Time for a little honesty

I see my friend and accomplice Peter Ratcliffe has been dabbling in local politics in my absence. I had delayed posting this in the hope that a wider public discussion would have taken root at this point in the election cycle. I was fooling myself.

Two people have assured me they’ll seek the mayoralty. Half a dozen others have told me or told people who told me, that they’ll seek election or re-election as a councillor. At this point, I would say not one has shown themselves to be qualified, but my rule is not to name names until they’re posted on the DGEQ website. As of today, Saturday, April 1, nobody from Hudson is a registered candidate, either for mayor or for one of the six council seats, so as of this moment it’s all talk.

I commend Peter and others for initiating any kind of process leading to naming candidates. What depresses me is that none of this is happening in public. There’s a Facebook group that meets over beers. Another would-be candidate has initiated something called a design charette, a process whereby a consensus on planning and development is arrived at. There have been several private meetings where potential candidates put out feelers to gauge whether they had any support. I appreciate the invitations but neutrality is important to me. If you attend one, you have to attend all and be universally mistrusted as a snitch. In Hudson, local politics has been a secretive process for as long as I can remember.

From the conversations on Facebook as well as on this and other sites, there seems to be general agreement on the problems and challenges facing Hudson — ageing infrastructure, rising overhead as a percentage of fixed costs, economic stagnation. Every budget, there’s less money available for discretionary spending without raising taxes or incurring debt. There’s also a sense of gridlock, of being trapped in a downward spiral that I think leads so many of Hudson’s citizens to throw up their hands in frustration and despair. Frustration and despair lead to talk of possible mergers, feeding into that negative dynamic. Just stop it and as Peter says, Just Fix It.

The major disagreements are over priorities. Shouldn’t safe streets, with protected spaces for pedestrians and cyclists, take precedence? Why isn’t the town taking a more proactive role in shaping and controlling development? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on quality of life and the survival of Hudson’s natural, architectural, cultural and recreational environments? How can we think about densification and development when there is not enough drinking water to fight fires and supply peak demand? Why would we need a new town hall and refurbished public facilities when all we’re doing is incurring debt and providing offices for full-time staff?

And that list hasn’t begun to scratch the surface.

As another election cycle approaches, the growing hubbub suggests this is the most important election in Hudson’s history and our fate as a functioning community is at stake. Bullshit. Quebec has designed and engineered municipalities to function on autopilot, with minimal input from its elected bodies. As long as Hudson pays its bills for policing, public transit and regional governance and harmonizes its bylaws with those of the three layers of government above it, Quebec doesn’t care how residents feel. Quebec feels it has discharged its responsibility by ensuring we have an adequate quantity of drinkable water, fire and police protection and waste management and nobody is stealing from the public purse. Everything else is our problem and the town has the discretionary taxation power to deal with it. Most of Hudson’s wounds, real and imagined, are self-inflicted First World problems.

Since it came into being in 1969 as the result of a referendum, Hudson has a history of alternating bitterly contested elections with acclamations. Taylor Bradbury was elected and re-elected because he vowed to keep taxes down. He kept taxes down by refusing to invest in infrastructure. By decreeing 30,000-square-foot lots the town avoided having to invest in sewers. Bradbury carries the curse of having refused to buy Sandy Beach for $275,000 but residents supported him at the time.  Bradbury’s legacy:  chronic parking problems, sewage-filled ditches, collapsing streets — but no public debt.

Mike Elliott was elected twice (1989 and 2009) because nobody else wanted the job. He and his first council were tossed out in part because a group fronted by Steve Shaar was pissed at Elliott for having spent town money to enact the pesticide ban, which would cost the golf clubs. They organized behind closed doors and paid for a bunch of attack ads in the Hudson Gazette to convince voters the Elliott administration had to go. (In the end Quebec’s golf clubs end-ran the pesticide ban by cutting a deal with the province that made them self-regulating, which they are to this day.)

Shaar twice won re-election (1997, 2001) because he had a shrewd sense of timing that would have gotten him a lot further in politics. Steve dealt with things when they needed to be fixed and often rolled up his sleeves to do it himself. He was masterful at forcing residents to accept compromise, even if it resulted in zoning aberrations. The 1998 Hudson’s Valleys/Alstonvale subdivision agreement gave the town the Cirko Trail and resulted in an entire sector of town that had to drive through Vaudreuil-Dorion to get to the commercial centre. Shaar’s 2001 deal with Nicanco resulted in another enclaved community. Nonetheless, Sandy Beach would have been built had it not been for Nicanco’s stubbornness when it came to conforming to fast-changinging environmental demands on developers. Shaar’s legacy: Hudson’s Valleys/Alstonvale, Sandy Beach (legally, the town can’t prevent development to the 2001 bylaws) Community Centre, Bradbury Park (and by refusing to finance any part of it, the Hudson Village Theatre, by forcing the arts community and its backers to mobilize).

