of which the paper should base its coverage.

Journalism is not about labeling content so the reader can tell the difference between news, opinion and advertising.

I am reminded of an interview with Mr. Coxson two or three years ago in the Globe and Mail, in which he said that the Tribune would be conducting more “investigative reporting.”

After reading the Coxson column, the evidence shows that he doesn’t understand what or why the City of Guelph is a golden pond of opportunity to dig under the press releases and get the truth.

Here are the paper’s policies of don’t rock the boat that feeds you:

* The $34 million Organic Waste Processing Facility that turns wet waste into compost in which citizens cannot even buy. It was built to handle six times the needs of the city for 20 years and is dependent on wet waste from other municipalities.

* The wrongful dismissal trial of Urbacon Buildings Group, general contractors of the new city hall complex that ended four years later by a ruling of a Superior Court Justice that cost citizens an additional $23 million over the contracted price.

* The deal with a Detroit trucker to receive motor city recyclables. That secret agreement ended up costing Guelph more than $2 million in wages and handling poor quality Detroit feedstock.

* The more recent giveaway of Guelph Hydro to Alectra Utilities was another creation of closed-session transparency, Open Government and Accountability. But it did get Hydro Chair Jane Armstrong a job as Guelph’s representative on the Alectra board of directors. Our share? That’s only 436 per cent of the diluted Alectra Utility’s profits.

* The unexplained circumstances surrounding the trio of senior managers who received $98,202 in salary increase for 2015. Yes that decision by city council in closed-session was made in Dec. 10, 2015. It became public knowledge when the provincial Sunshine Lists of 2014 and 2015 were compared following release in late March 2016.

The Tribune pretends to be a newspaper. The editorial content is biased big time and could favour the city administration. There are 13 employees on the city staff whose job is communications. The Tribune is a major receiver of the news releases spewing out of city hall. Much of it reflects what the administration wants readers to hear. Any editorial challenge of the city handout material is rarely questioned or investigated.

Why is that? According to Coxson’s lecture on the newspaper’s management principle stating: “We must draw a clear line between journalism and advertising.”

I doubt the paper really follows that line. The city of Guelph buys space to publish pages of City News” over the year. It is the worse example of manipulation of the reader to believe the City News content is news and not labeled “advertising.”

It is advertising, controlled and paid by the citizens

As a reader, would it be fair to assume City News was news or, another way to control the editorial content of the Tribune? It appears that’s the case, judging from the majority of municipal news stories most of which are generated by the city administration. Most of these pieces dominate the news pages without fact checking or critical editing.

Having been commenting on the city administration for 14 years, it is egregious to believe that the newspaper has conducted any investigative reporting. Journalism is about questioning, researching, being curious and truthful, and getting both sides of the story, investigating and fact checking.

Two years ago, Guelph resident Pat Fung, CA, and CPA completed a detailed analysis of city operations. Using published city financial data and a report by a city consultant reviewing city operations. Mr. Fung wrote a 2,700-word analysis that, among other things, showed Guelph’s operating costs were 50 per cent higher than Cambridge or Kitchener.

That’s a news story, right? It certainly is in the public interest.

When Mr. Fung asked the Tribune to do a news story, the editor said he didn’t have the resources to fact check the material. Her added he might consider it if Mr. Fung would reduce the report to 400 words. Later Mr. Fung presented his report to city council and had only five minutes to present it.

Not one councillor asked a question. When ms. Fung left the chamber, he was mocked behind his back.

I became involved when I attempted to pay $1,400 for a half-page ad in the Tribune. Just hours before the copy deadline, the advertising manager told me the ad would not run because it was, “inflmmatory.”

Briefly, the report stated that Guelph’s operating overhead was too high compared to other comparable sized cities. He explained that by reducing the overhead, the city could save some $20 million annually that could be used to fix the city’s infrastructure over time.

Now you know what happened. In 2016, Council approved a 1 per cent property tax levy to be spent overhauling the aging infrastructure. Note, just last week there were two raw sewage spills that allowed waste to go into the Eramosa River.

