Tag Archives: city hall

Marcel Côté’s fake Montrealers

UPDATE 3:45pm: The website has removed its stock photos of people.

Three kids from a Ukrainian stock photo show off a grammatically incorrect promise

Three kids from a Ukrainian stock photo show off a grammatically incorrect promise

Stock photos aren’t a cardinal sin. In most cases their use is obvious, and it makes sense to spend a couple of bucks on a stock image rather than hundreds of dollars setting up a professional photo shoot.

But in most cases stock photos are unnecessary. We don’t need the smiling faces of strangers to inform us of things. And worse, they may give the false impression that these are real people who support a political cause.

Marcel Côté launched his mayoral campaign this morning, and his website was filled with stock photos. There was this one from a photographer in Ukraine. This one from a photographer in Malaysia. This one from a photographer in Colombia. This one from a photographer in Hungary. This one from a photographer in Italy. And this one from a photographer in Germany.

And this image, with the filename “groupe-montrealais.jpg” and the caption “We Are All Montrealers”. It was edited from this stock photo from Ukraine to add a sixth panel because Marcel’s name has one more letter than the stock photo was designed for. (You can see the panel on the end is actually the third one being copied and badly edited.)

I haven’t contacted these photographers to determine where the photos were taken and the nationality of the models, but I’m willing to bet that none of these people are Montrealers.

Sure enough, all the photos are now gone from the site. Apparently “once we realized where the photos came from, we took them down,” the press attaché told CBC Montreal researcher Sarah Leavitt. Which is an odd thing to say because it means they put up a bunch of pictures not knowing their source.

The site’s designer, Vasco Design (is this really a website design they want to be associated with?) has a habit of using cheesy stock photos on websites it creates.

You might recall that Louise Harel, who abandoned her own run for mayor to support Côté, had similarly used stock photos on her website during the 2009 campaign.

Metro screws up, but it’s just the wrong name

Metro reports Alan DeSousa quits Union Montreal. Except he didn't.

Congratulations to Metro, which had the scoop this morning (UPDATE: link now dead) that Saint Laurent borough mayor Alan DeSousa has quit Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s Union Montreal party to join the opposition Projet Montréal.

This news is a bombshell, coming halfway into the mayor’s third term. De Sousa is a high-profile figure in Tremblay’s party. And yet only Metro is reporting the news so far.

That’s because it never happened. DeSousa didn’t quit Tremblay’s party, and says he has no plans to.

Turns out it was another borough mayor, from another party, that defected today. Rosemont’s François Croteau left Vision Montreal, saying Louise Harel’s party has no political vision (I’m not sure if that was intended as a pun). You can read his full statement here.

Correction fail

Metro’s story reporting about Croteau adds a “précision” that the story about DeSousa was incorrect. I’m no expert on the French language, but the definition of “précision” doesn’t seem to fit “we got the story all wrong and made it all up”.

More importantly, though, the original story reporting DeSousa defecting was still online, with no correction, four 12 hours (and perhaps as many as 26) after the truth was known and the “précision” appended to the Croteau story. The writer says (see below) that this was a technical problem.

What’s interesting about that story, by reporter Mathias Marchal, is that it doesn’t cite a single source for its information, not even anonymous ones. No “Metro has learned” or any of the other euphemisms that journalists use to say they have a scoop. It’s written as if it’s already public knowledge and its status as a fact is unquestioned.

Except, of course, that it’s all made up.

Was it just a guess?

I’m curious how this story came to be written (see update below). It wasn’t in this morning’s print edition, and the timestamp shows it was first posted at 9:43am, with the press conference set for 11.

The press conference part was known. A press release announcing it was sent at 7:54am. It said a borough mayor would defect to Projet Montréal, but didn’t say which one (or from which party). My instinct (and hey, it could be wrong) is that this was a guess. There are 18 boroughs in Montreal whose mayor isn’t Gérald Tremblay. It obviously wasn’t Plateau mayor Luc Ferrandez, who’s already part of Projet Montréal. And it probably wouldn’t have been Ahuntsic-Cartierville mayor Pierre Gagnier, who quit Projet Montréal. But that still leaves 16 people. A rumour might have been enough to sway an inexperienced journalist into running with the story.

What’s ridiculous is how little gain there is from something like this. At best, other media will cite you for the hour between the time your report is published and the time the press conference confirms it. At worst, you look like a laughingstock because you got it all wrong, and the subject of your article has to issue a press release pointing out how you disappointed him.

This kind of thing always annoys me. I’ve seen so many times where a newspaper will get the details of an announcement leaked to them the day before and come out with an “exclusive” detailing them mere hours before the press conference. At least Metro didn’t label it as an exclusive, though the damage is the same.