Shaar’s untimely death due to cancer in January 2004 resulted in councillor Liz Corker taking over as interim mayor for the next 18 months before being acclaimed mayor in 2005. Shaar had already begun the grant and subsidy application process to pay for the sewage treatment system and water filtration plant/aqueduct upgrade but Corker had to get the loan bylaws approved by residents. I realize now we weren’t asking the right questions when the bylaws were presented, but who knew that LBCD, the town’s consultants on the project, had underestimated the total cost by a third? There was no public outcry when Corker explained the principle that a third of the town would pay two-thirds of the cost and vice versa. The first hiccup was Corker’s announcement in early 2008 that there was no money left for the $1M water hookup to the west end. Then there was a revolt by downtown landlords and property owners when they got their tax bills, prompting the first of many readjustments.

I suspected something was wrong with the way the town was dealing with its long-term debt but readers told me I was barking up the wrong tree. I wrote a series of stories in 2008 and 2009 adding up what Hudson owed and questioning why Louise Villandré, Hudson’s town manager and clerk since Bradbury’s time, wasn’t rolling the sewer and water loan bylaws into long-term debt. Instead, she was using the town’s line of credit to cover the interest and carrying charges on the bridge loans. When I asked Corker about it she told me to ask Villandré, who told me it was because the town was expecting grants from Quebec and Ottawa and there would be no point in transferring more of the bridge loans into long-term debt than was needed to cover the actual cost to the town. Villandré also said the town’s external auditors had signed off on the deal.

Corker’s legacy: Hudson’s sewer treatment system, water filtration plant, Sandy Beach Nature Park, the deal that gave us Whitlock West and another enclaved development in exchange for the Viviry Valley Conservation Area, the Perreault Point development in exchange for cash instead of a waterfront greenspace, Oakfields and the new medical centre.

Elliott was acclaimed mayor for the second time in 2009, after Corker decided her health wasn’t up to another term and Tom Birch, her heir apparent, had to make more time for his venture capital projects in the wake of the 2007 economic collapse. I detest acclamations so I called around to discuss possible candidates. Prévost’s name came up in a conversation with a fellow University of Western Ontario grad. Prévost declined for personal reasons. Along with Elliott, four of six councillors were acclaimed with a 40% voter turnout. (Tim Snow and Diane Piacente won their seats.)

Elliott wasn’t long on the job before he began feuding with Hudson’s fire chief Peter Milot. The fight was over a used ladder truck the department had purchased. It barely fit into the 50-year-old firehall and prompted the threat of a CSST shutdown Elliott himself engineered. It was part of a larger boys-with-toys issue Elliott had with the fire department’s independence, which he saw as a challenge to council’s authority.  He forced a showdown. Both Milot and assistant chief James Campbell walked and Elliott began the process that culminated with $7M in loan bylaws to build a new station and re-engineer the public works yard, something the Corker administration had long discussed. (The Halcro Cottage relocation was a $300,000 byproduct.) Elliott took on the town planning advisory committee, replacing tenure with five-year terms with a new member named every year. Thus Hudson’s activist TPAC was declawed.

Mike is no fan of mine (I blew the whistle on his unpaid taxes) but I credit him with an intimate knowledge of the town and a real concern for its institutions. I’ve had arguments aplenty over his legacy but nobody, not even the SQ, MAMOT or UPAC found a shred of proof that Elliott enriched himself at public expense. Did he turn a blind eye to what Villandré was up to in exchange for her silence on his tax bills?

2013 was Hudson’s annus horribilis. Villandré was gone by April after treasurer Sylvain Bernard uncovered her fake billing system and her abuse of her signing privileges on the town’s line of credit, all covered by resolutions legally adopted by the Shaar, Corker and Elliott administrations. Elliott resigned by June, citing health issues after the SQ opened an investigation into Villandré’s defalcation. “Hudson has to bend a little,” he told me the day he resigned. A month later, we reported he owed approximately $65,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties. Since then, we’ve come up with our own motto for Hudson. Bend a little, spend a lot.

