Candid Badger was privileged to interview Ward 6 Councillor Michael Bondy on Tuesday, July 22. After the response generated from the Badger’s article about the city looking into becoming renters at the Downtown Chatham Centre, it seemed like a good time to examine the idea of “transparency” with our local elected representatives. An email was sent out to each and every councillor and the Mayor on July 15. Councilor Bondy was the first-and so far only-to reply, graciously accepting the interview request.
Councillor Bondy was not given the questions beforehand. He had been told that the interview questions would centre around why the Municipality seems to have a hard time getting transparency right. He was not asked if he agreed or disagreed with that premise. What follows is edited of course, but his responses and the questions that generated them have not been altered to change their meaning.
Candid Badger: What does Municipal Transparency mean to you?
Councillor Michael Bondy: “Transparency, to me, means that council and administration do their utmost best to present the truth and reality to the public and try to keep it as little as possible in closed session and outside of the public realm. Understand, we are not going to debate what brand of chlorine we are going to buy for pools. But when there are decisions that do actually affect the public, whether they be road closures, construction, spending of money, arena times, I think those things should be publicly discussed.”
CB: Council tends to to a good job of transparency by requesting reports and putting things in the public record. But what about the process that brings you to that point? For example, with the Downtown Chatham Centre there were meetings in December in closed session, and then suddenly there is a move to research using the Mall in June. Does the Municipality have some work to do in improving the transparency of things while they are in progress?
MB: “Perhaps. As far as the mall, we almost had nothing to do with it. We weren’t even told who they were. In that instance, I don’t think we did anything inappropriate because we didn’t have anything to inform the public of. Everything’s on the table. The civic centre is in great need of repair. It’s probably too big, considering the work-at-home success that we have seen. To be honest, I don’t think there was a lack of transparency with the mall because it was a private transaction. I suppose the municipality was informed before the public that they had bought it, but they didn’t ask for “permission,” they just told us.
Chatham-Kent Councillor Michael Bondy
CB: Can you see where that might give the impression of backroom agreements?
MB: I can see that perception. The reality is that they did approach Council prior to coming to open session, but they did it unofficially, individually. There was never a council meeting concerning it. Basically, these guys called me, and they called everybody else. There was an hour-long meeting where they said this is what we would like to do. But it really was an unnecessary meeting, because we said, well great, but we don’t have anything to do with it.
I think there was a misperception on the part of the public because of the way it rolled out. But there was zero negotiation about the mall because we don’t have anything to do with it. I know it appeared as if the city worked on the mall behind the scenes, but we didn’t. Other than they said we hope you will move the civic centre into the mall. And we said, “ok, maybe, but maybe not!” We have a long way to go before we ever get there.
CB: Is it just the nature of the process that a need to step back and think of how things may be viewed from the outside is not always considered?
MB: “Yeah, I would say it is part of the process that appears like there was a hidden agenda and maybe some things were done behind closed doors. Considering the mall, none of that was really the case. Nothing was done behind the scenes. We are at zero decision. There hasn’t even been discussion in council. We really haven’t gotten anywhere with that one other than Brock’s motion of “let’s investigate.”
CB: There have been calls from people in the community to have the Municipality undergo a forensic audit, to have it examined by an outside, third party. This has been mostly resisted in the past. What is the harm in having an outside party review the inner workings periodically?
MB: We are doing that right now, as we speak. I had a company in mind, so I made that motion. Council said, “no but we will amend the motion to put it out to tender.” So, we did the right thing anyway. What we have done is engaged KPMG and they are doing an audit.
This is sort of the problem, about nine years ago we decided to do a service review. And I thought, well great! One of my things has always been rogue staff and staff that are sometimes unaccountable because there are so many of them. Actually, this was Art Stirling’s baby, it was his motion. So we did a service review and I was very disappointed in it when I discovered that the service review was to be done by our own administrative staff. I thought, “well this is totally pointless. Nobody is going to come back and say “we’re overstaffed, we got to get rid of some people.” So what did they do? They came back and they said, “well, we can cut costs, but we’re going to cut service levels.” And politically, there is no appetite for that, right?
When they come back and say they are going to cut service levels, they don’t say they are going to cut staff and you might have to wait in line an extra couple of minutes. They say “we’re going to close an arena and restrict the hours at the library.” All the kinds of hitlist stuff that nobody wants to touch-pools, arenas, libraries-fun stuff.
We have just engaged this third-party consulting firm. I was just in one of the meetings last week. Again, to me, it looks very much like a Service Review. So, I asked the question of the consultant, “are you looking at staffing levels? Not to pick on anybody, but we have six economic development offices. Do we need six? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. What’s the return on investment?”
They said, “yes, we’re going to be looking at that.” As it happens, I’m in an interview process with Doug Sulman and the consultant today. I will be crystal clear that the purpose of this is not so much a review of services, it’s a review of the internal structure of the corporation. That’s what we should be looking at. If you are afraid of it, it probably means you shouldn’t be working there.
Hopefully, they will take my advice on that one and follow through, but I don’t control their report.
CB: At the start of the Pandemic, we were told that the Municipality would be shuffling workers around as services were closed, to save costs. Some were laid off, some took an early retirement, and others were sent to work in different departments. For example, some staff, who do not have medical backgrounds, were sent to work at Riverview Gardens. Will there be an accounting of who was sent where, and did it make sense to keep them on the payroll instead of taking a layoff?
