Blog Squatting

I have been Blog Squatting here as a continuation of my self-admitted local democracy experiment. I would like to thank Jim Duff as my benevolent Bloglord (blog landlord) victim for his indulgence, his turning a blind eye, or simply a lack of interest that has allowed me to indulge myself and experiment here.

Blogging can easily become narcissistic blathering. For the time being, I am hereby evicting myself from being an uninvited main voice on this blog that is not mine. I lack the skills, time, commitment and wider social connections needed to build this Blog towards anything resembling truly relevant discussion. Perhaps in modern times building that sort of relevance is becoming close to impossible. I will try to explain later in this post.

The basic questions I have been trying to answer recently are: How will small communities, lacking a politically involved local newspaper remain involved in their own politics and municipal destiny and what new modern tools are available to fill any gaps left by the disappearance of that local paper? I have yet to find a good answer, and I believe that the tools do not yet exist to replace good local journalists. Communities like Hudson who lack good local papers will diminish in some ways we don’t yet fully understand. Such change will come first to small communities, but where we once had multiple Montreal English dailies we now have one mostly branch office English paper. More of our media is controlled by fewer corporations, never a good omen for having balanced insight among citizens.

I’d like to thank those who have followed me on this period of the blog, an interested and interesting gathering of people who think and care about Hudson’s future and are willing to contribute their thoughts at the risk of judgement. You are quite unique within the municipal political landscape; even participating is a small group discussion can be a scary task in a small town divided into factions and social groups. Very few will like a post, fewer still will discuss it positively and contribute something, and even fewer will ever reasonably object to a position taken and almost no one will circulate a link to all their friends. Debate towards consensus eludes most of the modern world, so bullies will dominate the decision making.

The real control of municipal direction has always existed within an interested subset of any community and their willingness to get involved in any issue, either constructively or destructively would dictate the relative success of failure of successive Councils.

The cycle seems to repeat, driven by an almost insignificant part of our population that becomes disproportionately noisy for what they see as good reasons. One hundred citizens at a monthly council would represent less than 2% of citizens and half are there for constructive comments and initiatives. Ten angry hecklers at the last council represent less than 0.2% of citizens angry enough to debase themselves with inappropriate action. Only a very tiny percentage will form small groups to circulate angry emails and Facebook posts calling to dismantle and replace the Mayor and Council.

It’s easy for me to draw the logical conclusion that 98+% of Hudson citizens are happy enough with the government by a few elected fellow citizens to just not get involved. An alternative question is: If only 1% care, why should I? As I better understand this process, I begin to question whether what I write will be constructive or destructive. Am I better serving the 1% or the 99% and how might I ever balance both sides when one side remains mostly silent? Am I promoting peaceful progress or fomenting dissatisfaction and disruption?

We need dreamers and idealists. But, it can be too easy to get caught up in passion and belief and begin to lose sight of what is possible within the confines of past failures, existing constraints and the overbearing laws that govern municipal governments. None of those are the responsibility of any current council; government is in fact the political science of bureaucratic checks and balances that limit any government’s ability to move off course too quickly. The system is designed to prevent bold actions that happen in less than the time between elections when the people can speak again. It is painfully easy to overwhelm a municipal government drowning in past problems and red-tape with good ideas or well meaning demands and it is absolutely possible to freeze them to failure with only a small group of angry citizens.

I thank and admire all who serve our community, those have served us and those who will serve in the future as Mayor or Councillor. You undertake to dream of a better future for our town, and to work for low compensation and too little respect within a system designed to keep you from doing anything significant without massive support of a silent majority, while enduring the slings and arrows of a tiny minority. Without citizens like our Mayors and Councils, we’d suddenly cease to govern ourselves and quickly be absorbed and homogenized into a bland mediocrity completely unlike Hudson of past times.

Will Social media, including blogs like this one, improve local politics? I believe that social media will not easily join us into causes or drive progress based on broad vision and consensus. Especially in a small town environment with tightly woven social structures that can become quickly judgmental.

