Sunday, June 18, 2017

Is It an Advantage to be a Business Person on Council?

One of the mass generalizations that is often made is that council needs more business people.  As with most generalizations, it isn't true.  In fact, during a conversation over coffee with my invaluable media consultant, her opinion was that the way a business operates is different from how a government operates, and that what is needed is either more people with government experience, or more people who understand that the rules for each are different, and when on council, one should operate by the appropriate set of rules.

One of the differences is that people who are used to how businesses run is that they're used to making decisions on their own, not as part of a group.  This isn't how council operates - most decisions are supposed to be made by council as a whole, not by one individual.  And there is no place for backroom deals on council; every decision should be transparent.

That's because council is responsible for its decisions to city residents, not to shareholders of a business.  Plus there is legislation that is supposed to be followed - that can be difficult when most members of council don't bother to familiarize themselves with the Cities Act, but that should be part of the learning process.

There's also a tendency of some of these individuals to hog the credit - to not inform all members of council about public events, for example, so that they can be the only one there for the photo op, or to talk about how they alone have solved problems.  This doesn't make for good team dynamics, to say the least.

I'm not saying that business people shouldn't be on council - they bring a valuable perspective that comes only with experience in having to cover expenses through revenues, one that those who think that just raising taxes is okay don't have. (I'm thinking of administration, most of whom have spent their entire careers in government.)  So raising concerns about efficiency and economy is something that should be valued and encouraged during council discussions.

My personal opinion is that it isn't the previous (or current) profession that matters for council members; it's more to do with their basic character.  I would much rather work as a member of council with people who are willing to work hard, speak up, do the research, and behave with integrity.  For instance, someone who has made questionable financial decisions, such as not paying their taxes, then fighting the city in court over the result of that decision, should probably not be allowed to vote on new tax rates - to me it's coming perilously close to conflict of interest, and they should, at the very least, remove themselves from the discussion and the vote.

I think that's what most people expect from council members - that they follow the rules and act in the best interests of the city as a whole.  After all, members of council are supposed to set a good example, not be a horrible warning.

"To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity." - Douglas Adams

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hey, Council, Remember the Alcohol Strategy?

A few years back, a committee to look at how to better manage alcohol use and the resultant problems in Prince Albert was established to develop an alcohol strategy.  It's no question that this city has an alcohol problem - most of the police calls are alcohol -related, and various initiatives, such as the detox centre, have been started to try to address the problem.  And yet the problem continues - last week, at a little past noon, Andrea and I drove by a drinking party going on in the City Hall parking lot.

So I was a little surprised to hear that a rookie councillor, supported by two other rookies, was advocating that the city increase the opportunities to have alcohol at city facilities.  I'm not sure which facilities they were talking about, as alcohol is already served at the Art Hauser Centre (profits go to the Raiders) and the Golf and Curling Club (which also keeps the profits), or what the motivation would be.  And I think that they may have forgotten that part of council's job is to set the big-picture direction for the city.

The tendency is to assume that people like us don't have a problem with  alcohol - it's those other people.  But we all know that isn't the case - alcohol abuse affects everyone, in all social classes.  I'm fond of a glass of wine with dinner or having a beer on the deck, but I also have (and have had) family members with alcohol addiction problems, and I know that the answers aren't easy.

But you can't say that it's difficult to find alcohol in the city, so the city should make it easier for people to get a drink at activities going on in city facilities.  As I mentioned earlier, in some cases they already can, and I don't see any pressing need to increase those opportunities.

And it's rather ironic that this idea should come out just when SGI has released its new public service announcement about the effect of drunk driving on real families in Saskatchewan.  I was surprised to find that I knew one of the victims, and the family of one of the others.  I can only imagine the pain of losing a family member in that way, and I commend the families involved for being so public spirited as to agree to sharing these memories.  It's a harsh reminder that Saskatchewan as a whole has a problem with drinking and driving, and part of our leaders' responsibility is to stand up against the problem, not pretend that it doesn't exist, for whatever reason.

"I've never seen anyone drink themselves smart, successful or happy.  Most end up broke, bitter and alone." - Anonymous

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Hidden Costs of That Low Tax Increase

The mayor felt it important to point out to Prince Albert in a press release this week that the city set the lowest tax rate increase, 1.5%, in the province.  In doing so, he didn't count the whole cost, and he gave the impression that this was part of a plan of council.