The Tribune reported that sewage spill but refused a factual report by a Chartered Accountant on how to meet the infrastructure deficit.

The disappearance of responsible print journalism

Our print media picture changed in January 2016 when MetroLand Publishing closed the Daily Guelph Mercury. That left the Tribune that, at the time, had three reporters. When the Mercury shut down it had an editorial staff of seven plus some freelance writers.

In a nutshell, the politics of administrating the city have barely changed.

The number of closed-session council meetings hit 84 in the first two years of the Guthrie administration. It did not include those closed-session meetings conducted by the Strategic Option Committee assigned by council to negotiate the disposal of Guelph Hydro.

Also for four years, the Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc operations were conducted in closed-sessions. Now we know the story, well much of it, of the money wasted trying to establish electric self-sufficiency and District Energy systems.

That abortive enterprise according to the consolidated audit of GMHI including Guelph Hydro by the accounting firm KPMG, cost citizens some $63 million as shareholders. Today the project is still losing money. The last figure was for 2017 and the loss was reported to be $17 million.

This entire GMHI experience was concealed from the public until May 16, 2016 when a report signed by CAO Ann Pappert and CEO of Guelph Hydro Pankaj Sardana revealed the beginning of a financial disaster and gross mismanagement. Ten days later, Ms. Pappert left the city. In July 2016, the staff produced even more details of the collapse.

Newspapers, the media including bloggers are an integral part of media and the responsible dissemination of the news. Unfortunately, more and more newspapers are closing due to dwindling ad revenue to pay the bills.

Journalism still thrives Online but when used to suppress the news then it is no longer journalism.

The Guelph Mercury Tribune is a partner of the city that spends thousands to ensure its message is being controlled, using paid advertising.

Of course MetroLand and Mr. Coxson will deny this is the case. But it’s comfy when you have a secure source of income from a client who will never go broke or leave town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Following the 12-year trail of secrecy and denial of the public interest

By Gerry Barker

February 19, 2019

I am encouraged that there is unrest among elements of the Populist left, as finally there is a realization of why council holds so many closed- sessions.

The latest critique of too many closed-sessions conducted by council came from Adam A. Donaldson, a blogger and columnist in the online news source, Guelph Today.

Adam’s political philosophy is wrapped around the causes of the left dominated city council members and a general left of centre political bent on matters of the public interest.

His Market Squared column this week asked the question why council shuts its doors to public participation? In 2015 and 2016, council held 84 closed-session meetings.

The focus is the sudden departure of Chief Administrative Officer Derrick Thomson, described in a city press release as a “parting of the ways.” Adam joins a lot of people in the city wondering what happened.

Guelphspeaks posed a series of speculative questions about the sudden departure of the CAO in the middle of preparing the City’s 2019 budgets. The GS post has experienced one of the greatest numbers of readers in recent memory.

The 49-minute closed-session council meeting decided to appoint the three Deputy Chief Administrative Officers, Scott Stewart, Colleen Clack and Trevor Lee as the troika of gate keepers of the public’s pursuit of its right to know.

I speak from experience when it comes to requesting the minutes of the Dec 10, 2015 closed-session meeting that awarded $98,202 in salary increases to three top senior city managers.

Six weeks following the launching of a lawsuit against me, November 16, 2016, I requested a copy of the minutes of that meeting. I knew the outcome but not the details including who recommended it to council and who supported it?

In April, four months later, Amberlea Gravel denied my request. They are the city-appointed special investigators of closed-session meetings.

That event occurred in April three months after the plaintiff in this lawsuit had been dismissed. The CAO, Derrick Thomson, ironically was the person who fired his once close colleague with the comment that the firing did not involve the city’s support of lawsuit. He also praised his colleague for his great contribution to the city.

Because this case is now before the courts, I cannot comment further.

But as of a week ago Friday, the three recipients of that $98.202, 2015 retroactive salary increase, are all gone.

Going back to the CAO committee of three DCAO’s, did it ever occur to members of council that its decision to foist Thomson’s job now onto three capable senior managers? Council awarded compensation for the extra duties until the end of July or until a candidate is selected.