MB: That’s a difficult question for me because it’s about specific staffing needs. I do understand where you are coming from. The term we used was “redeploy” So, “Library staff were redeployed to RVG,” right? They were doing screenings and they were legitimized. Whether they were necessary, I don’t know.
I understood that other municipalities laid off significantly more people than we did. I don’t know if we are ever going to get to the bottom of that one. It’s hopefully a part of this KPMG review. If we are going to be under some type of restriction or a new model of business when it comes to things like the libraries, Civic Centre, obviously there are going to be some staff implications.
Frankly, we have to rely on a third party to say this because nobody wants to can their neighbour. Chatham is pretty connected. It’s not like a Toronto or London, because Chatham is two degrees of separation, right? Especially in an old town like this, where families have been around forever and ever, everybody knows each other. KPMG comes down, they have no skin in the game, they don’t know anybody, they don’t like anybody, they don’t dislike anybody. They’re just here to crunch numbers.
CB: Many of the Municipality’s top managers have been in their positions for a long time. Council is only able to a performance review of the CAO position. As taxpayers, how can we know that the large salaried positions are providing the performance and value the citizens deserve?
MB: Council basically abdicated their position in hiring and firing upper management like 8 or 9 years ago. We said, “well, we’re not experts, we shouldn’t be hiring the tourism director, for instance, because we don’t have the expertise.” What strikes me as sort of odd is that somehow we do have the expertise to hire their boss, the CAO.
That’s the only position council has anything to do with. When it comes to the big guys, we don’t have anything to do with hiring them, we don’t have anything to do with firing them. All we do is CAO. There is a committee that evaluates the CAO’s performance every year. I’m not on that committee, never have been. I have been involved in the hiring of one CAO, just Don. It’s not a public thing. We vote secret ballot on that-even other councillors don’t see how I voted. That’s the only position we have anything to do with.
Everybody else, all 2000 of them, that all funnels up to Kathy Hoffman in HR and then Don Shropshire as CAO. So, how would the public know we are getting the right people? In comes KPMG. Are we getting our money’s worth? That’s where I hope KPMG will do a comparative analysis of other municipalities of the same size and structure.
CB: We have heard from various people that trying to get information from Administration can be difficult. For example, one citizen has requested information about who on staff in Administration has been involved in the Rondeau Cottage discussions. They had to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and were told, you are going to have to wait for the information, and it’s going to cost you. Why does Administration seemingly hide behind FOIA requests?
MB: I don’t know that anyone in Administration has an interest in Rondeau save for Dr. Colby. But Dr. Colby is a little separate. He works for the Municipality but it’s through the Board of Health, he’s really more of a provincial employee. We don’t appoint them. He’s appointed by the province.
When it comes to getting information and trouble receiving it, I’ve been through this more than once. It’s really not very much to file an FOI. It is like $5, it’s not restrictive. The rationale behind that is if someone came in and said I want stats and numbers for all this stuff, staff would be overwhelmed with answering very detailed, unimportant things.
I looked for information on costing at the Bradley Centre. I wasn’t able to get it. I, as a councillor, filed an FOI. So it’s not just the public, right? I’m on council, I should be able to get all this information and I couldn’t get anywhere-myself or Frank Vercouteren- on the same topic.
Frankly, it is a bit of a roadblock. We’re not going to pay someone $65,000 a year to answer every single question that comes from the public. That’s why there is that FOI thing. I hope the public doesn’t feel that information is that hard to get to. They may. With the help of a councillor, sometimes you can get some of that information rather easily. FOI does exist, and the reason is that there are people in every community that are going to want all sorts of information and they just can’t accommodate that, nothing would ever get done.
CB: For some of our articles we have approached the CAO’s office and other departments for comments and information with mixed results. In Public Health’s case, we have submitted two requests to interview Dr. Colby, and unlike this interview, even offered to send the questions in advance. Both times the initial request was acknowledged, but from there it was ignored. How is the average citizen to go about getting answers from Administration?
MB: Say you want to talk to Kathy Hoffman or Don Shropshire. If they say no, then I guess that’s their prerogative. There’s not much you can do. If you don’t like the way the government is doing things, you kick them out. But the day after the election, the bureaucracy doesn’t change. So really, not much changes after an election. Maybe the 5000-foot level general direction of the community changes, but the day-to-day stuff doesn’t. The day after an election, senior staff are the senior staff.
Your best bet would be to go to a councillor and have the councillor ask. I do it all the time, I respond to everybody, every email. Frankly, I’ll get further. It’s my job, I’m elected to do it. So if I receive a question that I think is legitimate and normal, then I’ll ask for the constituent and typically I get an answer.
CB: What’s the best way for people living in Ward 6 to contact you if they have any issues?
MB: What I do like is a phone call, because then I can talk to people and get somewhere without having to text on my phone. When people do call me, we get to the root of the issue. Then I ask people to email me. Then we have a paper trail. A phone call is best because sometimes I can just talk out what the problem is, solve it over the phone.
A phone call to start, email to follow up. And then we go from there.
CB: Again, we would like to thank Councillor Michael Bondy for his time and his answers.
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