Let this be a lesson to other journalists: An official statement that partially confirms a rumour doesn’t mean that rumour is correct.

And always, especially when you think you’re leaking information the public doesn’t already know (or when you’re taking information from another journalist who appears to be leaking it), cite your sources.

UPDATE (Nov. 2): From Marchal, on Twitter:

À l’origine du problème: un quiproquo au départ lors d’une discussion avec Projet Montréal. (A)ussi bête qu’un mélange entre bld St-Laurent et arrondissement St-Laurent.

Mon erreur, et je me suis excusé à Alan DeSousa, qui n’aurait pas dû être mêlé à ça. La nouvelle fut supprimée après 10 min, mais un problème tech. a fait qu’elle est restée accessible par certains URL.

And to answer the question in your blog, no it wasn’t a guess to gain anything! ;)

Montreal, where data is becoming free

This post has also been published at openfile.ca

The City of Montreal has jumped on the open data bandwagon, setting up a website with raw data available for download.

There isn’t that much there right now (a full list is available in their press release), but the fact that the city even acknowledges the use of this is a huge step forward, and means we should expect much more in the months to come.

The idea behind open data is that information be made publicly available in its purest form. Instead of charts or long reports, the actual spreadsheet tables or map files are posted online so that application developers can find new and interesting ways of presenting information for public consumption.

For an example, here’s a Google map of the city’s major construction projects currently under way.

Now, this map doesn’t include highway projects that are done by the Ministère de Transport du Québec, or bridge projects under federal jurisdiction. But if those organizations had similar raw data available, a mashup of them together would be trivial. That information could then be used by GPS devices or trip planners to plan around construction sites. Or they could be used by radio station traffic reporters, or by investigative journalists, or by FTQ union thugs.

The best part is that the best use of this data might be something the people who put it online never even considered. The limits are not technological in nature, but merely the limits of the imaginations of thousands of computer geeks.

Another example: This XLS file of bike path counters. A few seconds in the spreadsheet and I find the busiest day for cyclists so far this year was Tuesday, June 21. And the top 25 days are all between May 30 and July 10. Without the raw data, I would have needed to wait for some bureaucrat to create an annual report, if they even bothered at all.

The STM should follow this example

One organization that I think could substantially benefit from an open data policy is the Société de transport de Montréal. Somewhere, it has a huge database of thousands of bus stops and schedules. It uses that data to feed its website, to give to Google Maps, and to create its printed schedules. But the data isn’t available directly to developers. So independent apps that help people know when the bus stops have to scrape the STM’s website for the information.

Giving the data away could help significantly in making these applications better, and in finding new ways of getting information to people that would encourage them to take public transit.

I look forward to seeing what data gets released through this website, and particularly how developers can take that data and do interesting and useful things with it.

If this kind of thing interests you, by the way, Montréal Ouvert is holding a hackathon on Nov. 19. Hopefully the city can put some more stuff online by then that can be played with there.

UPDATE: A congratulatory post from Montréal Ouvert, and more coverage from:

And here’s Projet Montréal shitting all over it because it’s not transparent enough for their liking.

UPDATE (Nov. 1): The city is launching the portal on Nov. 15. And a new iPhone app, NaviCone, is already making use of the city’s construction site mapping data.

Mordecai’s dilemma

Fairmount Ave., hardly devoid of history

With the 10th anniversary of Mordecai Richler’s death approaching (and the resurgence of interest in his work), city councillors Marvin Rotrand and Michael Applebaum are doing some political organizing of their own. They’re trying to get people to sign an online petition that demands the city “make an appropriate gesture to commemorate the contribution of Mordecai Richler in naming a street, a public place or building in his honour.”

The petition doesn’t make any suggestions, doesn’t necessarily suggest renaming anything, and doesn’t even demand that it be a street. But the discussion has begun, and it has 683 signatures so far.

The Gazette’s Bill Brownstein made the first concrete suggestion: Fairmount Ave. in Mile End, where Wilensky’s is located. “That shouldn’t upset too many people, other than surviving members of the Bagg family,” he writes.

Well, there’s Fairmount Bagel, and Garderie Fairmount, and Fairmount Hardware. (Okay, maybe not that last one, it’s boarded up and closed now.)

And there’s the Société St. Jean Baptiste and other language/sovereignist hardliners, who just hate Richler. They denounce him for being divisive and demonizing politicians, as if they are themselves above both those things. They say he’s an anti-Quebec racist, which is an odd thing to say since he himself was a Quebecer.

It’s not that I agree with or think we should honour some of the meanspirited things that Richler has said. But if we can fawn over Pierre Falardeau despite all the crazy shit he’s said, certainly we can do the same for Richler.

More sane nationalists like Jean-François Lisée agree it is time we name something after Richler. According to the Commission de toponymie, the name Richler currently isn’t attached to anything in this province.

