Sunday, October 16, 2016

It's Voting Time!

Andrea, Guthrie and I voted on Saturday morning, at the advance poll at City Hall.  We usually vote at advance polls - it gets the job done, and election day can be busy.  We were part of a small crowd, but as usual the officials were efficient at getting people through the process.

I would suggest that you download the voter registration form from the city web-page before you go - that allows you to skip a step.  This is something that wasn't as well advertised as it could have been.  I found out about it at the candidates' information session held last week, and it is in the voter brochure that went out a couple of weeks ago, but I didn't see anyone else with filled out forms while we were there.  With our filled out forms we were able to go straight to the line to get our ballots, rather than stopping at the long table to fill out the form.

The ballot is different from in past years.  Whereas before you would be handed three separate ballots - for mayor, councillor and school board - it's now all on one sheet.  And rather than marking an X, you fill in an oval by your preferred candidate, similar to filling out a multiple choice exam that's going to be marked by a computer.  After you vote the form is fed into a machine like a fax machine, confirming that you've voted.  Quite a change from making sure that the right ballot goes into the right ballot box.  This should make getting results much quicker on election night.

Voter turn-out in municipal elections is usually quite low, which I don't understand.  Civic elections are about the issues that affect your life every day - garbage pick-up, snow-plowing, ensuring that clean water goes into your house and that pipes are there to take away the water after it's been used.  Decisions made by council will affect the state of the street in front of your house, how often sidewalks are repaired, and how many police officers patrol the streets.

Perhaps the low turn-out is because the issues are so ordinary, and members of council are so accessible.  We live right here, not in Regina or Ottawa, we have no staff to organize us or prevent us from saying stupid things, and you're likely to see us in the grocery store or coffee shop, so that you can offer your opinion or ask questions in person, rather than going through communications people.

I would argue that those ordinary issues make civic elections more important to citizens on a day-to-day basis than provincial or federal elections.  Once elected, a member of council is directly responsible to his or her constituents, not to the leader of a party, and is free to vote however they wish, which means that the opinions of residents are taken into consideration with every vote.

If you still want to vote early, there are three more advance polls - next Thursday and Friday evenings, and next Saturday afternoon, all at City Hall.  If you're waiting for Election Day, the city has done a couple more things to make things easier.  Public transit is free on that day, to make it easier to get to the polls, and two super polls have been added, where voters from all wards can vote.  One is at the Art Hauser Centre, the other at the Field House.  These options might be helpful if you have to pass either on your way to or from work.

How you vote is your decision, of course, but I would suggest that substance be a bigger factor in your decision than image.  I've been on councils where image was the over-riding factor in most decisions, and that left us with a huge infrastructure deficit that we're still trying to make up for, and facilities that require increasing subsidies every year that weren't planned for.  Read all you can, ask questions of your candidates, and make your decision based on facts, not fiction.

"Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote." - George Jean Nathan

Monday, October 10, 2016

Should the City be Run Like a Business?

One of the suggestions that is often made in on-line forums is that the city should be run like a business, and to ensure that, more business people should be elected to council.  I think that, as is often the case, people are looking for a simple answer to solve complicated problems.

Unfortunately, it's just not that simple.  Businesses are owned by one or more shareholders, and their main responsibility is to return profits to their shareholders.  The city, on the other hand, is a government, and its responsibility is to provide services to residents, in return for which the residents pay taxes.  The city is responsible for things considered in the greater good, whether they are profitable or not.  For example, green spaces like parks and playgrounds are not money-makers, nor are they essential like safe drinking water, but most people would agree that they make the city a much more attractive and pleasant place to live.

With businesses, there is competition.  If I don't like the service or products or prices offered at a certain store, I'm free to go elsewhere.  Good businesses know this, and will do their best to provide good reasons for customers to patronize them, whether it be cheaper prices, unique products, or superior service.  With the city, residents have no option.  You don't like how or when your street was plowed?  You can't pick up the phone and call a competitor.  One of the big problems for the city is how to offer equitable services.  For something like snow plowing, priority routes are identified, and the crews do their best to also get to residential areas when priority areas are done, varying which residential areas get service first.  Of course, another storm will set the whole thing back to priority routes, which then results in more complaints.

