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

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