Sunday, February 19, 2017

Leadership and Integrity on Council - Maybe Not So Much

The council meeting this week featured a bit of a bombshell - the revelation that one councillor actually owes the city more than $176,000 in back taxes for his business, and council voted to then take back the property.

It should make every tax paying resident of this city angry.  In effect, the councillor, elected to represent residents, seems to expect that the other tax payers will subsidize his business, because for several years (not the two years that the city financial manager implied was the situation in a newspaper interview) the business has continued to receive city services without paying the legally mandated amount of taxes.  This is, in essence, breaking a city bylaw.

That the individual is now on council is an added insult.  I don't know about  you, but I expect that the people who want to represent citizens on council will set a good example, and that means following the rules.  Trying to rationalize such behaviour by claiming that employees pay taxes so that makes up for it is ridiculous - every other business in town that has employees could use the same pathetic excuse, and we'd be in worse financial shape than we are now.  And for someone who claims that revitalizing the downtown is paramount, the fact that the Business Improvement District is funded directly through the taxes paid by the businesses involved is an important note and a further insult.  No taxes paid means that the BID was shorted too.

One would think that someone with integrity would have come clean about this before the election, if only to demonstrate openness and transparency - you know, those things that council keeps talking about as if they were important guiding principles.  It wasn't a secret to those of us on council - those who owe back taxes are listed every year.  However, it's brought forward as an in camera item, and thus members of council are bound by our oath of office, as matters discussed in camera are not to be made public.  That's not to say that an enterprising news outlet, say, couldn't have done a Freedom of Information request before the election, but they were perhaps too busy digging up dirt on other candidates to make the effort.  Or perhaps other factors came into play.

As usual, things like this bring up more questions.  Are there other large tax bills outstanding?  What is the city's practice in dealing with deadbeats like this?  Is it standard, as it should be, or do we make allowances for some businesses or individuals and not for others?  Are we tougher on residents than we are on businesses?  Our dealings with everyone, resident or business, should be the same.  And why are these matters kept confidential through in camera meetings?  I suppose that once legal action has commenced, it does fall under allowable reasons for in camera, but a published listing of those who owe taxes would probably embarrass some into paying before legal action was necessary.

I feel very strongly that not following city rules should make individuals ineligible for public office.  After all, these are the people making the rules, and it's a legitimate question to wonder how, for example, they should be allowed to set tax rates if they have no plans for payment.

And I feel badly for those individuals who voted for this person.  If I were one of those, I would feel betrayed - by the lack of openness, by the lack of respect, by the lack of leadership and integrity.  I can only hope that the city starts to work at improving the tax collection processes to prevent situations getting to this level.  After all, those people who don't pay their taxes mean that those of us who do, pay more to make up the difference.  And that should make everybody sit up, take notice, and demand change.

"You can either be a good example or a horrible warning." - Catherine Aird

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Another Group Home Proposal; The Same Old Excuses

I see that another group home proposal has come forward to council for approval - this time in Ward 5.  As usual, the same old trumped up excuses are being raised as a smokescreen for keeping people "not like us" out of the neighbourhood.  I say trumped up, because none of the excuses being put forward has the benefit of being based on fact, but only on emotion, and that emotion is fear.

This proposal is for a home for children.  A maximum of five, between the ages of 9 and 12.  So, of course, one of the reasons being put forward is concerns about parking, even though the proposed location has sufficient parking for staff, and I'm pretty sure that children that age aren't driving, let alone owning their own vehicles.  Another is the eternal concern over property values, even though there is no evidence that having a group home in a neighbourhood has any effect.

People seem to forget that, if it were an ordinary sale of a house to a private individual, neighbours have no control over these things anyway.  Your neighbours may be loud, have parties, keep more vehicles than you would, or play music into the night that is not too your liking.  Good luck at stopping them from moving in.

But to me the really sad part about this is that every single member of council elected in the last election spouted concerns about reducing crime in the city.  And we have several years of advice, and are trying to move forward with our dealing with rising crime rates through initiatives such as the Hub and Core, where we know that helping children on the right path is the long-term solution.  Here is an opportunity to do just that, but that doesn't seem to come up in the discussions.

