Municipal Madness

We have Municipal Elections coming up in Ontario in 2018, and there’s a new sheriff in town.  That sheriff comes in the form of the recent Modernizing Ontario’s Municipal Elections Act 2017. The Act took a particularly close look at Accountability and Transparency, at least according to their website where they claim:

“Ontario aims to make rules clearer, more effective and responsive to local needs. These changes will:

  • Require municipalities to establish codes of conduct for members of municipal council and certain local boards, which could include rules that guide the ethical conduct of those members. This requirement would help ensure that every municipality in Ontario has a code of conduct for council members, as well as for members of certain local boards.
  • Give the public and municipal councillors access to an integrity commissioner, with broadened powers to investigate conflict of interest complaints and provide advice to councillors.
  • Enhance justice by providing a wider range of penalties for contraventions of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
  • Update the definition of “meeting” in the legislation to help ensure that rules would be clearer for municipal officials, local board members and the public.
  • Set out how municipalities may allow for electronic participation by council, local board and committee members at meetings that are open to the public. Participants would not be counted towards quorum and members would not be able to participate electronically in meetings that are closed to the public.”

These fine tuning adjustments would be wonderful except for one thing. The qualifications to become a candidate are so minimalistic as to be laughable.

To be a candidate, say in my hometown of Caledon, you must be eligible to vote (18, Canadian, breathing) in a municipality in order to run for a position on council. Specifically, on the day you file your nomination, you must be a Canadian citizen aged 18 or older, and qualify as a resident or non-resident elector. You must also be eligible to hold office on the day you file your nomination. For example, a person who is 17 years old but will turn 18 before voting day must wait until he or she has turned 18 to file.

There are also some new rules. In 2018 a candidate must provide signatures of 25 eligible Caledon electors supporting the nomination.

It is important to note that a candidate does not have to live in the Ward i which they run for office. If your municipality has wards, you can run in any ward – you do not have to live in a particular ward in order to be its councillor. However, if you run in a ward where you do not live, you will not be able to vote for yourself. Having a campaign office or a business in a ward where you would not be otherwise eligible to vote does not make you eligible to vote in that ward.

Who is NOT eligible to be candidate for Municipal Council? The following people are disqualified from being elected to municipal office:

  • any person who is not eligible to vote in the municipality
  • an employee of a municipality who has not taken an unpaid leave of absence and resigned
  • a judge of any court
  • an MP, an MPP or a Senator
  • an inmate serving a sentence in a penal or correctional institution

You can, however, be a scientific illiterate who believes that the Earth is flat or only 6000 years old, and humans walked with the dinosaurs. That will truly help your municipality to drive at high speed into the accelerating climate change of the 21st century looking in the rear view mirror.

I propose a new set of rules and qualifications.

First, candidates have to submit three letters of reference from qualified citizens, and a personal letter of application as to why they want the position of responsibility for which they are applying, along with a current, fact-checked Résumé for Councillors and Curriculum Vitae (CV) for Mayors.

The résumé/CV must include educational, employment, and service experience, along with any awards and special skills, and be accompanied by a current police background check. Note: lack of formal education should not be a barrier, but lack of literacy should. Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Dave Thomas, and our own Ryan Gosling seemed to do just fine. On the other hand, University degrees can be bought – just ask the current President of the United States.

Secondly, the candidates must be able to demonstrate competent literacy skills in reading, writing and speaking.

Thirdly, the candidate must sign an Agreement to Participate, indicating that they have read, comprehended, and agreed to the Code of Conduct, and that they will have chosen to remove themselves from Council immediately should they violate the Code of Conduct.

Fourthly, any Candidate found to be in collusion with development interests contrary to the Town’s majority interests will have chosen to remove themselves from Council and Regional Council immediately.

Lastly, the Candidates agree to submit themselves to a public shaming should they be found to be guilty of deliberately or accidentally (without correction) giving misinformation to their constituents, or of being found guilty by the Integrity Commissioner of violating their Code of Conduct, or of having colluded with hostile development interests. This same public shaming will be applied to any members of the Press who enable the spread of innuendo, gossip and misinformation among the citizens of Caledon.

