Sunday, August 28, 2016

Is There a Place for Party Politics at City Council?

One of the things that I like best about being on City Council is the fact that I'm independent - nobody tells me how to vote (or at least, not successfully), I'm free to express my own opinions, and there's no party line that I have to follow or support publicly.

Now I realize that at higher levels of government, provincial or federal, some sort of organization is necessary to coordinate direction, and that without political parties, trying to run a large government would be like herding cats.  The downside to that is the expression of individual opinions at that level is discouraged, and straying from the party line, especially in voting, is usually punished.  So while constituents elect their representatives, once elected, the constituents become less important to their representative than the party leader.

But in such a small group as council, nine individuals, we don't need to be divided into groups to ensure that we don't go madly off in all (or nine) directions.  Each member of council is free to form their own opinions, express their own ideas, and be influenced by others' good suggestions.  In fact, what can happen is that an idea, after open discussion, can morph into an even better idea that can get support from all members of council.  Of course, we all tend to one or the other side of the spectrum, but it's best when we can meet in the middle and come up with a solution that is best for the city, not for one political party or another.

Now, I understand that for some people on council, as for many individuals, they have firm beliefs that align with a particular political party, and they extend their support to being members, sometimes quite active, of whatever party they wish.  I'm not disagreeing with their right to do this, in fact, I've belonged to different parties over the years, usually after being asked by a friend to support them in a nomination battle.  But I decided a few years ago that tying myself to a particular party line wasn't the best way to represent Ward Three, so I no longer hold membership in any party.  Each party has ideas that I can support - this way I'm free to select what I see as the best option, without feeling that I should support a particular stance because I'm a party member.  It also means that I'm free to speak up about anything that I disagree with - open criticism is the first step in changing things.

Another reason for not belonging to a particular party is that, as a council, we have to be able to work with higher levels of government, no matter what the political stripe of the party in power.  We don't need additional artificial barriers to conversations that might block positive discussions because of misconceptions about where we stand on various issues.  One of the things that members of the public often say is that we need more cooperation, focusing on what we have in common, rather than holding fast to opinions based on what the party has decided.

One of the odd things that I've noticed is that sometimes, when we've had a vote at council that was unanimously supported, after the meeting, a council member or  two will disavow their support for the vote that they just made, perhaps because it didn't match the direction made by the party that they belong to.  Why they felt the need to vote with council, then try to take it back, is a mystery to me.  I think that in every vote, each council member should vote for what they believe is the best option, not try to sit on the fence in a vain effort to please everybody.

I know that some members of council will disagree with me on this - that's fine, they too are entitled to their opinions.  But over the years I've had many constituents tell me that they appreciate that I'm not afraid to speak up and ask questions, and that they value the fact that I stand behind my own opinions.  Frankly, I work for those constituents, not for any other member of council, or any political party.

"The most courageous act is still to think for yourself.  Out loud." - Coco Chanel

Monday, August 1, 2016

Can We Learn Anything from the Water Crisis?

Into our second week of dealing with water restrictions, what longer term thinking could this difficult situation inspire?

First, it's a classic example of how needs and wants differ.  One of the basic services that the city provides to its residents, safe drinking water, was put in jeopardy through circumstances totally beyond our control.  I want to commend the city staff who wasted no time in getting on top of the problem, figuring out potential solutions, and communicating with residents.  Last weekend was a constant stream of phone calls from residents wondering mostly about whether the water was safe to drink; once the information flyer was delivered on Monday, those calls have decreased considerably.

Clean drinking water is a need.  Other water uses have been identified as wants, and actions taken accordingly.  Residents have certainly responded positively in reducing their discretionary use of water - I know that we're not the only family who has cut back on showers, laundry, and toilet flushing, and who stockpiled water that we're using for cooking and making coffee.  This kind of community support has proven invaluable in stretching out our available water reserves.

But the emergency has also pointed out that our reserve capacity may be lower than it should be.  Perhaps, instead of building more facilities that use water, we should look at investing in more reserve capacity.  It's not just our growing population that we need consider, but our commercial arrangements with surrounding RMs also need to be considered - have we increased our capacity to match these growing needs?