The double-edged sword of offering tax incentives to attract new businesses is an idea that is being offered by some candidates.  The downside of incentives is that they provide a competitive disadvantage to current businesses - if the city offered a tax holiday to Starbucks if they took over one of the current vacant downtown storefronts, I'm sure that the many coffee shops currently operational in the city would complain loudly over the unfairness of the situation.  Council currently looks at such requests on an individual basis; I think that we should also develop some guidelines around the size of incentives as related to the benefits to the city, whether it be number of employees, potential benefit to related businesses, or other criteria.

With regard to the suggestion that we need more business people on council, you might be surprised to realize that half of the current council is made up of current or previous business owners.  Having a council made up entirely of business people would not achieve the necessary diversity of perspectives that I believe is necessary for good decision-making.  And if we want to look at history, part of the reason that some areas of the city have fewer amenities than others is that before the ward system, council was largely made up of residents of the better-off areas, leading to more money being invested in those areas than in the unrepresented areas.

For all that, I do think that there are areas where the city could be more business-like.  For one, projects could be run more efficiently.  The boondoggle that happened last year on Eighth Street, when the repaving and pipe replacement work was abandoned for paving a parking lot behind SIAST, and not completed until this year, is an example of poor planning and execution that likely wouldn't have happened with a business, where work isn't paid for until complete.

Better communication is also an area where we could learn from business.  Business owners know that you have to keep the customer informed, whether it's about new products, sales, or renovations that are going to affect accessibility.  The city just isn't that good about informing residents about what's going on, in most cases, although the information package that recently was sent to residents about the upcoming election is an exception to that, and I must congratulate the City Clerk for that effort.

Finally, I think that the city could do a far better job in providing better client service.  All too often I'm called by a resident who is trying to get information from City Hall, and they get the run-around.  I've experienced poor service myself, when the person answering the phone in Finance did not identify themselves, and became quite rude until I identified myself.  Another councillor had a similar experience this past week, trying to find out about garbage pick-up.  While I realize that not all employees lack this understanding of the importance of providing good service, I think that setting some standards for how phones are answered, and how quickly messages are responded to, would go a great distance in improving residents' experiences in dealing with problems.

As I've often said, there are no easy solutions to the problems that come up when trying to run the city efficiently and effectively.  Council needs to look at the whole range of solutions, remembering that our final obligation is to provide a wide range of services as equitably as possible to all residents.

"It's easy to make a buck.  It's a lot tougher to make a difference." - Tom Brokaw

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Questions You Should Ask Your Candidates

We're now in full election mode, with signs popping up on boulevards and lawns, ads in the paper, flyers appearing in mailboxes, and candidates knocking on doors.  Signs, of course, provide the least information about a candidate, ads slightly more, and flyers even more.  And the city website provides a brief profile provided by the candidate.  But all of these are the candidate's attempt to put forth the most favourable impression - they don't really go into too much depth.

Should you get a candidate on your doorstep, this is your opportunity to ask more in-depth questions.  Should your paths not cross (and as someone who has done a lot of door-knocking over the years, it's hard to catch people at home in these busy times), their contact information is on the city web-page, and on their flyers as well.  I would encourage you to pick up the phone or drop them an email, and ask these questions.  After all, nobody should be elected based solely on a good looking picture or a snappy sound-bite.

For starters, why are they running for council?  It's a hard job where criticism comes far more often than compliments, and like any job, some people are better suited to it than others.  Beware the candidate who is running because they have a specific interest - they need to be interested in the well-being of the city and its residents as a whole, not just one sector, particularly one that will directly benefit them.

Have they been to a council meeting?  Have they reviewed an agenda?  Do they have previous experience on boards and committees?  Do they understand that council works best when all opinions are heard with respect before decisions are made?

Did they review this year's budget?  Do they understand that council, cannot, by law, pass a deficit budget - that is a luxury only allowed higher levels of government.  To reduce the need to increase taxes, do they see areas where spending could be done more efficiently?  Do they see areas where wants took priority over needs?  How would they persuade the rest of council to get on board?

One of the biggest areas where council was criticized this year was on the bail-out of the Borealis Music Festival.  Would your candidate have supported this bail-out?  What would they have done in the earlier stages to prevent the need for such a bail-out?  We all agree that  new initiatives are needed - how can council members prevent adding additional burdens to the tax-payer?

Do they understand what falls within council's control, and what doesn't?  The unglamourous basics like infrastructure maintenance, garbage pick-up, snow removal and street sweeping are things that affect every resident, and have to be taken care of.  Much as they affect us, social issues are the responsibility of other agencies, and while we can support initiatives from these agencies, we don't drive that particular bus.  Council has to know which areas are our responsibility, and those which we can only support, and focus on the fundamentals that are within our control.