We who create blogs or Facebook groups risk dividing ourselves into significantly smaller and smaller groups of like minded people on narrow focused single issues. Until we find a formula that actually engages significant portions of a population into real respectful debate and discussion towards consensus, we will fail to make ourselves relevant.

I suspect that Bloglord Duff may come back in the near future and that his hiatus may have been pondering many of these same issues. Perhaps, Jim will have found some answers that elude and frustrate me, if so I will happily support his efforts to engage and educate more people in discussion.

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Hudson Strategic Plan for Dummies

There are very few dummies among us, but today I’m attempting to distill the essence of Hudson’s strategic plan to a few simple sentences.

  • Hudson can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing because we’re slowly failing financially and not keeping up with the requirements of the bureaucracy of the MRC and Quebec.
  • Hudson needs better government, responsive, open, fiscally responsive and completely transparent.
  • Hudson has deep passion for arts and culture and has many involved citizens.
  • Hudson values the beauty of the nature around us and has many involved citizens.
  • Hudson will need more tax paying residents to pay our bills, but we must grow in a planned and controlled fashion that fits Hudson’s image and way of life.
  • Hudson needs be more attractive and better maintained, to be a better place to live, to attract more visitors and entice more future residents to buy homes here.
  • Hudson needs to encourage and enable transitional living options so that residents can age well in Hudson for as long as possible.

This is basically my simple summary of everything Council has resolved to do when they accepted the Strategic Plan at April’s public Council meeting. The rest of the strategic plan is professional, competent, and comprehensive.

The plan shows that they’ve spent a lot of time and thought this out, put some numbers together and set a timeline and plan for staged implementation. Since it affects our future I suggest everyone read it. My previous posts shared the links to the documents or just go to Hudson’s website.

A meeting May 12th will provide much more information and form committees on various points.

For the fearful among us, Council can’t simply start spending borrowed money wildly or making deals or rezoning without public approval on anything major. If they did, they would lose the trust and respect of the people and violate one of their own strategic plan pillars.

I will dig deeper into some of the key Hudson Strategic plan issues in future posts, so casual visitors should check back often. As always, we need more discussion and more voices, so please speak up and comment.

I’d like to thank Mayor Prevost and all Councillors for gathering our comments and listening to citizen’s concerns and then spending the countless hours it takes to prepare such a complex and well thought out framework for the future, especially during a time of extreme duress and complex challenges within our municipal government.

The Prevost administration is the first in decades to undertake such a major plan for our future, they deserve our respect and in return we should take the time to read and understand what we need to do together to make Hudson’s future better.

If we fail to plan for Hudson’s future, Hudson will surely fail.

Strategic Plan Rules of Engagement

An old sales manager who worked for me often said that the reason God gave us two eyes, two ears and only one mouth is so we can look and listen twice as much as we talk.

I’m trying to build bridges; so I’m asking all sides to leave all baggage at the shore of the swamp that divides us and walk gently and quietly towards common ground.

Hudson tends to be a passionate and opinionated community, so debate can become dangerous at times. Based on recent events, I believe that before we review our future plans we should review some basic rules of engagement for respectful discussion and debate.

Our leaders are our neighbours and friends, the pittance we pay them makes it as close to volunteer per hour as you could imagine. They ask little of us while walking among us and we too often ask the impossible from them. If we continue to waste their time, attack their ideas without fully understanding them, or treat them with disrespect or suspicion at every turn we eventually won’t have leaders willing to run for election. Revisit my recent posts on Designed to Fail and ask how that might serve a Provincial government wishing for fewer municipalities.

Council knows my mind because I don’t expect them to read my mind, so I invite them to read my thoughts here and via emails. Every post I make on this blog, every comment I make on Facebook is shared with our Mayor and Council immediately so they can be the first to read it. I am willing to publish whatever I say and I won’t publish or say anything behind their backs.