We also need to consider the wisdom of allowing city facilities to use water without paying for it.  As far as I'm concerned, the cost of water should be included when user fees are calculated; right now, they aren't, meaning that tax payers are subsidizing recreational users.  I find it interesting that when the golf course couldn't use potable water for irrigation, they managed to find a solution by accessing non-treated water.  Perhaps, instead of investing $2 million in a new irrigation system that will continue to use potable water to keep the greens nice, we should be looking into a system that doesn't use our most expensive water for what is definitely a want, not a need.

At present, we don't know when things will get back to normal.  Temporary solutions, which will lessen the pressure on our reserves, appear to be close, but these solutions are only temporary.  It will be important, over the next weeks and months, to continue to be careful in our water usage.  And it will be just as important, when we are able to once again use water directly from the river, to think about changes that we can make, to reduce the impact of future situations, not just go back to business as usual.

"You don't miss the water till the well runs dry." - Anonymous

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Getting Information Before We Make a Decision - Now There's a Concept

For about ten years now (it dates back to the previous mayor), the city has picked up green waste from the back of people's homes.  The principle of green waste pick-up is sound, as it reduces the amount of recyclable material going to the landfill, but the way we do it has always seemed inefficient to me.  Waste is either in clear plastic bags or, in the case of branches, bundled.  It's picked up by three guys in a 5 ton rear-loading garbage truck.  While residents are asked to put it out on the same day as their recycling day, it may or may not get picked up that day. And for those who still have large communal bins, they have no scheduled pick-up day.  Often, to make up for being badly behind schedule, pick up is done on the weekend, with overtime being paid to the three guys on the truck.  When the program started, there was another individual out at the landfill, whose job was to slit and empty the bags of waste; now the bags are slit and emptied at pick up, but I'm not sure how or where the plastic is disposed of.  And, of course, not everyone uses the program - people still put green waste in with their garbage, because it's easier.

When this would come up as part of the sanitation budget every year, I would ask for the cost, and suggest that this could be a service that we could cut to reduce costs.  The answer was always that it cost $100,000 a year, but we were never given details.  Another block to even considering change is that some members of council are reluctant to reduce services, even those that are only used by a minority of residents.

Then a few years back, I found out that Saskatoon offers a green waste recycling program, Green Cart, that is a subscription service.  It uses the same automated trucks that we use for the roll-out garbage and recycling bins (which have one operator rather than three), and picks up both yard and food waste in green bins.  Waste does not have to be bagged, which saves residents the cost of bags, and the city the costs of  removing the bags or unbundling the branches.  The program operates from early May until early November, and costs interested residents $55 per year.  For those not interested, there's no cost.  To me it seems like a good solution - subscribers pay less than $10 a month, and the program runs more efficiently because the trucks know exactly where to go.  That's got to save time and money over three guys in a truck going down every alley and street, looking for bags and bundles that may or may not be there.

A further impending cost of the current program is the need to upgrade the composting building at the landfill.  This is where the waste is taken and mixed with sludge, with the resulting mixture used as overlay for the landfill.  The equipment within this building, fans and such, is reaching the end of its lifespan, and it will be helpful to find out if there are cheaper alternatives.

Fortunately, I finally got unanimous support from my colleagues at last week's Executive Committee meeting.  We have directed administration to prepare a report on the costs of the current program, and the costs of changing to something like the Green Cart program.  And we've asked for this report to be presented to us by the end of September, as so often reports are requested without a target date, which means that it can be months or years before a report is presented.  So we haven't decided to make a change; we've decided to get the information needed before deciding whether to make a change.

I'm looking forward to seeing this report, which hopefully will contain better information than we've been given so far.  I find it hard to believe that the costs of our current program have held steady at $100,000 per year for the last several years - it would be the only city program I'm aware of where costs haven't increased over the years.  Once council has the report, we'll be able to make a decision made on facts and information, not on emotion.  If we do move to a subscriber program, that means the costs will be borne by the users, not by all residents, and I would hope that the savings would be reflected in the sanitation budget.  That would bring some fairness into a system that too often makes everyone subsidize programs utilized by a few.

