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