You must also know that Council and I don’t always agree. I’m not perfect and at rare times they’ve angered me and I’ve walked the very edges of disrespectful and will try to do better in the future. In the end, I sure do respect them for the mess they took over, what they’ve done already, what they’re trying to do and the difficult challenges that Hudson has always presented to those who choose to lead us.

Frankly I’m impressed for different reasons with each and every Hudson Councillor and especially their willingness to establish a dialogue and try to solve problems with me. When we differ, they usually reach out and together we try to and usually  close in on or come to common ground.

Naturally, I’m confused and deeply ashamed when Council is heckled at monthly meetings like the last one. If that’s the Hudson we aspire to, I’ll have no part of it. I do understand that it is only a few citizens, less than half of one percent, who are apparently frustrated to self-reduced humanity for various reasons. But there’s just no place for any of that type of disrespectful behavior in our town. I’m disappointed that the vast majority of Hudson did not see that behavior, because I know us to be a polite and respectful place and most Hudsonites would as be angered as I was. We’re all equals on the same side here.

A great problem with planning any progress is that we actually need to agree on a few things, starting with the idea that things must change. In the past few posts I’ve tried to be realistic about some of the risks of failure to manage ourselves, and those risks begin with feeling safe doing nothing and end with Hudson mostly disappearing if we do no better than we have done in the past 20 years. Council better understands the fiscal challenges, the bureaucratic challenges and the hole we started from, but they cannot be expected to have all the answers immediately available, nor can they respond to every great idea they get passed. The key to Hudson’s past success is that a citizen with a great idea gathers some friends to help and the group contributes to the greatness  of our community.

Hudson has been lacking on serious long term planning for decades, so the Prevost Administration’s efforts to establish one have been a confusing new experience for many in Hudson. Especially the part where they actually asked all citizens for our input before taking probably well over a thousand comments and distilling them into Hudson’s Strategic Plan. And yes, they paid some local professionals to help them pull the plan together because it must have been a time consuming and daunting task and they didn’t want to miss anything.

I’m confused by many of the reactions I hear, which range from “great ideas” through “How dare they?” through “What were they thinking (or smoking)?” and span the gamut from quiet support through suspicion, distrust, vocal rejection to some seriously libelous statements about who might benefit that I won’t dignify in digital ink.

In the next couple of posts I want to build on positives and make a case for what our leaders believe we must do to ensure the survival of Hudson and help share the Prevost administration’s look beyond to where we could thrive again.

Today, in preparation for discussion, I’m giving everyone some homework.

Don’t believe what you’ve heard, actually take the time to read the Strategic Plan, or at least the summary version. Extra nerd credit will be given for reading the appendix. Then mark your calendars on May 12, 2016 for the Strategic Plan public meeting, which unfortunately I will be out of town for because of a prior commitment.

The links to your homework are:

Strategic Plan: http://www.hudson.quebec/wpcontent/uploads/_conseilmaire/Plan%20strategique/Our%20Town%20Our%20Futur%20Eng.pdf

Appendix:

http://www.hudson.quebec/wp-content/uploads/_conseil-maire/Plan%20strategique/Hudson%20Appendix%202-%20Financial%20Plan%20Detail%20Eng.pdf

Overview:

http://www.hudson.quebec/wp-content/uploads/BOOKLET-ENGlr.pdf

Council Transparency

I keep hearing complaints about Hudson Council’s Transparency, and many of those complaints are on legal issues.

Because issues are before the courts or there are threatened actions, Council is simply not able to share specific information on most of our legal issues. It is unfortunate but apparently quite common to municipalities that we’ve got such expensive legal problems and most of them originate from only a couple of places.

I think Council is supplying what they can fairly well and you can go and look for details of what they have shared but I’ll save you some trouble.

Look at: http://www.hudson.quebec/en/services/general-management/ and you’ll find the links below.

