Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Job Worth Doing is Worth Doing Right

The only issue of note that was raised at last night's council meeting was the proposal to build family housing for students at SIAST. Again, a good idea in principle, but we seem to have a great need to rush toward a solution without considering all of the potential problems that are just waiting to happen.

I'm a great believer in student housing - that's where Andrea and I lived for the first four years of our marriage. We lived in a high-rise residence across from Ryerson in downtown Toronto, about six blocks from the university where Andrea went to classes. It was relatively cheap, in a complex geared toward single people and couples, the vast majority of whom were students, either at Ryerson or the University of Toronto. There were some amenities for when you weren't studying - a fitness room, a darkroom, a sauna, a couple of larger common rooms if you wanted to party, but it definitely wasn't intended for families. A couple of times there were families with one or two children - it didn't work well for them, because it wasn't intended to meet their needs.

And that's my concern with the current proposal. The proposed location is just north of SIAST, in an area that is now used for overflow parking. The proposal doesn't appear to realize that a student residence is more than just a place to sleep, particularly if it is intended for families. Just as there were amenities in our Toronto high-rise, a housing plan needs to consider that people will be living there, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There needs to be space to play outside - the play area outside the SIAST daycare is intended for a small day-care - it's not enough for school-aged children. The two closest schools, Riverside and Princess Margaret, are several blocks away, and there are no sidewalks down 10th Avenue, which is quite busy with students driving to school. The parking planned for these residences is far below realistic levels. Inadequate parking is bound to lead to problems - for example, if residents are then forced to park in student parking areas, which will already be at a premium due to the loss of the overflow parking area, conflicts are going to occur.

The response to my questions was merely that these matters had been discussed in meetings with some individuals. I don't find that particularly reassuring - if there were such meetings, and these topics were discussed, then there should be a written report with answers that can be evaluated properly. To depend on hearsay, with nothing to back it up, is irresponsible. However, council has voted to move ahead with this. No doubt, once again, at some point in the future, city taxpayers will have to pay for the necessary amenities that, in my opinion, a well-thought out development should include from the start.

I don't deny that additional student housing for families is badly needed. I just wish that we would have the common sense to think it through, to prevent problems in the future. My daughter lived in a student apartment at the U of S for three years. One of the four high-rise buildings was reserved for families, with a large playground behind it, loads of green space, and adequate parking. Even so, I heard on the news tonight that U of S will be building better family-oriented townhouse residences on some of the space that is available, recognizing that high-rises and children aren't the best combination. It sounds as though they have developed a plan, discussed the issues, and are preparing to act in a way that seriously considers the long-term impact of their decisions. I wish that we could do the same.

Also at last night's meeting, as seems to be the norm, council once again allowed itself to be distracted by an innuendo raised by a member of the public, and spent an inordinate amount of time discussing this issue, which is based on rumour and assumption, before deciding to spend more taxpayers' money trying to find an answer to a question that will likely end up having absolutely no effect on the city's future. I really have to wonder why so many members of council persist in reacting this way, instead of focusing on the many real issues that we could (and should) do something about. We don't have money in the budget to fix water lines that are causing businesses serious problems, but we can find the money to fritter away on unnecessary investigations, on cushy new chairs in council chambers that are only used once a week, on half-painted light standards. When did our city's priorities get so screwed up?

"It is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterward." - Baltasar Gracian

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Slings and Arrows

In the past month there have been two letters in the local paper demanding that I resign from city council. The reasoning appears to be that I "may" have been present at confidential council meetings where a "strategy" for dealing with this lawsuit was discussed, and "may" have then somehow breached council confidentiality by sharing this "strategy" at yet another mythological meeting. How two people who aren't on council have determined that there was a confidential meeting where such a strategy was discussed is a mystery to me. If there was such a meeting, and it was confidential, how would they know what was discussed there? Presumably another member of council would have had to breach council confidentiality to tell them this. If there was such a meeting, it was so confidential that I wasn't there.

In any case, (and I'm getting tired of repeating this) - there was no such meeting. There is no strategy. The case is before the courts. It is not a matter for council to discuss and strategize over, and council has no influence on the outcome.

