Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Question of Memorials

At our last council meeting, a bylaw was proposed that would limit the time that an informal memorial on city property can be kept, to three months. These are the memorials to those who have died at accident sites - they seem to be getting more prevalent these days. Until now, Prince Albert has had no policy to deal with these.

The matter has been put off for discussion until mid-August, after someone directly involved with one of these sites asked for the opportunity to have some input. In her specific case, items at a memorial site had been removed after a complaint to the city from an area resident, without any discussion with the family.

This is an extremely difficult matter; one on which I'm not sure that there is a single right answer, and one to which I've given a great deal of thought.

For one thing, I'm not sure how big a problem this is on a city-wide basis. Obviously, if someone is tragically killed in front of your home, and friends and family of the individual leave things as an informal memorial site, it may be a problem for you, but I'm not sure that it's a large enough problem to pass a bylaw about, and I don't think that we should be using bylaws to try to control people's behaviour. We certainly have a few behavioural bylaws (littering, spitting) that aren't effective.

Are these situations fortunately few enough that they could be resolved simply by direct discussion between the affected parties?

If we do need a bylaw, what is magical about the three-month timeline proposed? If the site is a distraction to passing drivers, then it is a distraction from day one, not just after three months. Is three months sufficient time for grieving? Is a year? I'm quite sure that for family and friends, it isn't. For the parents in particular, the grief is something that will always be with them.

Is such a site useful for reminding both young and old about their mortality? Perhaps giving people second thoughts about reckless behaviours is a benefit of such sites.

Some of the comments on the local paper's web-site have suggested that such memorials are inappropriate - that's what cemeteries are for. I'm not sure that there's a right time or place for remembering the loss of a loved one. Perhaps that's been encouraged in the past, but I think that today's society is more open about grieving, and I think that such an open attitude is much healthier. I'm sure that the family's and friends' memories won't end with the removal of the memorial - the memories will be with them constantly. My wife has had two co-workers die on Highway 11 - memorial site or not, she never goes to Saskatoon without thinking of them.

When I was in school, I remember cases of class-mates dying suddenly - there was never any discussion about these deaths and the effect on the rest of the kids in school. In one case, the student's desk was removed and the classroom rearranged so that her absence wouldn't be noticed. It was almost as if we were to forget that she ever existed, which can't have been a comfort to her family at all. When I compare that to the way a local school acted when a classmate of my son's died suddenly a few years ago - open discussion, encouraging the other children to talk about their memories, giving them time to grieve - I think that it's a big improvement in attitude, in recognizing that it's far better for friends and family to be able to do this openly, rather than "get over it".

So how do we balance the wishes of family and friends, and those of people in the neighbourhood who would rather not have the reminder of a tragic accident on their street?

No matter what the decision, I think that it's only respectful to inform families when dismantling such a memorial is being considered - give them the opportunity to remove items, and have some closure at a site of what has to be a source of incredible pain.

As I said, this is a difficult topic, and one that isn't easy for people to talk about. I'd be interested in your thoughts, and I hope that this item will receive thoughtful and respectful discussion when it returns to council.

"Grief teaches the steadiest mind to waver." - Sophocles

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Monday's Council Meeting - Once Again, No Surprises

Monday’s meeting of council wasn’t much of a surprise. Only six members were present; Councillors Gervais, Williams and Zurakowski were absent.

My motion to have us undergo a review of our current procedures to ensure that we’re following the Cities Act, our bylaws and our policies, failed to be seconded, so wasn’t even discussed. This, despite the fact that one councillor present had earlier said that he would be interested in such an effort, if it would help us do our jobs better. He later told a reporter that he didn’t second it because he didn’t want to use the consultant that I was recommending. Since I didn’t (and haven’t) recommended any specific consultant, and have even mentioned that these reviews can be done internally, I’m a bit confused about his rationale. But not surprised. I am disappointed that other council members didn’t even want to discuss the opportunity to ensure that we’re following our laws and procedures properly – open discussion would have been a sign that we’re starting to function more positively.

The motion to put the excess money collected for the soccer centre into improvements rather than into a reserve fund for maintenance costs passed easily – I was the only member of council present to vote against it. Again, I wasn’t surprised. I am disappointed that a large part of the legacy of this council will be inevitably higher tax bills to pay for the maintenance of this facility, the potential costs of which haven’t even been discussed.

It is disappointing, and discouraging. I don’t really have any choice but to continue to offer suggestions and ideas, and hope that at some point, open and rational discussion will occur. But the image of being someone constantly banging his head against a brick wall does come to me with increasing frequency.

On the bright side, I attended the rally on the riverbank last Friday, organized by citizens who were outraged by the attack on a recent immigrant the weekend before. Put together at short notice, I was impressed by the turnout, and by the conviction of those present that they were going to do something to make the situation better. These are the kind of efforts that will, eventually, pay off for the community as a whole. I commend Miranda Martin for taking the initiative to organize the rally, and the people who attended for their positive attitudes and ideas.