The police budget takes up more than one-third of our expenditures.  What are their ideas for using these funds more efficiently?  Do they understand that there are no quick fixes, but taking a stronger stand on bylaw enforcement for rental properties, for example, would actually help to resolve some of the underlying issues behind high crime rates.

Most council decisions require balancing different needs against resources.  We cannot give tax concessions to one group, for example, without finding revenues from somewhere else.  How would they find this balance?

And finally, and probably most importantly, do they act with integrity?  Do their actions match their words, both now and in the past?  In all three elections in the past year we've seen candidates embarrassed by things that they've posted on social media that don't match what they're saying now.  If this is the case, do they have an explanation?

Your responsibility as a voter is to make the best decision possible, and you can't do that without finding out what your candidate really thinks.  Don't be deterred by platitudes; if they won't give you a straight answer, then they don't deserve your vote.

"There is no stupid question; stupid people don't ask questions." - Anonymous

Monday, September 26, 2016

Communications - That Vital Step that is So Often Screwed Up

The recently cancelled Hydraulic Flushing Program is yet another example about how the city thinks that it's doing a good job of communicating about something, but falls short in the details.

This is something that hasn't been done before - flushing all of the water pipes in the city to remove dirt and build-up, so that water can run more easily, and more cleanly.

Rather than doing a trial run, the program was announced with great fanfare, and a letter was sent to all residents.  Communications glitch number 1 - I don't know what was in your letter, but the letter that came to my house referred to an enclosed pamphlet for more detail.  Unfortunately, there was no enclosed pamphlet in the letter that came to my house.

Notice of when the program was to be in your area was to be given to each household 24 hours in advance, advising that the next day pipes would be flushed between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and that water was not to be used during these 12 hours.

Problems were evident from the start of the program, which began on the West Flat.  Someone involved turned a valve the wrong way, with the result that water was turned off, to several homes, without any warning.  This meant that residents had no chance to stock up on water for any purpose.  When the water came back on, it came with a boil water advisory - again, no chance to stock up on water for drinking or cooking.  After a number of phone calls and emails from the councillor for the area, the cause of the problem was identified, along with a promise that it wouldn't happen again.

Well, it did.  On Friday, September 16, I got a phone call from a resident in the 100 block of 10th Street East - their water was off, with no warning, and he couldn't get through to City Hall to find out why.  It turned out that the same thing had happened - a worker had turned a valve the wrong way.  For several residents, that meant no water, without any warning.  I then started getting calls from residents on 8th Street - same thing, no water, no warning.

Late that afternoon, Andrea and I were enjoying the warm afternoon on our deck.  I went to the front of the house to check something, and on my way back, I saw a yellow door knocker, which had been blown off and landed on a corner of the deck.  It was pure luck that I saw it.

The message on it wasn't exactly clear.  The next day's date, Sept. 17/16 was written in ink at the top, then the generic notice was printed below - that this was 24 hour notice, that the hydraulic flushing program was now in our area, and that we were advised not to use water during the 12 hours, from 7 until 7, until flushing was complete.

What wasn't clear was exactly when the flushing was to happen.  The 17th was a Saturday, and the program was only supposed to run on weekdays.  On the other hand, perhaps they were trying to make up for lost time.  The notice would have been much more informative had it said something like "Flushing will occur in your block on this date."  In any case, we set aside some water for drinking and cooking, and the next day minimized our use of water.  Late in the day, we once again were enjoying the sun on our deck, when I saw a worker on the avenue turning a valve.  I asked him if the flushing was complete; he responded that they hadn't started on our block yet, but it would probably happen on Monday.

Earlier than day, on my way to the Farmers' Market, I had seen a notice tucked into the door of a closed business in the 100 block of 10th Street.  This one was even more confusing - the original date on it was September 18, but over the 18, 16 had been written.  If I had been the recipient of that notice, I would have been even more confused.

On Monday we did the same minimizing water use - I didn't even shower or change into a suit for the council meeting, where I raised my concerns about how the whole program was being carried out, particularly the lack of notice or information to the people whose water was turned off.  And I asked that for those residents who were under a boil water advisory, that testing of those areas be prioritized so that they would be inconvenienced for as short a time as possible.

The next day, city administration announced the suspension of the program.  Originally they said that it was because winter was coming (like they didn't know that when the program was announced); later the city manager admitted that they hadn't communicated things well, and that problems had happened.  No apology to the residents.