I am a member of council, but that doesn't mean that I have given up my rights as an individual. If I feel that I have not been treated fairly by my employer, I have the right to stand up for myself. I don't have to quit my job to do so. It's similar to the situation of a union employee who files a grievance against their employer - they are not expected to resign while the grievance is being processed. All I want to do is continue to do my job to the best of my ability, while the courts deal with this matter. I thought, and still think, that the open and honest thing to do was to be open about my status in the lawsuit. I thought that this was being more open than waiting until the court case is done, and then (should the lawsuit be successful), accepting the retroactive RRSP contributions.

I find the tactic of using the local paper to discuss this to be quite interesting. Neither individual has contacted me about this issue, either by phone or email. Presumably then, they aren't interested in hearing my viewpoint or having an intelligent discussion on the matter. They would rather just use a public forum to cast aspersions on my character and motivations (and make some rather strange and convoluted assumptions about my pets - for the record, three cats, Hendrix, Hunter and Gracie).

Fortunately other people have been thoughtful enough to call or email or stop me at the grocery store to discuss this and hear my perspective, and pass on their opinions of the letter writers. Interestingly, not one of these people has suggested that I resign. Rather, the conversations tend to end with words of encouragement and support, and I truly appreciate each one.

"A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him" - David Brinkley

Monday, February 18, 2008

Start Spreading the News

Over the last week or so, a couple of media outlets have done interviews with me about this blog. The first to pick up on it was CTV, who had left a message while I was in Regina at SUMA, and we did an interview when I got back which aired on the weekend. Then last week CBC Radio called and we did an interview which aired Friday morning. The result has been emails and enquiries from people asking for the blog address, which is good. The whole point of this blog is to improve communications with the residents of Ward Three and Prince Albert as a whole, so more people reading it accomplishes at least half of the communications picture. The other half is people responding, and I appreciate the positive feedback that I've been getting.

CBC Radio did ask another councillor what he thought of the blog, and his comment was something to the effect that I shouldn't have said that council is dysfunctional, because that makes council look bad. In other words, appearance is what is important, not effectiveness, and we should all pretend that things are working just fine.

When I said that council was dysfunctional, I was just agreeing with an assessment that had been in an editorial in the local paper, so I'm hardly the first one to raise this. In my opinion, a functional council would be one that discusses issues openly, gives ample opportunity for the public to have input on these issues, votes according to what is best for the city as a whole, and focuses its efforts on those issues within its mandate. I think that the current council discourages discussion and debate to an amazing extent, rushes through votes before public input, and raises issues within council that are not appropriate. To pretend that this is an effective way of leading the city doesn't fool anyone.

As Dr. Phil says, "You can't change what you don't acknowledge." I think that the people of Prince Albert would welcome a council that recognizes its difficulties, and works towards resolving these difficulties, not one that tries to put on a good front for the media, but then continues its dysfunctional ways.

I don't know if things will get better at council, but I will continue to ask questions, propose solutions, and try to get answers. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't.

No council meeting this week. Normally on a holiday Monday, the meeting would be the next day, but because this is the school break when people might be away, it was decided that council would be postponed until next week.

"If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people." - Virginia Woolf

Friday, February 15, 2008

Smoke and Chocolate

Wednesday evening I attended a session put on by the Fire Department at the library, where they presented a draft proposed bylaw about smoke detectors. As we all know, smoke detectors can save lives, but often, particularly in rental properties, they aren't used effectively. We wanted to get input from landlords on how such a bylaw could be implemented so that it works for both landlords and tenants. We hope that having such a bylaw will save lives - in a number of recent fires, smoke alarms have not functioned, sometimes because the batteries have been removed.

The bylaw focuses on a couple of ways of making smoke alarms more effective. It proposes wired-in smoke alarms, to prevent the problem of batteries being removed. Related to that is the location of smoke alarms. They need to be close to where people are sleeping. Often, if they are in kitchens, they become an annoyance because they go off if something is spilled on a burner, for example. (I know that's happened in my home more than once.) This may cause people to remove the batteries or disable the alarm to stop the noise, forgetting to fix the alarm later.

By involving landlords at this stage of bylaw development, we hope to be able to implement the bylaw cooperatively.

