Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

That line from the old song seems to describe the way things are going for the city. In these uncertain financial times, when financial advisors are suggesting to people that the most prudent course of action is to reduce spending and pay off debt, council gave first two readings to a bylaw that will allow us to increase our debt load.

It’s like we’ve maxed out our credit cards, and instead of cutting up the cards and taking a look at where we could cut costs, we’re applying for another one.

If an individual did this, most people would think that they deserved a smack on the back of the head, accompanied by the direction to smarten up. But when council does it, it’s apparently okay, because, to quote some members of council, "we have to, in order to pay for all the things that we’ve planned for". What we need to be more mindful of, in all our decisions, is that it’s not our money that we’re spending – it’s the hard-earned money of the taxpayers, who deserve better than yearly tax increases that are higher than inflation.

I’m sure many taxpayers are shaking their heads, wondering why we didn’t consider the costs before we committed to all these expenditures. And maybe wondering why we don’t set priorities – essentials first, then the fun stuff. Metaphorically, we’ve maxed out on the plasma television and fancy cars, and now realized that we can’t afford to fix the plumbing, so we’d better borrow more money.

I realize that many of the spending decisions of the past two years that were certainly not for essential services can’t be undone. The new furniture and carpet, the banners, the paint for half-painted light standards - that's all done, and the money is gone. But it’s not too late to put the brakes on discretionary spending, both large and small, in an effort to minimize next year’s tax hike. Let’s not pin our hopes on the remote possibility of extra money from either the federal or provincial governments (who are both warning of the possibility of deficit budgets). Instead, let’s go over next year’s budget seriously, trimming wherever possible, cutting out those frills that individually seem small, but that together could really have an impact on the bottom line.

Here’s a couple of small expenditures that I could manage without. We don’t need to produce Christmas cards for members of council to send out. I was quite surprised to receive a package of twenty-five cards in my council bundle a few weeks back – lovely cards, with a picture of the riverbank in winter and inside, an inaccurate tale of the original Prince Albert, imprinted with the names of all the members of council and greetings from "Canada's Christmas City" - a total waste of money. I don’t send out cards as a councillor; like most people, we send Christmas cards as a family, and I don’t expect to be subsidized by the taxpayer to do so. I don't even recall the purchase of these cards being discussed by council. I’d also be willing to forgo the meals that we get at council meetings. Not too many workplaces feed their employees at no cost. There’s two – I’m sure with a bit of creative brainstorming, council and administration could come up with more.

That’s what sensible people do, when they have more expenditures than income – they look for ways to cut back on their spending. I think that it’s too easy for council to find the solution in increasing income – that means increasing taxes. It’s about time we as a council started behaving sensibly.

I see no indication that we all understand how serious the situation is. I’m quite sure that this bylaw will pass tomorrow, at a special meeting less than 48 hours after the regular council meeting. A bylaw requires three readings to pass in one meeting; in order to get those three meetings, unanimous consent is required. If it’s a routine matter, I have no problems with three readings in one night, but for something with the potential impact of this bylaw, I think that it’s only right to give the public the opportunity to comment on our decision before it’s made final. So I voted against three readings, as did Councillor Williams.

In the past, the third reading would have happened at the next council meeting. This council, though, likes to call special meetings to deal with things as quickly as possible. I’m not sure what the motivation for such speed is – I am concerned that in moving with such haste, we appear to be disrespectful to the people of Prince Albert, as we put them deeper and deeper into debt that will hang on far beyond this council's mandate, a debt they certainly didn’t vote for.

"Debt - an ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver." - Ambrose Bierce

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Some Thoughts on Waste Management

We finally have a blue bin in our back alley, after seven years of paying the extra charge on our water bill. While I wouldn't have been surprised if our block was the last in the city to get a blue bin, half-expecting that there would have been some sort of last spike ceremony, I know of at least two blocks in the city that are still without a blue bin - there could be more.

So it's a bit premature for the city to send out a press release a couple of weeks ago announcing that the program was now complete, and is working well. As long as there are homes without convenient access to a blue bin (and I'm sorry, but being able to haul your cardboard, paper and milk jugs to a bin behind Galaxy Cinema is not the same access as having a bin behind your house), the program isn't complete.

And it is not working as well as some might suggest. People still are putting garbage, not recyclable materials in the blue bins, and this is happening in more than one area of the city. If a load reaches the recycling facility and is found to have garbage in it, the entire load is rejected and taken to the landfill. In some locations, the problem is so pervasive that the drivers don't even bother taking the bins to the recycling facility - the blue bin is just dumped in with the rest of the garbage.

I don't think that we do anyone any favours by not being truthful about any situation. Our credibility as a council and a city administration depends on being honest about everything, not in trying to paint a picture rosier than it is.

The whole reason for recycling and waste management is to lessen the amount of garbage going into the landfill, to save space. Having a recycling program in place is a large part of that, and we have to find ways of making the program work.

Other provinces rely heavily on using blue boxes at each residence. Our relatives in Ontario all have such blue boxes, which come with rules, including different types of products being accepted in different weeks. If you put the wrong product in, the blue box is left, complete with contents, and a note about what didn't belong. Perhaps this higher level of personal accountability is what is needed.

We might think that we have loads of room to expand the landfill, and don't need to worry about diverting materials. We certainly aren't in the desperate situation that the City of Toronto is in, but we should be taking action now to ensure that we never are. I've written before about how Toronto is now charging all residents for garbage pick-up, with a choice of whether one pays for a small, medium or large bin. Next year, all grocery stores in Toronto will start charging five cents for each plastic bag used by a customer - not a play for more revenues by the grocery stores, but the result of a bylaw passed by the city to try to reduce the number of plastic bags which eventually end up in the garbage. Although all grocery stores have reusable alternatives - either bags or boxes - only about one in thirty customers brings a reusable bag or box with them. If people don't voluntarity start reducing waste, eventually such actions have to be legislated.

My time on the North Central Waste Management Corporation, seven of my eight years on council, has made me much more aware of the problem, and the difficulty in finding solutions. It's discouraging when people are thoughtless about the ramifications of misusing a recycling bin, and council isn't helping to solve the problem by denying that it exists.

Perhaps we should make the recycling program voluntary. If you and your family want to participate, sign up for a blue bin. Since you would be helping to divert material from the landfill, volunteers should then get a reduction in the sanitation surcharge. All the bins are numbered, so if it turned out that you only signed up to get the reduction, but were still dumping garbage in the blue bin, the bin and your reduction would be taken away. I'm sure some will say that this will just add extra administration costs, but right now the city is paying for someone to check loads as they come in, to identify where the problem loads are coming from - it's not clear what the follow-up to this checking will be, if any. And it isn't doing anything to solve the problem.

Until we acknowledge the problem, we aren't going to make any headway at resolving it. And sending out press releases suggesting that all is working well when we know that it isn't - well, that suggests more of an ostrich approach than a lets fix this mess attitude.

Me, I'm trying to do what I can. We compost, use cloth grocery bags, recycle (even when it wasn't convenient), use travel mugs. It all helps. If you have any ideas on how to make recycling in the city work better, give me a call.

"What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" - Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Committees - Just What Is Their Purpose?

It's the time of year when the committees for the following year are established. The Cities Act (Section 55) gives a city council the authority to establish council committees. Theoretically, these committees take questions and ideas from council and flesh them out, then come back with recommendations for council.

Traditionally, committees deal with a wide range of issues - Prince Albert has had committees or boards that deal with institutions that are funded in whole or in part by the city, such as the library, the golf course, the Art Hauser Centre, and the museum, to name a few. There are also committees to deal with various city responsibilities, such as the Board of Police Commissioners, Fire and Emergency Services, Waste Management, and District Planning. And there are also provincial or regional committees that require city representation, such as the provincial 911 Advisory Committee, the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association Board of Directors, and the Saskatchewan Airport Authority.

With this current council, we've had a committee explosion. There are forty-seven committees on the listing that I received in my last council package, including all of the committees above, plus such new and relatively narrow in scope committees as the Beautification Committee, the Spotlight on Seniors Fair Committee, and the Street Naming Advisory Committee. Other committees didn't make this list, because no-one has been appointed to them, or they haven't met. The total number of committees, boards and commissions for the city is sixty-six. That's a lot of committees. Not all of these have members of council on them (the Board of Revision and the Development Appeals Board specifically exclude council members); some have not met in the past year, which makes one wonder why they exist.

With nine members of council, that would mean that each member should be on at least seven or eight committees, because some committees have more than one council member. I'm currently on eleven committees, some of which take more time than others (some committees meet monthly, some less often, some not at all). As well, if you take on the additional responsibilities of chairing or co-chairing a committee, that adds to the workload.

I wouldn't have a problem with this if committees, particularly the city-centred ones, functioned as they should - taking issues from council, discussing them, and then bringing back recommendations to council. But it doesn't always work that way. I chair the Housing Advisory Committee, which would seem to be a logical place to discuss, for example, the city's condo conversion policy. This didn't happen. The housing committee does meet, but there doesn't seem to be any direct connection to decisions that are made at council.