I hope that we've learned from this that when we're going to try something new, we should do a small test run first.  If a problem like someone turning a valve the wrong way happens, increase checks so that it doesn't happen again.  Make notification of residents clear, and timely, and when something goes wrong, let them know as quickly as possible, and even make a gesture like providing bottled water.  Such actions would go a long way in convincing residents that we take our responsibilities of providing such basic services as clean water seriously, and when something goes wrong, we will do our best to make it right.

And good communication is a key part of this.  Council just approved the hiring of a second communications person (I did not agree with this, as I don't think we should be adding positions without seriously considering whether the position is truly needed, and if it is, then let's have an open competition).  Let's hope that at the very least, we develop better processes for communicating with residents.

"The single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Once More Into the Breach

I filed my papers for the election this past week.  While others announced their intentions weeks, even months ago, I like to take my time before making the decision.  It's making a commitment for the next four years, and there are a lot of factors to take into consideration.  But after much discussion with family and friends, and many inquiries and much encouragement from Ward 3 residents, I decided that I still have a great deal to offer.  More than one Ward 3 resident, in encouraging me to run, said that council needs more people like me, who aren't afraid to ask the hard questions.  If I don't run, then that's one less person.

My objective in being on council is the same today as it was when I first ran - to make Ward 3, and Prince Albert, a better place to live.  Substandard housing, increasing crime rates, aging infrastructure and inequitable distribution of recreational amenities across the city are all issues that are not solved quickly, but I can look at various actions that I've encouraged during my time on council that have made a difference, and I continue to look at new and better ways of doing things.

A frequent refrain in the comments section on local media is that a whole new council is needed.  In my experience, what usually happens is that we get a mix of new councillors and veterans, and that works well.  Too many new faces means that there is greater reliance on administration making decisions, and people should remember that administration wasn't elected.  A couple of council terms ago that ended up with the police budget being withheld from council, and it took a couple of years to pry the details loose so that all of council could see how more than a third of our budget was spent.  It's helpful to have veterans on council in those situations, particularly people like me who aren't afraid to call bull puckies when appropriate.

Many candidates talk about grandiose projects that they would like to see - a new arena has been mentioned, and of course a second bridge is a perennial goal.  I prefer to see council focus on fundamentals - replacing century-old pipes, as was done last summer during the Big Dig project, may not be sexy, but these are the necessities to keep water running.  Maintaining infrastructure, which has been a focus of this last term of council has the added advantage of not adding to our ongoing financial responsibilities, unlike some of the big ticket items that previous councils felt were the best use of tax-payers' money, and have left us with new ongoing costs that weren't discussed when the projects were first proposed.

There is also the misconception that new people are needed on council to provide new ideas - in fact, many new candidates will say that very thing, without providing examples of what these new ideas might be.  I would say that anyone, no matter how long they've been on council, has the ability to generate new ideas.  Just last week I suggested to the deputy police chief that doing patrols down back alleys might be a more effective way of discouraging crime than driving along the streets, because the back alleys are where people trying to avoid being seen tend to gather.  He hadn't thought of deploying forces that way, and couldn't see why police couldn't start doing that.  A new way of doing something, without any increase in expenditure required - to me that's the kind of new idea that's needed.

I would also caution people that just because an idea is new, doesn't mean that it's good, or that further scrutiny isn't required.  Think of the Borealis Music Festival, where  my questions about the budget were ignored, and which ended up costing tax-payers over $100,000, counting the original support plus the bail-out.  A new idea, but not an idea that was well-thought-out.

I often say that being on council is the only job where you have to reapply every few years.  But that's how democracy works.  I only hope that my hard work over the past 16 years is appreciated by the residents of Ward 3, and that they put their confidence in my ability to do the job once more.

"Regardless of who wins, an election should be a time for optimism and fresh approaches." - Gary Johnson

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Crime Reduction - Is There a Magic Wand?

In any survey, including the community meetings held over the last year, the number one issue that comes up is the need to reduce crime in the community. For me personally, it comes up in phone calls, and in conversations with people who see me downtown or at the grocery store, or who drop by for a visit.  It's a no-brainer, really, people want to feel safe where they live, they want to feel comfortable in their yards, they want to feel safe when they're out in the community, they want to feel safe in parks and playgrounds.  And I share their concerns - I too want to live in a safe neighbourhood.