The public shaming will be carried out at a central location in their Ward, as well as running the gauntlet along the Great Trail behind the Town Hall. And “NO”, I’m not kidding.

Follow these simple new qualification guidelines and consequences for the 2018 slate of candidates, and we’ll be sure to have the most accountable local Government and media coverage in the country.

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Skid Crease, Caledon

Next Political Humour Blog: The dangers of a “Family Compact” on Council.

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Defamation and Libel and Smears, oh my!

I was approached by an irate politician the other day who said to me, “You know you can defame someone without mentioning their name.” To which I replied, “It’s not defamation if it’s true.” The response was, “You’d better be careful.” To which I replied, “You had best be careful too.” The unsatisfied politician turned away and told me to “Go to Hell.”

This all took place in the waiting area outside of the official chambers and rather than return to continue my regular reporting, I chose to sit outside and do some research on defamation. I was right. In the Province of Ontario and across most of the civilized literate world, if you say something about someone that is true, it is NOT defamation. If you say something about someone that is false, but does not damage their character or reputation, it is NOT defamation.

The main difference between defamation and libel is that the former is in speech and the latter is in print. Since my stories were in print, the politician concerned already had it wrong. Beyond which, it is beneficial to have character and a good reputation in order to make libel and defamation claims credible.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a politician has been repeatedly found guilty of violating their political Code of Conduct by the local Integrity Commissioner. The factual reporting of this may, and should, cause damage to that politician’s reputation. However, it is NOT libel. Nor would it be defamation to discuss these factual charges by the Integrity Commissioner in a public forum. The truth shall set you free.

Further, if one reported that this same politician engaged in tantric meditation during phases of the full moon, while not true, if not damaging to the person’s reputation is not considered libel, or defamation if spoken. That’s the law.

Now, a smear is something else indeed, usually associated with the less factual and more viral human condition called “rumour mania.”  Rumour mania takes place when misinformation begins to be circulated by word of mouth or social media, gets repeated and amplified, and takes on the aura of “truthful hyperbole”, or “fake news” as it is known in the Trump era.

When misinformation gets circulated as truth and drives the madding crowd into a “burn the witch” frenzy, it can cause untold harm and damage not only to personal reputations, but to the social fabric of community itself. If a person in a position of responsibility gives out that misinformation, intentionally or accidentally, they are duty bound to correct their error and apologize. Unfortunately, in this day of Facebook posts and reposts, the damage is already out there and morphing into a monster in cyberspace.

And with daily examples of this to the south of our national border, where the leader of a country can lie and sue until he wins, we have to go to higher ground for inspiration on how to lead, and speak and write.

I need to find higher ground after that  assault on my journalistic integrity, so today I’m planting garlic at the Albion Hills Community Farm. Tomorrow I have an interview with Professor Art Weis who is taking me on a tour of the Koffler Scientific Reserve in King, an environmental legacy donated in 1995 by business innovator and philanthropist Murray Koffler. This University of Toronto scientific reserve is home to Professor Weis’s studies of natural ecosystems evolutionary responses to climate change. Koffler recently passed away and this interview will be to honour his devotion to scientific research and education.

The nice thing about science is its veracity. As famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote recently: “To be scientifically literate is to empower yourself to know when someone else is full of shit.

Now ain’t that the truth.

***

Skid Crease, Caledon

 

 

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My Home Town

I was born in Windsor, Ontario, but lived, went to school and worked most of my life in North York. When the North York Board of Education built the beautiful Mono Cliffs Outdoor Education Centre near Orangeville I moved northwest and spent ten years working there in the spectacular Headwaters Region of Dufferin-Caledon. After a brief return to the Toronto area to teach at York University, I was once again asked to manage an outdoor centre. This time it was at the Bolton Conference Centre and Camp location in Caledon.

That was in 1997, and this marks our 20th year here in Caledon, so I can safely say that Bolton is now my Home Town.