The leadup to the November 2013 municipal election was anticlimactic, with a lame-duck council led by interim mayor Diane Piacente hiring a new director-general, Catherine Haulard. It also rescinded a Villandré-era resolution that paid managers overtime. Otherwise, council’s hands were tied by the police investigation and a forensic accounting probe. Every fraudulent cheque Villandré signed had been co-signed by a member of council, so it was initially suspected that the rot was worse. The external auditors had signalled their concern in their annual report about certain ongoing practices they found irregular or questionable. Through four administrations, those statements never made it out of Villandré’s office and into the hands of the mayor and council. This is why the Prévost administration ended up having to pay Bourassa Boyer’s bill.

I’m told the Prévost administration thinks I’m too tough on them, unfair in my criticisms. In response I’d say no more so than with the Elliott, Corker and Shaar administrations before them.

Seven months away from the election, what have Ed Prévost and his council accomplished? On the plus side, they’ve cleaned up a mountain of garbage, though not without incurring considerable expense to the taxpayers. They managed their way through the SQ, UPAC and MAMOT probes. On a personal level, Ed came out clean after renegade councillor Rob Spencer let fly with a bucket of unsubstantiated shit about Ed’s dealings with developers.

The negatives? Analysis paralysis. Hiring hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expertise to tell them what to think about everything from Pine Lake to a strategic plan. They were elected by more than 70 per cent of the turnout to fix the town. One of the first things they did? Turned around and ask the town for everyone’s strategic priorities, then spent the next two years and approximately $100,000 to draft an absolutely useless document. Why did we elect you if you needed us to tell you what to do?

Meanwhile, this administration still hasn’t adopted a conservation plan that will allow them to adopt a master plan that meshes with the harmonized master plans of the Montreal Metropolitan Community and Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC. Surely to God somebody would have picked up on this at the MRC meetings and municipal federation workshops? They wonder why people mock them for the Fair Trade Zone, the eco-trolley, the performing arts centre and a third skate park in 20 years? It’s this finger-up-the-nose daydreaming that loses voters, not hard, decisive actions.

I confess to a bias against candidates with no record of attending council meetings before they were elected. Over the years, I’ve seen what happens when people with no clue of how things work try to cover up their cluelessness by spouting bullshit. None of the current council seems particularly embarrassed when they show their ignorance in not knowing how things are supposed to work by turning the floor over to Jean-Pierre Roy, Cassandra Comin Bergonzi or Natalie Lavoie to explain what the council should be able to explain. It makes me think they exhibit that same cluelessness in caucus meetings where it’s decided how much of our money is spent and on what.

It demonstrates why Quebec ensures that every municipality has a bureaucratic autopilot that can take over when les elus are too clueless to be allowed near the controls. Four years in, the current mayor and council keep making rookie mistakes. The level of transparency is abysmal, the worst I’ve seen since Jean Drapeau and Lucien Saulnier ran Montreal. My most recent discovery: last March, they restored the Villandré-era policy of paying managers overtime. Wasn’t this the same crew that carried on endlessly about town employee entitlements?

Ed Prévost wasn’t the best candidate in 2013. What Ed had going for him was that his opponent had done business with the town and was therefore suspect. I confess to having been the conduit for the facts used as ammo in Ed’s drive-by smear campaign against Jacques Bourgeois. I wish I could take it back. Jacques knew how municipalities are run, how the bidding system works, how the MRC and MMC regional governments operate. He knows Hudson far better than Ed ever will and had several excellent candidates on his slate. None of that would have made a bit of difference in November 2013 because Hudson voters wanted someone to punish. All Prévost had to do was point the finger and the witch hunt was underway. Shame on us all.

“Best election you ever lost,” my Louise likes to joke with Jacques when she runs into him. I remember another side of it, the time I got a call from Jacques’ granddaughter. She had heard me talking about Hudson’s scandals in front of a room of Westwood Senior students. She had asked Jacques if he was the person I was referring to. He called me, pleading to tell her what I knew. I left her a message telling her that I had no reason to doubt her granddad’s honesty. I hope she got it.

Some issues are bogus, like the development-versus-greenspace straw man being set up prior to this year’s election. In Quebec, development is an administrative process. It should not be a political debate. A municipality adopts a master development plan (in harmony with all those above-mentioned political considerations. A developer presents a project to the urban planning department. If and when it satisfies the zoning, subdivision and density bylaws laid out in the master plan, it goes before the TPAC, which suggests alterations or major changes depending on whether it is being proposed as an infill development or new subdivision. Once it makes it through the TPAC funnel, a recommendation is made to council. Council determines whether it should be approved or rejected. If it requires a zoning change, it is subject to approval by referendum unless the municipality and MAMOT agree it should be a PPU and therefore exempt.