This home would offer children in unstable situations some stability - the ability to continue to go to school, be fed, and have a safe place to sleep.  For most of us, we take those advantages for granted; for a sad proportion of the citizens of Prince Albert, it isn't the case.  And people would rather hide behind their fears of what may or may not happen, than do the right thing.

Ironically, this is something that council could show some leadership on, because it is actually within their control, unlike fake goals like safe injection sites, which are outside council control.  I hate to break it to members of council, but your job is to do what will make the city better, not just worry about getting re-elected in four years.  And leadership is doing the right thing, not just parroting what your more vocal and fearful constituents tell you to say.  As Andrea said this week, if the NDP had put their concerns about re-election ahead of doing the right thing back in 1960, we wouldn't have medicare.  They lost the next election, but set the example for the rest of Canada that we now take for granted and brag about.  That was leadership.

I attended the rally at City Hall on Thursday evening, to demonstrate my support for diversity within our community after the shocking killings in Quebec City last week.  Another irony - at the same time as residents were showing their support for Muslims, a closed door meeting was being held with residents of Ward 5,  including city staff, presumably so that residents could air their concerns about diversity anonymously, too cowardly to demonstrate publicly the courage of their convictions.  So much for transparency in discussions, yet another council commitment conveniently forgotten.

Residents have promised to pack the next council meeting, a proven method for intimidating council into doing what a few dozen shouting individuals want.  I hope to be pleasantly surprised by council standing up for themselves, but don't expect more than one or two to resist.  Much easier to go along with the crowd.

As long as our leadership says one thing, but does another, don't expect this city to move forward.  And mourn yet another lost opportunity to make life better for children who already have enough issues to deal with.

"Never, never be afraid to do what is right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal  is at stake.  Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way."  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Ward 3 Community Meeting - Deja Vu All Over Again

I went to the Ward 3 community meeting a week and a bit ago - sadly, it was pretty much as I expected.  A repetition of the issues raised at the previous two meetings, generic reports from city staff that didn't relate directly to comments or suggestions made by residents at those meetings, and no reports of actual actions taken or budgetary commitments to action.

By my count, 14 highly paid city staff were there, with about twice as many ward residents.  The meeting itself showed poor planning - it was at Riverside School, but the gym wasn't available, so we were crammed into the library, which isn't meant for large meetings, and the various displays were put up in the hallways, which meant awkward transfers of people from the library to the hall and back again, and of course, there wasn't room in the hallway for people to have a clear look at the displays and ask questions.

I've been to all three meetings, and some of the audience was new, while others had been to one or both of the previous meetings.  In talking to some of those who had been at previous meetings, they were disappointed that it was just the same old message being delivered again, and nothing seemed to be focused on the particular issues of the ward.  One would hope that at some point, city staff would move away from solutions proposed in books to adapting those solutions to something that will actually work in the particular conditions found in the ward.  And then put those solutions into the city budget, so that action could actually take place.

It was also disappointing to hear a resident raise an issue,and then have staff dismiss the proposed solution.  This resident commented about how it's difficult walking her dogs in the winter, because the lack of sidewalks, particularly along the avenues, means that she has to walk in the road, which is definitely dangerous.  The response from city staff - sidewalks are expensive.  Yes, they are.  But I would hope that residential safety would warrant spending money both to improve safely and make the area more attractive to residential traffic, which has been proven to also reduce crime, another ongoing concern.  Unfortunately, the current council would rather allocate a half million dollars of tax money to pave the Art Hauser parking lot, or figure out how to get 2 million dollars to irrigate the golf course with potable water.  Where they actually take action shows what their real priorities are.

I wish that council, rather than always expecting taxpayers to pick up the tab, would look more at directing a portion of user fees for those expenditures that benefit only a few.  For example, a surcharge of fifty cents on each ticket sold for events at the Art Hauser Centre could be put into a fund to pay for parking lot upgrades.  Similarly, golfers should already be paying for water (it's provided by the city free of charge, unlike the drinking water that comes into your home), and irrigation improvements should be part of the fees collected from golfers, the actual beneficiaries.