When we moved here the housing boom hadn’t started and in February we could still hear the coyote packs singing from the farm fields to the south of us. A lot can happen in twenty years, and as old industrial areas and development lands were rezoned, the little country Town grew. But not too big – just big enough to attract the attention of Toronto Life Magazine and get voted as one of the Top Twenty Hot Neighbourhoods in which to live. Here’s their evaluation of my rurban home town:

Anyone who yearns for rustic small-town life with the convenience of the big city should consider a foothold in Bolton—it’s quiet and picturesque, with plenty of modern amenities to keep it vibrant. Bolton, the densest chunk of Caledon, has a small cluster of restaurants and cafés that quickly give way to an expanse of strip malls and big-box stores. The housing stock is largely made up of newer homes on narrow lots, and while it’s a bit further from Toronto than Brampton, it’s both prettier and cheaper. Among the area’s most enticing rural charms: the Bolton Fall Fair, an agricultural expo with midway rides, giant gourds and a tractor pull.

Not to mention the Humber Valley Heritage Trail, the Trans-Canada Trail (The Great Trail), the Caledon Trailway, the Bruce Trail, the Albion Hills Conservation Area, and the Albion Hills Community Farm, where local residents can grow their own local produce and learn the benefits of local food production.

So, how do we keep our Home Town “rustic” but with plenty of “amenities” as the pressures from Toronto and Brampton push north looking for healthy space and more affordable housing? We espouse sustainable development over exponential growth.

There are limits to growth, but there are no limits to development. Let me explain: a human being can only grow to a certain size, but that same human being can learn to write, sing, build rocket ships, dance, train a horse, compose a symphony, paddle a canoe, deliver a speech, design an energy efficient building, develop green technologies to take us beyond fossil fuels, turn swords into ploughshares. There is no end to the development that one simple human being can achieve.

How do we nurture sustainable development over growth? We keep our citizens well-informed about the current and future state of our community. We elect a Municipal Council that is intelligent and aware of the big picture beyond their own limited self-interest. We avoid being drawn into misinformation debates and inflammatory social media rants by a rabid minority who would find fault with the way the Little Drummer Boy played his song to a baby in a manger.

It has been my privilege over the past few months to interview the administration team in the Town of Caledon. From the Chief Administrative Officer to the Town Clerk, these are people who are dedicated, hard-working and more than competent at their jobs, who work daily with the best interests of the entire population of Caledon in mind. They are not in the slightest the tax-dollar wasting, entitled incompetents that the rabid misinformed minority, and a few partisan journalists would have us believe.

The good news is, this Town of Caledon and it’s urban centre of Bolton are doing just fine thank-you, and we know what we need to do to get better. We need our GO Train. We need to dedicate Queen St to local traffic only, and divert the through traffic to the Emil Kolb by-pass it should be taking. We need to ensure all future developments, residential, employment, and industrial are built to LEED standards – energy producing, greywater reusing, and waste recycling. We need to apply a Prince Edward Island style of pride and beauty to our store fronts, our heritage buildings and our homes.

We need to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t listen to or re-elect the rabid in-between.

My Home Town – it was once voted “the Greenest Town in Ontario” and now we’re one of the hottest.  If we want to claim both of those titles in the future it will come through leadership focused on sustainable development, and a citizenry that is well informed and takes pride in their community. The mud-slingers? As the old Conestoga wagon masters used to say when the covered wagons got stuck in the mud, “Either get out and push, or get out.”

***

Skid Crease, Caledon

 

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Unethical and Illegal

We hear the words, “honest” and “transparent” coming constantly from the lips of our elected representatives. Almost as consistently as support for “small business” and working hard for “the middle class” as the backbone of Canadian and American society. Unfortunately, these words have lost all meaning when our politicians continually lie, spread fake news through social media abuse, and engage in illegal activities.

The other sad trend is the partisan bickering that takes place with each side throwing charges of illegal or unethical behaviour at the other. In American politics recently, one camp was accused of illegal and unethical behavior for engaging in research on the other side during the presidential primaries. It turns out that his kind of research is done by both sides and is neither unethical nor illegal.