Rue Saint-Urbain and Avenue Mordecai-Richler?

Renaming is tricky

Rotrand has learned the value of public consultation in situations like this. The city administration had the best of intentions when it announced it was going to rename the generically-named Park Ave. in honour of Robert Bourassa. But residents and business owners mounted a huge campaign against it, arguing that not only would it cause practical problems like replacing dozens of street signs and forcing businesses to change their business cards, but that it would take away from the city’s history rather than adding to it.

It’s a no-win scenario. Rename something big and central like Park or St. Urbain, and you start poking holes in the city’s history. Rename something small like a side street and you diminish the importance of the person you’re trying to honour (Ruelle Nick-Auf-der-Maur, anyone?). Name a new street in a suburban development, and you might as well be naming something in another city.

Fairmount is an attempt at a compromise. It’s not as important as St. Urbain or St. Laurent, but it’s not some tiny side street either, and it’s right at the heart of Richler’s neighbourhood.

But Fairmount also has history, probably best known as the street that houses one of Montreal’s two most important bagel makers. Renaming the street might make sense in that context, or it might not.

So we have a vague campaign that leaves the biggest detail up to a city bureaucrat. And the pundits throw out their ideas too.

I think, like with Park, this process isn’t starting the right way. If this is to be truly a grass-roots campaign, it should start with the people who live and work on the street that would be renamed. If Fairmount Bagel and its neighbours want to mount a campaign to honour Richler, then the city should consider it. If some other street’s residents want to do the same, they should consider that as well.

The problem with this scenario is that it isn’t top-down, and the councillors are powerless to force it through. It depends on regular people spontaneously starting a major campaign with their neighbours to get something changed.

But that’s the only way I can see this happening to everyone’s satisfaction.

Of course, if it wasn’t a street we were renaming, the risks would diminish along with the rewards. Other naming suggestions have also come forward, from a small park to a sandwich or drink. Rotrand tells Radio-Canada that people have suggested a cultural prize or library would make more sense.

But nothing carries the same punch as a street named after you.

UPDATE (Nov. 14): Chantal Guy explores the subject and agrees with the idea, even if Richler wasn’t exactly a saint.

Tout l’monde transpire jusqu’aux orteils

I’m not necessarily in favour of spending millions of taxpayer dollars on massive air conditioning systems for the three or four weeks a year they’ll be useful, but I have to admit this Projet Montréal video is damn funny.

(The original, for those who haven’t seen it)

You can find the party’s dossier on the subject on its website. It includes those pictures of people holding up giant thermometers on the metro.

If only all public policy discussions involved dancers (and am I the only one who thinks it’s a missed opportunity that we don’t see Richard Bergeron, Luc Ferrandez and Peter McQueen prancing around a fake metro car?)

(via Projet Montréal on Twitter)

Sergakis’s ad turn and the development “loophole”

In Thursday’s Gazette, I noticed a mostly-text ad from the Station des Sports, signed by local … uhh … entrepreneur … Peter Sergakis, who owns the bar and many other bars around town. It was to thank people around the sports bar for supporting its plan to expand its footprint.

As you can imagine with these ads, there’s a lot of missing context. The project has been under fire recently because of Sergakis’s use of a “loophole” in the law that allows him to bypass a register (that could force a referendum on the subject if it gets enough signatures) by having more than half the people affected sign a petition.

The ad itself isn’t what surprises me, though. What’s interesting is that the ad turns onto a different page. Like newspapers that (used to, at least) start major articles on the front page and continue them inside, this one ends a colour ad on Page A3 with “advertisement continued on Page A8”.

Peter Sergakis ad for Station des Sports (Page A3 of Thursday's Gazette)

Part 2 of the same ad, from Page A8

Not something you see often in advertisements. Most likely this was done because A3 has colour and exposure but limits the space given to advertisers to ensure most of it is editorial copy.

Why is this a loophole?

Anyway, back to that loophole. In this city, if you don’t like a by-law change that affects the area immediately around where you live, you can sign a register to demand a referendum on the subject. If you get the required number of signatures, the city/borough must either hold a referendum or withdraw the project.

The “loophole” is a little-used way to get around this, by having more than half the people who would be able to sign that register and vote in that referendum sign a petition supporting the project. So if the area around a new development had 1,000 people, you’d need to get 501 to sign a petition and then there wouldn’t be a register or referendum.

The reasoning makes sense to me. If those 501 support the project, why bother having a referendum where they would, presumably, all vote no? How is this a “loophole”? Isn’t it just democracy at work.

I asked around, and the answers I got pointed to how ancient and unused this law is, and how it wasn’t designed to be used in this way (even the city admits that). I see that, but it hardly makes it undemocratic.