Which of the three will attend city council meetings, both open and closed?

How are the CAO responsibilities subdivided? How is there continuity in managing? Where are the checks and balances of managing continuing operations?

This not only unfair to those senior managers but could have been avoided by appointing one of the three as acting CAO until a candidate has been chosen.

To demonstrate how these birdbrain decisions are made, consider the following report by Mr. Donaldson:

“I also looked at the City of Guelph’s own materials about the regulation of closed meetings. On the subject of reports, it says: “Whenever possible, written Closed Meeting reports are preferred over verbal reports as the former provides for a more detailed account of the confidential record.

Why?

This city council is bereft of its responsibilities to act on behalf of the public and their right to know about the city’s business.

Instead, they snuggle and hide behind a contrived closed-session protocol developed and fine-tuned over eight years by the former administration.

A case in point is the draconian Code of Conduct in which councillors, engaged in closed-sessions, cannot comment or reveal the details of those meetings. To do so will result in an investigation by the city-appointed Integrity Commissioner who is prosecutor, judge and jury of any alleged break of the Code of Conduct.

And to think we spent some $500,000 in 2013 to a Toronto consultant to develop a governance program employing Transparency, Open Government and Accountability.

On top of that, the new Guthrie council employed a supporter of the former mayor to a $93,000 per year contract to manage the new Transparency, Open Government, and Accountability program.

Wonder whatever happened to him and TOG&A?

 

 

 

 

 

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Why won’t city council tell us why the sudden departure of the CAO?

By Gerry Barker

February 13, 1019

Opinion

Who agreed to “part ways” with Thomson out the door and no explanation for a quick exit?

Near the end of last week the announcement was made that Chief Administrative Officer Derrick Thomson had “parted ways with the city.”

Who decided he had to leave so abruptly, Thomson or Council?

The public has the right to know why the Chief Administrative Officer of the city was summarily dropped.

Was it something he said? Did he pixxed-off certain members of council including the Mayor?

Was it so terrible that neither party wanted to reveal the details?

Or was it a personality conflict between certain members of council?

Did he misappropriate public funds?

Or was it because of health issues?

Or has he accepted another job, like he did in 2016?

So what does the Mayor do? He calls yet another closed-session meeting and, to illustrate why this council fails once again and bungles another serious senior staff development.

Witness the witless creation of a Troika assigning three Deputy Chief Administrative Officers to run the store for six months while the search seeking a new boss goes on.

Is this not a crisis where three senior staff is assigned to perform the duties of an absent CAO?

This is a dumb idea. Forcing a committee of three top managers to fill in for their former boss only exemplifies the lack of business management experience of most members of council.

There is no succession plan in place for senior management. To create this Troika is an example of the misfits of knowledge by city council.

Council, in secret session has created this awkward senior management structure by increasing their compensation for up to six months following the appointment of a new CFO of the city.

This commuter is not to disparage the ability of the three remaining DCAO’s who are capable and worthy candidates for the job.

I don’t envy the situation on which the council has put them.

In the middle of the 2019 Budget creation, why did this happen?

Some history

Since 2006, there has been four CAO’s heading the city staff: Larry Kotseff, Hans Loewig, Ann Pappert and Derrick Thomson. Of the four only one actually lived in Guelph. A year following Ms. Pappert’s appointment, council gave her $20,000 to move from Waterloo to Guelph.

Of course the city should conduct a search for a new CAO and select a candidate with an independent view and ready to clean house of the dominant partisan council.

We need a CAO who understands the role of staff is to serve the public interest and not to bury those rights behind closed doors.

The record shows that the city administration have wasted millions on building a new city hall; the Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc financial loss of $63 million of shareholder value; the giveaway of Guelph Hydro; the bike lane network expansion; subsidizing Guelph Transit support of a variety of services to the University of Guelph, including low property taxes on the largest land owner in the city.

These are just a handful that has drained the Guelph Treasury for projects that often lacked a business plan. Most important has been the neglect of the city infrastructure, some of which is 200 years old.

