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Process, what process?

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We're not here to fight issues, said Karen Poshtar, chair of the special interest group*, VOTE, at its recent AGM. "We're here to deal with process."

That statement has me baffled. VOTE has not raised a single question over process this term I can recall. Are they suggesting that this term the process has been beyond reproach? That the lack of public input is what they want from a government? If so, that's scary. But more so is their myopia if they believe this term has been anything even close to accountable or open government.

The story about the poorly-attended AGM - 26 people - ran in last week's Enterprise-Bulletin. The chair rather defensively said the group is following its mandate - and that is process. But according to the group's own website, they are all about issues. The "news" section has letters of protest from the group about several issues last term - the heritage district, the sale of the grain elevator, the sale of the Simcoe Street properties, the sale of the water treatment plant, the number of developments proposed, the Shipyards and others. Those aren't process. They're ISSUES.

"We're all about fairness, with the decisions being made, and that everything is above board," Ms. Poshtar added.

Above board? Where was VOTE when council learned the mayor was spying on council emails? Or for the in-camera decision to spend more than $100,000 on the mayor's fight against educational development charges, even after the town lost the battle at the OMB? Or the no-public-input allowed decision to revoke the heritage approvals of the Admiral Collingwood development?

Above board? Like the mayor's rejection of a petition with more than 2,500 signatures (100 times the number of attendees at last week's VOTE meeting) to restore those approvals? Like the attempt to make the budget an in-camera process? Or the lack of public input into the decision not to go to a ward-based electoral system? Or calling a special meeting of council to accommodate the schedule of this special interest group? Or the mayor's unilateral changing of the committees and committee processes without council input? Or the mayor's refusal to vote at the NVCA according to council's direction and instead publicly stated he would vote how he saw fit. Or the mayor's fight against the county growth plan - without council's or the public's input. Or the vote about the downtown revitalization - no public input.

But wait, there's more!. was it above board to charge ratepayers $125 to investigate the validity of an in-camera meeting - with no public input? What about the approval of 500,000+ sq. feet of commercial sprawl in the west end - no public input (and very questionable justification for the approval in the commercial study). Or the no-parking zone on Second Street created without any public demand for it and no public input requested - and inconvenient to all but one local resident. What about putting our MP's irrelevant junk mail on the consent agenda as if it deserved serious debate. Or making demands of the Minister of the Environment in a letter not authorized by council. Writing a letter to another town's airport manager criticizing the operation of that airport - without council's or the airport commission's approval. The decision not to debate speed bumps and humps on local streets - no public input. The attempt to create a lobbyist registry that would have restricted council's access to the people. Reducing the highway speed limit without asking for public input. The mayor making a public presentation of a development, on behalf of the developer!

I guess we have wildly differing definitions of the term "above board." And we are obviously on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to thinking the 'process' has been correct or appropriate in all these examples.

You then say there are "not a lot of interesting issues that people want to fight about" here. Every week I get calls and emails, and I converse with many people who feel very, very differently. These issues have been in the media. You can't pretend not to know about them. And on every one of those issues VOTE has been silent. You can wriggle around it all you want, but silence equals consent.

The Website notes:

V.O.T.E. Collingwood is a residents(sic) and ratepayers(sic) group whose mandate is to encourage good local governance that:
respects and promotes our quality of life by understanding that the unique and special character of Collingwood should guide growth decisions rather than having growth affect the character of the town.
is open and accountable
is fiscally responsible
makes sound decision for our present and our future.
Our objective is to collect and disseminate information and, to promote and encourage citizen participation in decision-making. V.O.T.E. Collingwood believes that strength comes through the collective action of the people of Collingwood who should and who can have a voice in their community.
We invite you to explore our website and welcome you to heed the call to action. Now is the time for us as citizens to join together to collectively and loudly demand attention and action from our town leaders.

Loudly demanding anything by this group has been eerily absent this term. Despite claims that members of VOTE "attend council meetings on a regular basis," VOTE has been almost invisible this term. Certainly we don't see any of its members in the audience, at council meetings, on anything approaching "a regular basis." Random, sporadic attendance at best.

No, Karen: I don't agree that VOTE is a "victim of its own success." I don't believe the lack of attendance at the meeting reflected a "general satisfaction with what's happening in the community" - more it reflects a sense that people are disillusioned with VOTE, its partisan politics and its inability - or refusal - to see and comment on the abuses and autocratic process this term.