The other answers mentioned how unfair it is compared to the trouble one has to go through to force a referendum. The petition can be passed around over months, while registers are open only for a day. The petition can be brought to people’s homes, while registers can only be signed at borough offices.

On the other hand, though, far fewer people are required to sign a register to force a referendum than sign a petition to quash one. And again, if more than half the affected residents support the project, isn’t that still the will of the people? Or should the minority overpower the majority?

What’s left unsaid in calling this a “loophole” is the implication that those who sign petitions supporting projects don’t really support them. That they’re being fooled by people hired by developers to bribe people into signing petitions they don’t fully understand. That when exposed to the issues in a referendum, they would change their minds and vote against.

That’s not a far-fetched idea or a conspiracy theory. It’s a legitimate concern. And the process should probably be changed, both to ensure that people have better access to registers and to ensure that those signing petitions in support of a project understand the implications of doing so.

But don’t call direct democracy a “loophole” just because you disagree with a decision that you think is uninformed.

Alex Norris wants to go tie-less

Video: Alex Norris won’t wear a tie (18:22)

Alex Norris is on a mission. The former journalist, elected as a member of Projet Montréal in the last election as a city councillor representing the Plateau, is fighting what he considers an archaic unwritten rule of Montreal’s city council that sets minimum standards for “decorum” including the fact that all male councillors must wear a tie.

At the council meeting last week, Norris rose to debate a point about the city’s democratic process (namely the fact that people need to be registered to vote well in advance of voting day, something he considers undemocratic), when immediately councillors from the governing Union Montreal party rose up to object that he wasn’t following the rules.

This wasn’t the first time that Norris showed up without a tie, and council chair Claude Dauphin had made it clear at the April meeting that the rules would be enforced – meaning Norris would be expelled until he put a tie on.

It might have ended as simply as that, except Dauphin wasn’t chairing the meeting when Norris stood up. Caroline Bourgeois, of Vision Montreal, was filling in for him as he had other business to attend to. She refused to eject Norris, preferring to leave the decision to Dauphin when he returned. So instead, she pleaded with Norris to put a tie on so the council could continue its business, while councillors from Union Montreal objected with strong language (Marvin Rotrand called the move “infantile” and described Norris as a “juvenile delinquent”), and Vision’s house leader Anie Samson rose to object about the ways other people were objecting.

Fifteen minutes later, after Richard Deschamps spent a full minute complaining about the 12 minutes that had been wasted so far, Norris finally put on a tie and was allowed to complete his point.

It reminds me of my old days at Concordia Student Union council meetings in terms of the level of absurdity.

“There is in fact no dress code at City Hall,” Norris explained to me via email. “The speaker has traditionally imposed an unwritten rule requiring male councillors to wear ties but there is no basis for this rule in any bylaw or formal written code of any kind. There is a long tradition of progressive councillors objecting to this rule — and then giving in and forgetting about it, which is why we still have an archaic dress code whereas other big cities like Toronto and Vancouver have long gotten rid of theirs.”

Amazingly enough, there’s a body to deal with these kinds of things. It’s called the Commission de la présidence du conseil. But instead of taking a hard line either way, this body appears to have decided to leave it up to the chair of council to enforce “decorum”.

“Bourgeois, a young (and quite progressive) Vision councillor, had told me that she found the tie rule utterly archaic and ridiculous,” Norris wrote. “I surmised that in these new circumstances the tie convention would no longer be enforced. When I rose to speak, however, a number of Tremblay backbenchers went ballistic. I held my ground — briefly — to highlight the absurdity of the rule, then relented and put on the tie.

“So yes, this is a small protest — one to which I have devoted very little time or energy but one on which I have made my views known and will continue to do so, periodically.”

Norris stresses that this is his campaign and not that of his party. Luc Ferrandez and Richard Bergeron wear ties to city council meetings without complaint.

So why make this an issue?

“I think imposing any kind of dress code on a democratically elected body is anti-democratic and sends the wrong message about who we are and what we represent,” Norris wrote. “We are not meant to be a class apart from the people we represent; we are meant to be ‘of the people.’ Also, dress codes inevitably carry cultural and class biases. Is city council meant to be reserved only for business people and white collar workers? If so, how should we regulate women’s clothing? How low can a neckline go? How high a hemline should be permitted? And what about hijabs, kippas, turbans or any other type of attire for that matter? Where does it all end?

“Inevitably, a dress code carries biases of the sort that I think should be avoided in a democratic body representing a culturally diverse, cosmopolitan city such as ours. Ultimately, I think the final judges on this and on all other matters are the voters who elected us — and that neither Claude Dauphin nor any Tremblay backbencher should have any right to tell me or any other councillor how we must dress in order to be able to advocate on behalf of our constituents — just as I would not presume to tell them or anyone else how to dress at City Hall.”