About 25 people attended the meeting, which I thought was excellent for such a cold evening, and discussion was good. Points raised will be taken into account as the draft bylaw is revised. We hope to have the bylaw before council within the next month.

I met the next day with Ken Hunter at Bylaw Enforcement, where we discussed some of the input received at this meeting. I often meet with the staff at Bylaw Enforcement, usually about housing issues - renters whose accommodations don't meet the housing standard, for example. As was well-presented in their session with the media last week, Bylaw Enforcement focuses their efforts on issues related to basic living - housing standards, noise complaints, junk or garbage in residential areas. The hope is that by keeping neighbourhoods clean and ensuring that families live in suitable homes, a neighbourhood will be less tolerant of criminal activity, as people are able to take more pride in their homes and surroundings.

Bylaw Enforcement brings together various agencies in a coordinated effort, addressing these issues more proactively, rather than after serious problems occur. I find that the people who work in this unit, which certainly isn't glamorous or high profile, really believe in what they're doing, and are trying to make the city a better place to live at a very basic, day-to-day level.

On Thursday evening, which was Valentine's Day, of course, Andrea and I went to a Chocolate and Wine fund-raiser put on jointly by the Art Gallery and the Prince Albert Community Foundation. It was fun to dress up and mingle with a wide range of people, talking with many old and newer friends - sampling interesting pairings of wine and food, enjoying some lovely music, and bidding on silent auction items. Many people raised questions about council goings-on, of course, and had interesting questions and suggestions for the city's future. People see opportunities out there, and hope that council will be receptive to their suggestions.

Once again, I was impressed by the way two community organizations came together to partner in trying a new way of fund-raising. And my dentist assured me that eating chocolate is not bad for your teeth - not great for the waistline, of course, but not bad for your teeth.

"Every private citizen has a public responsibility." - Myra Janco Daniels

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

So Just What Goes on at Executive Committee Meetings, Anyway?

This week's meeting was the Executive Committee meeting. These are held on the Monday that there isn't a Council meeting, starting at four p.m. and lasting anywhere from a half hour to two hours.

Executive Committee was established about four years ago, when Roman Martiuk became City Manager, on his recommendation. It was originally meant to replace a number of committees (Works and Planning, Finance, Parks and Rec, for example), where members of council and public members would discuss issues which would then come to council for a decision. It was felt that by establishing Executive Committee, which includes all members of council, these decisions would be made with all councillors having the same information, and would reduce the number of meetings that we need to attend. The ultimate purpose of Executive Committee was to determine whether an item should be moved to Council for a decision. Routine items could be moved forward more quickly. The downside, of course, is that there are no public members of Executive Committee. While meetings are open to the public, normally there is no opportunity for the public to speak, unless prior arrangements have been made. While I'm all for saving time, I'm not sure that Executive Committee has proven to be much of a benefit to how council operates.

As things are working now, the consideration step seems to have been lost. All items tend to be forwarded directly to council, complete with a recommendation for a formal decision at the next meeting, usually the following Monday. Any discussion that occurs at Executive isn't usually repeated the following week, when the meetings are televised and at a more convenient time for people to attend. So there's little opportunity for the public to hear the reasoning behind any decision. They just get to watch the decision being made, usually quite quickly. Perhaps it's time we reconsidered the usefulness of this committee, and whether there are other ways of improving our efficiency without the loss of opportunity for the public to comment or be informed.

We discussed a few items this week, including the city's contribution to this week's Sled Dog Races (about $6000, when labour costs are included), which shows up inexplicably in the snow removal budget. Would it not be more open and transparent to identify a budget line for community events such as this? Then when a group comes to us with a great idea, we could have a community chest, as it were, of seed money that could be used. This would put all groups seeking such support on a more level playing field, and acknowledge honestly what the costs are for such events. It would also open the door to new initiatives, which could have the potential to become magnet events, much as the Sled Dog Race has. Budgeting for such initiatives is essential, part of planning for a successful future.

We also discussed how Saskatchewan Lotteries Community Grants are disbursed. For as long as I've been on council, each year Saskatchewan Lotteries gives the city a community grant, which non-profit groups can then apply for to use for various projects. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that the criteria for awarding grants is clear, and it's hard to say how well-spent some of these grants have been. We discussed how we should develop a tracking system, in which those who get grants would have to report on how the money was spent, how many people benefited, how long the program lasted - just some common sense measures that would allow us to assess the success of each program. We also discussed the need to communicate more effectively how to apply for these grants, and what criteria will be assessed, to ensure that the benefits are evenly distributed to all sectors of the city, not just a few.

