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.
– 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.