Despite warnings from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) and more recently from the city staff that has put a $450 million price tag on infrastructure renewal and replacement.

In its usual response, city staff recommended to council to place a special levy of 2 per cent for infrastructure work on property taxpayers.

Even that was bungled when council decided to split the levy with 1 per cent dedicated to “City Buildings.” Sponsored by Councillors Karl Wettstein and Mark MacKinnon, the money went to the proposed South End $63 million Recreation Centre.

It was learned that professional outside planners had spent some $3.5 million on preliminary site and design of the complex.

There has been no budget planning in the capital budget for this project. It is only one example of the voodoo financial management of council, most of whom don’t understand a balance sheet or a business plan or the correlation of each. But that’s what we have a staff for, right?

Mind you, I believe the city now has much stronger and experienced senior managers to maintain fiscal responsibity and management practices.

That’s why citizens should be concerned about Mr. Thomson’s sudden departure that has not been explained.

Once the money has been spent, we cannot get it back.

That’s why it will be most important to hire a CAO of experience, proven performance and that old standby, guts, to steer our city to create a balanced and affordable community for all citizens.

We wish council Godspeed in this search for a new CAO.

 

 

 

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Does the Guelph administration keep on giving to the University of Guelph?

By Gerry Barker

February 4, 2019

Opinion

Recently, by an 8 to 4 vote council exempted the University of Guelph of paying development charges for its never-ending expansion of facilities.

That’s a great deal by any standard.

But let’s try to understand just what the city receives from the University to maintain taxpayer-supported costs including infrastructure, transportation, public safety, hospital and medical services and city administration.

City taxpayers pay for all of these categories.

Don O’Leary, the University’s Vice President of finance, administration and risk, admitted that he University is paying $1.6 million in lieu of property taxes. This special deal, created the province in 1987, is called the bed-tax.

Each post secondary institution in the province multiplies the number of students attending by $75. That number remains the same today, some 36 years later. There is no allowance for inflation or the effect on city taxpayers in terms of operational costs and population growth of the city.

The city’s operating and capital spending costs are estimated to be 395 per cent compounded, at an average of three per cent per year since the introduction of the plan.

When comparing the property tax rate proposed by the city of Toronto was 2.55 per cent. Yes there will be folks in Guelph who will dispute the fact that Guelph’s 3.93 per cent property tax rate is not valid. It’s relative because size is not what matter.

It’s how to reduce overhead and spending. By practicing more accurate forecasting managing within our means and working to increase revenues. It is not at the expense of property taxpayers. That well has been tapped too often.

But the University of Guelph owns possibly the largest total tract of urban land among the post secondary schools in the province, much of it yet to be developed.

The U of G property contains a larger portion of leased land including a multi-use subdivision known as the Arboretum. In addition, much of the commercial and offices along Stone Road pay a land lease charge to the University that owns the land. Over the years this has been a financial gold mine for the University that grows every year. Is it an increasing real estate bonanza including the Stone Road Mall?

So why are the citizens financing this in perpetuity?

Moreover, while the property tax rate has only dipped twice below three per cent per year in 9 years, The University’s contribution has remained at $75 per student.

Is this part of the $800 million economic contribution to the City of Guelph claimed by University VP O’Leary? Particularly when it is obvious that the University is in the real estate business and receives grants from the province.

Yet city council voted to continue exempting the institution from development fees for another five years.

The council vote was 8 to 4 with Coun. Dan Gibson absent. Breaking it down, voting for this largess was Mayor Guthrie, Counillors James Gordon, Phil Allt, June Hofland, Dominique O’Rourke, Mark MacKinnon, Cathy Downer and Leanne Piper. Voting against the motion were Councillors Bob Bell, Christine Billings, Rodrigo Goller and Mike Salisbury.

One of those councillors voting for the development fee exemption was Leanne Piper who is employed by the University. She should have recused herself as well as any other councillor working or associated with the University.

Who benefits from this economic generator?