The Cities Act also requires that committee meetings be public, and that public notice be provided for these meetings. The city web-site even has a place for this - for the most part, it's blank. And the city buys space in the local paper on a regular basis, which would be another logical place for this information. But it isn't happening. We, as a council, are not meeting this basic requirement under our legislation, and nobody seems to be too concerned about this. In contrast, check out the City of Saskatoon web-page - it provides lists of committee members, plus upcoming meetings (including locations), agendas, and meeting minutes.

This annual committee exercise should be taken as an opportunity to delete committees that aren't functioning - of the sixty-six I counted, at least eleven did not meet in the past year, which makes one wonder how necessary they are to the city. It's also an opportunity to move councillors around, to vary their experience and exposure to city issues - this used to happen every year, as council as a whole would discuss committee membership, and review applications from the public. It's also the opportunity to remove people from committee lists who have not attended any meetings - or at least, to check to see if they are still interested. However, the committee appointments for next year are identical to last year, and the non-functioning committees still exist, at least on paper.

Another problem that I have with these committees is that often, city employees are appointed, not as resource people, but as actual voting members. Another concern is that non-city residents have been appointed to committees - somehow, I think that their stake is less than someone who actually will have to pay the taxes to support whatever recommendations may make it to council.

What got me going on this was a suggestion at council that I had no right to make comments on the city's waste management program because I had attended only two of the eight committee meetings held this year. Not only is this wrong (my total for this calendar year is three - still not stellar), but it also misses the larger picture. Of the twenty meetings of this committee held during this council time period, I've attended 13 - not an A+ rating, I agree, but a respectable C+. As well, what wasn't noted by the councillor who raised the issue was that the meeting days were changed from Wednesdays to Thursdays, to accommodate the other councillor on the committee, who does play-by-play for the Raiders on Wednesdays during the hockey season. The committee accommodated his request, which made it more difficult for me to attend meetings, since the North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Committee, on which I represent the city, also meets on Thursdays, often the same Thursday of the month, and these meetings are anywhere from Rosthern to Lloydminster, which can make it difficult to get back.

I don't expect other councillors to make every meeting of every committee that they're on. Not only are there inevitable time conflicts when there are so many committees, but people have lives and families too. I'm no exception - I'm sure that most people would understand that I missed one Waste Management Meeting because Andrea had a dance recital the same evening.

But I do expect that, if you're on a committee, you make every attempt to make as many meetings as possible. There are councillors on committees who have not made a single meeting of that committee in the past year, or more. There are members of the public on some committees with the same record. In those cases, perhaps it would be wise for these individuals to suggest that they be replaced. And I think that the whole committee system could use a critical look, from all of council, to see what is actually needed. Nobody needs to spend time in meetings thinking of solutions that will never make it to council.

"Committee - a group of men who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done." - Fred Allen

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Looking Ahead

Although we seem to have been awash in elections lately, between the federal election last month and the presidential election to the south of us which ended on Tuesday, I thought that this would be a good time to remind people that the civic election will be held in less than a year.

If you're thinking of running for council, now is the time to start figuring out if that is the right decision for you, and I have a few suggestions to help you in making that decision.

First, find out as much as you can about what the job is. I'm amazed when someone who has never attended a council meeting or gone through a civic budget comes in thinking that being a councillor is some sort of ceremonial ambassadorship. It isn't - it's making decisions that will affect every resident of the city, and that means doing a lot of homework.

Go to a council meeting. Get hold of a council agenda, and read through it, and imagine reading through that volume of material every second week for the next three years, making notes on it, and preparing questions and comments. Get a copy of the budget, and go through it, line by line, figuring out what you would support, and what you would trim. Talk to people who are currently on council, and people who have served on past councils - find out what they liked, and what wasn't their favourite part of being on council.

Then, talk to your family. Being on council means giving up evenings and some weekends - prime family time. It's more than just council meetings - committee meetings and related work can take a great deal of time, as can responding to residents' questions and concerns. Depending on whether you have kids, and how old they are, this may have an influence on your decision at this time. When I was first elected, Guthrie was still in junior high - I missed more volleyball and basketball games than I would have wished, and those days are gone forever. And there is a cost to running - you have to put up $100, which you only get back if you receive at least 10% of the votes cast. Depending on how lavish a campaign you want to run, everything costs, from flyers and signs through print, radio and television advertising. You may have friends and relatives who are willing to donate to your cause, or you may wish to bankroll yourself - or some combination of the two.

Then, think about what you can bring to the job. What is your experience in working as part of a committee or non-profit group - a church, or a day-care board, for example. Those kinds of organizations are good preparation for making consensus decisions and managing limited funds wisely. Do you have ideas for some of the chronic problems that plague council - crime, revitalizing downtown, improving infrastructure? We need good ideas to move us ahead. Slogans aren't enough; we need real substance to generate change.

Then, think about what kind of person you are. Are you able to listen to other people's ideas with an open mind? Can you be counted on to fulfil your commitments? Do you handle criticism well? How do you react when someone disagrees with your ideas? Do you have enough courage to vote for what you believe in, not for what the majority wants to do, even if you're the only one voting that way?

Finally, think about how you would handle the inevitable scrutiny and resulting criticism. This is a job that is out in the open, spending public money, and the public has no hesitation in telling you when they think you've made a mistake, and they often do it publicly. In my time on council I've been called, in print, everything from being paranoid and delusional to being comparable to rodents, and there isn't a member of the current council who hasn't been called names. This isn't pleasant, and probably will upset your family more than it upsets you - another factor to consider when you're discussing the opportunity with your loved ones.

That being said, if you still feel that you have something to offer, then start planning how you're going to persuade people to support you. I admire anyone with the courage to put themselves and their opinions out in public, with the goal of making Prince Albert a better place to live.

"He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career." George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some Comments on the Proposed Parking Meter Software

At my first meeting after my holiday last Monday (an executive meeting), we received a proposal from administration that we approve an expenditure for next year's budget to invest $50,000 in new software that will allow us to better track unpaid parking tickets. The software would allow us to link the outstanding ticket to the provincial database of licence numbers. For example, if a vehicle with outstanding tickets is sold, the outstanding tickets would be shown as a lien against the vehicle. A vehicle with outstanding tickets could be seized. Right now, our current system doesn't allow us to take advantage of new provincial legislation enabling these additional powers. This could be beneficial for the city, but, as usual, I have some questions and concerns.

I have three problems with this proposal. The first is that we are being asked to approve an expenditure for next year's budget before considering the budget as a whole. This isn't a good way to approach budgeting - we should be able to consider all proposed expenditures at the same time, to set priorities equitably. We started doing this pre-approval of individual expenditures for last year's budget, preapproving such things as an additional travel budget of $35,000 for the mayor, and it only confused and limited decision-making for the final budget process. The report does indicate that $114,000 has been approved in principle for software and handheld devices for next year's budget - I don't know when or by what process that happened. I'm not sure why the urgency of approving this single expenditure now - presumably the software will still be available next year.

My second problem is that there's no indication of how big the problem of outstanding tickets is. The brief report says that the system should pay for itself within three years, but admits that they're not sure. And I'm not sure if the software is the only expenditure required, or if other equipment, at additional cost, would also be necessary. More information as to the size of the problem, and the total cost of the proposed solution, would be helpful.

Finally, I think that it's time that council rethought the whole matter of parking meters. They do discourage people from going downtown, which in turn adversely affects the viability of businesses in the downtown area. Already two banks have moved out to where the parking is free, and admitted that part of the reason was for free parking for customers - if we're serious about encouraging downtown development we need to level the playing field wherever we can. To those who worry that downtown spaces will be filled with all day parking - we can still ticket those who park for more than a designated time - say, two hours. Chalking tires is a low-tech method that works - ask people who work in the Macintosh Mall, but try to park in the bottom level, which is reserved for Co-op customers. Another comment was that parking meter revenues are needed to pay for plowing the streets. Parking meter fees are not supposed to offset snow-plowing costs. We plow streets without parking meters, often before we plow the downtown, and we maintain and plow the parking lot at the Art Hauser Centre, but don't charge for parking there (although that would be another source of revenue that we could consider).

So - I don't think that we should consider budget decisions in a piecemeal basis, I need more information before making a decision, and I think that we should take opportunities when they arise to think about how we could do things differently to meet overall city objectives. It's good to be back at work.

"Trust your own instincts. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else's." - Billy Wilder

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tales from the Road

The past three weeks I've been away. Andrea and I took our annual trip back to Ontario to remind our relatives what we look like, catch up with old friends, enjoy the fall colours, and do a bit of sight-seeing. I've noticed that, since I've been on council, I look at the places we visit slightly differently. I see things that work in other communities, and wonder if the same initiatives might help to solve some of Prince Albert's problems.

