Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Response to the Legal Opinion

This is a press release that I sent out on the weekend, as my response to the legal opinion on whether I have violated my oath of office.

"I have now had the opportunity to review the legal opinion regarding my oath of office. I have sought legal opinions myself and I'm now ready to comment on the report and its conclusions.

First, I can not accept the findings of this report, based as they are on inaccurate and incomplete information. I would have been more than happy to provide the report's author with any required information, but I was never contacted. The only information used to prepare the report was provided by the City Solicitor and the outside legal counsel retained for the lawsuit. I have asked to see this information, to assess its completeness for myself; my request has been refused. Based on this, and on incorrect information in the report itself, I can only conclude that the report is neither impartial nor objective, as originally intended, and is therefore of little value. I regret that taxpayers' money has been wasted in this way.

The report incorrectly states that I decided to join the lawsuit in early December 2007. I did not make this decision until January 2008, a decision that I immediately made public. It also refers to numerous in camera meetings of council where strategies for the lawsuit were discussed. In fact, the matter of the lawsuit was referred to Small Claims Court in late 2006 and has been before the courts, and beyond Council's power to influence, ever since. There were no discussions of legal strategies regarding the lawsuit in any meetings I attended, only brief references to the City's intention to continue to pursue the matter. There was nothing said in any of these meetings that would place me, or anyone else, in conflict of interest regarding the lawsuit.

I believe, as I always have, joining the lawsuit was the open and honest thing to do. I chose to stand with the others who were taking the City to task, at their own expense, to correct an injustice regarding pension contributions. I did not need to join the lawsuit in order to benefit; if the suit is successful, all previous councillors affected by the error will receive the pension contributions owed them by the City. Joining the suit was, in my mind, the best way for me to publicly declare my interest, and to be part of the legal process from which I stood to benefit. Again, as soon as I made this decision, I made it public.

I also believe that employees, both elected and non-elected, have the right to seek redress when they believe that they are being treated unfairly by their employer, and to continue to do their jobs while the process unfolds. This is what I intend to do.

I will not resign from council, based solely on a flawed and severely biased report. To do so would be unfair; unfair to the city by triggering a costly and unnecessary by-election, unfair to the people of Ward 3, who have consistently supported me, and unfair to me, since I have done nothing wrong. I am supported in this by two legal opinions, as well as the opinions of two former mayors, several former councillors, and the many residents of Prince Albert who have contacted me to offer their support.

Eighteen months ago, the residents of Ward 3 elected me to represent their interests at City Council. This is a commitment that I take very seriously, and I will continue to fulfill that commitment to the best of my ability. As their councillor, I will continue to ask the questions they would ask, and to work toward solutions that benefit our ward and the city as a whole. I wish to thank the residents of Ward 3 for their ongoing support, and I assure them that I intend to continue to represent them on City Council."

Last night's council meeting went about as expected - this matter was put to the top of the agenda, I was asked to speak to it, then other councillors expressed their opinions, and in the end, council decided to refer the matter to a judge. I look forward to the opportunity to provide my perspective before a judge, and hope that council will be able to work on issues that are truly important to our community, while we await the final decision.

It's been a difficult couple of weeks for me and my family, and I'm afraid that I let some of the accumulated stress get the better of me at the end of last night's meeting. I should not have left the meeting early, and I apologize to my colleagues on council and to the public for doing so.

This matter has consumed far too much of my time and energy over the past couple of weeks. I hope that future blog entries will be able to get back to my real purpose here - to keep residents of Prince Albert, particularly those in Ward 3, informed about council decisions, and my view on issues.

"If you have a job without aggravation, you don't have a job." - Malcolm Forbes

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Can You Say Witch Hunt?

This whole mess around the independent "legal" opinion recently released by the city has a number of interesting circumstances which the local media hasn't chosen to share in their reporting, which people might find enlightening.

Not to get into any of the actual details of the alleged independent report, I thought I would start by letting people know how I was informed of the situation.

Thursday, April 10th, Andrea and I headed to Calgary. She had a weekend in Vegas planned with three of her sisters - a fiftieth birthday celebration for one of them. Her sister Chris lives just outside Calgary, and since neither she nor Andrea had been to Vegas before, they wanted to fly in together. The other two were coming from Toronto. I planned to spend the weekend hanging out with my brother-in-law Bill and doing a bit of shopping in the big city.