. Don O’Leary addressed what the University of Guelph brings to the city. “The University is a significant economic generator and allows the economy to thrive,” he said, adding that the school supports approximately 12,000 local jobs and brings nearly $800 million worth of economic activity to the city every year.

Those economic numbers came from a University produced brochure that lacked the data source of the $800 million that the institution claims brings to the city. Further, that figure of 12,000 staff, according to the brochure, includes staff at a Toronto campus that links Humber College and another campus in South Western Ontario.

What that brochure failed to mention was the endowment fund that the University has reported to be more than $100 million. That represents 25 per cent of the entire annual city budgets.

Then the City’s General manager of Finance and Treasurer, Tara Baker, reported to councillors that Guelph could expect to see $50 million in the next decade in tax-supported growth costs. However, the study found a shortfall of $1.25 million this year that will need to be added to the capital budget, approved by council Jan. 30.

That’s not a rounding adjustment, based on the $50 million it is anticipated to be spent by taxpayers over the next ten years; that works out to $5 million a year. This current shortfall represents 25 per cent that must be added to the capital budget.

But where is the University of Guelph’s contribution to support the taxpayer’s responsibility to pay for those services, the cost of which increases exponentially every year? Oh, they don’t because council voted to exempt the University from paying property taxes and development fees.

Guelph Transit revenue threatened

Breaking news! We have learned that the Ford Government is considering allowing students to opt out of the obligatory transit pass payment each semester.

This comes when Guelph Transit announced that 50 per cent of its passenger traffic is by students, chiefly from the University of Guelph.

If this occurs, transit officials are concerned it will hit the bottom line of operating costs. The shortfall will affect the property taxpayers, as they will have to pick-up the difference.

For the record, the city already subsidizes Guelph Transit by more than $15 million annually. In other words, this service is built for the students and it is an inefficient and costly operation that is used by a minority of residents. If the Ford proposal passes, then Guelph Transit must reduce services and operating overhead.

Guelph is now Discount City

Did I tell you about the other discounts the city gives to the University?

Up to now, the city has granted a 25 per cent reduction of development fees initiated for the University. Staff reported that the full exemption will apply when it comes to community public services such as libraries, recreation, parks, and infrastructure.

The other big discount is the bed tax deal in lieu of property taxes that gives the University a huge break in land taxes. The city will argue that deal is mandated by the province. But not adjusted for 36 years?

I still maintain that the relationship between the city and the University needs a review and sharing of taxpayer costs that support the institution on a daily basis, 24-7.

There is concern that increasing development fees will immediately impact the development industry, thereby increasing housing prices and people looking elsewhere. We have already experienced developers leaving Guelph due to the rigid and unfair treatment by city officials during the eight years of the Farbridge administration.

The Mayor ran in 2014 to abolish the “Guelph Factor” that affected approval times of development proposals.

It appears the ‘Guelph Factor’ is alive and well and being just as impossible and demanding by planning and engineering staff as ever. It still takes two and three years to process a development plan.

It is the Jonah of Guelph that failed to increase commercial and industrial assessment for 12 years. It would have alleviated the pressure on residential properties. Those properties, the ATM machine of City public revenues, that have had to support sacred institutions, costly, failed environmental schemes and still, no downtown library, no south end recreation centre or adequate parking downtown.

Even the staff receives a convenience discount

Correction: city hall staffers will mostly occupy the $22 million Wilson Street Parkade, now under construction. The location is just too convenient.

We have just re-elected the same city council with only two changes. The same group that has driven up taxes and user fees and is proposing another 3.93 per cent

Increase this year in property taxes.

Remember? Mayor Guthrie promising to keep property tax increases at the same rate as the Consumer Price Index. That rate in 2014 was 1.11 per cent. In the intervening years, it has not increased by more than 2.55 per cent.

I regret Mr. Mayor, most of the Guelph electorate felt you had great promise and twice have elected you. Sorry, but you folded like a cheap suit when you went along with a 3.96 per cent property tax increase in your first budget in 2015.

And now with your second post election budget, the proposed property tax increase for 2019 is 3.93 per cen if approved by council.

Déjà vu or is it just a convenient opportunity?

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