"In the absence of information, we jump to the worst conclusions." - Myra Kassim

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Ongoing Quest for Diversity

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Maclean's magazine - I assume my colleagues did as well.  The magazine is working on something about diversity, or the lack of it, on city councils, and wanted to confirm that Prince Albert City Council is like most other city councils - largely made up of white males.  They identified me as a white male, asked me to correct this if it was wrong, and asked if I had any thoughts on how to correct the imbalance.

They weren't wrong, obviously; I am a white male.  And so are most of the other members of council.  And I'm not sure how to fix the visible imbalances, or even if that should be the only objective - to be able to look at a picture of council and say that, yes, it contains the correct proportion of gender and race balance.

To me, it's also important to ensure that council has a diversity of perspectives.  It's not really diverse if everyone at the table represents the same viewpoint, and votes as one.  There are some members of council who think that's how it should be - at least one councillor thinks that council should vote the same way that the mayor does, since he's supposedly the boss (he's not, of course), and another councillor who believes that if everyone votes the same way, then nobody can be blamed for bad decisions.  That's not diversity; that's behaving as if council was just a big rubber stamp.

I believe one of the factors that has led to more diversity on council is the ward system.  When council was elected city-wide, most councillors and mayors came from the higher income areas of the city.  Not surprising - it takes a lot of money to run a campaign across the city, and to get the name recognition that is essential to getting elected.  It's much easier and more affordable to get your message out across a ward.  And while it isn't required that you actually be a resident in the ward in which you run, I believe that it's most effective to be represented by someone who lives in the ward, who can truly appreciate the issues that residents of a ward have to deal with every day.  And for the most part, that is the case in Prince Albert.

Of course, there are other roadblocks to achieving council diversity.  One is that many people just aren't interested in the job, for a number of reasons.  One of the reasons that I hear most often is the level of public abuse that seems to go along with the job - people just aren't prepared to have their decisions, and often their motives, subject to all sorts of insults and insinuations from people who don't even bother to call to get your side of the story.

The time required to do a good job is also a factor for many people - if you have a full-time job, a family, and other commitments or interests, finding the appropriate balance is difficult.  I'm betting you could ask any member of council and get good examples of times when council commitments meant that they had to miss something else important.

And, like most governments, council decisions are not made as fast as some people would like, which can be seen as frustrating to those watching.  We have processes that have to be followed, budgets that limit how much we can do, and we have to work with others - not nearly as fast as working alone, but I believe that it leads to better decisions.

A few years ago I was at a housing committee meeting when one of the members said to me "You need to understand; there are two Prince Alberts - a rich one and a poor one.  And the rich one gets to make most of the decisions."  That's where we need to ensure diversity - to ensure that our decisions lessen the differences between low and high income areas.  But we don't have that diversity of perspectives on council now.  We have members of council who think that it's quite reasonable to budget $2 million for golf course irrigation rather than replacing lead water service connections.

I don't know a fast way to get that diversity of perspectives on council while maintaining the principles of democracy (we can't tell people how to vote), but I try - by asking questions, by pointing out the ways that we spend money subsidizing facilities that are used by only a small proportion of city residents, and by advocating for more equitable distribution of amenities like green spaces.  I may be a white male, but I try to represent the diversity of my constituents the best I can.

"One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak." - Gloria Steinem

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Finishing - the Most Important Part of the Job

At Monday's Executive Committee meeting we were given a list of infrastructure projects that are supposedly complete, including some in my ward.  Unfortunately, administration's idea of what complete means and mine (and the residents who are directly affected) differ.

As an example, the 200 block of Ninth Street East is on the complete list.  This is one of the blocks that was started in the spring of last year, then left in August when the crews were pulled off to pave the parking lot behind SIAST, and they did not return, leaving residents to deal with an unpaved street and no sidewalks throughout the fall, winter and spring.

The work is not yet complete.  On the north side of the street, cement work between the sidewalk and residential walks has not been finished.  And on both sides of the street, broken cement and other debris remains, and boulevards still need soil, levelling and seeding.  How anyone could consider this job complete is beyond my understanding.