We spent a couple of days in Stratford, enjoying three plays and just walking around one of the prettiest cities I've ever been in, with lots of old trees, beautiful gardens, and big old houses. More than fifty years ago this city, which had relied on manufacturing and being a centre for rail transport for its livelihood, was starting to die. Visionaries, including its city council, thought of starting a Shakespearean festival. Sensibly, they started small, with just two plays, over a six week season, in a large tent. They were able to build on a series of small successes, to a point where the season now runs from May to November, during which four theatres present about a dozen plays of various types, from Shakespeare through musicals through experimental. And the festival and its theatres do not rely on taxpayer support. The hospitality industry essential for the festival - restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, an amazing variety of stores - also thrives. It's a very clean city, I think partly because residents are very aware of the importance of keeping streets attractive to keep tourists coming back, and partly because it's easy to find a spot for your garbage - the downtown has many attractive garbage receptacles that have a similar design to the many benches and bicycle racks. We felt very safe there - we picked our B&B so that we could walk to the theatres, and even returning late at night from the downtown, we had no concerns. It's a great example of how a city can reinvent itself and become a major tourist destination for people all across North America.

We spent a few days in and around Toronto, and had the chance to read the papers there to find out what the issues are in the mega-city. One that hit home for me was the current initiative in Toronto to help solve their garbage situation - a serious problem for a city of almost three million people without any empty space close by. They are starting to charge residents for garbage disposal, but have a three-level system. Residents select what size of garbage container they think they will need - small, medium or large - and are charged accordingly. They are also given a couple of extra tags to use during the year, for occasions when they may have more garbage than usual. Anything that is put out that doesn't fit in the bin or doesn't have a special tag - the resident is charged extra. Of course, Toronto also has blue bins, which take a great deal of what we would consider as just general garbage - not just paper, cardboard, bottles and pop cans, but also tin cans, glass jars, egg cartons, and similar materials, which would greatly minimize what had to be put in the garbage, especially if you compost. The other thing that I found interesting was that the city realized that they were going to be short of bins, and were careful to explain that nobody would have to pay for a bin before they received one, and that they would be given additional tags so that they wouldn't be charged extra. They expected to have enough bins within a couple of months - I sure wish that Prince Albert could have found their supplier.

One of the things about travel is that, wonderful as it is to see different places and have different experiences, it also makes you appreciate your own home. I don't miss the traffic, or the noise, or the crowds, of southern Ontario. I appreciate being only a five minute walk from City Hall, unlike the much longer and more frustrating commutes of most of our relatives. And I like being greeted by friends when I go downtown, to the library, or grocery shopping. Prince Albert is a good place to live; we need to work together to make it even better.

"There's no place like home; there's no place like home." - Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Why I Love the Library Book Sale

The last weekend in September was the annual library book sale. More than books, of course - magazines, records, videotapes, sewing patterns - anything surplus to the library's needs. Some of the items for sale have been donated, but most are old library stock, being cleared out to make room for new acquisitions. Before the library started having this sale, in the early 1980s, surplus materials were just taken to the landfill - hard to believe when I see how popular this event has become.

Having a couple of voracious readers in the family, we usually make at least one, and often more, trips to the sale. We pick up history books, biographies, how-to books, mysteries, science fiction, old magazines, music books, and the occasional collectible (a few years back, Andrea found a first edition Anne's House of Dreams - one of the Anne of Green Gables books that was first published in 1913). Rarely are we looking for anything specific, but there's always something worth picking up.

Not only does the sale save landfill space while making room in the library for more current materials, it's an opportunity for people to donate directly to the library, and it's amazing how generous people are. Since we moved from a fixed price per item to a donation basis a few years ago, revenues from the sale have increased. The people who come to the book sale obviously put a high value on what the library means to the community, and welcome the chance to show their support. It also brings people into the library that might not have been there before, to see the wide range of services that are offered.

Putting the sale together takes a great deal of work by both library staff and volunteers - books have to be sorted, set out on tables, shelves, and auditorium seats; magazines are sorted, bundled, and stacked on the stage. That's a lot of carrying, unpacking, and stacking. And through the two days of the sale, more books are unpacked and set out. Volunteers take donations, bag up purchases, or offer boxes for people to put their discoveries into.

The sale is full of cheerful people - purchasers, staff, and volunteers, all of whom love books. At the end of it all, my family, and many others, have new books to read, while looking forward to next year's sale, which will provide more opportunities for discovery.

"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Cicero

Friday, September 26, 2008

It Ain't What You Say, It's the Way that You Say It

The decision at Monday's council meeting to approve rezoning to allow a new group home has been causing a fair amount of comment in the local newspaper. I don't think that the problem was with the decision - it was the process that was followed to get there, not helped by the lack of sympathy or respect that was shown to residents who came to council to complain.

If you've done any reading about conflict resolution, you'll know that most conflict about decision-making isn't because of the actual decision, it comes from the process that was used to come to that decision. In this case, it sounds as though concerned residents weren't given clear information about what was being discussed, they were led to believe that the decision was a done deal, and they felt intimidated when they asked for more information. The timeline between when information went out and when the decision was made was short. When residents came to address council, they were not listened to respectfully, but told that they were wrong to even voice these concerns. This does not give us the image of being a thoughtful, open council.

Perhaps this storm could have been avoided if, instead of communicating an impending change by sending out letters and expecting residents to seek out the proponent to ask questions on their own, we instead had meetings well before a decision which included both area residents and project proponents. Questions could then be asked and answered directly, with all parties hearing the discussion. It would probably be less intimidating to ask questions in a smaller meeting, rather than in front of cameras at a council meeting. And all present would hear the same facts, rather than only one side. There may still be residents who don't want this type of home in their neighbourhood, but they could not complain that they were given insufficient information beforehand, or that we did not try to accommodate their concerns.

Sure, it would take a little longer, and might cost the city a bit for a meeting room and coffee. But the time saved in the long run, and the prevention of further blackening the image of council, would be priceless, as the commercials say.

For the record, I voted in support of rezoning to allow the group home in this neighbourhood, for a number of reasons. These homes are badly needed, and I think that they should be located all over the city, rather than having them segregated in one or two neighbourhoods. I think that many of the fears that people have about group homes are exaggerated based on lack of information and experience, and that the only way to become more open as a society is to work towards integration, and increasing our tolerance of differences. But I hope that we have learned that the way that we make decisions is as important as the decisions themselves.

The new community plan, Plan Prince Albert, passed almost anticlimactically later in the meeting. I was the only councillor to speak on the subject, raising my concerns about its lack of specifics. No-one from the public commented, possibly because council has not been accepting of criticism in the past. Too bad, because I got the feeling that nobody really cared, or felt that there was any point in commenting. Perhaps people feel that this is a council where decisions have been made before we even go into the meeting - that is not a good thing.

"The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: 'I did not have time'." - Franklin Field

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Going Green

Another enjoyable weekend winding down. Andrea and I celebrated our anniversary (which was a couple of weeks ago) on Friday evening. We started with dinner at Chandelier's (our first visit there), which was impressive, with both food and service excellent. We then spent the night at the Hillcrest Inn Bed and Breakfast. We slept in a comfortable room with a lovely view over the city, and in the morning enjoyed a great breakfast and conversation with Daelene and Morris, our hosts, and with other guests. I highly recommend it as a way to enjoy a brief break without the hassle of traveling.

On our way home Saturday morning we stopped at Memorial Square to take in the Green Living Action Day (GLAD) Festival, put on by Tiger Lily Education and the Downtown Business Improvement District group - another successful partnership for Jayne Remenda and her team. We toured displays of environmentally friendly alternatives - housing, lighting, gardening, solar energy, a solar oven, recycling, food products, crafts, books - plenty to see and discuss. I'm looking forward to hearing more from Tiger Lily Education, and possibly attending some seminars which they're thinking of offering, on subjects such as reducing energy costs and building more sustainably.

We also made our usual weekend visit to the farmers' market - we have really enjoyed trying the various vegetables that are available there this summer. I'm not sure how long into the fall we'll be able to take advantage of the market - if you haven't been, either Wednesday or Saturday mornings, it's well worth a visit.

The GLAD festival reminded me of a couple of things. One is how events such as these show how lively the downtown is when people have a reason to go there, and what a good location Memorial Square is for these events. There was even a small wedding there in the afternoon, which seemed to fit well with the small and friendly attitude of the GLAD displayers. Another was how taking small steps to be more environmentally friendly is not difficult - it just takes a bit of thoughtfulness. I hope that city council can start to be more aware of the environmental impacts of our decisions, and build that awareness into our decision-making processes.

"There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew." - Marshall McLuhan

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Questions, questions, questions

I ask a lot of questions at council. Often, they are questions that I have been asked by city residents, and they figure that, as a councillor, I can probably get an answer faster than they can. Other times they are my own questions, when I read something in the council agenda, or in supporting documents, that I'd like more information about, so that I can make a more informed decision when I vote on matters. And sometimes, the answers bring up more questions.

As a council, I think that we owe the citizens of Prince Albert answers, particularly answers about decisions that we've made, because these decisions directly affect them. They may not always agree with our decisions, but we should have sound reasons that are defensible.