Bottom line:

– Forget slates. The voters decide, not the candidates. The only time slates work is when a cohesive, coherent team of like-minded people can convince the voters they have the know-how and discipline to make a real difference. Hudson is a community of cliques, silos and competing personal interests. There is no cohesion, as we’ve seen in the endless squabbles over who should pay what for water and sewers. It will take leadership to unite all those warring factions. I don’t see any evidence.

– Forget election slogans. Back to Proud?  Elect Competence? Team Transparency? In Hudson, what matters is why we shouldn’t elect someone. Prévost demonstrated that to perfection in the last election.

Noble principles and grand visions have their place, but not right now, not in Hudson. Most taxpayers will settle for four years of peace, order and good government. For me that translates into safe, maintained streets and sidewalks, people and dogs under control, enough good water, competent garbage and snow removal and the lowest possible tax bill. Anyone who can guarantee me that gets my vote.

 

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16 thoughts on “Time for a little honesty

  1. OK , read the history lesson. OK , we need a practical mayor and council who don’t care about looking fabulous and will “just fix it”. Agreed on it all , Jim. Now what happened to my fellow shit-disturber’s last blog and comments ? I taunted and I thought he responded from the high road. Did he self-delete? I mean it’s your blog but Peter does a lot of the sloggy heavy local lifting in a fair way and with considerable humor and time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I sure didn’t take it down. I leave my own disasters posted, don’t I? I read it once and figured he was trying to finagle a path to getting the right to veto candidacies after watching a few hours of the Gorsuch confirmation hearings.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Brian, rather than assuming and blaming, perhaps you should ask Peter why he removed his blog. When you make an opinion public, you have to deal with the criticism. During my years at the Gaz, I lived with that type of criticism for decades. I was attributed motive even if the words printed were not my own. Words matter. Only once did I have to fire a reporter when she threatened to use the newspaper to attack someone she did not like. That is quite different from someone removing their blog post upon reflection.

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  2. Louise, after I saw your post earlier to which Peter apologized when I saw no reason for him to , I offered two possible outcomes for his disappearing blog . One was he was deleted along w/ the comments by himself or others meaning you or Jim. After I saw your comment , yes , I did blame and assume for its complete unfairness to Peter. As I said it wasn’t for deleting the comment it was for your unfair comment.

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  3. Brian, my comment was not unfair as you claim, it was my opinion as a former publisher. I believe I still have a right to an opinion? I often disagree with your posts but believe opinion is important. Anyway, water off a ducks back, so blame away if you wish.

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  4. I was listening to an interesting interview on the car radio today. It was an interview with the Mayor of Atlanta, didn’t get his name. Of course Atlanta is certainly not Hudson but he made a point about municipal politics that I found so real. He said that being in municipal politics has advantages over provincial or federal politics because of the speed it takes to get things done at the municipal level. The mayor and councillor are also closest to their constituents and they can hear first hand the challenges or problems they have as they will often come across them in the supermarket or around town. He also said that if you want citizens to get behind some of your more passionate and lofty ideas you have to give them the basics first. Garbage picked up, clean streets, proper snow removal, reasonable taxes for services rendered. Only then will they buy in. This, I think, is why the lofty ideas of the strategic plan didn’t fly. Not when infrastructure is crumbling, we’re running out of water, and town employees are not invested because they fear the ever revolving door. Potential successful candidates will have seen the priorities and be ready to tackle them head on. Dreams will have to wait.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. To be completely clear, removing the post was my decision and no one was out of line.

    If discussions like this can help bring good people out to lead us, we need to continue to poke the sensitive parts and that will always involve risk of inappropriate or emotional reaction.

    My best Muhammad Ali imitation: Logic is what we need, facts are what we need, the rest is a distraction that leads to inaction.

    I have no problem with criticism of what I say and refuting of any facts I put forward and listen to all opposing facts. In the rare case that my integrity or intention is challenged, I look inward first at why that has happened.

    My decision to remove the post in question was mine alone because:

    1) The comment in question implied intentions and motives that were not at all my intent. I in no way wish to shape an election result for my own or anyone else’s benefit. My agenda is not hidden, I simply want a complete and thought out election with lots of preparation and discussion. That includes the rights of the current Councillors to run again and in that the process defend their actions and results and how they would approach a second term.

    SO if my words could be interpreted in such a negative way way by someone I know to be an intelligent person, I believe that the ideas I had presented were ineffectively presented and potentially dangerous in the hands of average intellect or worse, the Hudson Jungle Drummers.