On the other hand, when Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 with the express purpose of getting information the Russian government had supposedly acquired on candidate Hillary Clinton, that was both unethical and illegal.

This can also happen right in our own backyards. For example, if an elected member of a local government holds a public meeting and deliberately spreads misinformation that incites the rabid minority into a “burn the witch frenzy” and has them flooding social media with this same misinformation, that is unethical. If an elected representative of a local government reveals information at a public meeting that was discussed at closed in-Camera meetings, that is definitely unethical and should be illegal.

Here is how one Municipality’s Code of Conduct views the sanctity of private Closed/in -Camera discussions:

7. Use of Information and public Communications

  1. 7.1  In their decision making process, Members of Council or a Committee are sometimes privy to information which may be confidential or controversial such as, but not limited to, “Closed/In-Camera” meetings, and may include e-mails and correspondence from staff, Members of Council or a Committee or third parties.
  2. 7.2  Members of Council or a Committee have a duty to hold in strict confidence all information concerning matters dealt with at a “Closed/In-Camera” meeting or that is determined to be confidential by the Clerk/CAO or specifically declared by Council. It is expected that Members of Council or a Committee will:
  3. 7.3  Use confidential information appropriately so as not to benefit themselves or others or cause detriment to the Corporation, Council or themselves or others.
  4. 7.4  Respect the status of confidential information (ex.: personal, legal, property acquisition, labour relations) until after the matter ceases to be confidential as determined by the Clerk /CAO or Council.

If other elected members of local government are in attendance at a public meeting when such an unethical breech occurs, and say nothing to correct the misinformation or stop the disclosure of confidential information, they are equally guilty of violations of their Municipal Code of Conduct and subject to censure by their Integrity Commissioner.

If this kind of behaviour crawls out from under a rock in your Municipality or Province or Country, the only thing you can do is to make sure those local politicians never get into the win column in your next municipal, provincial or federal elections. And it’s time to send their rabid followers off on a nice long meditation retreat wearing sackcloth and ashes.

If we want good governance, we have to elect intelligent, articulate, well-informed and well-prepared candidates who can follow the rules of their Code of Conduct, be respectful of the rule of law, and grow in their positions. We don’t expect them to be perfect. We do expect them to be ethical and honest. The transparent ones we can see right through.

Skid Crease

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Before the Flood

 

A version of this review was first printed in the King Sentinel newspaper, October 19, 2017

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“If you consider the vastness of this universe, this Planet Earth is just a small boat. If this boat is sinking, then I think we will all have to sink together.” 

Ban KI-moon, former Secretary General of the United Nations

 

This somber message was delivered to a rapt audience of King and Caledon citizens in King’s magnificent Country Day School Performing Arts Centre. The occasion was a viewing of Leo DiCaprio’s film Before the Flood presented by National Geographic on Wednesday evening, October 11, 2017. A partnership consisting of the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, the Arts Society of King, and the Country Day School brought the movie and Chris Ballard, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, together to learn and to dialogue.

The movie opens with a story and a painting that hung on the wall of Leo’s childhood bedroom. It was titled “Before the Flood” by Dutch Renaissance master Heironymous Bosch. The original was on three hinged oak panels that closed to reveal an unusual outer painting of Earth as a single globe, an amazing intuitive feat when you consider that Magellan had yet to complete his first circumnavigation of the planet. The three inner panels depict the innocence of the Garden of Eden, the Seven Deadly Sins of humankind, and the wasteland that follows our overindulgence and consumption.

The film expands on that theme as DiCaprio takes us on a journey of celebration and degradation. We see the magnificence of this gift of life called Planet Earth and then we bear witness to the squandering of resources that our very selfish species has inflicted on all of the other systems with which we share this Home Planet.

This journey is inter-spliced with clips of DiCaprio speaking with Ban Ki-moon and taking the podium at the United Nations as their UN Messenger of Peace with a special focus on climate change. He also meets with Pope Francis when the Earth Encyclical was enacted, and talks with President Obama in the heady days of environmental hope following the world’s commitment to the Paris Accord.