When I was in school, asking questions was encouraged, often with the teacher suggesting that asking questions was a key part of learning. I don't ever recall a teacher rolling impatient eyes at any question, as if providing an answer was just more work for her or him. But I often get that sense when I ask a question at council.

Last night at council I asked questions about money - always a touchy subject. We have a proposal before us to borrow another $ 13 million dollars, with a twenty-year time frame for repayment. Of this, $12 million will be for interim financing for building the soccer centre, to cover the five-year time period over which donations from the public will be made. The remaining $1 million will be used to pay for capital projects - those were not specified.

So the Prince Albert taxpayer will be paying upfront even more for the soccer centre than we have been led to believe - going into debt to do this, in fact. I also asked about the possibility of putting some of the excess donations into the contingency fund for unexpected costs, and was told that, no, this money had been donated with the condition that it be spent for additional features. Of course, those donors will not have to pay any additional costs, unlike the taxpayer donors, who have no choice. I guess they were allowed to put strings on their gifts.

I also asked what the total debtload for the city is now. Instead of getting a specific answer, I was told that it was in the budget documents. I've been through those documents a few times, and it didn't jump out at me, so I don't know how we can expect the average citizen to find this information easily. I'll have to haul out the budget documents, and see what I can find. I'll keep you posted.

I mentioned in my last post that the answers to the questions I ask city staff have been amazingly slow in coming lately - two questions, one asked in January, the other in March, were just answered last week. That means that the question that I asked three weeks ago about how much it costs to pave a street will probably get answered next spring. Neither of these questions originated with me; they came from residents who deserve more respectful treatment than that.

I'll continue to ask questions - the residents of Prince Albert deserve answers.

"The only stupid question is the one that isn't asked" - Anonymous

Sunday, September 7, 2008

"Before beginning, plan carefully" - Cicero

The need for having a community development plan is a requirement of the Planning and Development Act, 2007, but it is also just common sense. Having such a plan should give council a framework for making decisions, and give each city department direction when they're developing budgets and work plans for the upcoming year. As Yogi Berra said "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else."

And the new Plan Prince Albert Official Community Plan, which will be discussed at council on September 22, with the opportunity for public comment then, provides some good first steps at setting out that framework. One can't disagree with the statements in the vision, which is how the planners see the ideal city set 20 years in the future - safe, innovative, diverse, environmentally sound, led by a responsible, ethical government.

The vision is a good start. But the best plans say exactly where you want to go, how you will get there, how long it will take, and what will be your measure of success. For example, in 1960, President Kennedy set a goal for the space program that, within ten years, they would have successfully landed a man on the moon and returned him safely to the earth. If any of these elements were missing, the plan would not have been considered a total success. But, going one step at a time (and if you were alive in the 1960s you'll remember the excitement of going from sub-orbital flight, through the successful orbiting missions, through the success of sending more than one man into space, to the final culmination of the moon landing), the entire, long-term plan was successful, because that specific goal had been met, within the projected time.

So, while we have a good start to a plan, I find it lacking in two areas. First, there are very few actions that say how we are going to get to this ideal state. Many of the objectives lack specific detail - there are many well-meaning words like encourage. consider, explore, and facilitate, but no actual suggestions about how, for example, we will "Provide a measure of certainty with respect to future growth patterns" (Objective I'm not sure what that means, or how we will go about trying to do that.

The second area where I find the plan lacking is in having measureable targets. For example, it's one thing to set the West Flat area as a priority area for residential redevelopment (4.7)- I would like to know exactly what this means, and whether other older areas of the city (Midtown, for one), should also be included in residential redevelopment plans. To me a clearer goal would be to have all city streets paved by a certain year. For a goal like that, we could set a budget, and a manageable number of streets per year, and at the end, it would be clear if we had achieved the goal. Another area which deserves some redevelopment consideration is the area north of the river - a worthy goal there would be to provide these neighbourhoods with sewer, water, and transit service by a certain date. This would help to achieve a number of the broad vision statements, and help to bring all neighbourhoods up to what should be a basic level of service in the community. Right now, all that this area merits in the plan (10.9) is a commitment not to sell any more land in the area until it is possible to fully service the area.

I appreciate that preparing this plan was a major challenge, and I commend the city planners, and the members of the public that participated, for their efforts so far. This is apparently the final draft, and I'm not sure if there will be any consideration to making changes before the plan is formally adopted by Council. The plan does talk about the need for ongoing monitoring and changes to the plan; I hope that, as we get into plan implementation, we will find ways of providing more specific details in all aspects of the plan, so that we will be able to assess whether the plan has been successful in helping us move toward the vision for the city of the future.

"When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind." Seneca

Monday, September 1, 2008

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Measure twice, cut once. It's an old carpenter's axiom, suggesting that it's best to be sure, before you take an action that can't be reversed. As a long-time home renovator, it's a phrase that Andrea says to me quite often. But it works well in life, too, telling you that it's best to have all pertinent information before moving forward on decisions that aren't easily corrected.

I thought of this when I received an update memo on Friday on the soccer centre construction. The first step in construction, putting in the pilings, is going to cost more than twice the amount that was in the estimates - $638,846.00 rather than $256,640.00. This is apparently due to the soil condition on the site, which lacks strong glaced till. To cover this shortfall, $382,206 of the $962,980 contingency fund will be used, leaving less than $600,000 in the contingency fund to cover any other discrepancies between budgeted items and the actual tenders that may be received for the rest of the construction. This decision was made by the City Manager - in July, council gave him sole authority for arranging tenders and contracts for the soccer centre when the awarding of such tenders would not fall within the normal cycle of council meetings. Since council hasn't met since August 11th, this decision would qualify, although emergency council meetings have been called for less costly items.

A number of questions come to mind. Was a soil survey done before the site was selected? What factors were considered when the decision on where to build the centre was made? Were other building budget decisions made on insufficient evidence that will require further dipping into the contingency fund? Considering the way that construction costs seem to be rising daily, is there anything that can be done to put more money into the contingency fund, so that taxpayers won't be expected to pay even more for this facility?

I have asked repeatedly to see minutes of soccer centre committee meetings. I would like to know what information the committee used to make the decision to locate the centre in a location that is on the edge of town, and on land that has to be purchased, rather than using existing city land that is more centrally located. So far I haven't received any response. Considering that last week I received answers to two inquiries, one made last December, the other in March, and have several more outstanding, I don't expect to get the answers to most of these questions anytime soon.

In July, council also decided to add additional features to the soccer centre, since more money was donated than originally anticipated. We did this, even though a poll in the local paper had 31% of respondents suggesting that putting the money into a contingency fund would be a good idea, with 43% supporting putting the money into future operating costs, and only 27% supporting a bigger, better centre. A poll that I ran on the same topic had 44% in favour of reducing the city's contribution, to give a break to taxpayers, 37% wanting the money set aside to help pay for operating costs, 10% thinking that adding the money to a contingency fund was the way to go, and 6% wanting more features added to the centre.

Is there anything that council can do, now that more than one-third of our contingency fund has been spent? We could reconsider the motion to add additional features to the centre, instead putting excess funds into a contingency fund. Should the entire fund not be used, then leftover funds could help to pay operating costs.

This item was not included in the agenda for Tuesday's Executive Committee meeting, but the report will be on our desks for the meeting. Because the decision has been made, it will be only an information item on next week's council agenda. But I will pursue the matter, to try to get some answers to questions that could have long-term financial implications for taxpayers. Doing this, although some might see it as being negative, is part of doing my job.

"Never be ashamed to admit you were wrong. You're only saying that you're wiser today than you were yesterday" - Dave Gilpin

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Some Random Late Summer Thoughts

Summer time seems to be a lazier time for most people, and that seems to hold true for me and the rest of council. It's been a couple of weeks since my last blog, but nothing much has been happening on the council front, and no council meetings, regular, executive, or even special meetings, between August 11th and September 2. I don't believe that past councils have taken such an extended break in the summer before.

Unfortunately, I missed the August 11th council meeting. One of Andrea's sisters and her family were due for a brief visit on their way back from a trip to the Yukon. Originally planning to arrive on the 10th, they arrived that night sometime after midnight. Ingrid had been home that weekend for a wedding, so rather than take her back to Saskatoon the morning of the 11th as originally planned, we delayed until late afternoon, so that we all could spend some time catching up with family. That meant that I didn't get back in time for council. As they say, when setting priorities, always remember who will be truly sorry at your funeral, and act accordingly.

It was a good, if too short, visit. Our visitors were able to take a couple of bike rides along the Rotary Trail, which they quite enjoyed, and get some work done on their truck before departing after lunch on the 12th. On the downside, their truck was pelted with eggs as it was parked on the avenue beside our house. Could have been worse, I suppose.

Besides some regular committee and library meetings, my time in August has been focused on house renovations, as you may have noticed if you've driven by. Largely porch repairs, replacing doors and windows in the side porch, and re-insulating and re-siding the front sunporch, and figuring out how to evict a family of pigeons that decided to nest on a handy ledge during the renovations. I'm now in the final clean up stages, and thankfully, the baby pigeon left the nest at about the time that I was ready to close off access. I was able to pick up many of the necessary materials at the Habitat for Humanity Recycle Store, which I highly recommend if you're looking for housing materials at an extremely reasonable cost.