We discussed the recently prepared South Highway Corridor Study, which emphasizes the need for more short and long term planning related to the city's growth patterns, and the need to develop a growth strategy that will ensure that future developments consider a wide range of factors that will affect their feasibility in the long run.

Not all members of council were present at this meeting, but Councillors Gervais, Dionne, Matheson, Ring, Williams and I enjoyed an open and respectful exchange of ideas and opinions that is an indication of how well this council can function.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

SUMA in Regina - is it worth the trip?

I'm just back from spending three days in Regina at the annual Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) conference. Often, conferences have the image of being just a wild fun time, with nothing to show for the time spent afterward, but I have found that there's always something that I can learn to help me do my job better as a city councillor.

There are always educational sessions, which can be of varying quality and interest. This year, the most interesting that I attended had to do with the concept of reciprocal insurance. In this system, municipalities would combine to become their own insurer for community assets (buildings, facilities, etc). Participating in such a system could save 5 - 15% in annual premium rates in the first year alone. Any surplus (the difference between premiums and payouts) would be shared among member municipalities, either through reduced premiums, or through direct payouts. This would be a Saskatchewan solution with the risks based on Saskatchewan situations, not, as so often happens, on larger, less likely risks (like 9-11). Already similar programs are successful in Manitoba and Ontario. To get involved, Prince Albert would have to have a risk assessment done, and commit with a financial deposit to participating for a three-year term. I will be bringing this forward to city council with the recommendation that we be part of this cost-saving measure.

The trade show is always interesting, with innovative products that could help solve some of our city's problems. For example, there were speed bumps made of recycled tires, that can be bolted in one location, then moved if needed elsewhere, or if maintenance work needs to be done. There were devices that can identiy the precise location of water leaks, saving time and money by avoiding digging up entire streets to find a single leak. I'll be sharing this information with members of administration, and hoping that they follow up to see if such solutions would be feasible for our city.

Networking with council members from other municipalities is always interesting and educational. For example, I had conversations with councillors from Saskatoon, Humboldt, and Regina about various mutual concerns that we have with our libraries. It's always good to hear how other communities approach similar problems, and they're interested in how we handle things too.

Finally, this was an opportunity to start cultivating a relationship with the new provincial government. Many MLAs and ministers were at most functions, more than happy to discuss their areas of responsibility, and how they hope to improve things at their level of government.

Five members of council were able to attend this year's convention. Not everybody has the flexibility to take time off for this conference - for those of us that can, I think that it's time well spent.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Just What Is a Good Team Player, Anyway?

"What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same." - Mary Parker Follett

Friday's edition of the local paper had an editorial saying that council is dysfunctional. I would certainly agree with that - we don't seem to agree on where we should be going as a city, on what our priorities should be, and we don't handle our differences well. And rather than exploring the reasons behind these differences, discussions are usually cut short. I'm sure that it's frustrating to many people on council, it certainly is to me, and perhaps conflict resolution counselling would help. I would gladly participate if we could be sure to discuss, to begin with, what the job of council is. It is not, as I sometimes hear people on council say, running the city. We are supposed to lead, not be concerned about operational details. We have many professional staff who can be trusted to develop operational plans for their departments - they know best how streets should be plowed, which streets need sweeping, which crosswalks need painting, which sidewalks need repair, and when. Council members should not be interfering in these matters. We should be developing long term plans, setting overall priorities considering the city as a whole, and managing the budget wisely, spending tax payers' dollars carefully. In my opinion, we haven't been doing this - we haven't even been talking about doing this.

The editorial implied that there are those on council who are "unwilling to be good team players." If this was directed at me, I would beg to differ. I have worked on three different city councils so far, with close to twenty different council members, and I would suggest that in all cases, I have approached the job the same way - asking questions, pointing out potential problems, and trying to find innovative solutions. Over the years, I have served on seventeen different committees, both internal to the city, and as the city representative on provincial committees, trying to learn as much as possible about all aspects of what it takes to have a successful, thriving city that is a good place to live for all its residents, not just some. I think that putting forth this effort indicates that I am a good team player - I do the job that I'm asked to do, and don't limit my activities to the higher profile areas.