Norris added that he didn’t see any ties on (male) candidates running against him during the campaign. “If we were good enough to win the votes of Mile End voters without ties, I figure we should be good enough for the council chambers without ties.”

As for wasting council’s time, Norris correctly points out that he wasn’t the one talking during those 15 minutes. He simply stood his ground on a rights issue he believed in and watched as others went crazy over the most minor of issues.

Will Norris resume his campaign during the next council meeting? We’ll see. He doesn’t want to distract the council’s business with such a simple issue, but he doesn’t want to surrender either.

UPDATE: I should point out this post on Coolopolis, in which a barber tells Norris to “get a tie!”

UPDATE (Aug. 25): This week’s council meeting (the first since the one in the above video) sparked a bit of media coverage about wearing ties, including a blog post by La Presse’s Ariane Krol and a column by Patrick Lagacé, who doesn’t own a tie (he has reaction on his blog).

UPDATE (May 19): Another incident at city hall, also ending with Norris putting on a tie.

UPDATE (Jan. 23, 2014): Another minor kerfuffle after Norris fails to wear a jacket.

My kingdom for a lid

My beloved green recycling bin: zero cost, zero waste

I hadn’t paid attention to the matter until recently, but apparently the city of Montreal has a problem with its recycling bins.

Actually, a few problems.

The first is that after prolonged use they tended to crack and break. That’s okay though, the recycling bins themselves are recyclable, and there are new, stronger bins like the one above (after three years of use, it’s dirty, but completely intact).

The second is that they’re difficult to carry outside, requiring the use of both hands. More of an annoyance to everyone else really, requiring them to put the bin down as they open and close doors (or awkwardly wedge the bin against something to free up the other hand). But for people with limited mobility, it’s a more serious problem.

Finally, the most pressing issue, it seemed, was that papers and light containers would fly out of the recycling bins and litter the surrounding streets. Though I’m pretty good about packing my bin and haven’t seen any of my recyclables tumbling down the street, my job at the coop I live in requires me to clean up the front yard on a nearly daily basis, and it’s obvious that garbage is piling up there from somewhere, most likely other green bins.

To solve all three of these problems, the city of Montreal has looked at three different solutions, which are being implemented in various boroughs. The city is studying each carefully to see which is more successful.

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Montreal Geography Trivia No. 65

What is this the shape of?

And, for you smarty pants who already know, a tougher follow-up: why is it shaped like this?

UPDATE: This is, of course, a map of the town of Côte Saint-Luc. Those things on the right are exclaves, little pockets of Côte Saint-Luc land sandwiched between Hampstead and Montreal. They’re tiny, but their history is one of controversy, bad blood, political power struggles and, of course, money.

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Welcome to misquotania, Luc

Plateau borough mayor Luc Ferrandez went on a bit of a rant Saturday on his blog about the media’s handling of a story about changes to parking regulations. Apparently a Radio-Canada story was exaggerated with its headline, a Presse Canadienne story and an Astral Media story just re-reported the RadCan story without checking it, and everyone went crazy over a non-story that’s had no new developments since the election.

The outburst was enough for an Agence QMI story to be written about Ferrandez’s reaction (the QMI story quotes 24H, apparently unable to read Ferrandez’s blog for itself).

UPDATE (Jan. 10): Ferrandez has cut out the media-critical part of that post, explaining in another that it was un-mayor-like. To me, the best part about Ferrandez is that he’s un-mayor-like. But maybe it rubbed a few people the wrong way.

It’s funny (and unusual) for us regular folk to see a politician air these annoyances publicly like this. Normally they just call the reporter directly, or call the reporter’s manager, or complain to friends. If the case is serious enough, they might write a letter to the editor.

But what strikes me about Ferrandez’s post is that this is part of his education process as a rookie borough mayor. He’s not used to the idea of the media getting a story wrong and that error propagating more quickly than it can be stopped.

As much as I’d like to defend journalists and the media here, to say that he’s got it all wrong, instead I can only offer that he should get used to this. This isn’t the last time he’ll be misquoted, not the last time someone will get the story wrong because they went for the sensationalism over caution, were lazy or just confused.

Journalists are human. They make mistakes. And with all the cutbacks in the news business these days, those mistakes are going to get worse.

Projet Montréal’s snow-removal plan

From February 2008: Will all weekends be like this?

From February 2008: Will all weekends be like this?

The snow hit the fan Tuesday morning, with La Presse reporting that Projet Montréal plans to change its snow removal policy for the Plateau and Ahuntsic-Cartierville (the two boroughs it holds the mayor’s seat for).