As far as council business goes, the next major item appears to be Plan Prince Albert, the Official Community Plan. I picked up the final draft last week, and am currently reviewing it. Unfortunately it doesn't appear to be available on the web-site, so the only way to get a copy is to request it from the planning department. I'd suggest that you call ahead; they had no copies available when I asked for one early last week. If we're really interested in public input on important documents such as this, we need to get better at making them easily available.

Once summer ends, I'm sure that we'll be back to our usual more rigorous schedule. In the meantime, I intend to enjoy this last week of summer, and the last long weekend for awhile.

"Nobody ever says on their death bed that they wished they spent more time at the office." - Paul Tsongas

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pros and Cons of Longer Terms

At the last SUMA meeting in February, one of the resolutions brought forward and now being considered by the provincial government, is to make the term of urban municipal councils four years rather than three. This is how it is in most other provinces, and is the same term as the provincial government, now that a fixed election date has been set.

The reasons for this change, according to SUMA, are to allow for longer time frames so that projects can be completed, and to allow for the learning that is required by new members of council. A longer term would also mean fewer elections, which do have a cost to them - in the $100,000 neighbourhood, according to information in yesterday's paper - over twelve years, there would be three elections rather than four, so the savings is $100,000 in that twelve years - a small part of our city's budget over that time.

The downside, of course, is that if citizens are unhappy with the council that they have elected, the pain is prolonged 25% longer. And a council which makes poor decisions will have an extra year to do so.

I'm not sure that I agree with the logic of the first reason. The current council has already committed to projects that won't be completed in the next fifteen months - the soccer centre, for example, will continue to show up on your tax bill until 2013. Water utility rates for residential users (not commercial users) will continue to increase every year for another seven years. We'll go through at least two elections before council will be free from those decisions.

The learning curve is something that takes considerable time and effort. I'm surprised at people who run for council, but have never been to a council meeting, or read through a budget document. And the learning is not just for the individual members of council, but also for council as a whole, to learn how to work together, and also how to work with the administration. Almost half of the current council was brand new to civic government at the last election, and I'm not sure that, even now, more than half-way through our term, all members of council understand how council is supposed to function, or what our relationship with administration is supposed to be. For example, council should not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the city - that should be left up to administration. But because of the proximity of staff, it's relatively easy for members of council to get involved in these matters, which makes life for city staff more difficult.

But if a four-year term works provincially, shouldn't it also work for municipal government? While there are similarities, there are also differences.

For one thing, provincial government is much more structured than city council. The provincial government is bound by Acts and Regulations, which cannot be changed unilaterally when a new government is elected- they have to be debated publicly, and it's the job of the Official Opposition to raise questions. At council, we have one Act (The Cities Act), plus our own bylaws and policies which are supposed to guide us, but we don't always seem to concerned about whether we follow these, and a bylaw can, theoretically, be passed in one meeting, if all members present agree to have three votes in one meeting. And the current council has developed a habit of calling special council meetings so that there isn't even the normal two weeks between meetings to give the public the opportunity to comment on proposed bylaws.

Individuals elected to the provincial government are also blessed with professional support, but at arm's length. The vast majority of the provincial civil service does not work directly for the politicians, or have regular contact with them. They work for the Public Service Commission, and their link to members of Cabinet is through deputy ministers - this helps to minimize political interference.

The longer term would be beneficial in the sense that a smaller proportion of the term would be spent thinking about the next election. Right now it's almost as if the term is divided into thirds - the first year for learning, the second for governing, and the third for worrying about the next election. A four-year term would put an extra year in the middle, and that might help productivity.

Fortunately, the decision isn't being left to municipal politicians - the provincial government will decide this one. They're looking for public input, so if you have some thoughts to share, you should visit the Municipal Affairs web-site (www.municipal.gov.sk.ca), and have your say.

"Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve." - George Bernard Shaw

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Question of Memorials

At our last council meeting, a bylaw was proposed that would limit the time that an informal memorial on city property can be kept, to three months. These are the memorials to those who have died at accident sites - they seem to be getting more prevalent these days. Until now, Prince Albert has had no policy to deal with these.

The matter has been put off for discussion until mid-August, after someone directly involved with one of these sites asked for the opportunity to have some input. In her specific case, items at a memorial site had been removed after a complaint to the city from an area resident, without any discussion with the family.

This is an extremely difficult matter; one on which I'm not sure that there is a single right answer, and one to which I've given a great deal of thought.

For one thing, I'm not sure how big a problem this is on a city-wide basis. Obviously, if someone is tragically killed in front of your home, and friends and family of the individual leave things as an informal memorial site, it may be a problem for you, but I'm not sure that it's a large enough problem to pass a bylaw about, and I don't think that we should be using bylaws to try to control people's behaviour. We certainly have a few behavioural bylaws (littering, spitting) that aren't effective.

Are these situations fortunately few enough that they could be resolved simply by direct discussion between the affected parties?

If we do need a bylaw, what is magical about the three-month timeline proposed? If the site is a distraction to passing drivers, then it is a distraction from day one, not just after three months. Is three months sufficient time for grieving? Is a year? I'm quite sure that for family and friends, it isn't. For the parents in particular, the grief is something that will always be with them.

Is such a site useful for reminding both young and old about their mortality? Perhaps giving people second thoughts about reckless behaviours is a benefit of such sites.

Some of the comments on the local paper's web-site have suggested that such memorials are inappropriate - that's what cemeteries are for. I'm not sure that there's a right time or place for remembering the loss of a loved one. Perhaps that's been encouraged in the past, but I think that today's society is more open about grieving, and I think that such an open attitude is much healthier. I'm sure that the family's and friends' memories won't end with the removal of the memorial - the memories will be with them constantly. My wife has had two co-workers die on Highway 11 - memorial site or not, she never goes to Saskatoon without thinking of them.

When I was in school, I remember cases of class-mates dying suddenly - there was never any discussion about these deaths and the effect on the rest of the kids in school. In one case, the student's desk was removed and the classroom rearranged so that her absence wouldn't be noticed. It was almost as if we were to forget that she ever existed, which can't have been a comfort to her family at all. When I compare that to the way a local school acted when a classmate of my son's died suddenly a few years ago - open discussion, encouraging the other children to talk about their memories, giving them time to grieve - I think that it's a big improvement in attitude, in recognizing that it's far better for friends and family to be able to do this openly, rather than "get over it".

So how do we balance the wishes of family and friends, and those of people in the neighbourhood who would rather not have the reminder of a tragic accident on their street?

No matter what the decision, I think that it's only respectful to inform families when dismantling such a memorial is being considered - give them the opportunity to remove items, and have some closure at a site of what has to be a source of incredible pain.

As I said, this is a difficult topic, and one that isn't easy for people to talk about. I'd be interested in your thoughts, and I hope that this item will receive thoughtful and respectful discussion when it returns to council.

"Grief teaches the steadiest mind to waver." - Sophocles

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Monday's Council Meeting - Once Again, No Surprises

Monday’s meeting of council wasn’t much of a surprise. Only six members were present; Councillors Gervais, Williams and Zurakowski were absent.

My motion to have us undergo a review of our current procedures to ensure that we’re following the Cities Act, our bylaws and our policies, failed to be seconded, so wasn’t even discussed. This, despite the fact that one councillor present had earlier said that he would be interested in such an effort, if it would help us do our jobs better. He later told a reporter that he didn’t second it because he didn’t want to use the consultant that I was recommending. Since I didn’t (and haven’t) recommended any specific consultant, and have even mentioned that these reviews can be done internally, I’m a bit confused about his rationale. But not surprised. I am disappointed that other council members didn’t even want to discuss the opportunity to ensure that we’re following our laws and procedures properly – open discussion would have been a sign that we’re starting to function more positively.

The motion to put the excess money collected for the soccer centre into improvements rather than into a reserve fund for maintenance costs passed easily – I was the only member of council present to vote against it. Again, I wasn’t surprised. I am disappointed that a large part of the legacy of this council will be inevitably higher tax bills to pay for the maintenance of this facility, the potential costs of which haven’t even been discussed.

It is disappointing, and discouraging. I don’t really have any choice but to continue to offer suggestions and ideas, and hope that at some point, open and rational discussion will occur. But the image of being someone constantly banging his head against a brick wall does come to me with increasing frequency.

On the bright side, I attended the rally on the riverbank last Friday, organized by citizens who were outraged by the attack on a recent immigrant the weekend before. Put together at short notice, I was impressed by the turnout, and by the conviction of those present that they were going to do something to make the situation better. These are the kind of efforts that will, eventually, pay off for the community as a whole. I commend Miranda Martin for taking the initiative to organize the rally, and the people who attended for their positive attitudes and ideas.