I also wish that I could figure out a better way of getting input from the public rather than these wasteful, of both time and money, public meetings.  I know that some members of the public have good ideas, but it's only discouraging to those who take the time to come to these meetings to have their issues agreed with, but then no action taken.

In fact, it was almost funny to hear the city planner talk about how parks are really important, to residents of a ward that has no city parks.  Not one.  I'm not sure if the city planner knows that, because he certainly didn't follow up with any plans to rectify the situation.  That's the problem with planning.  Unless it's followed up with action, it's just so much talk.  We've heard the talk, three times now.  It's more than time for some action, not just confirming the issues.

"Words may show a man's wit, but actions his meaning." - Ben Franklin

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Code of Ethics - Will It Make a Difference?

The province is requiring that the city adopt a code of ethics.  As with most initiatives, this was brought on by a problem, this time in a municipality where the province had to get involved to remove someone who was acting unethically, in conflict of interest.  They believe, or hope, that making each community have a code of ethics to guide its elected officials will prevent such problems in the future, even though most councils in the province already had councillors taking an oath that they would excuse themselves from discussions in which they had a pecuniary interest..

Just having a code of ethics won't solve all the problems.  Unless there are clear lines of responsibility for enforcing the code, what will happen if someone breaks the code?  It might end up like the current situation for enforcing election rules.  For example, if someone submits their nomination papers with ineligible signatures, the City Clerk doesn't take any action.  It has to go to court, which costs money for the individual bringing the complaint.  And that's when the rules are black and white.  Ethics tend to be more subjective - treating other members of council with respect is something that might be difficult to judge (and making a complaint about it would likely be a waste of everybody's time).

If a decision is made by council that something was unethical, there are more problems.  If all it takes is a majority of council members to decide what behaviours cross that ethical line, previous councils have shown that most council members will drift to the majority vote, if only to avoid the wrath of the mayor.  And what actions might be taken?  In my third term on council, most of the members of council thought that I should resign, and seemed to expect that the wish of the majority should force me to do so.  They were quite surprised when I told them that only a judge could remove a member of council from office, and they never had the courage of their conviction to take that step, knowing that they were on shaky ground.  The penalties for someone found in fault of the code of ethics will have to be understood and fall within the legal limits, otherwise the potential for a majority of council members to gang up on someone who is simply raising a concern that others want to sweep under the rug is too great.

One example of this is the tendency of council to try to hide things that should be public by moving topics in camera, so that not only can the public not see the discussion, but council members aren't supposed to divulge what was discussed.  The Cities Act is quite clear about this, but quite often the majority of council is more than willing to move things that might prove embarrassing into private discussions - not a good reason in my opinion, nor a reason that is in the Cities Act.  If someone raises this as being unethical, whether a member of council or a member of the public, what action will be possible if the majority of council decides that it is ethical.  As I've said, most members of council aren't at all familiar with the Cities Act, and show no tendencies to become more knowledgeable.

And there are bigger issues out there that should be covered by changes to the Cities Act, not just in a code of conduct that can be changed by council.  For example, right now the limitations to who can be on council are pretty basic - you have to be a Canadian citizen, and a resident of the community which you wish to represent for a certain period of time.  I think that more serious concerns should be addressed - for example, if you owe the city money, whether it be for taxes or parking tickets, you should be ineligible to run for office (and the City Clerk should be able to reject your nomination papers).  To me that's a basic ethical question - if you can't follow the city rules, what right have you to be in a position to establish those rules.

Sadly, I'm quite sure that council will adopt a code of ethics, and applaud themselves for doing so.  I'm equally sure that it will focus on things like treating each other with respect, and following all applicable legislation.  And just like the current rules, council members will find a way around the rules to get to do what they want.

The basic truth is that people who need a code of ethics to tell them the difference between right and wrong, are not the kind of people who should be in positions of authority.  Unfortunately, the democratic system hasn't yet figured out a way of keeping them out.

"Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is right to do." - Potter Stewart

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Community Meetings - Are They Accomplishing Anything?

The city has now started its third round of community meetings, with the first being held in Ward 1 this past week.  Although the article in the paper didn't mention it, it attracted a crowd of fifteen.  And once again, the meeting was filled with people voicing complaints, with no realistic solutions being proposed.  I would have hoped that by this point, the city planners who are running the show would have developed some proposed strategies to address some of the problems - strategies that would take into account the unique features of the area in question, and recognize the realities of restricted budgets.