Instead of paying expensive overtime and equipment charges, the borough would increase the minimum amount of snowfall before they bring in the dump trucks from 8 to 15 centimetres. They would also no longer truck away snow on weekends, instead leaving it until Monday, to save money.

Note that this applies to snow removal, not snow clearing. The plows will still push snow to the side of the street and clear the way for traffic. What this will affect is parking, which tends to get creative when there are snowbanks.

Note also that this won’t apply to major thoroughfares, which are the central city’s responsibility, and so probably won’t apply to most places travelled by city buses.

But small residential streets that get significant snowfall on weekends might have to live with it for a day or two more.

Despite the reported non-trivial savings this move would create ($500,000 to $1 million, by Projet’s estimate), the reaction has been negative (or, at least, skeptical). Tristan Péloquin did a video streeter for Cyberpresse and only found one person who thought it was a good idea. Catherine Handfield found merchants whining about how a lack of parking would affect their businesses. Even Patrick Lagacé picks up the flag of the Pro Car Party (albeit reluctantly, and with a tiny car), saying snow clearing is expensive but needs to be done.

Give it a shot

Even though I’m perhaps a little biased because I don’t have a car, I’m willing to give Projet Montréal the benefit of the doubt and let them try this plan. I’m just as skeptical as the rest, in fact I have an added concern: If the idea is to save money by trucking away snow only during business hours, wouldn’t that cause incredible traffic chaos? Plus, why can’t truck drivers be regularly scheduled to work on weekends?

This is the first major policy initiative that Projet Montréal has come up with since the election, and unlike many of its promises during the campaign, it’s a logical, conservative, money-saving idea rather than a bold vision for massive spending. If we’re going to use their control of the Plateau borough as a testing ground for their eventual control of the city, we need to let them try stuff. If it fails, they can always switch it back with relatively little work.

They’re talking and listening

Part of this plan that intrigues me is also how Projet is going about it. While the Tremblay regime would just declare it a fait accompli and present it to city council, backing down only under overwhelming public protest like they did the Park Ave. name change, Projet is setting up a public consultation, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. at the police brotherhood office on Gilford St.

Luc Ferrandez, the Plateau mayor, has also taken to his blog to get his message out directly to the citizens, bypassing the media filter. While I don’t think La Presse or other media got anything wrong here, hearing directly from a politician on his own terms can help people understand a bit more of the context and reasoning behind Projet’s plan. This is a clear example of why Ferrandez was right not to shut down his blog after the election.

Even if this project fails, doing so with democratic principles and by deferring to common sense would go a long way toward showing responsible leadership on behalf of Projet Montréal.

For the sake of municipal budgets, let’s hope this idea is a lot smarter than everyone thinks it is.

Time to have an adult conversation about municipal corruption

Before a week ago, Benoit Labonté liked the attention.

But then, journalists started to discover things about him.

The timing wasn’t a coincidence. According to anonymous sources that came forward, Labonté’s constant criticism of Mayor Gérald Tremblay and his Union Montreal party as being corrupt was a hypocrisy too outrageous not to be challenged.

When reports by Rue Frontenac’s Fabrice de Pierrebourg (confirmed by Radio-Canada but ignored by TVA) and TVA’s Paul Laroque came out that Labonté asked for and received large cash contributions from city contractors (including the water-meter-infamous Tony Accurso) while he was running for the leadership of Vision Montreal in 2008, Labonté’s first reaction was from the standard politician playbook: deny, deny, deny.

It’s a no-brainer. Either he’s telling the truth that this is a smear campaign against him, or he’s lying. But if he’s lying, then the crime will destroy his political career and nobody will care about the coverup.

When Labonté said he would step down, supposedly to prevent being a distraction to his party, it was pretty obvious to everyone he was guilty. Innocent people don’t resign during an election campaign because of false charges.

But the media had to play along. Without absolute proof of his guilt, they couldn’t report what they were all thinking privately.

When Louise Harel accused Rue Frontenac and others of outright lying, as if these news organizations would all risk their reputations on such a serious accusation without conclusive evidence, nobody could say that was bullshit. When she blamed Union Montreal for making up a story, the media had to assume that was a possibility. (Of course, Union Montreal could very well have had a hand in this story, but they certainly didn’t make it up.)

And so everyone had to act surprised when, a day later, Harel announced she asked Labonté to resign as a candidate for Vision Montreal. (Because the nomination period has ended, Harel could not replace Labonté on the ballot. So the Ste. Marie district of Ville-Marie will have no Vision Montreal city councillor to vote for.)

No apologies

During her press conference, Harel made it a point to “saluer” the work of investigative journalists, supposedly the same ones she had called liars the day before. She offered no apology for attacking their reputations the day before.

Neither did Labonté, who went tell-all in an interview with Radio-Canada television four days later.