To be clear, the tax rate increase was his election promise, not one that was developed by council before the election.  In my opinion, focusing on what the tax rate is should be the last step in budgeting, not a target to be met.  I'm sure that the public would be happiest with a 0% increase, but that is living in a fool's paradise.  Costs rarely go down, and trying to set a tax rate based upon what you think the public wants to hear, rather than on the work that needs to be done, is extreme short-term thinking.  And of course, with a mostly rookie council in place, two of whom didn't think that it was  important to be at the budget vote meeting, it passed with barely any discussion of what this would mean for the future.

What wasn't mentioned is how council is keeping the rate so low, despite rising costs and no efforts to trim spending in non-essential areas.  To start with, a goodly chunk of operating costs is being covered by dipping into reserves - reserves which are not meant to be spent on operating costs, but to be kept for emergency situations or large capital expenditures in the future.  And this decision was made before the provincial budget hits.  We're already having to go to the reserves to cover the $2.8 million owed to Domtar (that would be a legitimate use of reserves); now they're being used to cover shortfalls in revenue caused by poor budget decisions before the provincial budget, and then the province cutting back on the long-standing grant to municipalities that was meant to cover taxes that would be charged if they weren't a government.  Using reserves, of course, is following the premier's advice on how to deal with the problem - and we've seen his attitude, and the resulting mess, towards reserves.

So we have the money in reserves - what's wrong with using it this way, rather than increasing taxes?  Well, it's like draining your RRSP to pay your credit card bill.  At some point, you're going to need that RRSP money, and it won't be there - it will be in the big screen TV that you didn't really need (like paving the Art Hauser parking lot), but seemed really important at the time.  It's like our finances are being planned by a teenager who forgets that the costs of the car that he really, really wants need to include ongoing maintenance and fuel costs.  So watch out for larger than usual increases in subsequent budgets - once the reserves are empty, it's back to the taxpayer.

And the press release also doesn't include the fact that part of what should be covered in the tax increase is actually included in your utility bill, which rises at a rate of about 10% each year.  This helps to hide operating cost increases for things like garbage pick up in what you probably think is your water bill.  That helps to explain why any efforts to decrease water usage don't result in a comparable decrease to your water bill - there's other things stuck in there, plus the ongoing increase, that help to keep it going up and up.

So don't believe everything you read, especially if it's in a press release from the city.  That's not reporting; that's pushing a political agenda, and such things never tell the whole story, just the part the city wants you to hear.

"You can fool all of the people all of the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough." - Joseph Levine

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Some Thoughts on Safe Injection Sites

A few years ago, when I was still on council, I had the opportunity to attend a conference on HIV and AIDS.  The focus on the conference was identifying practical steps that could be taken to reduce IV drug use, going to the root causes and discussing which actions would have the greatest effect.

Interestingly, safe injection sites were not part of the discussion, because such sites are not aimed at reducing IV drug use, but on minimizing negative effects of such use, ensuring clean needles and safe doses.  They are not set up to put addicts on the straight and narrow, but to mitigate the potential of addicts dying from infection or overdose.

However, some members of council has now decided that they are experts in reducing drug use, and have voted narrowly in favour of investigating how to set up a safe injection site in Prince Albert, to be funded by other levels of government.  Of course, this is not actually doing anything, in an area that is totally out of the city's control.  It matches the futility of telling the province that we don't support the sale of Crown corporations - outside of our circles of control, or even influence.  And in these tough financial times, with deficit budgets everywhere, good luck in getting more than laughter in response to any requests for funding.

This likely comes as another attempt to put some distance from a poorly thought out Facebook post (that was quickly deleted) from before the election, in which the councillor bringing forward the motion said that he was all for a safe injection site "across the river at the garbage dump", and that "we need to stop enabling the addicts and pandering to their every need - the herd will eventually thin itself."  His about-face is interesting, and one has to wonder what caused this change in heart, although he obviously doesn't understand exactly what a safe injection site is. While it might reduce the number of needles in streets, back alleys and boulevards, which is annoying, those needles are only a symptom of a much deeper problem.