The movie is a cautionary tale, much like the British TV series “Black Mirror” is to the dangers of the electronic drugs of cell phones and flat screens. Before the Flood shows us the garden of Eden that we inherited and what we have done with it in a few short millennium. Will we descend into social chaos as the many without food, water, health care and shelter turn their anger towards the 1% who seemingly have it all? And like the ancient Romans that didn’t get it until the Barbarians really were at the gates, will we realize too late that we could have turned the tide?

The hardest part to watch, of course, is the build towards a positive ending with the hope of the Paris Accord being signed by united nations equally concerned about the impacts of accelerating climate change on their countries and the global commons. There was real hope seen in the sincere conversations between DiCaprio and John Kerry and Barack Obama, and in the innocent cry to cast your vote for a secure future.

But as the film concluded, the audience sat in silence, and in the depressed knowledge that the U.S. had just elected a science illiterate as President, who then appointed climate change deniers to head the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. A President who withdrew his country from the Paris Accord, quickly began to dismantle every environmental security advance made over the last decades, and reinstated the glory that was coal to the US economy – a fossil fool for the fossil fuel industry.

Of course, the film is not without its critics either. One of the most poignant segments is when DiCaprio tours Indonesia and meets displaced peoples and animals from the areas that have been deforested. Deforested so that they can grow lucrative plantations of African palm oil trees that provide the palm oil that saturates almost every one of our processed foods. However, it turns out that a lot of the financing for DiCaprio’s movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street” came via palm oil profits from an Indonesian investment group linked to their Prime Minister, prompting cries of hypocrisy and asking DiCaprio to step down from his UN role.

However, for the purposes of raising sensibilities for this move night, those details were kept from the audience. Instead, at the end of the film, the audience got to turn their angst towards our newly appointed Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Chris Ballard. MP Ballard had already fielded pre-film questions from the audience and some very intelligent questions from Grade 11 and 12 Country Day students that left him responding, “Look, I’ve only been on this job for ten weeks. I promise to get back to you.” And to be fair, Chris Ballard’s portfolio is huge. As an educator and journalist, it has taken me 25 years to come close to understanding the science and anti-science surrounding accelerating climate change and its impacts, so we should be more than willing to give Chris a few more weeks.

The realities of energy production – and Ontario can be quite proud that we have no more coal fired power plants – was one of the things that Ballard touched upon, acknowledging the anger that many Ontarians were feeling over high electricity rates. He also explained that part of that increase was due to the fact that the government had to replace thousands of kilometers of aging infrastructure, including the basic wires, that previous governments had simply passed on to the new kids at Queen’s Park.

The Minister tried to calm the audience’s fears about accelerating climate change impact by telling them some good news – that human related CO2 emissions had stabilized. However, he forgot to mention that the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were continuing to rise, possibly because the natural ocean sinks were saturated. Besides fielding questions, Minister Ballard also got a lecture from renowned climate scientist Hans Martin – probably the smartest guy in the room when it comes to understanding accelerating climate change. Yes Chris, a lot to learn, and no time to waste.

This event was a classic in partnership planning between the King City, Country Day School, the Arts Society of King (ASK), and the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust (ORMLT) whose MC, Susan Walmer, was an articulate host. As a special guest speaker, Chris Ballard did a fine job of handling questions as honestly and as completely as he could. Steve Pellegrini, Mayor of King City, was gracious and brief in his welcome to guests, and Mr. John Liggett, Head of School for Country Day School, gave a warm greeting and a strong endorsement to the role that “grumpy scientists” play in our modern world, acknowledging that he preferred hard science to analogies and stories.

Interesting, that meteorological and climate change scientists at Environment Canada contacted me to translate their hard science into analogies and stories that the public could understand. As Albert Einstein once said:

“I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

We’re going to need both if we are going to get through the next flood safely.

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Skid Crease, Caledon

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