I know that it's difficult to get people to move beyond discussing problems to discussing solutions - that's why the city planners should be facilitating the group to find solutions, not just take notes about complaints  yet again on how people want to feel safe in their neighbourhoods, and have better access to recreational facilities.  These meetings have a cost to the city, and therefore to the taxpayer, and one would hope that in the time between meetings the focus is on how to move to the next phase.  I know that the previous two meetings that I attended in Ward 3, the meeting content was pretty much identical between the two, and nothing that couldn't have been predicted.  It's a shame that city administrators keep holding these meetings, and get people's hopes up that some action will be forthcoming, but then fail to move forward.

I also think that not providing information about what is already available in each ward has been an oversight.  It would help to illustrate that some wards are sorely lacking in some of the amenities (like parks) and facilities.  One of the issues that I continually tried to raise in my time on council was the need to bring parity between wards, rather that providing additional facilities in areas that already have several.  It's no secret that Ward 3 is woefully lacking in green space, and even the public tennis court, at Midtown Hall, has been allowed to disintegrate to the point where it is unusable.

I also wonder if any effort has been made to invite people representing different organizations, rather than just opening the doors, posting a notice on Facebook, and hoping that people show up.  What happens in the current situation is that people with a particular axe to grind show up, but people who might represent organizations that could help don't show up.  When Andrea was involved in land use planning for the province, she found that people who were specifically invited to represent their organization would show up, and often have valuable advice to offer from their perspective.

Finally, the city planner said that he wants to put together a committee made up of twelve representatives from each ward.  That would be a group of close to one hundred - not really feasible for developing solutions.  It's the kind of suggestion that only a little thinking about exposes its inherent unworkability.  The idea that the more people you crowd into a committee means that more viewpoints can  be heard is understandable, but would make for meetings at which you have a choice - either only a few people can speak, or everyone can, making meetings interminable, and very quickly, people will stop coming.  Another concern is where the money to fund this gigantic committee is going to come from.  These ideas should be thought through before being said publicly.

Personally, I think that planning for the sake of planning is a good way of avoiding taking any action.  It's a good way of looking like you are doing something, without actually doing anything constructive.  It's like being on a firing range, and going ready, aim, aim, aim, aim - forgetting that your actual objective is to fire, to find out how good your aim actually is.  Like many city residents, I would much rather see action than another committee set up to complain about problems that have been known about for years.

"A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow." - George Patton

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Proposed Budget

City Council spent two full days reviewing the budget proposed by administration a couple of weeks ago.  As always, there was a massive amount of information to go through, hopefully line by line, and it's probably the toughest job of being on council, if done properly.

There are three things in the proposed budget that I find particularly objectionable.  The first is the $4,000 that has been proposed that the mayor can hand out to people that he feels deserving.  Why is this troubling?  Because it puts control in the hands of one person, without any policy guiding it.  Because it could be perceived as the chance for one member of council to buy favours, not a good thing, since we're supposed to follow policy and make decisions as a team.  And it's troubling to me that only three councillors recognized the potential problems, instead hiding behind excuses like "we have to be compassionate".

I would be in favour of having a policy developed on when and how such discretionary funds should be dispensed.  One example that was raised was someone who got a ticket for parking at Sask Polytechnic while donating blood.  It ignores the many more people who did pay for parking, but if council thinks that parking for such worthy causes should be free, then a policy could be developed to hand out free parking passes at blood donor clinics.  That would be fair, and easy to implement.  In fact, there might be many such reasons for which parking could be made available - I know that Andrea used to get passes for people attending meetings in city facilities, such as the library.  And keeping individual decisions out of the hands of members of council would remove any implications of favouritism.

