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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Voting Process - Are There Loopholes That Should be Closed?

As you may have noticed, the recent election was run differently than previous elections, due to changes in provincial legislation.  As with all new processes, these changes led to some confusion in the process, and may have left openings for voter fraud that were not intentional, but should be tightened before the next election rolls around.

The most noticeable difference was that there was no voters' list.  In previous elections, you may recall, the polling clerk had a list of voters eligible to vote in whichever poll area they resided within. The list was usually made up from the previous election, and you could always get added to it either before the election or at the polling station, provided that you had adequate identification. When you voted, the clerk used a ruler and pencil to cross you off the list.  Very low tech, but effective.  At the last election, all voters were required to provide voter identification, which helped to prevent someone walking in a claiming to be someone else, and voting in their place.

This time, with no voters' list, you had to fill out a form identifying yourself and your address, and sign it in front of the poll clerk.  The form was then put into an envelope, and not looked at again. I know, because I asked. Another change - this time you could vote at one of several polls - not just at an advance poll or the poll in your neighbourhood, but there were also two super polls.  And with no master list where your name is crossed off once you've voted, that's where the opportunity for slipping through a loophole is.

For instance, you could fill out the form, and vote at the advance poll.  There were several opportunities to do that, and nothing stopping you from voting more than once.  On election day itself, you could vote at the polls in your ward, if there were more than one, then drop in at each super poll and vote again.

When a friend of mine pointed this out to an election official the response was disappointing, if predictable - was the suggestion being made that people would cheat in an election?  I'm sure that most people won't, just as I'm sure that most people won't steal my car.  But I still lock my car, because there are those people who will, given the opportunity.

And the solution is simple - have a master voters' list, and cross off someone's name as soon as they vote.

Another issue occurred with poll clerks telling people that they lived in a different ward.  I've had more than one person tell me that they told the clerk what ward they were in, pointed on the map, and the clerk then told them that they lived in a different ward, and sent them there.  In these cases, the clerk was wrong, the individual was right, but assumed that the clerk's training was better than their own knowledge.  Which it wasn't.

And finally, the ballot itself.  For the first time, it wasn't using a pencil to make an X, it was filling out an oval by the appropriate name.  What wasn't communicated to all voters was that you had to use the pen provided at the polling station, not the one in your pocket.  I almost used the pen in my pocket, then thought that perhaps I should use the one provided, and I know that some people will automatically use their own pen as a way of avoiding germs.  This has led to an unusually high number of ballots being recorded as blank - hard to believe that someone would go to the trouble of going to a poll and then not voting.

I don't believe that any of these potential loopholes were intentional, but I know that the first time trying new processes, in this case several new tweaks to the system, is bound to show weaknesses that should be fixed.  I only hope that our elected officials review the processes, and close off the loopholes, before the next election.

"I wish I could shut up, but I can't, so I won't." - Desmond Tutu

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

After 16 years, I'm no longer representing Ward 3 on City Council.  I'm disappointed, of course.  It's like being fired.  It's as though some residents of Ward 3 said "It's not like you've done a bad job, we're just wanting a change."  Perhaps some thought that I'm past my best before date.  That's the thing about democracy - voters get to decide, which is how it should be.  I know that every defeated candidate feels that they had something valuable to offer.  And every candidate deserves kudos for being willing to put themselves out there, because as soon as you do, you become a target.

There are those who say that being on council is a thankless job.  They're wrong.  I'm quite gratified with the phone calls, emails and conversations I've had with people since last Wednesday, and before, saying thank you for my years of work, and recognizing that I always did  my best to remain true to what I see as the fundamentals of the job - standing up for the people who live in Ward 3, and trying to get more of the benefits for residents of the ward that other city residents take for granted - for example, it took seven years to get recyling bins for Ward 3, even though they were paying for them, but it finally happened.

I did have several people comment on how frustrating it must have been to deal with administration at times.  Where there are many good people at City Hall, I could never get a good explanation as to why my inquiries went unanswered for weeks, months, and in some cases years, when other members of council got much quicker service.  I could not seem to get across the message that these inquiries came from tax-payers who were having trouble getting answers, and that not answering my questions on their behalf was disrespectful to the people who pay the salaries of every individual at city hall.

Are there things that I won't miss?  Of course.  The petty politics that have nothing to do with the job would astound people I'm sure.  You would not believe how some members of council worry about where they sit in meetings - at times it seemed like kindergarten.  I won't miss pancake breakfasts - I don't like pancakes, but so many good initiatives in the community use these breakfasts as a way of increasing visibility and raising money, and as a councillor, you're invited to them all.  I won't miss the anonymous comments on local news websites -  for me, if you can't be bothered to contact me directly about your concerns, your contributions are just so much hot air.