Imagine my surprise when, after supper that evening, I get a call from a friend, saying that the local paper’s website had a story that the report from the independent legal consultant had been released, and was to be on the agenda for Monday’s council meeting. How coincidental - that it should be released on the first weekend that I've been out of the province since last fall.

A couple of things about this report – the author never bothered to get my version of the situation, so even without seeing it, I had my doubts about its balance. The other somewhat surprising thing is that it went public even before council had a chance to review it. Legal matters are one topic that can be kept confidential by council, but in this case, getting something out before I or the rest of council had a chance to even see it was deemed the right thing to do.

Friday morning I had a call from the local radio station, asking for my comments on the report. Kind of hard to do, since I hadn’t seen it. In the early afternoon, a reporter from the local paper finally found my cell phone number – of course, the paper had already printed the story, claiming that they couldn’t get hold of me for comment. Same reaction – how can I comment on something that I haven’t seen?

By this time I’d been in touch with my lawyer, who was already in action. However, when he asked the city solicitor for the information that was given to the legal consultant, he was told that it was confidential. Great, so now he can’t even see what information she was given (by the city solicitor and the outside lawyer who is representing the city in the court case) to draft the case against me.

I spent the rest of the weekend helping Bill with various home and vehicle maintenance chores. Andrea and Chris arrived back in Calgary at 6:30 Monday morning. We headed home, with Andrea sleeping until Kindersley, then she took over driving, and I slept the rest of the way. Got home, checked my phone messages (funnily enough, none from the local paper – I wonder how they were trying to contact me), checked my email (ahh, a single email from a reporter, at 2 p.m. Thursday – that would be even before council members had received their information package for Monday’s meeting), had a shower, and headed to council, where the report was tabled for two weeks to give me time to actually read it before responding (although one councillor didn’t even feel that I deserved that much consideration, and most members abstained, which legally they can do only if they feel that they have a conflict of interest).

I’ve now seen the report. I’ll be drafting a formal response.

This isn’t about a possible breach of my oath rendering me unfit for public service. That’s just the McGuffin behind which the real reason is being hidden. Think of it as a magician practising misdirection, so that you're not looking at what's really going on.

This is about stopping me from asking questions about how the city is run, and where tax payers’ dollars are going. This is about council being unable to hide things (like how the city is funding the soccer centre by redirecting the debt elimination levy for several years), because I’m raising it in public and on this blog. This is about control. I’m sorry that so many members of council have chosen to join this personal vendetta, simply because I refuse to roll over and play dead. It’s also a warning to other councillors- play along, toe the line, vote as you're told, or we’ll find a way, legal or otherwise, fair or otherwise, decent or otherwise, to make your life so miserable that you’ll quit.

I strongly feel that an effective council needs to have checks and balances. We need to ask questions, of each other, of city administration, and of the public, to be able to make the best possible decisions for the city. If every councillor thinks that they have to march in lockstep, why do we need a council? Why not just have one guy making all the decisions? If I resign, we get perilously close to exactly that.

This is not fun for me, or for my family. I appreciate the phone calls and emails of support, the handshakes and hugs, the many people insisting that I mustn’t quit. So far, no messages, no phone calls, no emails, nothing directly to me, telling me that I have destroyed people’s faith in council, and I should resign for the good of the city.

Stay tuned.

"Only dead fish swim with the stream." - Malcolm Muggeridge

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Library Needs Your Help

The local paper had an article today about reduced hours of operation for the library. This is, of course, a direct result of the extremely rushed budget process.

As part of that process, the library had presented a complete financial forecast on November 30, 2007, explaining why an increase of $178,275 to the city levy for the Wapiti Regional Library was necessary. The increase was in recognition of increased personnel costs, partly because last year increased funds were provided to restore hours of service that had gradually been eroded over previous years. Not only had this report been made available to city administration several weeks in advance of the budget process, but I walked council through the forecast during the budget marathon session, explaining the implications of not granting this increase. I also explained that this was in the Wapiti Regional Library budget, because that's where the payroll for JM Cuelenaere is done. The actual impact will be on JMC.

I haven't yet seen the minutes of that budget committee meeting, but I'll be interested to see who moved that this increase not be granted (in the forty-five minutes after I left the meeting before they shut things down).

In any event, at the council meeting two days after the marathon, all we were given was a budget summary to vote on - no committee minutes, no details. And the explanation of why the increase was now slightly smaller - "just mathematics". Actually it's just arithmetic - if you subtract something, the total will be smaller.