Tuesday evening Andrea and I went up to Kinsmen Park to have supper at Taste of Prince Albert. This has become a summertime tradition for us, and judging by the size of the crowd, for many residents. The variety of food is amazing, and from the sampling that we were able to do, delicious. I also enjoy the opportunity to meet people and discuss various issues, ranging from happenings at City Hall to the progress of home renovation projects. Lynn Brown and the members of the Chamber of Commerce have once again done a great job of putting together an event that is centrally accessible, reasonable in cost, and enjoyable for people of all ages. We may have to make a second visit.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Like a Teenager Who Wants to Buy a Car

Sometimes Prince Albert reminds me of a teenager who wants to buy a car. You know, they get all excited because the car costs only $xxxx, which is exactly the amount that they have saved. They don't think of all the costs that go along with car ownership - licensing, maintenance, gas, oil changes, tires.... And they also don't think that most of these costs will rise, sometimes quite far, quite fast, as we've seen with gas costs over the past year. But to the teenager, they want the car, they want it now - and their sights are often set on their dream car, not on a vehicle with good mileage, or a reputation for reliability.

Prince Albert tends to be like that with our city facilities - we want the best, we want it now, and we don't think too much about how much that facility will cost in the long run - we'll just get mom and dad to cover the costs. Only in this case, the tax payer is mom and dad - that's us. In the meantime, some of our needs (street paving, maintenance of other facilities) get overlooked.

We already have the Art Hauser Centre, which runs an increasing deficit every year - this year, it's $600,000. We also have the Rawlinson Centre, built a few years ago with volunteer contributions (and a legacy from John Diefenbaker), but now increasingly unable to cover its operating costs, this year requiring a subsidy from the city of $300,000. And recently, some of the people involved in track and field in the city have raised concerns about the deterioration of Harry Jerome Track - in such poor shape due to lack of maintenance that they no longer can host provincial track meets here.

But instead of learning from these experiences, we're now building a soccer centre, without giving too much thought to how we'll pay to keep it running. Once again, the citizens of Prince Albert have been incredibly generous in raising money for this facility - so generous, in fact, that they raised more than was targeted. But, instead of putting this money aside to help pay maintenance costs, or relieve the tax payer of some of their burden, or save in case construction costs are higher than budgeted, the only plans that I've seen are to add new features that weren't covered in the original cost estimates - a climbing wall, a walking track. I wouldn't have as much of a problem if they were going to invest in improvements that would make it more energy efficient, so that future operating costs would be less, but that doesn't appear to be one of the options that they're looking at.

I know that it's nice to have great facilities in the city - they do make Prince Albert a nicer place to live, if you are part of the community that uses these facilities. We need to remember that not everyone goes to the Art Hauser Centre, or the Rawlinson Centre, or plays soccer. When these projects are started, I think that a bit more realism about the long-term costs of these projects should be part of the planning process, because those costs will, for the most part, be paid for by people who didn't volunteer to do so, and who won't get a tax receipt or their name in the paper - you and I, the tax payer. Our population base has been stable for the past twenty years - we're foolish if we're counting on some great increase in tax base to help pay for these increasing costs. If it happens, great, but we shouldn't be counting on it.

It's not pleasant to be the person who raises these concerns - you're called negative, it's suggested that by raising concerns you're insulting those people who have donated money. But I've heard from a number of people who donated money involuntarily, through their taxes, and I think that they would rather see decreased costs for them in the future, rather than a state of the art facility that will only be used by a minority of Prince Albert citizens. And as a councillor, mindful of the fact that this council has approved two consecutive budgets with increases of about 5%, I think that it's my responsibility to try to minimize future budget increases, not add to them.

"He who will not economize will have to agonize." - Confucius

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Friday Night at the Movies

On Friday night Andrea and I packed up our lawn chairs and a sleeping bag and headed for Memorial Square in front of City Hall to take in a movie. It was part of the Cinema4Change tour which is going across the province this month, showing family-friendly movies for free outdoors, on a big inflatable screen. Sponsored by SGI, SaskTel, and the Credit Union, the Business Improvement District did their usual good job of organizing the event.

Although there were a couple of downpours in the late afternoon and early evening, by eight p.m. the sky had mostly cleared. By nine-fifteen people with lawn chairs and blankets were starting to settle in, and the movie, Horton Hears a Who, started about nine-thirty.

It was fun. The BID had a concession set up across the street, with hot dogs, popcorn, licorice, and drinks available for quite affordable prices. When was the last time you were at a movie and two popcorn and licorice only set you back $1.50? We don't go out to the movies much anymore - it's pricy just to get in, snack prices are ridiculous, and people talk during the movie, either to each other or on cell phones, which we find really annoying. But this crowd was quiet and polite, even though about half were children, so there were no distractions.

Maybe eighty people were there, many of them families, and all were enjoying themselves at this different kind of event. People even applauded at the end, which doesn't usually happen after a movie. It reminded me a bit of going to the drive-in as a kid - a relaxed family evening. If the weather hadn't been so iffy earlier, I'm sure the crowd would have been larger.

One of the ongoing concerns in Prince Albert is the need to revitalize the downtown. Along with that is the common perception that the downtown area is dangerous. What this event, and events like the Downtown Street Fair illustrate, is that when there are lots of people downtown, even at night, it isn't dangerous or scary at all. If we want a revitalized downtown, which is a sign of a healthy city, we need to encourage, support and attend events like this one. It didn't require millions of dollars, and it was accessible to everyone.

I'm hoping there will be more outdoor movies in Memorial Square, and when there are, I intend to be there.

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world" - Mohandas Gandhi

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Few Odds and Ends

There was no Executive Committee meeting this week - I'm not sure why. We didn't get any notice that the meeting was cancelled, nor do I recall any discussion that a meeting wasn't necessary because last week's council meeting was held on Wednesday rather than Monday. Perhaps the decision was made months ago. Perhaps it's part of our summer hours. How meetings are set, and the process for changing them, is one of the things that an audit of our practices would help to clarify. I suppose that in the big picture this seems like a trivial matter, but more clarity and consistency might leave me feeling less out of the loop, for no reason.

There are a couple of items from last week's council meeting that I wanted to mention. One was the approval to build a new residential building higher than the original plans had indicated, which left me feeling that the residents in the area, who had clearly indicated that this was not something that they wanted, were the victims of an end-run approved by council.

To give a bit of history on the matter, several months ago a developer brought forward a proposal to build a six-storey condo building on a lot on River Street that was zoned for single family residential. This is in Ward 3, and residents of the area had made it quite clear to me in phone calls and meetings that they did not want this sort of development in their neighbourhood, largely because of the additional impact of more residents in a small area, without adequate parking. The motion to rezone was defeated, although one member of council tried to have it brought back for reconsideration during the same meeting, which is not allowed. A few months later, council was given a new proposal for the same site, for a two-storey low-rise development. Council then approved the rezoning to allow for this. At last week's council meeting the developer was back - now the building will be three storeys, without adequate parking, and they will have to encroach on city land. One could suspect that this was their plan all along, and who knows how many storeys it will end up being. In any event, council approved the change, even though there was no explanation why the change of plans was necessary. Understandably, residents of the area feel let down by council, although one woman who called me was kind enough to thank me for trying.

At last week's meeting I also asked if it would be possible, since the fund-raising project for the soccer centre was so wildly successful, raising far more than their target, if the city's contribution could then be reduced. We could redirect some of the money to a number of projects, including the repair work required for the Harry Jerome track, which is in such a state of disrepair that the city is now unable to host large track meets. And some of the money could be used to give tax-payers a bit of a break in their taxes in future years. I'm not particularly hopeful, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Finally, I wanted to discuss a bit more my upcoming motion for the city to undergo an audit of its practices. Such an audit would not only be valuable for council members, but also for city administration, which is the other half of the team that runs the city. In my almost eight years on council, we have had four city managers, as well as one acting manager for several months. Many of our department heads are new. We've undergone several reorganizations, some major, some minor. We've had the usual round of retirements and people leaving for other jobs. All of this change means that, inevitably, there's a loss of corporate knowledge. An audit would give everybody, both council and administration, a common understanding of roles, responsibilities, and processes. I don't see this, as the poll on the web-site of the local paper puts it, as a way of resolving our differences - a healthy council should have differences of opinion. I do see it as a way of helping us get to a point where our differences can be discussed respectfully and openly, in such a way that we come to the best possible solutions for the city. Some may think that it's too late - however, this council has to work together for another sixteen months, and I don't think that it's a poor investment for us to get some help to allow us to do that.

"Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress." - Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Playing by the Rules of the Game

When you were a kid (or older), did you ever play Monopoly? Did money collected from various taxes go into the centre of the board, and get claimed by whoever landed on Free Parking? Did you know that, according to the Monopoly rules, that's not supposed to happen? So if you knew the real rules, but were playing at someone's house who played a slightly more flexible game, you might be a bit confused. A lot of games are like that, with the same basic rule framework, but individual quirks that might be regional or just have passed into common use. But you have probably experienced just how frustrating it is when you think that you're following one set of rules, then find out that the other people around the table have a different set of rules, or maybe no rules at all.