I never minded being the only vote for or against a proposal.  My first time standing alone on a vote was in my first few months.  A group home for parolees, legal under the guidelines at the time, became an issue when neighbours found out, when a resident was accidentally dropped off at the wrong place.  The home had been in existence for more than two years with no problems, providing a service desperately needed in this community, but a council chamber full of emotional people was enough to sway the votes of everyone else.  I didn't get it, but the bylaw was soon amended, and we still turn down group home zoning if it's in the "wrong" neighbourhood - the most recent being a  home for high-school students that was turned down on the imaginary but politically correct reason of concerns about parking.  Thinking back on that original vote, how much would having secure, supervised housing for parolees help with crime rates?  You have new and returning members of council who talk about being concerned about crime in the city - will they take action, or just keep on talking.

Also in my first term on council I voted against third reading on a bylaw that would increase water rates.  That earned me a public dressing down from the mayor at the time, accusing me of costing the city money and ignoring the fact that according to the Cities Act, any member of council is free to vote against third reading of a bylaw in the first meeting.  It wasn't the last time a mayor tried to intimidate me through public shaming - fortunately I'm fairly familiar with the Cities Act, as all members of council should be (but aren't).  Sadly, council still piles increases into water bills, promising to review the proposed increases before they come to pass, but not doing so when the time comes.

I do have some suggestions for the new council - don't be afraid to stand up if you think that something stinks.  I got tired of hearing from other members of council that we should all vote together on contentious things, because then no individuals could be blamed.  Or that we should all vote together because we're a team, or because that's what the mayor wants.  As far as I'm concerned, if you see a problem, you're obligated to the people who elected you, not to covering the butts of the other people around the table, or who work for the city.  In fact, if you'll look around the room, you'll realize that none of your colleagues voted for you - they voted for themselves.

Your council colleagues are not your friends.  You should have civil relationships, but that doesn't mean that you're friends.  I'm lucky - after 16 years on council, I've had three colleagues whom I consider as friends.  Where you will make new friends is by meeting constituents through council work - I've been lucky that way too.

Stand up for what you think is right, and be ready to explain yourself.  I started this blog as a way of doing that, and I've received innumerable comments about how knowing more of the background was really helpful.

Ask the hard questions.  Too often members of council suggest that having something discussed in public might be embarrassing to individuals.  I'm sorry, embarrassment isn't one of the reasons in the Cities Act for keeping things confidential.  Again, your responsibility is to the residents of the city as a whole, and you won't be doing your job if you just let things slide, even though it might make meetings more pleasant.

Accomplishments that I'm proud of - I raised the issue of lead water service connections, and some improvement has happened.  You might not remember, but at the time other members of council called me a fear-monger, and suggested that we should wait until it was proven that lead in water was a health hazard.  Yes, sadly, there's no requirement for the mayor or councillors to be well-informed.  As I mentioned earlier, I got recycling bins in place across the city, although I wasn't done - I was still fighting for all homes to have individual bins, and not have to rely on huge dumpsters in alleys.  I raised issues at budget time that often succeeded in having proposed expenditures brought into the public view - for example, most of council was fine with having the Borealis bail-out hidden in the budget.  We still ended up losing that fight, but at least it was in the open.  I succeeded in getting a tax exemption for the Recycle Store - something that helps to build more houses through Habitat for Humanity, focused on providing affordable housing for those in lower income brackets.  This is a cause that I've supported since before my time on council, because I know that it  makes a real difference to people without a lot of resources.

Some of the calls I've had since the election have been with people second-guessing what I could have done differently.  After one such call, Andrea asked me "Would you have changed anything you did?"  And I have to say that no, considering all the factors, I still would have done the same thing.  Perhaps it comes down to what Andrea has said consistently over the last sixteen years - I'm a good councillor, but not so good as a politician.  Which is how it should be.

I appreciate all the support I received during the election - having people call and ask for lawn signs, or spend a morning hammering them in, was quite heart-warming.  My invaluable media consultant provides advice that I could never afford to pay for.  I appreciate those who were available for conversations  - having that support, from people who are still supportive after the election, is another illustration of what true friendship is.

As always, the support from my family was and is unwavering.  Ingrid helped with my first campaign - she couldn't vote, but she helped fold flyers, which got her some civic marks in her history class.  Guthrie has been able to vote for me a few times, and told Andrea that the best thing that he's learned over the past sixteen years is the importance of standing up for what you think is right.  That makes me feel good.  And Andrea, whose continuous optimism and cheerfulness balances my more pessimistic outlook, is the reason why this blog comes out free of grammar and spelling errors.

Several people have asked that the blog continue, as they value the additional information and insight that it provides.  So when an issue catches my interest, I'll post something.  Even after 317 posts, I still have things to say.  And if it helps to bring issues to light, all the better.  Just as when I was a councillor, I'll do my best for the residents of Ward 3.  After all, I still live here.

"Truth is stranger than any fiction I've seen." - Hunter S. Thompson

Sunday, October 16, 2016

It's Voting Time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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