I pointed this out, and asked what the timetable was for completing this work.  Apparently, there is  none.

Part of the problem is that the construction piece - the road and sidewalk work - is the responsibility of the engineering department.  The final boulevard completion is the responsibility of parks and rec, which always seem to be behind schedule.  I'm not sure why engineering doesn't finish what is started, and it's even less clear to me why the two departments don't communicate better as to where they are on projects.

And more to the point, I don't know why all of this work isn't scheduled and coordinated between departments.  I realize that things like the weather can wreak havoc with the best plans (I'm waiting for a stretch of good weather so that I can do some reshingling), but that doesn't mean that all attempts at planning should be abandoned.  And it certainly doesn't mean that misleading reports should be presented to council, in the hopes that we'll think that things are going better than they are.

This has got to be one of the greatest frustrations to me in my work as a councillor.  I get many calls and questions from residents as to when they can expect this work to be done, and I'm unable to give them an answer that I have any confidence in.  Administration needs to do a better job, so that members of council can do a better job, so that residents can feel that they're getting decent value for their tax dollar.  Until that happens, my only choice is to keep asking the embarrassing questions, and hoping for better answers.

"Stopping at third base adds no more to the score than striking out.  It doesn't matter how well you start if you fail to finish." - Billy Sunday

Monday, July 4, 2016

Why Leaving Wapiti is the Right Thing for Prince Albert to Do

At the council meeting last week, I made the motion that the John M Cuelenaere Public Library (JMC) leave the Wapiti Regional Library, and become instead a city library, like Regina and Saskatoon.  The motion was supported unanimously.  While I'm not currently on the library board, I was chair of the board for many years and represented the city on the Wapiti board.  And I still enjoy good conversations with the current library director about how things could work better, and how being part of Wapiti was hampering many of the innovations that JMC would like to try.

Wapiti has been around for many, many years, and when first established was instrumental in bringing libraries and their multiple benefits to many smaller communities.  I appreciate the values that having a library brings to any community, big or small, and the regional structure allows the smaller branches access to services that they otherwise couldn't afford.  It has member branches from the Manitoba border to Leoville, north to Paddockwood, and south to Humboldt - a large geographic area to try to serve efficiently.

Wapiti provided centralized financial, computer and purchasing services.  However, the governance structure, in which each of the forty-six members was represented, definitely gave the bulk of the benefits to the smaller communities, while assessing taxpayers in those communities a far lower rate than taxpayers living in Prince Albert.

For those of us who enjoy the broad range of services at JMC, you would probably be surprised to find that the Candle Lake Paperback Deposit is a member of Wapiti, even though it is open only 3 afternoons a week in the Rec Hall.  The Gronlid Library, another member, is open two days a week, in the school.  The only library that comes close to providing the hours of service that we get at JMC is Humboldt, which is open six full days a week.  JMC, of course, is open seven days a week, except during the summer, when it closes on Sundays.

JMC has the internal capacity to provide the services that Wapiti provides, and will now have control over its financial reserves.  It will also now be able to pursue initiatives more important to city residents, such as considering more branches within the city, to improve services to all residents.  It is unlikely that leaving Wapiti will cost Prince Albert residents more; rather, local services will likely improve.

The issues of working within the Wapiti structure have been well-known to those on the library board for many years.  I think that the time is now right for JMC to be able to focus on the needs of Prince Albert, not get in line with forty-six other branches, while subsidizing their needs because those communities feel that they can't afford to pay comparable fees.

I don't dispute the value of a library to any community.  I do, however, think that our responsibility, as City Council, is to ensure that we make decisions in the best interests of our city, not for the many people who do not live here.

"A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.  It is a never-failing spring in the desert." - Andrew Carnegie

Sunday, June 26, 2016

So You're Thinking About Running for Council

As happens during an election year, people have been declaring their intentions to run for office over the past several months.  We have three people who have declared that they're running for mayor, and another who has rented space on Central Avenue but has yet to formally declare, and several people, both new and incumbent, who have announced their interest in becoming a councillor.

I'm still thinking about it - it's not a decision that I make lightly, and I consider all of the factors before I declare my intentions.