City Council operates under a hierarchy of rules as well. The broadest, and the ones that aren't written down, are our principles - things like being open and accountable to the public. Next broadest is the Cities Act, the provincial law that governs things like how elections are run, bylaw procedures, financial administration, and public accountability. Within the city, we pass bylaws relating to specific matters within our powers - zoning, utility rates, tax levies. More operationally, we have policies that govern how we make decisions, to try to ensure that all residents are treated equitably.

Within this framework of principles, legislation, bylaws and policies, the city operates. Our decisions, and the way that we make them, are governed by these rules. If we claim to follow the rules, but don't, our credibility and functioning suffers badly.

Where I've been having difficulties, is that quite often, the rules of the game seem to be ignored, or changed without telling everybody at the table. This may be due to the large number of people on this council who were brand new to council when they were elected, and some may have had difficulty in understanding that city council is not a private business - many of the rules of our game are different. And it may just be that they're not aware of all the rules, or of the importance of following them. When I first was elected, I had the opportunity to attend a Municipal Leadership conference that provided newly elected council members from across the province with an overview of their responsibilities. It was truly eye-opening. I don't know if the newer members of council have had this opportunity, which may be part of the problem.

That's why I think having an audit of current city practices against our current legislation, bylaws and policies would be useful. I think that it would be enlightening for everyone on council to have an overall view of how we should be operating, and where we're not following the rules, rather than having concerns brought up in a piecemeal fashion, and then argued about, which seems to be what has been happening lately.

As one example of an area where we aren't following the rules, the Cities Act says that, with a few exceptions, council and committee meetings are required to be conducted in public (Section 94, Public Accountability). Past practice of council was that notification of all committee meetings was public, and I regularly got notice of, and attended, committee meetings even when I wasn't a member of the committee. I found it a great way of learning more about how the city operates, and about the variety of issues that we have to deal with. However, in the past two years, I haven't received notice of meetings of committees of which I am not a member, and I haven't seen public notification of these meetings either. So we're in contravention of the Cities Act (Section 96), and also not following an established policy, which was developed to help ensure that committee meetings were open to the public.

The City of Saskatoon underwent such an audit a few years ago, done internally, and found several areas where they were not following their own rules. They now do this on a regular basis, to ensure that everyone on council is kept aware of the rules. In 2003, the City of Lethbridge had an outside consultant do a corporate review on how council and city administration could better function together, which is quite interesting reading.

Obviously, an internal review would be much more economical than hiring a consultant, but we might be best served by someone not connected with the city to do this, to ensure impartiality.

I will be making a motion that we do this at the next council meeting, July 14. Let me know if you agree that this would be a worthwhile thing for us to do.

"The shortest and surest way to live with honour in the world , is to be in reality what we would appear to be." - Socrates

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The End of an Era

Friday will mark the end of an era at the John M. Cuelenaere Library. It will be Eleanor Acorn's last day of work as Director.

For the last eight years, my entire time on City Council, I've been on the Library Board, for most of that time as chair of the board. This has meant working closely with Eleanor on library matters. In all situations, whether monthly board meetings, or more frequent phone calls or quick visits to the library to discuss issues, Eleanor has been unfailingly professional, cheerful, and a pleasure to deal with.

She is truly the sort of person that everyone likes to deal with - open, honest, kind, and always careful to keep everyone informed as to what was going on. Her dedication to the library and to library staff, and her understanding of the library and its history, has made being on the library board one of the more pleasant aspects of my job as city councillor. Budgets were always prepared well ahead of deadlines, and any innovations or necessary expenditures were well thought out in advance. Her work is certainly one of the reasons that JMC is an incredible library for a small city, with some innovations that libraries in larger cities do not have.

I'm not what one would think of as a typical library user - I'm not someone who reads much for recreation, unlike my wife and daughter. But ever since we moved to Prince Albert in 1979, the library has been part of my life - whether going to movies in the auditorium, taking the kids to the terrific children's programs, browsing the annual book sale, or borrowing books on tape or CD for the long car trips back to Ontario. Eleanor has always emphasized the need for the library to serve the interests of the whole community, and to be a place where all ages can come and feel welcomed.

I wish her a wonderful retirement, but will certainly miss working with her, as I'm sure all of the library staff will as well.

"The most important motive for work in school and in life is pleasure in work, pleasure in its result, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community." - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Show Me the Money

Requiring candidates for public office to disclose the names of people who have contributed to their campaigns isn't a new idea. It's already required if you run for federal or provincial office, and in many municipalities for civic elections. The idea is that, in the interests of openness and accountability, those individuals or businesses who supported you financially in your run for public office should be identified. It's a further step in disclosing interests. Once elected, you already have to identify what financial interests you or members of your family have, to limit your involvement in decisions that may have a financial impact on those interests.

So, if someone makes a contribution to your campaign, and then is interested in doing business with the city, that might be a point at which a member of council would excuse himself from any discussion and voting on the matter, if this was public knowledge.

Right now, Prince Albert has no campaign contribution disclosure bylaw. When city work is given out without tendering, or when a tender is given to a company which is not the lowest bidder, there may be questions why, perhaps raising the suspicion that their contributions to help elect certain individuals might have given them an advantage in getting a part of city business.

This isn't right.

In much of the kerfuffle of the past few months, much has been made that members of council should be held to a higher standard than the general public. I don't agree with that, but I do think that we have to remove, whenever possible, any suggestion that our decisions may be influenced by anything other than what is best for the city.

To me, it seems straightforward - develop a bylaw that requires that anyone running for council must disclose the names and amounts of financial and in-kind contributions that were given to their campaign.

When I proposed this motion at Monday's meeting it was defeated, 5 - 2 (Councillor Swystun wasn't at the meeting; Councillor Gervais had left the meeting by that point). Most members of council aren't as willing to support openness and accountability as I had hoped. Not only that, but the two councillors who spoke against the motion focused on how they disagree with the ward system. They must have gotten their speaking notes mixed up, because my motion mentioned nothing about wards, and I couldn't see the connection.

Perhaps the real concern is that people worry that some of their backers might not be as willing to provide financial support if their contribution might be made public. If this is because they will only contribute if there will be a payoff down the road - good. That's the kind of influence-selling that this sort of bylaw is meant to prevent.

But, as I said, other municipalities have such bylaws, and people are still running for office there, so it obviously doesn't scare everyone off. Every campaign relies on a combination of financial and volunteer support, and I'm not sure where the line is drawn. Do I limit my disclosure to the friends who have written cheques or paid for lawn signs, or do I have to include the invaluable but totally voluntary contributions of my media advisor and the guys who help put up the signs? I'm sure reviewing the bylaws of some other cities would provide some answers.

Take a couple of seconds and let me know what you think, by clicking on the poll to the right. Perhaps it will give me some additional information to take back to council at some point before the next election.

"Money doesn't talk, it swears." - Bob Dylan

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Great Day Downtown

Andrea and I spent a good part of today downtown, enjoying the annual Downtown Street Fair. This is the fourth time that the city has closed off Central Avenue between 15th and River Streets on the Saturday of Father's Day weekend, and each year it's been a relaxing way to spend Saturday, just wandering up and down Central, running into all kinds of people, seeing different displays, and trying out food from the various downtown restaurants.

Pretty much every downtown business had its doors wide open, some with displays right out on the street, others with Street Fair specials, and most businesses had more people in them than are usually seen on a Saturday. We checked out a new sports store in the block between 9th and 10th Streets, which specializes in equipment for extreme sports, like parasailing, but also will be selling sauna kits. It even has an area with a fireplace, couch, and magazines - perfect if you're shopping with your partner who doesn't share your fascination with sports equipment.

Many restaurants had food available outdoors, with tables and chairs on the sidewalk. Some fund-raising groups took advantage of the opportunity to have bake sales or raffles. The variety was wonderful.

Music was everywhere, with stages at each end, as well as a performer in front of City Hall, and various buskers, including a young fiddler, singers, and guitarists along the way. Once again, Morley Harrison and his stock company presented a couple of brief skits about famous people with a Prince Albert connection, which left people saying "I didn't know that!" Young people demonstrated their skill at skateboarding in a couple of places, the library had a book sale, the Farmer's Market was set up between 10th and 11th Streets instead of in the City Hall parking lot, there were booths selling everything from jewelry and pottery to Girl Guide cookies, there were pony rides and a small petting zoo where you could handle a corn snake or pet a ferret, you could take a tour of the TV station, little kids could bounce in a castle, have their face painted or get a balloon animal, there was a dunk tank, the police had a car that you could check out, the museum was offering free admission. Various business mascots were wandering about, and were involved in relay competitions in the Forest Centre courtyard. Balloons were everywhere. Most of this stuff was free, or at very reasonable cost.

