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Embarrassed for all the wrong reasons at council

There was an embarrassment of embarrassing moments at Woolwich council this week.

Ironically, councillors losing their composure and marching out of a meeting due to bickering with a resident wasn’t the worst offence.

Of course, Alan Marshall’s tirade, and similar outbursts from the audience, were uncalled for – there’s a time for calling out officials, but this wasn’t one of them. Council’s failure to take charge while respecting the democratic process only compounded the shameful display.

You can bet there are all kinds of machinations in play right now to prevent Marshall – a longtime thorn in many sides – from repeating his antics. Officials may want to come up with something dignified, as the next meeting is scheduled to be televised – best to put on a council meeting, not a circus.

Some dignity is certainly in order given that half of council ran afoul of the law as it applies to election expense reports – both Sandy Shantz and Mark Bauman were removed from office, while Scott Hahn is the subject of an ongoing audit review (and there’s the sideshow of former mayor Todd Cowan’s court appearances) – and the township received a slap on the wrist from the Ontario Ombudsman for its handling of closed meetings, some of which, ironically, involved discussing Marshall.

Like some of the expense reports, the problems involved some technicalities with paperwork, it’s nonetheless rather perplexing for so many to be occurring in relatively short order. Some of that can be blamed on the scrutiny – given the same kind of attention, other municipalities would have similar issues – but it’s no less disconcerting for residents left wondering just what’s going on at township hall.

More pressingly, residents should be concerned about council’s continued lack of oversight of township business, particularly the coffers. Happy to go off on tangents about things that matter little to the public, many of the councillors spent little time, and even littler consideration, to yet more spending on staff. And, as Coun. Patrick Merlihan stressed, all without any grasp of the big picture that would – or at least should – come with a comprehensive review of staffing levels and costs.

Alarmingly, when the all-too-frequent expansion of the ranks occurs, there’s never any discussion about the opportunity cost of diverting money away from much more pressing needs in order to satisfy the needs of staff, not the public. Nor is there due focus on the long-term implications of each new hire: in effect, a new position is a commitment of millions of dollars in the career of just one employee, never mind the even longer-term liabilities associated with that person’s lifetime. Those are decisions that should never be made lightly, yet the bulk of council never gives them even a thought.

At least some councillors question staff’s tactics, seeing through the disingenuous and conveniently vague responses. But again this week we were “treated” to an eye-opening experience about the long history of weak justifications for spending choices and the tendency to do what’s best for the ever-bloating bureaucracy, not the public. It’s another example that reinforces the notion that bureaucrats protect their own, not the citizens.

As we’ve pointed out on more than one occasion, the underlying problem starts with the ever-expanding payroll, both in terms of numbers and remuneration, which usually comes without either merit or accountability to the taxpayers. Councillors must do better because right now they’re being gamed.

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