It's kind of like expecting that the much-vaunted rehab centre would reduce drunks on the street.  What it has done is give them someplace else to sleep rather than in police cells, which is a good thing, but six days isn't nearly long enough to cure a drinking problem.

So, what did I learn at the conference that council could actually take action on?  Not surprisingly, it's similar to other recommendations for reducing crime - improve housing, and crime rates (and drug use) go down.  Could council take steps to improve housing standards in rental units?  Yes.  Why don't they?  Because it's not a fast solution, nor is this kind of long-term project much for grabbing headlines.

And I may be a cynic, but the timing of this motion, after being kept in abeyance for a couple of months, makes one wonder if the attempt was one of misdirection to distract people from other headlines the councillor has been  making lately.  My experience is that people aren't that easily distracted - as always, focusing on doing your job should be where members of council's energy goes, not on trying to manage their headlines.

"Guilt leads to righteous action, but rarely is it the right action." - Abraham Verghese

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Downside of Being on Council

One of the difficulties of being on council is that people have higher expectations of your behaviour, so that actions that you take (or don't take) get more attention than when you were just a member of the public.  That seems to be unfair to some people, but it goes with the job.  You can't just enjoy the photo ops when they benefit you or your causes - news is what people are interested in, not what you think is important, (but please don't talk about the potentially embarrassing stuff).

Partly this is because the public is now paying your salary, and when they find out that you have not behaved in a way that meets their expectations, they are quite free to voice their opinions - they are your boss.  I have received more than a few phone calls from people since the tax arrears of the company for which one councillor is listed as an officer were made public- how could this have happened?  I explain that it's not against the rules, but my opinion (and this is shared by the callers), is that it should be.  If a company that you have interest in doesn't believe in paying their share of the costs of running the city, it raises all kinds of questions about how you can make decisions that are in the best interests of the city, on all matters.

People don't think that it is right for them to subsidize (for several years) the operations of a company.  I think that it must be even more frustrating for the other downtown businesses, as the Downtown Business Improvement District is funded directly through their taxes, and here's one company that has not been paying their share, but still participating as if they were.

And don't give me that stuff about how it's the company, not the individual.  The public knows that companies don't operate in a vacuum; they are set up to protect the private assets of an individual, but it's the individuals that still make the decisions of the company.  And when other decisions of the company come to light that provide even more information about how a company operates, like hoping to avoid paying bills by exceeding the statute of limitations, it provides further insight into the integrity of the company's officers.

Integrity, of course, is fundamental to building trust.  How you behave, both in public and in your private dealings, should be consistent.  It's like the adage that you shouldn't marry someone who doesn't treat waitresses well - that's an insight into their true character that is invaluable.

It's unfortunate that this information wasn't made public before the election.  I've mentioned before that members of council were bound by their oath of confidentiality for matters that have been discussed in camera, but there was nothing stopping the news media from checking on tax arrears.  Perhaps if they hadn't been so focused on digging up dirt on one mayoral candidate, they would have found what has turned out to be something that actually affects taxpayers.  But again, I don't make those decisions.

Having this kind of negative attention may not be pleasant, but it goes with the job.  If you don't like it, pay what you owe, apologize, and remember that once you are a public figure, in this age of Google, you can't expect to be able to hide any embarrassing secrets.

"Characterize people by their actions, and you will never be fooled by their words." - Anonymous

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Councillors, Please Just Do Your Jobs (after finding out what that includes)

Part of the problem of having a council made up of mostly rookies is that they appear to come with not much awareness of what their job is supposed to be.  I've mentioned before that it does not include raising issues which are outside council's mandate - council should not be a place to advocate on whatever people complain about, but on whatever is within council's control.  Many on council seem to think that council meetings are an opportunity to beat their own personal drums, not recognizing that they're wasting valuable time, and thus money, on useless discussions.

The other disturbing tendency is for council to decide that the mayor can make decisions, even if policy says otherwise.  This is disappointing, and I'm sure that most councillors don't realize that if you do this often enough, people might start to wonder why you're getting paid, if you decide that the mayor's decision is good enough, so that you don't have to bother.  I'm sure that they also think that, in the case of potentially controversial issues, they can then absolve themselves of responsibility - hey, we left it up to the mayor, so get mad at him.  I hate to tell them this, but most people are smarter than to be fooled by that line.