I’m sure Rue Frontenac, TVA and Radio-Canada won’t lose any sleep over it. But Harel and Labonté called them liars. They threatened to sue. They attacked the integrity of these organizations. Even though Labonté still denies taking money, it’s clear he attacked them to save his own skin. Don’t they deserve an apology?

They didn’t get one that I could see, even though Labonté did his interview ostensibly to save his reputation.

Only a politician would think he could save his reputation while at the same time admitting he outright lied to people about his integrity.

And yet, journalists are treating his two-hour interview (which Radio-Canada has decided to show excerpts of but not air or put online in its entirety yet) as if he’s come clean and can be trusted. Even though this interview contains such hard-to-believe statements as he lied to protect his party. So all the accusations he’s levelled against Gérald Tremblay suddenly have a new air of trustworthiness to them.

I certainly wouldn’t take Labonté’s accusations against Tremblay at face value, even now that he really has nothing to lose by finally being honest with us. Nor do I take the statements of disgruntled former Vision Montrealers that they warned Harel about Labonté with anything other than a giant grain of salt. But Labonté’s statement (supposedly quoting Tremblay) that this kind of corruption is what municipal politics is all about, that makes a lot of sense.

A poster plastered on the Champ de Mars metro window

A poster plastered on the Champ de Mars metro window

What now?

So now that we know the problem, what do we do? Gérald Tremblay thinks he can clean up city hall, an absurd statement if I’ve ever heard one. Louise Harel still thinks she can sweep up the corruption, even though she was clueless about her right-hand man.

And Richard Bergeron, whose party hasn’t been touched by a corruption scandal yet (notably because he’s the only member of that party who’s ever been elected) sees his numbers slowly climb in the polls.

I don’t think Gérald Tremblay is corrupt. Nor Louise Harel. Nor Richard Bergeron. But if the past few weeks and months have shown us anything, it’s that leaders can’t always account for the actions of members of their parties.

Both Tremblay and Harel were let down by high-ranking politicians. If they can’t trust them, how can they trust all 102 people running as city and borough councillors? Can any of the three parties really vouch for the integrity of that many people?

In Quebec City, the grandstanding is just as theatrical. Pauline Marois is calling for a public inquiry with a kind of urgency that suggests it can’t wait until after the elections. Jean Charest wants to wait for police investigations to end first, and hasn’t committed to anything.

The Everything Inquiry

We need a public inquiry. But it needs to be about more than municipal corruption, and it needs to be about more than Montreal. We need an inquiry into the whole system of municipal politics.

It’s clear from the actions of politicians of late that they simply can’t be trusted. We need to, from now on, work under a system that simply assumes that they are corrupt. Rather than punish people when the truth eventually comes out (because in many cases it doesn’t), we need a system that has roadblocks in place to stop every step of this.

I was under the impression such a system was already in place. There’s a reason that donations to politicians can’t be made by giving that politician money. Instead, all funds must go through the “agent officiel”, who keeps track of it. If such a system isn’t in place for leadership campaigns, or for parties in general outside of election periods, then it needs to be.

According to Vision Montreal’s website, the party has raised $300,000 from 1,180 donors. Union Montreal has raised about $105,000 from 297 donors (though that list hasn’t been updated in two weeks). I don’t know if that’s enough to run an election in a city this size (even if you’re not putting up posters). It’s $1,000-$3,000 per candidate.

Not only do I not know if I can trust that this represents all the money going into party coffers, I can’t trust that all this money really originates from the people named in those lists. And I don’t know who those people are. I don’t have time to call 1,000 people and ask if they have any connections with the construction industry.

This inquiry also needs to look to the other side of the equation. If politicians are getting money off the books, how can they spend this money without arising suspicion? Is the money being laundered somehow? Are they buying things outside the official party structure? If so, measures need to be in place to stop it.

We also need to take a step back and ask ourselves if the party system in general makes sense in municipal politics. We need to ask if political parties should be able to accept donations or if they should be entirely funded by the government (presumably based on how many votes they got the last time). We need to look at the way construction contracts are assigned. We need to ask if the contracting of construction work (rather than doing things in-house) makes sense.

In short, we need to look at everything.

Nine days before the election, it’s too late to start now. But starting Nov. 2, the file needs to be opened. The problem is too systemic for whoever is elected mayor to fix it from the inside, no matter their honourable intentions. And you can bet it’s in a lot more places than Montreal.

Of course, there’s no need to take my word for it. The Gazette’s City Eye blog is developing a top 10 list of things to do to combat corruption, taking suggestions from the audience and talking to experts. #1 on the list is the public inquiry, but other items are worthy of note.