Since I refused to agree to having the necessary three votes at one meeting, the budget did not pass that night. The next day, going through the detailed budget, I was shocked to see that the proposed increased levy (amounting to $6 per capita) was not included. The day after, when I saw another councillor (who is also on the library board), he was quite surprised when I told him of the potential impact on the library, and said that he wasn't sure how that had happened. He was also concerned because necessary money for street sweeping had also been left out of the budget. The next thing to surprise me was that a special council meeting was called for the following week to have third reading of the budget, which didn't leave much time to figure a way through this mess.

Assured by that same councillor that things could be worked out, I chose to trust my fellow members of council to do the right thing, and reconsider the motion to approve the budget until these issues had been resolved. My mistake. The budget passed, although people assured me that something could be figured out. Since then there have been two meetings (one of which I was invited to, and attended) with the mayor and the city manager, another councillor member of the library board, and the chief librarian, in which the focus was on how the library could cut costs. There's really only one way, which is to reduce the hours that were just restored last year.

I was hopeful that some of the additional funds that the province announced last week could be directed toward the library, but the soccer centre promo piece in Friday's paper, announcing a donation by another city councillor, suggests that this money is going to be put toward the soccer centre project, although I'm not sure how that decision could be made without being discussed at a council meeting, according to The Cities Act.

One of the reasons that I feel so strongly about this is that the library is one of the treasures of Prince Albert, truly accessible to all, and located centrally. It provides facilities, entertainment, and opportunities that are available to all citizens, of every age, at no cost. Staff there believe passionately in what they do, are unfailingly helpful and courteous, and are always looking at ways of improving service, and improving the literacy level of Prince Albert.

Unlike some agencies which requested (and were granted) funds without providing any financial details, the library staff and the board had done their homework, and well ahead of time. Despite that hard work, we on the board are now faced with the more difficult task of figuring out what hours to cut, and what staff will be affected.

What can you do to help? Call the mayor. Call your councillor. Call the councillors who are on the library board (Councillors Gervais, Williams, Zurakowski, and me), and suggest that part of whatever additional funds that the province is providing be directed to correct this mistake. As I said, Section 101 of The Cities Act states that council (as a whole) is responsible for directing funds, and we have yet to decide how this additional money will be allocated. Perhaps if enough of council can be persuaded that this is the way to fix the problem, we can succeed.

"My two favourite things in life are libraries and bicycles. They both move people forward without wasting anything." - Peter Golkin

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Two Movies That Should Be Compulsory Viewing for Anyone Thinking of Getting Into Politics

Andrea and I both love old movies - she thinks that Turner Classic Movies is the best channel on television - nothing else comes close. Old movies have it all - original plots, excellent writing, terrific acting, and often, good life lessons. I thought it would be a nice break in the usual blogging to talk about a couple of our favourites that have good life lessons for people interested in politics, plus they're both great movies.

The first - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Jimmy Stewart plays an idealistic young newspaper publisher who is appointed junior senator to finish the term of a senator who suddenly died. He goes in full of visions of what a wonderful system democracy is, and decides to use his time there to create a camp for boys back in his home state. Little does he know that the powerful business backers of the senior senator (played by Claude Rains, another fabulous actor) want this land as part of a rather shady deal that he's been putting together.

The senior senator does everything he can to distract Jimmy Stewart from his goal - wise counsel, beautiful women, parties, trying to persuade him that he doesn't have enough time to accomplish his goal. Nothing works, but Jimmy gets suspicious, and with the help of his senatorial aide, finds out the truth. When he starts asking questions, the political machine starts its work to shut him down, mobilizing newspapers and public opinion to try to convince him to stop asking questions and finding out about backroom deals, demanding his resignation - they have money, they have connections, they have power. Poor Jimmy, new to the system, just has Jean Arthur and his principles keeping him going. But he doesn't quit.

Favourite line? After someone in the senate yells at him to give it up, it's a lost cause: "Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for."