Council does have some difficult issues before them right now - while the grant reduction imposed by the provincial budget has been partially reduced, it will still have a major impact on how much money the city has to spend.  The $2.8 million owed to Domtar isn't going away, and if paid for out of reserves as planned, will just deplete those reserves, which are already being used for ongoing operational needs rather than their original purpose.  Those reserves are not limitless. And the public awareness that big tax dollars are owed by a couple of downtown businesses, who apparently are only interested in finding excuses rather than paying what is owed (and has been owing for quite some time - just ask anyone who was on the last two councils) is going to lead to demands for council to take some kind of action, not just sit there looking surprised.  And yet there's been surprisingly little discussion about these decisions that definitely have the potential to affect the taxes that you pay, and the services that the city provides.

Council also needs to remember that they are supposed to direct administration, not just approve whatever is brought forward.  Too many times over the past few years council has given direction, only to be totally ignored.  And the worst part is, nobody is ever held to account as to why such things as monthly water billing (direction given more than four years ago now) have never happened.  Other utilities manage, why can our administration not figure out how to do this?  And why is nobody on council asking this?

I know that some rookie members of council are disappointed with the lack of glory that comes with the job, forgetting that respect has to be earned - it isn't automatic.  They don't remember that fewer than half of the residents of the city voted in the last election - for reasons that are beyond my knowing, civic politics just doesn't engage people the way it should.

Or maybe the way that most members of council behave , either during campaigns or afterwards, just leaves people wondering why get involved, when so few people seem to be truly interested in doing the job at hand, just in getting paid for putting on a suit and showing up every couple of weeks..

"Your self-image should not come from the job you do, but from how well you do your job." Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Campaign Spending - Just the First Step in Transparency

News this week is that the mayor is thinking about Prince Albert developing something to ensure that what candidates spend on their campaign be public.  It's not a new idea - I suggested that we develop campaign disclosure practices in my third term on council, and got very little support.  The mayor at the time said that Prince Albert was too small for such a thing, and most councillors didn't disagree.

The article on local media suggests that $600 used to be the standard for spending.  That is not true.  That will cover one delivery of one flyer on plain paper with no colour to one ward.  No signs, no advertising.  I'm not a big spender, and my campaign usually costs between $1,000 and $2,000.  That's for one delivery by Share of a plain paper flyer, signs, and maybe some advertising, but nothing fancy.  If you see a candidate with a glossy, full-colour flyer, more than one delivery, signs, and colour ads in the local media, they're spending far more than $2,000.  And that's just for councillors.  If you're running for mayor, you have to spend money to get your word out city wide, and that costs incrementally more.

And that's not including those who spend money hosting teas or barbecues, or delivering fruit baskets to seniors' residences - practices that veer dangerously close to vote-buying, which is, of course, against the rules.  But to enforce the rules, somebody has to go to court, which costs money.

Of course, big spending doesn't guarantee getting elected.  It provides name recognition, but not much else.   I'm often disappointed by the lack of actual information about candidates' plans, even in flyers, which is about the only place to provide decent background information, and so many candidates neglect this in favour of catchy slogans or meaningless fluff.

The other piece of the picture as far as campaign expenses go is who provides the funds?  For example, if a local car dealership provides loaner cars for a campaign, might there be some favouritism shown the next time a tender goes out for city vehicles?  The same would apply for any company that might be interested in doing work for the city - if they have helped to fund a member of council's campaign, and allowed to remain anonymous about it, such possible favouritism is not going to be known.  I would include in-kind contributions here - no actual money changes hands, but the product that comes out, say free advertising coverage, does have a value, and should be counted.

My personal opinion is that any donation valued at more than $100 should be part of disclosure, and that where the money is spent is also important.  And I'd go even further - I would make it illegal to spend money over a certain amount that provides direct products to some residents and not others - the aforementioned fruit baskets to seniors' residences being just one example.  A benefit that is offered to all - the relatively common offer of a drive to the polls, for example - I don't think would be considered under this.

It all comes back to making your actions match your words.  We heard a lot during the campaign and since about how council has to be transparent.  Talk is cheap; it will be interesting to see how far council takes this in meaningful action.

"A basic tenet of a healthy democracy is open dialogue." - Peter Fenn