Ile Sans Fil in the park

Both Union Montreal and Vision Montreal have an element on their platforms that some technologically-inclined Montrealers might find interesting: free (or cheap) wireless Internet access in public parks and other public areas.

The idea isn’t new. The city first approached the volunteer group Ile Sans Fil more than two years ago to talk about setting up such a system. Ile Sans Fil provides free wireless Internet through more than 150 access points in the city, most through places like coffee shops who pay ISF a small fee.

The city has even conducted studies and hearings on the subject, and a presentation given in November 2007 resulted in only one comment, in support of the project. In a report, filed at the beginning of 2008 (PDF), the city’s commission on economic development recommended setting up a network with Ile Sans Fil.

For various reasons internal to the city’s operation, this issue has been sitting on a shelf since then. ISF even appealed to the public in August 2008, (perhaps prematurely), though specifying that the group wasn’t in danger if the deal fell through. ISF were expecting a call for tenders earlier this year on a free wifi project, which it would then bid on and be a clear favourite for, but it never came.

Both Tremblay and Harel should be somewhat embarrassed to have this on their platforms. Tremblay because the city hasn’t acted on this yet despite the preliminary work being done, and Harel because it was an idea of the Tremblay administration that her party has now stolen.

Want to watch the city council meeting? Tough

I was invited for a short interview on the Ric Peterson Show on CJAD today. For those who missed it (which I imagine is about everyone), the audio is here: Me on the Ric Peterson Show (MP3)

Apparently Mr. Peterson finds this blog interesting and informative about local issues (joke’s on him, I’m just some moron on the Internet), so he asked me a few questions about the big city council meeting tonight and the city’s new ethics hotline. (My uneducated take in brief: it sounds cool, but experiences in other cities show such hotlines aren’t worth the cost.)

I started off the interview pointing out that even if people were interested, they couldn’t watch this meeting live. No electronic media – TV, radio or online – are broadcasting this meeting. Not even VOX, LCN, RDI, Info 690 or CJAD. There was plenty of live coverage of tonight’s preseason Canadiens game (two television networks and three radio stations, by my count), however. Gives you an idea about priorities.

Even the city’s own website doesn’t provide live streaming. The best you get are video clips posted online after the fact.

So if you want to watch the meeting, you have to be in the building. That’s kind of sad. Not that most people would sit down and watch a council meeting from start to finish (especially when there’s the season premiere of House), but you’d think we could find some space in the 500-channel universe to what news people pretend to be the biggest news story of the week.

The media is, of course, at the meeting and will report on it. The Gazette is quasi-live-blogging it. Radio and TV are providing updates as part of regular news reports.

But all of them are providing a filter on this news, instead of letting us see it for ourselves.

Union Montreal’s new website

Union Montreal's "English" website

Union Montreal's "English" website

I got an email Friday morning, just as the municipal election campaign officially began, informing me that Union Montreal has redesigned its website.

So, of course, I checked it out with my usual critical eye. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The design was clean and simple, the page looked fine even with the style sheet turned off. They’ve got the usual Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Flickr accounts. They’re even releasing their content under a Creative Commons license.

Great, I thought. So where’s the English version?

After a bit of searching, I could find some pages that had a link at the bottom that said “English”. That would bring me to an English version of those pages. But then I’d click somewhere and it would bring me back to the French website. Or it would be the English page and all the navigational text would be in French.

I asked the guy who emailed me, Marc Snyder, what’s up with all that. He said they’re working on it:

We’re progressing in the right direction: I think this is what a work-in-progress is all about ;-)

Building a website that’s bilingual isn’t easy. Most cool content management systems don’t think of building in support for bilingual websites. So many do so through third-party plugins. In this case, the website is WordPress based and they’re using the Qtranslate plugin.

But to launch a website so publicly without even basic information in English (at first, there wasn’t even an English bio for the mayor) seems a fairly major gaffe. Even now, most of its content isn’t accessible in English. Instead, you get a short apology with a link to the French version.

Remember, this is supposed to be the anglo party, embracing both languages of this diverse metropolis. Vision Montreal, with ex-PQer Louise Harel who speaks little English, and Projet Montréal, which doesn’t even translate its name into our language, both have better English versions of their websites.

Maybe next time someone from Union Montreal criticizes Louise Harel for alienating anglophones, she can point out the fact that people don’t need to look up what “Arrondissement de militantisme” is before they can donate to her party.

Oh wait, she can’t. Neither can Michel Richard Bergeron. Because both Vision Montreal’s donation form and Projet Montréal’s donation form have random untranslated bits of French on them.

I realize this is small-time politics and we’re not dealing with real big budgets here, but these are forms people fill out to give you money. If you’re so careless about translation, I can only imagine what kind of controls you have on the $100 I’d be putting in your campaign fund.

Colour me pas impressionné.