Here’s a link to the current Hudson legal files: http://www.hudson.quebec/wp-content/uploads/2016-03-15-Court-cases.pdf. In terms of number of cases it is apparently quite normal, and a number of the actions are simple disagreements that happen in normal municipal business and issues related to employees which must be kept confidential.

It’s not current, and the legal system grinds slowly and expensively so some of these legal files have been active for a long time but here’s a link to last fiscal year’s contracts between $2,000-25,000: http://www.hudson.quebec/wp-content/uploads/Liste-des-contrats-de-2-000-et-total-plus-de-25-000-du-2014-11-01-to-2015-10-31.pdf and you can find our legal bills under Dunton Rainville.

Since this is basically all the information that can be made public, look at and cross reference these two files and you can perhaps gain a sense of which cases are costing what and in some cases who is driving them. Feel free to inappropriately ask any of those involved for a better perspective, but if they’re well advised they probably won’t be any more forthcoming than Council.

At monthly council meetings there is a list of all accounts payable to be approved and it is specific and detailed. I haven’t found those listings on the web, but I’d like to see them placed on the website. The last two months alone we consumed over $100K of legal expenses that the Town almost entirely simply can’t avoid, so our legal costs are rising rapidly for now.

One significant grouping of our two biggest ongoing legal bills is the collection of files related to the various issues with our former Director General Catherine Haulard. The issues are confidential until resolved; Council simply can’t speak on this matter or be more transparent. I presume that if there were an offer of reasonable settlement that Council would pursue that, so I must presume that our leaders and lawyers believe that we’re spending legal dollars to defend ourselves properly against what our leaders and our lawyers believe to be unreasonable demands. We’ll only be able to judge the effectiveness of that when the end of these actions comes by going to court or settling.

The other big legal cost is preparing facts and a legal defense for a complaint of 15 pages containing 151 specific allegations of ethical and other issues against Mayor Prevost and others that Councillor Robert Spencer filed with MAMOT. I understand that MAMOT took no actions themselves but referred these allegations to the CMQ which I understand is the Quebec Court that deals with such municipal issues.

I will always defend any Councillor’s right to object to or raise such things and especially to seek the judgement of a higher level of the law where he or she feels confident in the allegations. This huge pile of allegations has cost a lot of legal dollars and consumed a huge amount of time and energy from the mayor and others. How we as citizens might wish to judge this action and react can only be determined once the CMQ has rendered some decision. Until then we wait and we spend and must simply accept that the Town Council can’t say anything, but must prepare an answer with our lawyers.

Until such a ruling finally comes, I will also always presume the innocence of those who stood up and were elected to serve us. The points of allegation made have apparently become “public” by virtue of a lifting of the publication ban originally in place. The Montreal Gazette and La Presse had challenged the ban, and it appears that Hudson originally challenged it probably to keep the names of citizens mentioned out of the public eye.

At the March Council meeting Mayor Prevost said basically that he wouldn’t further object if the file became public and that he felt he had nothing to fear and would be vindicated. Apparently the publication ban has since been lifted, so I presume the Montreal Gazette knows what the specific 151 allegations are and so far hasn’t deemed them important enough to publish in any detail.

I’ll leave my original as is, but I need to correct one thing, the Montreal Gazette did in fact publish a summary of the Spencer allegations. Thanks to one of our blog readers:  http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/off-island-gazette/hudson-mayor-ethics-complaint-details-now-public

It is not the Town’s place to publish this full list of allegations. But, the Town must prepare to defend itself properly at great expense. The DG suggested at last council that one maybe could ask the CMQ for a copy, personally I have no interest in discussing details of allegations and will wait for an eventual binding legal judgment to decide which side of this bothers me more. That said, this case and these costs will and must simply grind on slowly at an incredibly high cost in dollars, time and morale and the eventual wrong side will deserve some anger.

Until each of these issues are resolved, we’re committed by the actions launched by others to spending money and energy on them that would be better spent elsewhere improving our Town.

I believe that on these legal issues the Mayor and Council have been as transparent as legally and reasonably possible. What more do you think they should do while we must wait for the legal system?