I don't know anyone on council who hasn't wrestled with this issue.  It's one of the reasons why the single biggest expenditure in the budget is for police services - it's a priority, and we emphasize that priority by allocating financial resources accordingly.  We've also invested in longer term initiatives like the Hub project, which tries to coordinate efforts at preventative levels.  Unfortunately, longer term initiatives like the Hub take longer to show results, and people want problems to be fixed now.

I was interested in the Saskatoon police chief's comments following the release a few weeks ago of national crime statistics, when once again Saskatchewan communities ranked at the top - one of the lists no city wants to be at the top of.  He said that the underlying causes of crimes are poverty, racism and poor housing - all problems that can't be solved by more boots on the ground.

These are also problems that point more toward dealing with situations before a crime has actually happened, not afterward, and they are problems that require the entire community to take action.  It's only common sense that putting more effort into prevention rather than punishment will pay greater dividends.

Of these three areas, poverty and racism are outside the scope of city council.  However, the third, poor housing, is something that council has some control of.  I've been advocating for improved housing standards for as long as I've been on council, even trying to coordinate such basics as placarding houses as unfit to live in where the water has been turned off, so that these houses are not available as rentals.  I've also advocated for a landlord registry, and for quicker action against derelict properties.  Again, these are not quick solutions, since we are often restricted by court proceedings, but I think that there are many situations where council could be less forgiving, and set our expectations higher.  I've also suggested that we look into incentive programs to develop vacant lots within current neighbourhoods - these are lots that are already serviced, and everyone would benefit by encouraging new housing on what can otherwise be an eyesore in an area.  You can see the positive results in any Habitat for Humanity home.

To answer my original, and somewhat rhetorical question - of course there is no magic wand.  But we, the community as a whole, need to look at the whole scope of the problem, look at a wider scope of potential solutions, and do something wherever we can, not just with empty promises, but with real action.

"Prevention is a whole lot less costly than treatment, and maybe more effective." - Debbie Adair

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Exceptions for Some, But Not for Others

City Council is a funny group.  Not the laughing type of funny, the hard to explain kind of funny.

One of the things that demonstrates this is its willingness to give some people breaks, but not others.  The people who get the breaks - usually the ones with more resources than your average individual.  The people who don't - usually those who are already disadvantaged.

This came up at the last council meeting, where we had a resident who had received a water bill of more than $6,000, that the resident does not have the resources to pay.

Now there is fault on both sides.  The resident had had a water leak in the basement that caused part of the problem, which they neglected.  But the city also bears some responsibility.  Administration is supposed to note when a water bill is unreasonably high, and notify the resident - this did not happen.  As well, if we were billing monthly, presumably the problem would have been identified when the bill was only a third the size that it ended up being.

And billing is supposed to happen monthly.  In May 2013, council voted to start monthly billing for water starting in 2014.  More than two years later, and billing is still done quarterly, with no explanation from administration as to why they didn't follow council's direction.

You may not be aware that only half your water bill is for actual consumption - the remainder is for infrastructure and sewer charges.  Administration proposed removing these charges from the bill, which would reduce it by half. Unfortunately, that amount is also unaffordable for the resident.  The amount that was offered was $300.  The motion to accept this offer was defeated.

This is a council that thought that the right thing to do for businesses who got stiffed by the Borealis Music Festival was to give them $82,000 to pay off their debts, over and above the $30,000 in cash and in-kind support that we'd already given them, despite their wildly unrealistic expectations.  And this was after nobody responsible came to council to explain why they should be bailed out.

And while this resident had to make her plea in public, if a business wants to argue to have its taxes reduced, they get to do that in camera, so the public doesn't know.  And if they don't pay their taxes, it isn't made public, even though the amounts owing make $6,000 look like pocket change.  These are businesses, who can deduct such expenses from their earnings - residents have no such backstop for their water bills.

In my opinion, we'd get far more bang for our buck if we would spend more time chasing the big tax evaders, rather than going after the little people who have few if any resources to fight City Hall.

Council has spent quite a bit of time developing a strategic plan.  One of the operational themes of this plan that is supposed to guide our approach to operations and projects is that we are compassionate - the exact quote is "Understanding that the services we provide are valued, and understanding the needs and challenges of the end user and working to make their experience positive."  I'd say that we missed the mark on this one.

I don't like exceptions, but I understand that sometimes there is no other practical solution.  Let's stop going after the little guy so relentlessly, and put some of that same effort into collecting from the big guys.

"Most bad luck is the misfortune of not being an exception." - Mason Cooley