    2) Perhaps not as intended but as it was read by me, the comment was indeed a personal attack. Well within her personal rights, I was admonished publicly for abusing the trust of a valued friend who has generously allowed me free access to the use of this blog as well as blanket immunity from edits and common sense over 200+ columns published.

    If that was indeed the case, that I have abused trust, I wish to publicly apologize because abusing trust of anyone who grants you power of free speech, in my life is a heinous offence.

    My first emotional response was to challenge Jim to remove the post if he agreed, within minutes my rational side engaged and I realized that was a completely unfair transfer of responsibility and chose to delete the post myself rather than have someone else make that decision for me.

    I gave myself a 24 hour period of reflection, renovating and woodworking prior to responding publicly.

    From my side there is no need for any further discussion on this subject, there is no anger or malice on any side that I could see or imagine. It is truly a minor dust up and distraction in the frustration that accompanies seeking good things for a Town that refuses to change for the better.

    The side benefit of my quiet dusty walkabout day is that Duff was motivated to massively spill his beans earlier than he wished, although I’d caution him with his own editorial wisdom that no one reads beyond the first 600 words anyway.

    Listen, Think and Speak. These are the proper order for the 3 pillars of Democracy, the first two are commonly ignored steps.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Just one little add… When you say:
    “A developer presents a project to the urban planning department. If and when it satisfies the zoning, subdivision and density bylaws laid out in the master plan, it goes before the TPAC, which suggests alterations or major changes depending on whether it is being proposed as an infill development or new subdivision.”

    You also talk about other policy levels (CMM,MRC, Province-you didn’t mention feds but since we are on the Ottawa we should include them even if Quebec doesn’t want us to). What you fail to mention are the policy contradictions between those levels. So in one way, you are right-a developer can go through the process and get a project approved but still be in contradiction with the other policy levels. Its not a best practice and should be avoided. That takes the hard work of going over the by-laws and harmonizing them with the other levels. That’s the utility of an implementation charette. I’ve seen it in action and its a great thing. It takes a 17 days to get to the decisions that need to be made (7 days of the charrette itself and 10 days to write the preliminary report). Following that is a final report that outlines how all the by-laws need to be rewritten in order to reflect the common plan.

    Politics is the art of the possible. It is possible to harmonize with the other layers of government AND build the town that we want. Development vs. green space is indeed a straw-man. You can have both.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A comment about your diatribe, Jim. What “drive by smear campaign” are you alluding to when referring to Ed Prevost’s campaign? Ed was and always will be a gentleman who treats people with respect. He would not stoop so low as to enter a smear campaign. Are you referring to a question I put to the candidates at the candidate meeting which was called a smear by some and a perfectly logical question by me?
    The question in summary was asking if either of the candidates had concerns about being investigated by UPAC. Ed Prevost said no and Jacques Bourgeois so vehemently denied any possibility (“I am squeaky clean”, he yelled) that he nearly toppled over the lectern as he leaned over to ensure we all heard every word. It was that response that was his undoing in my mind – not my question. And I was right. He was investigated by UPAC. .

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    1. I recall it. I also recall the lynch-mob atmosphere at the time. Voters were so hell bent on cleaning house they forgot about all other considerations. Ed made sure I got every document involving Raris Inc’s contracts. I published them and didn’t publish other, equally damaging files on other council candidates. I don’t think I did democracy a service.
      As for those investigated by UPAC, does that make them guilty? Ed was investigated by the municipal affairs commission. Does that make him guilty? Canada operates under the rule of law, which includes the presumption of innocence. Same for everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Jim Duff, I believe that much of what you say is very valid and important considering you have been watching all of this from the sidelines for years. But I also think it would be unfair to ask the next council to just jump in and fix it. I think that as Jamie has stated we need to form a firm plan for the future of Hudson preferably within the first 3months of council and then following it without ignoring the concerns of citizens. Fixing something and fixing something properly are two very different things and we can’t let outselves fall into the trap of doing things because they create a quick solution for a long term problem. We need to look towards solutions that are responsible on the short term and on the long term.

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  9. Deborah Bayly , Mr. Prevost mastered the art of smear by innuendo very well and did his best to better the public’s opinion of him by denigrating any and all who came before him w/o knowing anything of the history of the town or the procedures in place for running it . Hence the continuous turn over of personnel ( many of them his appointments ) and the complete lack of progress on just about every file . His legacy of leadership at this point is non-existent and the clock is ticking down to another election. While I do feel for his health issues the right thing would have been to step aside so as the town could by-elect a leader who would get to fixing things not blaming others.

    Liked by 2 people

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