Designed to Fail: Part Deux

Always I’m stating my studied opinion and thinking out loud. Some will say I’m being alarmist; others are more than certain that I’m crazy and only time and how we manage ourselves will determine if the future finds me correct or completely wrong. I’ve never wanted more to be wrong than on this subject, but I find we keep following a self-destructive path and something will force change upon us.

Let’s examine some simplistic reasons why Quebec might wish small municipalities like Hudson to fail or stumble enough that merger is our only sensible or available option. Simply put communities of 5000 citizens can become a real pain in the ass to big government.

It’s not just Quebec; the evidence clearly shows that wherever possible Provincial governments are joining towns to simplify management of many issues.  Less points of contact and more homogenized needs to service makes their government of us easier on a day to day basis. The Provinces will argue successfully on the possible efficiency gains and cost savings, but in that spreadsheet process our emotions and attachment to a village heritage don’t get any significant weighting or offsetting value.

Provincial governments get significant pushback and endure legal challenges whenever they force mergers, so it’s my opinion that an unspoken part of the long term strategy to create fewer larger merged towns is to weigh municipalities down with bureaucracy and make it more and more difficult to function correctly at too small a size. Of course they won’t publish such an intention, and perhaps the growth of municipal bureaucracy is just natural government evolution that’s unintentionally crushing small towns.

If we fail to administrate to the required government standards or we eventually need trusteeship, we can’t get grants and maybe even we can’t borrow money from banking channels to finance municipal operations. When we fail to function or govern ourselves, we are no longer qualified to control our own destiny, we can get rolled into a neighbouring community and their life gets simpler.

In my dark and cloudy crystal ball I see Nouveau Hudson becoming an attractive quaint waterfront hamlet within the ever growing municipality of Vaudreuil-Dorion. Hudson would no longer enjoy bilingual status; our failure would surely close that option.

Where Hudson now has six Councillors, Vaudreuil Dorion currently has eight municipal Councillors with about seven times our population. Logically, within V-D, Hudson would have a single municipal Councillor and V-D would have nine Councillors as they’d expand Council to a total of ten because it’s usual to have even numbers with the Mayor breaking ties.

Our administration needs would easily fit within the V-D buildings and systems, immediately saving a few million to build a new Hudson Town Hall. It would be difficult to elect a mayor from Hudson to challenge the longstanding V-D dynasty. V-D is successfully attracting the new hospital, senior’s residences, businesses, schools, and government grants, what’s not to like from an upper government or even citizen’s perspective.

Before you discount my forward scenario, look towards some of the players in V-D politics who are good people successfully building an expanding empire and also look to the incentives that the Provincial government and the MRC would enjoy when Hudson fails.

Honestly, in functional terms we’d be more efficient and have less ability to fight among ourselves, so given enough time and enough new villagers in our Hudson village six story condos, I’m not actually sure that such a merger would be completely terrible as growth would drown out the existing population quickly. Potential developers and builders would surely love the new structure; it seems quite easy to get those things done in V-D.

I’ll ask our blog commentators to tell me what value they’re sure we’d lose and why we maybe should actually stop fighting among ourselves and start fighting to avoid such a future.

I believe that the only way we can save Hudson for Hudson is to find the incentive and ways to actually become a cohesive and very well managed community. Fail to do that and we will fail because our failure has already been pre-planned and we’re executing their plan for our failure almost perfectly.

Designed to Fail: Part One

This is my personal opinion and view of the future of small municipalities in Quebec, especially those attached to an MRC connected to a major metropolitan area. When and if failure comes at some point in Hudson’s future, I will take zero pleasure in having been correct. Hudson’s current collective mentality and mood makes long term survival much more difficult and Quebec would not be disappointed in any way if Hudson failed and had to be merged with a larger neighbour.

