"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