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

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What's in a Name?

Council has been worrying a lot about naming streets lately - far more than in the past.

Formerly, the list from which new street names were selected came from two sources: the Legion's Honour Roll (veterans who have passed away), and federal, provincial, and municipal government representatives. Citizens could also nominate individuals to be added to the list - one that I remember recently was John Hicks. However, the company that was developing a new area for housing was allowed to name the streets within the development. Since private developers have done most of this work in the past, the list of city names was rarely used, so now, with a private development, the developer can name a proportion of the streets, and the city can name the rest.

Once the list had been passed by council, council members had no more involvement. City staff would draw names from the eligible list, and the deed was done without there being any hint of favouritism.

There are plenty of names on the list, and it isn't getting any shorter. Sadly, every year more veterans pass away, and are added to the list. And of course, we never seem to run out of politicians either.

We had a system, and it worked. However, in the new year, the mayor established a new street naming committee, and appointed himself as chair, with Councillor Matheson and me on the committee. The purpose of this committee seemed to be to add names to the list from people who have been named Citizen of the Year or the Council of Women's Hall of Fame. The committee met twice; I was unable to attend one of the meetings (called at short notice) for medical reasons.

At the meeting I attended, I objected to this change for a couple of reasons - we already have a policy in place, with more names than can be used, and these people the mayor wished to add have already been honoured through their award. If we start adding these names, what's to stop the Sports Hall of Fame inductees being added, or other interest groups - I'm sure that you can think of various honoured individuals who would qualify.

When this was discussed at Executive Committee only the mayor and Councillor Matheson were in favour of adding four new names to the list. However, at the council meeting the following week, only Councillor Williams and I voted against this addition.

Now I understand there will be more committee meetings, to add more names from the Citizens of the Year and Women's Hall of Fame. At last night's council meeting, when the mayor chose to criticize my attendance record at these meetings (one out of two), I decided to resign from this committee, and did. I'm already on the JM Cuelenaere Board (meets monthly), Wapiti Regional Library Board (meets monthly), North Central Transportation Committee (meets monthly), Waste Management (meets monthly), Saskatoon Airport Authority (meets quarterly), provincial 911 committee (meets three times a year), and Housing Committee (hasn't met this year). I spend enough time at meetings where meaningful and respectful discussion about matters that affect the city goes on - I don't need to attend unnecessary meetings, particularly those where my input is not valued.

Naming city streets is not something that council members should be getting directly involved in - we have far more pressing matters to deal with. No one has ever called me complaining about a street name - they do call to complain about the poor state of city streets, about broken water mains, about increases in sanitation fees without a corresponding increase in service, and now, since tax notices are out, about the increase in city taxes, particularly the soccer centre levy. These are the matters on which council should be focusing its attention, because these things are our responsibility.

On another note, you may have heard that Councillor Williams and I are trying to help those who might otherwise not be able to take advantage of "free" week at the dump (because it's not really free, you know, everyone pays). We have a honking big truck, which we will load up with stuff from people's yards and houses, if they are unable to get out to the landfill themselves. And we're not limiting ourselves to residents of Wards 3 and 4, either. Just give me a call (922-5313), and we'll add you to the list.

"Action is the foundational key to success" - Pablo Picasso

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Another Special Meeting, Plus an Executive Meeting - All on the Same Day!

Yesterday we had yet another special council meeting, as well as the regularly scheduled Executive Meeting. Special council meetings are getting to be special in name only - in the past 18 months we must have had close to 40 special meetings. In my previous six years on council I think we only had two or three. While there is nothing stopping council having special meetings whenever one is called, as long as there is adequate notice, I think that they should be saved for matters that are truly a crisis. My main problem with special meetings, besides the short notice, is that the cable cameras aren't there, and the public isn't usually aware of these meetings, so decisions are made without the public being as completely informed as they could and should be.

This special meeting was to deal with how the extra money from the province will be allocated, and to issue a tender for repairs to the Riverside Drive overpass. In my opinion, these items could have been easily handled at next Monday's regular meeting.

The extra money will go to the two items that were overlooked in the city's budgeting process - the extra money needed by the library, and the money required for the street sweeping program. As a council we're fortunate that the province provided the extra money, otherwise the library would be open far fewer hours (hours will have to be reduced slightly), and layoffs would have affected library staff. I voted in favour of allocating the money to these two missed budget items.

I voted against the Riverside Drive overpass tender for a couple of reasons. First, we on council have done nothing to address the problem of trucks running into and damaging the overpass, so the problem is bound to occur again. Second, there is no indication of where the funds for this tender will be coming from. I have a difficult time supporting spending money when I don't know where it will come from, or what program will be affected.

Following this special meeting, we had the regular Executive Meeting, where we decide what items will be discussed at council next week. I have concerns about one proposed bylaw amendment, which suggests that any request for an administrative report, including one made during the inquiry section of a council meeting, must be made by a motion. If this passes, this means that I will not be able to ask questions of administration without the majority of council members voting to allow me to do so. I'm not sure if this will prevent me from asking questions of administration outside of council meetings - I'm afraid that I will be told that all questions must be approved by council. The proposal would also give the city manager the authority to decide when an inquiry is "stale", and remove it from a list of outstanding items.

This could have the effect of preventing me from following up on citizens' inquiries (like why certain areas don't have recycling bins), or asking questions about expenditures under programs like Neat and Clean. A large part of my job on city council is asking questions - only in that way can I become better informed about what goes on in the city, and pass that information on to the residents of Ward Three. I'm also concerned about the arbitrary removal of items - some of my inquiries have taken several months to get answers; this would prevent me from getting answers ever.

The supposed intent of this bylaw is to prevent administrative staff's time from being wasted in answering what they see as less important questions, so that they can concentrate on large matters such as budgeting, and items that focus on the city's overall plan. I agree that focusing on the big picture is certainly an area that we as a council have neglected, but I also know that when a city resident who pays taxes wants to know why a boulevard is being let run to weeds, he or she deserves an answer, and in a timely fashion. I think that it's presumptious of council to think that they should decide if a taxpayer's question is valid, and I will be asking a lot of questions about this proposed by-law at next week's meeting.

"One who asks a question remains a fool for five minutes; one who doesn't ask a question remains a fool forever." - Chinese proverb