The cynical side of me says that the possibility of failure was designed into the Quebec Municipalities system in ways that would eventually benefit and simplify the Provincial and Regional government bureaucracy. Perhaps we’re expected by Quebec to eventually fail, and perhaps we’re just taking too damned long to finish ourselves off.

The technician in me says that to avoid disaster of failure, we must first identify those potential management areas where we would be expected to fail if we were badly managed. Start with the ones where we are most behind the bureaucratic requirements . Once we see the failure points, perhaps we can find ways to work with and around them.

If there’s any interest in discussion I am willing, over several blog posts, to highlight a series of structures in Quebec municipal law that I believe make it nearly impossible for a small town to survive and thrive. Perhaps we’ll together discover other ways we’re designed to fail.

Since the Bouchard days of zero-deficit municipal governments have become more and more complex. The responsibilities of municipalities have grown exponentially, the bureaucracy requirements have been expanded in exchange the right to raise more tax passed down to municipalities. Virtually no small town was prepared for or capable of the newly granted responsibilities and their ensuing bureaucracy and staff requirements.

Thirty years ago, Hudson was far more self sufficient than today, but that doesn’t imply well managed and I won’t try to pass judgement there especially on the known crimes against us. We had our own Police department, a volunteer fire department under our control, an on staff Civil Engineer, and very simple town planning that could generate a building permit for a simple addition or garage replacement in days. When the MRC came to our lives, Hudson’s leaders simply ignored it as not relevant or valuable to us at that time, and I believe that was a huge mistake that we still have not fully corrected. We’re still referred to at MRC levels as the Republic of Hudson, and we do not avail ourselves of all the possible benefits and funding and we can’t escape the responsibilities.

In that bygone era, Hudson could show some world attention grabbing vision, largely driven by a concentration of local passionate people. We were the first community in Canada to ban pesticides, embracing weeds in our lawns as a way of better life. When challenged, tiny little Hudson fought large corporate interests and won at the Supreme Court of Canada. Slowly our anti-pesticide vision started to spread and indirectly we have helped make a large part of Canada a safer place for future generations.

Development always came hard to Hudson, the majority of the local vocal wanted Hudson to never change. It had to be a local who would wrestle White Zoning from Green for his land, and then holy crap they would stand to profit where others might not. Battles driven by Green environment interests and Green Profit Envy were argued and eventually more or less settled locally.

One could argue that Birch Hill was an environmental mistake with borderline land quality and without town sewers and with that generation of septic, but Fairhaven, Quarry Hill, Alstonvale, Hudson Valleys and Whitlock Ouest came together nicely and without significant long term environmental or infrastructure liability. Not all of those developments were approved and managed by a town planning department, but there was lively debate and public consultation. Redevelopment of waterfront was never easy, but most of the major problems came from a few inches or a few feet of extra height due to changes required during construction. When we disagreed, we usually agreed to disagree and allowed grumbling rights forever to whoever lost the argument.

At some point we added an actual Town Planning department, mostly in the beginning because we had to now do so many different things required by the upper bureaucracy, and in the end things that were good for the town. We needed a Conservation Plan and we needed to identify Wetlands and areas to be protected so that we could develop the right areas of town. We needed consistent bylaws and rights to development, so that every White Land owner would be treated fairly under the same rules.

I won’t opine about the quality of our planning department, I believe that any shortcomings we see are the result of bad management practices, lack of direction from leaders, and especially the complex and growing demands of the upper levels of our bureaucracy. I believe we’re well staffed with competent people, yet we continually need to ask for extensions for legally required things demanded by the MRC, so apparently we can’t keep up.

A wise editor always told me that we lose even the brightest reader at 800 words, I’m over that limit, running out of time, I’ve got some real work to do, and I’m already freeloading on this dormant blog, so I’ll try to continue with another post if my rights don’t get yanked.

Today my first conclusion is that Town Planning is one of the overload points designed into our upper municipal bureaucracy that makes it nearly impossible for any small Quebec town to survive, especially one like Hudson that has spent decades mismanaging itself with the help of criminal activity.