The second area of concern is the idea of using reserves to pay for current operating expenses - the increase in the police budget.  Reserves are set up for specific reasons, and using them in this way has two unfortunate results.  First, it takes away money from purposes that have been identified - for building maintenance, for example, which we're already behind on.  Second, next year that reserve won't be there.  Taxes will have to be raised both to meet the current increase and the inevitable one that will be requested, and likely approved, next year.  Best to be realistic and practical about what actual costs are, and raise taxes accordingly.  I know that nobody likes to pay more taxes, but delaying the pain only makes things worse in the future, and will make dealing with emergencies more difficult in the present.  It's interesting that Saskatoon actually has a bylaw that prohibits using reserves for current operating expenses - something that Prince Albert should consider, to prevent this kind of potential abuse.

The third area is the proposed increase from the province for police services, that will be used for traffic patrols outside of town.  I would much rather direct extra dollars to where people have indicated the need is - more action on activities within town, such as increasing patrols and actions in residential areas.  That one might be more difficult, since it's coming from the province with strings attached, but I think someone on council should have raised the point.

The budget has not yet been passed, and will have to wait until January for a full quorum of council to be present.  Some may think that because the budget committee votes on the budget that it's a done deal, but that isn't so.  What can happen at the council meeting where the actual vote will happen is that council removes questionable expenditures from the budget at that time.  Council needs to remember that their job is to lead, not follow whatever administration thinks should be done.  I know that if I were there, I wouldn't support all the aspects of the budget, and would have asked more questions.

So if you have concerns, call your councillor and raise them.  That's the opportunity for every citizen, and a good chance to find out what your councillor really thinks.

"The trouble with a budget is that it's hard to fill up one hole without digging another." - Dan Bennett

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Findings from the Recount Process

I spent most of last Wednesday at the Court of Queen's Bench, participating in the recount process.  I had asked for the recount for a couple of reasons.  One was that the number of ballots considered as uncounted was greater than the difference in votes for Ward Three councillor; the other was the various concerns that I raised in my last posting that I wanted to be sure the City Clerk was aware of, and hopefully takes action on before the next election.  What I wasn't expecting was to find even more issues that should be taken care of.

The result wasn't the happy ending that I was hoping for, although the margin is now smaller, but I did think that it was a useful exercise in underlining the gaps in the process.  And people should be aware - the problems identified in the recount for Ward Three are probably similar all across the city.

Most of the ballots that were considered uncounted were unreadable by the electronic system.  What we found was that these ballots had been marked, but in the old-fashioned way, by people putting an X next to their preferred candidate.  Voting rules are that if the indication is clear, the vote must be counted, even if it wasn't marked as instructed.  Part of the problem is that people weren't instructed on the new, fill-in-the- blank oval system; part of the problem is that not everybody has the same literacy level so may not have been able to read the new instructions; and part of the problem is likely that someone who has been voting for many elections and wasn't informed of the new system would likely just continue doing it as they've always been doing.  In any case, far more detailed instructions for how to mark the ballot are essential, or else ballots should be counted by hand.  I didn't find the electronic system that much faster than hand counting on election night, so I'm not sure how much time was saved.

The judge overseeing the recount pointed out a number of security issues.  The number of ballots that came from the printer wasn't confirmed, unmarked ballots were left unsecured in boxes, the number of ballots sent to each poll wasn't confirmed, and possibly most worrisome, the deputy returning officer had pre-initialed a large number of ballots, essentially authorizing the validity of a vote on an unmarked ballot.  When asked why, the response was that it was done to save time.  One would hope that after the Mike Duffy trial pointed out the folly of authorizing something before it's actually done would have warned against this, but apparently not.  Saving time for workers should not be our main goal.  Our goal should be to have the vote count as accurate as possible, and to ensure that the process was fair for everyone - the voter as well as the candidates.  While I'm not suggesting that any wrong-doing took place, each of these errors is an opportunity for ballots to be marked after the process, and that isn't acceptable.

The result of the election is still the same, so why does this matter?  Well, I think that if someone takes the effort to go out and vote, their vote should be counted - it's that simple.  I also think that the new system works against the less fortunate in our city - those who already have fewer advantages than those who grew up writing exams electronically (like my kids).  It also works against seniors, another group in our city that deserves to have their voice heard.  We need to do everything possible to ensure that the voting playing field is level.

Having a transparent, fair voting system is the basis of democracy.  I've done what I can to raise the issues - let's just hope that the loopholes are tightened before the next election.

"It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting." - Tom Stoppard