If you are thinking about adding your name to the list of candidates, here are a few things that you should know.

First, the time required to do a good job is more than you think it will be.  The visible hours, those spent in Council and Executive Committee meetings, are the barest tip of the iceberg.  Just reading through the information provided for each meeting takes several hours, more if you need to make notes for questions.  And that doesn't include the time spent for committee meetings, not all of which are in town, which requires additional travel time.

That's just the meeting requirements.  When you're on council, people can and do approach you anywhere, anytime.  I can't go for coffee or to the grocery store without having someone stop me to talk about some city issue.  I don't mind at all, but if you don't like talking to people who may or may not agree with your viewpoint, then this isn't the job for you.  Most times people are pleasant, but there's the occasional jerk who thinks that they have the right to verbally abuse you for a stance that you've taken - you just can't let that kind of person get to you.

If you're married, you'd better be sure that your spouse is on-side.  They're the ones who end up taking phone messages if you're not home, and often have to listen to the whole story behind the question before getting a name and number.  And you won't be around for as many meals as before - both Council and Executive meetings run over the supper hour, and one is often asked to appear at dinner functions for other organizations - more family time that you can never get back.  And you'll have to have some kind of work space in your home - only the mayor gets his own office.  Councillors have to make do on their own, although you do get one drawer in a filing cabinet in the Councillors' Lounge.

That's just an outline of the time required.  The truly hard part is the decision-making.  No matter how you vote, there will be people who disagree with you.  The surest way to do a bad job is to try to make everybody happy - it can't be done, so don't even try.  The only way to do the job right is to make up your own mind according to the best information available, and vote accordingly.

And be aware of the limitations to what you can do.  I'm always surprised at the things people say that they want to make happen at the council level - so far with those running we've had people suggest everything from revitalizing the forest industry to bringing in Costco to increasing some sort of unspecified economic development to the ever-popular building a second bridge.  Unfortunately, all of those suggestions are outside Council's capabilities.  Businesses and industry make their decisions based on far more factors than a welcoming Council, and a second bridge requires the active financial participation of other levels of government - past petitioning efforts have gotten us nowhere.

But there's lots that Council does control, even though most of it isn't very glamorous.  But it's important - Council is responsible for getting your garbage picked up and disposed of, for getting your street ploughed in the winter and swept in the spring, for getting water going into your house and taken away, for getting potholes repaired and water pipes replaced, for getting your back alley graded and that derelict house down the street demolished.  Most of these things are set during the budget process - that's when we set priorities and spending plans for the coming year, and that's when hard decisions have to be made, because nobody wants to see their taxes go up, but everybody wants better and faster services.  And as a councillor, you often have to help constituents find their way through the bureaucratic maze that is city administration, in order to get their questions answered or to raise an issue.

So what sort of qualities should an aspiring councillor have?  The capacity for hard work, a thick skin for the inevitable insults from those who are sure they know the job better than you do, the patience to listen to other members of council, and the ability to look at all sides of an issue before making a decision.  If you've had experience working with others on committees with a limited amount of money, that experience will serve you well.  You should be able to base your decisions on what is best for the city as a whole, not just for you and your particular interest.

You should also, and probably most importantly, be able to speak up and ask questions.  Too many foolish decisions have been made by this current and previous councils because people were afraid to speak up, were afraid to ask (and were discouraged from asking) important questions, and were afraid of looking negative by saying no.  We have bound ourselves, and our citizens, into commitments to support various facilities without first considering whether such facilities were affordable.  If only a few more councillors had spoken up about spending decisions both big and small, we would not have the backlog of infrastructure maintenance and repairs that we've had to impose a flat tax to pay for, to mention just one area of essential spending.

Think that you've got what it takes?  One more suggestion - come to a Council meeting, just to see how it works.  Then think about whether you're willing to commit to four years of one of those meetings every two weeks, plus Executive meetings every other week.  If you think about it, and are still willing to give it a shot, good luck to you.  This city needs all the hard-working, sensible thinking people that it can get to ensure that the best decisions are made.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Martin Luther King Jr.