The public perceives VOTE is biased because VOTE helped CCRA compile its slate of recommended candidates last election (five of six of which got elected, including the mayor). The public perceives VOTE is biased because members of VOTE publicly helped the mayor in his election campaign. The public perceives VOTE is biased because last term Councillor - now Mayor - Carrier publicly donated $100 to help VOTE launch an OMB challenge against the town over the Admiral Collingwood development (which VOTE did not refuse). The public perceives VOTE as biased because while vocal in its assault on the previous council, the group hasn't uttered a single peep of protest over any issue, abuse or process debacle this term, yet everyone else in town is talking about them.

These aren't "common misperceptions" as you suggest - they are common perceptions. And perception is reality. You can't pretend to be neutral or unbiased because your own actions say the opposite.

* The group tries to present itself as a "common interest group" rather than a special interest group. However, I feel its uncritical acceptance of the abuses of process and democracy this term belie that claim. It remains a highly partisan organization.

Yes, I'm afraid history may not judge the VOTE organization kindly. Which is perhaps a little unfair because I think the voter manipulation before the last election was conducted by just a handful of exec members. The average VOTE member, just like the average Condo Ratepayer, didn't have a clue what was going on. Those poor condo owners probably thought they were voting for garbage pickup rebates or something. Little did they suspect it was more about the endorsed candidates plans to scupper a six floor development in the downtown.

The VOTE organization has become largely irrelevant now. The leaders have achieved their aims and lost interest, and the rank and file have become disillusioned and drifted away. 26 attendees at the AGM speaks for itself....I think the Admiral gets four times that number of blog hits before breakfast.

Lets hope the next election can be a more open affair, with votes being cast on the basis of issues rather than endorsements and block voting.

Finally, congratulations to you on running this blog. We may not agree with you all the time but at least we have an idea of where you stand on various issues, and we will be able to vote for you - or not - based upon a reasoned understanding of your positions.
Ian Chadwick
Jun 02 2009 05:58 AM

Thanks for the kind words. I write both to keep people informed and to fulfill an obsession to write. It's something I just can't help doing. Forty years as writer/columnist/editor in magazines, newspapers and even book publishing has made me thus. I am aware that what I write can cost me potential voters and support, but I feel compelled to write what I see as the other side of these issues, regardless. I simply can't help writing things as I see them, especially when I see a problem or an autocratic act. And I've seen a lot of both, this term.

I am in favour of citizens' groups, raterpayers' groups, and common interest groups. I think they, like the media, are important to help keep governments in check. But they need to be free of obvious bias, especially for (or against) particular politicians. When that bias is as evident as it is here, these groups become simply political lapdogs that lose allc redibility. Their silence about the problems everyone else sees denotes consent, and people simply don't want to be part of that acceptance.

im not scoop
Jun 04 2009 02:11 PM
I have to suggest that if we are willing to let people off the hook by suggesting they had been blindsided by a small handful of the group is asking for it to happen all over again.

These people were not subtle in what they were attempting to do, and were too full of themselves not to brag to the membership what they planned to do. Anyone who followed them did so knowingly and shares the blame.

Those who chose to ignore history are doomed to repeat it .... or something like that

Groups like this are special interest groups..... its not the label you have to worry about.. it is whats in the package

(after all any sports association could be considered special interest... and most definitely a horticultural society member has a special interest....)

It is what the group has as a special interest that should be of concern (and we have seen what this group was especially interested in and it wasnt process...)
Ian Chadwick
Jun 04 2009 06:27 PM

Groups like this are special interest groups..... its not the label you have to worry about.. it is whats in the package

(after all any sports association could be considered special interest... and most definitely a horticultural society member has a special interest....)

It is what the group has as a special interest that should be of concern (and we have seen what this group was especially interested in and it wasnt process...)

I have said in the past: I'm not offended by or opposed to special interest groups per se, because as you point out there are many benign or even benevolent SIGs in the community. A lot of community events or activities could not run without them. But 99.9% of them own up to being a SIG and have no problem with the label. I have a lot of respect for those who do acknowledge it, and none for those who pretend they aren't - when the evidence says something very, very different.

Would you have respect for, say, a soccer association that pretended to be a generic ratepayer's organization representing the broad spectrum of the community and all of its concerns? Especially when all they ever did was promote soccer and ignored everything else? (hypothetically speaking, I am... it could be hockey, trails, the humane society or any other group).

As you say, it's what's in the package that really matters.

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