The street was closed to cars, but there were lots of wheeled vehicles - bikes, skateboards, wheel chairs. It's funny how without cars, these other vehicles weren't a problem for pedestrians. This was good for people of all ages, and that's who was out there enjoying themselves. I noticed how, when there are lots of people downtown, nobody seems too bothered by the usual people who hang out downtown - they were there too, but didn't stand out. A friend of ours commented on what a great day it was, and how people just seemed really happy and relaxed - how a downtown should be.

Congratulations to Jayne Remenda of the Downtown Business Improvement District and her team of volunteers - they do a ton of work both organizing everything beforehand and then being there to make sure that things run smoothly - which they did.

How could things be better next year? The city could have a booth set up, handing out information about summer programs like the playground program or swimming lessons, or even just general city and tourist information. The city could also provide tables and chairs in Memorial Square for people to have lunch, or sit and listen to the musicians there. The Fire Department could have a truck there. Following the example of the TV station, we could have a mini Open Doors day - this is a day in some cities, including Saskatoon, where various buildings are open for tours. Focusing on the downtown area, we could have tours of City Hall, the Forest Centre, churches like Wesley, St. Paul's, and St. Alban's, the library, the TV station, the radio station, the police and fire stations. The Multi-cultural Centre could follow the example of Fiesta Manila, which periodically had demonstrations of Filipino dance, and provide cultural displays and food from other countries. Just some ideas that might add to the fun, and take advantage of the crowds.

If I was to make a list of ten great things that I like about Prince Albert, the Downtown Street Fair would be on that list - it shows off the downtown, it's fun, and it's accessible to everyone - what more could you ask for?

"Time you enjoy wasting was not wasted." - John Lennon

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

This Bicycle Idea

You may have read in the local paper that I came back from Quebec with the idea that Prince Albert should have free bicycles available, that people could just pick up and ride, then leave for another rider.

Just a few of points of clarification - the idea isn't new, nor is it mine, nor did I pick it up in Quebec. I was just reminded of its potential in Quebec, which is extremely bicycle friendly, with bike paths along the river, and with bike stands along the city streets, so that bike riders don't have to lock their bikes to lamp posts or parking meters.

The idea is one that is used in other cities - Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and most recently Paris, and in several American cities, where the Blue Bike program is sponsored by Dasani (a brand of bottled water). In Europe, it's more of a general get-around-the-city approach; in the US, it seems to be more focused on encouraging people to use recreational trails in parks.

When I first heard of it, I thought that it was something that could be adapted to Prince Albert, particularly with the development of the Rotary Trail. I raised it with council about a year ago, but no action has been taken.

I still think that it is an idea with exciting potential, but I also realize that there are areas of concern that need to be thought about before going ahead.

To start with, do you just leave a bunch of bikes lying around, free for anyone to just pick up, ride off, and then dump in the river? None of the programs that I've read about are quite that simple - usually the bikes are located at hubs, with some kind of controlled access, for example, in a shed that can be unlocked with a swipe card that is obtained from a central location, sometimes for a small fee ($10 - $25 for a season). Some places allow you to earn the swipe card with a few hours of volunteer work, such as bicycle maintenance. You're then expected to return the bike to one of the hubs. A thought that I had was that the shopping cart deposit system, where you put in a loonie to unlock the cart (or bicycle), then get it back when you return it, might work.

What if someone just steals the bike? Part of the idea is to have the bikes painted some horrendous, uncool colour so that it's obvious where it came from - if one is left abandoned somewhere, it would be easily identifiable to return to a hub, and, like the shopping cart, if there's a loonie in it, there's added incentive to return it!

Where would these bikes come from? Every year, the police auction off tons of bikes that have been stolen and abandoned - they usually sell for very little. And other bikes end up in the landfill, when with a little work they would be quite rideable. People could donate bikes that they no longer use, or bikes that have been outgrown by their kids.

What about bike maintenance? Perhaps the Youth Activity Centre could add a bike repair and maintenance program. Perhaps this could become a fine option. Perhaps a local bike merchant could donate his expertise to teach kids how to fix bikes.

How to start? I would start relatively small, with a pilot project on the Rotary Trail, with three or four bike stations at common starting points for the trail. I would go with the shopping cart lock system, maybe six bikes at a station. If it worked, it could be expanded to other areas of the city - a hub downtown, maybe hubs at schools, the Youth Activity Centre, the skateboard park, Cornerstone. Of course, we would need more bike racks throughout the city - right now they just aren't readily available.

This could be something that sets Prince Albert apart - people driving through the city could stop for a bike ride along the river. Families with visitors from out of town could all go for a ride. If it expanded, it could become a transportation option throughout the city.

It's a way that Prince Albert could be seen as trying to become more environmentally conscious, and encouraging physical activity among residents.

The PA Herald had a very supportive editorial last week, and I've had several people comment that they like the idea. One woman even phoned City Hall to volunteer to help with bike maintenance.

So what do you think? What pitfalls have I not mentioned? What are some ways that we could make this work? I will be raising this again at council, and it would be helpful if I had even more positive ideas than the ones I've mentioned here. Give me a call or send me an email, and let's see if we can bring about some positive change.

"It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Week in Quebec

Yes, I've been away. Andrea and I took advantage of the opportunity to attend the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Annual General Meeting in Quebec City. We went a few days early for a bit of a vacation, which gave us the chance to better explore the city on our own.

I'd never been there before, and it is a fascinating city, very aware and proud of its history, which they have built their entire tourism industry around. Thanks to the foresight of one of the governors in the 1800s, the walls around the old city have been preserved, and within them it's like stepping back in time, with old buildings and churches carefully preserved, and countless markers pointing out where buildings were previously, or where historic events happened. Even recent history, such as the house where Rene Levesque lived while he was Premier (just a small row house in the old city), is noted with a marker.

The city was remarkable for being pedestrian and bicycle friendly, with bike paths, streets closed to motor vehicles, and pedestrian-activated cross-walks at most intersections. Lots of benches were available for resting (which was often necessary after hiking up the steep hills), and there was very little garbage. Despite the more relaxed liquor laws there (lots of corner grocery stores, which survive because they can sell wine and beer), and the many open patios attached to restaurants, there didn't seem to be much rowdiness, and we were quite comfortable walking about day and night.

Our hotel was next to the Plains of Abraham, and quite close to the Citadel, which we toured, and we spent our days wandering about both the tourist areas and other residential parts of the city. For the most part, my distinct lack of French wasn't a problem, although it was certainly a different experience to be surrounded constantly by people speaking a language that I couldn't understand.

The conference itself, which had about 3,000 people attending, had a mixture of tours of the city and surrounding area, and technical sessions which provided information about new ways of doing city business, such as having new technology in water meter reading devices. Currently, our system requires that the meter reader go right up to the house to read the meter. Some municipalities are using radio frequency meters, which transmit a signal that can be read from a truck passing by, or in some cases, read through a local area network, which could read hundreds of meters simultaneously. These kinds of innovations have the potential to save the city thousands of dollars, while providing more accurate information.

As always at these conferences, it's the connections that I make with new people from other cities that I find most valuable, sharing our concerns about dealing with aging infrastructures or increasing fuel costs, and hearing what other communities are trying. Being able to do this in such a beautiful city made it a truly exceptional experience.

"Those French - they have a different word for everything!" - Steve Martin

Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Free" Week at the Landfill

Last week was a busy one for Councillor Williams and me. We helped a dozen residents of the city, from every ward except Ward 8, remove couches, tree branches, old cabinets, tables, and other garbage, load it in our honking big truck, and then took it out to the landfill. Three trips. We spent Tuesday and Thursday evenings, plus Friday and Saturday, doing this.

The people that we helped were those who, for reasons ranging from disability to lack of a vehicle, couldn't get out to the landfill. We helped seniors, single parents, recent immigrants. All were extremely grateful; some tried to pay us. For those who offered, we suggested that instead they could make a donation to the SPCA.

It was tiring, especially the afternoon when the truck died just outside of the landfill, and I had to leave it there and hike back into town, since my cell phone was at home recharging. That helped me learn how pedestrian-unfriendly our city is, when it comes to getting from the north side of the river back into town.

Despite being tired, I enjoyed the chance to meet residents one-on-one, and to make a practical difference in people's lives. I became a councillor because I wanted to make residents' lives better, and sometimes I wonder how much good we really do from council chambers for the average citizen. The people that we helped also got to get to know us a bit, not as people they might read about in the local paper, or see on council meeting broadcasts, but as two guys just trying to help out in a very basic way.

We did this because many of the services offered by the city aren't available to all citizens, and we wanted to help those who couldn't take advantage of "free" landfill week, even though they pay sanitation fees for such things. I still think that issuing tags for each residence, able to be used at any time, would allow us to track usage by city residents, and thus develop strategies for areas that under-utilize this service. This would also prevent people from outside the city from using our landfill at no cost to themselves. Perhaps next year.

I missed Executive Committee (and yet another special council meeting) on Tuesday, as I had some medical tests at the hospital this week. Nothing serious, just those routine things that you're encouraged to do once you're over 50. Not fun, but as my wife said when I grumbled about it: "It's better than dying."

"The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts." - John Locke