The second movie recommendation isn't as directly about the political system, but it does have a lot to say about power and its potential for corruption, particularly if people are afraid to speak up - On the Waterfront (1954). Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a former boxer who's a low level thug in his union. Involved in trying to keep another union member from speaking to a public commission investigating union corruption, he is appalled when the man is killed to keep him from testifying. When he shares his concerns with his brother (Rod Steiger), one of the union's lawyers, his brother tells him to keep quiet, and the head of the union, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), gets him a cushy job on the loading dock. But when he meets the sister of the man who was killed (Eva Marie Saint), he can no longer keep quiet. He then becomes a target when it becomes known that he will testify - his brother is killed for not bringing him in to be killed, and Marlon and Eva are chased by a truck through a narrow alley. He testifies anyway, at which point Johnny Friendly tells him that he's through - he won't be able to get a job on any dock in the country. Marlon stands up for his rights, gets the crap beaten out of him because none of the other workers will stand up for him, even though you can see them agonize over not coming to his rescue. He is a mass of bruises and blood and can barely walk, but he still doesn't give in, and the moral tide turns.

Favourite line? When Johnny Friendly is threatening him, backed by his team of thugs: "Your guts is all in your wallet and your guns."

Two great movies that illustrate the importance of standing up for your principles, because in the end, personal integrity is all that one has. I encourage you to give them a look.

"In matters of principle, stand like a rock: in matters of taste, swim with the current." - Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

So, Where Have I Been?

When I started this blog, its purpose was to keep the residents of Ward Three (and any other citizens of Prince Albert who were interested) informed about the goings-on at city council, and a better look at issues and my take on them. So why, in the week and a couple of days since budget discussions and the initial vote, have I not blogged? Well, I've been trying to work within the system, to not raise concerns publicly until I've done whatever I can to resolve things internally.

As you're probably aware, council sat through a very long day in late March (Friday, the 28th), going through the budget. I left the meeting at 6:30; it evidently went for another 45 minutes before the remaining members of council decided that they were finished. I still think that dividing the deliberations over two days, as was scheduled, would have made for a better product. A summary of the resulting budget was on our desks at the start of the next council meeting, Monday, March 31. We were expected to vote on this final budget, even though the final numbers were different than in the draft budget that we had been reviewing, and there was no clear explanation as to why we now had a new total.

I refused to give consent to the third reading of the budget bylaw. Since council hadn't had time to thoroughly review the final result, let alone giving citizens that courtesy, and three councillors were absent, I saw no need for such haste. This normally would mean that the third and final reading would be at the next council meeting two weeks later.

The next day I went through the final budget details, and found that some rather crucial items had been missed. At the Relay for Life launch on April 2, I had a chance to discuss this with one of my fellow councillors, who was also concerned about some overlooked items.

On April 3, we got notice that there would be a special council meeting on April 7, before the regularly scheduled Executive Meeting, with the purpose of holding the third vote on the budget. I still don't understand the rush. Tax notices won't go out until the school boards have finished their budgeting processes, usually late April or early May, so it isn't as if everyone else is waiting for us to finish our budget deliberations. And special meetings don't have Shaw Cable present, so not as many people are aware of what happens.

At this point, there weren't too many options. Because I wasn't the only councillor concerned, I decided to try to work within council to see if changes could be made at this date. What I hoped would happen would be that we would be able to reconsider the original motion to pass the budget, iron out some of these wrinkles, then at the next council meeting pass a budget that everyone was clear on, and where all the implications were clearly understood.

This didn't happen. The budget passed. I voted against it, because I don't think that it is the budget that the city needs at this time, and I don't think that the increase is for essentials. I'm still trying to work within council, as other councillors have told me that these oversights were not intentional, and that discussions on how to resolve the issues are continuing. In the interests of not jeopardizing whatever conversations are going on at this time, I'm not releasing the specific details around my concerns just yet, but should things go sideways, and fundamental city programs suffer, I shall be quite upset. Mostly at myself, for trusting that other councillors would share my concern about doing things right, and admitting mistakes before long-term damage occurs. Stay tuned.

On another note, one of my wife's coworkers asked her to explain his water bill today - he couldn't understand why it had increased so much when his consumption hadn't. She explained the new infrastructure maintenance costs and sanitation charges, and told him that his water bill will keep increasing, 8% each year for the next several years. He was most indignant, and became even more so when she told him that businesses would not be paying those same increases. "But a car wash uses way more water than I do" he said. "They should be paying more too." That makes sense to me, and did when we passed this increase on to homeowners but not businesses, but that's not what we decided to do. Now that the new water bills are out, more people will be realizing this inequity, I'm sure.

"Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don't." - Pete Seeger