Perhaps the paper thinks that a good team player is one that agrees with the majority on every matter. This is where I have to disagree. I'll outline a few of the cases over the past year where I have not voted with the majority, and why.

The Neat and Clean program is an example of putting a catchy name on a program that, on the surface, is difficult to disagree with - who doesn't want a city that's neat and clean? I have three main problems with this program. The first is that it took a significant portion of money away from the road repair program - a program that was dedicated to fixing infrastructure - and put some of this money into activities that were already part of regular maintenance programs - curb repairs, for example. The second is that much of what was paid for under Neat and Clean was non-essential - banners, painting benches, scrubbing the planters around City Hall, and my personal favourite - painting light standards only as high as the painter could reach. My third problem is that much of it has gone to unnecessary embellishments that do not benefit the city as a whole - new chairs in council chambers, new carpeting in City Hall, new furniture in the mayor's office. These things should be budgeted for under capital items, and assessed against the real needs of the city. As a councillor who believes that you spend first on your needs and second on your wants, I could not vote to support this program, and I didn't.

I voted against the water rate increase, not because I don't recognize the need for ongoing maintenance of a safe water system in the city - remember, I'm the one that raised questions about unsafe lead levels in city water - but because its application is unfair. Only home owners will see their water rates increase by eight per cent per year for the next five years, compounding every year. Business owners, who have the opportunity of building increased costs into their budgets and recouping those costs from customers, will not have to pay more. I feel that everyone who benefits from a clean and safe water system should pay their share of maintaining this system.

I voted against the sanitation surcharge increase because, once again, it is not applied fairly to all city residents. Not everyone in the city has access to recycling bins in their yard or through the roll-out systems, but everyone has been paying for this service, which is now in its fifth year. To increase rates for a service that some people are not receiving is wrong, in my opinion. Adding to the frustration of many of these residents is the litany of vague and misleading responses that I've been getting as to why these bins are not being distributed - perhaps a good team player would not raise these issues repeatedly, but then, I wouldn't be representing my constituents, which is my job.

When the Crime Stoppers Program proposed that their decals be placed on all city vehicles, I supported this. It would have cost the city nothing, and provided a program with a proven track record of reducing crime with even more opportunity to make their message public. Other members of council raised vague concerns that the space on vehicles should be reserved in case we wanted to further publicize "Neat and Clean", or that if we let this program have space on city vehicles, that other groups might want the same opportunity. I think that crime is a far more pressing issue in this city than littering, and that to not take advantage of something that could help to reduce crime at no cost to the city was irresponsible. In future, I would have no problem in rejecting a request from another group if it was not related to city issues. But I was in the minority on this.

Most recently, the land fund budget was brought to council, and passed with very little discussion. This $29 million that the city will be borrowing will put us into debt for the next several years, far beyond the mandate of this council. The $29 million doesn't include the various costs that would come with such a development - there was no consultation with the school boards, for example, on whether the current school system could support such a development in this area. What about the effect on expected services such as public transit, and parks? These kinds of development should be considered within the total context of the overall needs of the city, and there was no opportunity for public discussion of this proposal. This is an irresponsible and risky gamble in my opinion, that future councils will have to deal with. Once again, I couldn't support this and feel that I was doing my job of looking out for the best interests of the city.

I represent a diverse area of the city - a mix of residential and business areas, a mix of income levels, a mix of ages. My job is to balance the input that I receive from constituents with the information that I'm given about issues, and try to support what I see as the best possible solution. My job is not to follow blindly along with the majority vote. If that was the case, you wouldn't need a city council, we could just let one person make all the decisions, from where money should be spent, to the order in which streets should be plowed after a storm. Doesn't sound much like democracy to me.

The tired cliche of being a good team player as being the ultimate goal of a city councillor just doesn't work for me. Being on city council is not a game, it is a serious job with long-lasting ramifications when mistakes are made. I want to work as part of a council that realizes its responsibilities, and acts accordingly.

"The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." - Harper Lee