Tuesday evening Andrea and I went up to Kinsmen Park to have supper at Taste of Prince Albert. This has become a summertime tradition for us, and judging by the size of the crowd, for many residents. The variety of food is amazing, and from the sampling that we were able to do, delicious. I also enjoy the opportunity to meet people and discuss various issues, ranging from happenings at City Hall to the progress of home renovation projects. Lynn Brown and the members of the Chamber of Commerce have once again done a great job of putting together an event that is centrally accessible, reasonable in cost, and enjoyable for people of all ages. We may have to make a second visit.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Like a Teenager Who Wants to Buy a Car

Sometimes Prince Albert reminds me of a teenager who wants to buy a car. You know, they get all excited because the car costs only $xxxx, which is exactly the amount that they have saved. They don't think of all the costs that go along with car ownership - licensing, maintenance, gas, oil changes, tires.... And they also don't think that most of these costs will rise, sometimes quite far, quite fast, as we've seen with gas costs over the past year. But to the teenager, they want the car, they want it now - and their sights are often set on their dream car, not on a vehicle with good mileage, or a reputation for reliability.

Prince Albert tends to be like that with our city facilities - we want the best, we want it now, and we don't think too much about how much that facility will cost in the long run - we'll just get mom and dad to cover the costs. Only in this case, the tax payer is mom and dad - that's us. In the meantime, some of our needs (street paving, maintenance of other facilities) get overlooked.

We already have the Art Hauser Centre, which runs an increasing deficit every year - this year, it's $600,000. We also have the Rawlinson Centre, built a few years ago with volunteer contributions (and a legacy from John Diefenbaker), but now increasingly unable to cover its operating costs, this year requiring a subsidy from the city of $300,000. And recently, some of the people involved in track and field in the city have raised concerns about the deterioration of Harry Jerome Track - in such poor shape due to lack of maintenance that they no longer can host provincial track meets here.

But instead of learning from these experiences, we're now building a soccer centre, without giving too much thought to how we'll pay to keep it running. Once again, the citizens of Prince Albert have been incredibly generous in raising money for this facility - so generous, in fact, that they raised more than was targeted. But, instead of putting this money aside to help pay maintenance costs, or relieve the tax payer of some of their burden, or save in case construction costs are higher than budgeted, the only plans that I've seen are to add new features that weren't covered in the original cost estimates - a climbing wall, a walking track. I wouldn't have as much of a problem if they were going to invest in improvements that would make it more energy efficient, so that future operating costs would be less, but that doesn't appear to be one of the options that they're looking at.

I know that it's nice to have great facilities in the city - they do make Prince Albert a nicer place to live, if you are part of the community that uses these facilities. We need to remember that not everyone goes to the Art Hauser Centre, or the Rawlinson Centre, or plays soccer. When these projects are started, I think that a bit more realism about the long-term costs of these projects should be part of the planning process, because those costs will, for the most part, be paid for by people who didn't volunteer to do so, and who won't get a tax receipt or their name in the paper - you and I, the tax payer. Our population base has been stable for the past twenty years - we're foolish if we're counting on some great increase in tax base to help pay for these increasing costs. If it happens, great, but we shouldn't be counting on it.

It's not pleasant to be the person who raises these concerns - you're called negative, it's suggested that by raising concerns you're insulting those people who have donated money. But I've heard from a number of people who donated money involuntarily, through their taxes, and I think that they would rather see decreased costs for them in the future, rather than a state of the art facility that will only be used by a minority of Prince Albert citizens. And as a councillor, mindful of the fact that this council has approved two consecutive budgets with increases of about 5%, I think that it's my responsibility to try to minimize future budget increases, not add to them.

"He who will not economize will have to agonize." - Confucius

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Friday Night at the Movies

On Friday night Andrea and I packed up our lawn chairs and a sleeping bag and headed for Memorial Square in front of City Hall to take in a movie. It was part of the Cinema4Change tour which is going across the province this month, showing family-friendly movies for free outdoors, on a big inflatable screen. Sponsored by SGI, SaskTel, and the Credit Union, the Business Improvement District did their usual good job of organizing the event.

Although there were a couple of downpours in the late afternoon and early evening, by eight p.m. the sky had mostly cleared. By nine-fifteen people with lawn chairs and blankets were starting to settle in, and the movie, Horton Hears a Who, started about nine-thirty.

It was fun. The BID had a concession set up across the street, with hot dogs, popcorn, licorice, and drinks available for quite affordable prices. When was the last time you were at a movie and two popcorn and licorice only set you back $1.50? We don't go out to the movies much anymore - it's pricy just to get in, snack prices are ridiculous, and people talk during the movie, either to each other or on cell phones, which we find really annoying. But this crowd was quiet and polite, even though about half were children, so there were no distractions.

Maybe eighty people were there, many of them families, and all were enjoying themselves at this different kind of event. People even applauded at the end, which doesn't usually happen after a movie. It reminded me a bit of going to the drive-in as a kid - a relaxed family evening. If the weather hadn't been so iffy earlier, I'm sure the crowd would have been larger.

One of the ongoing concerns in Prince Albert is the need to revitalize the downtown. Along with that is the common perception that the downtown area is dangerous. What this event, and events like the Downtown Street Fair illustrate, is that when there are lots of people downtown, even at night, it isn't dangerous or scary at all. If we want a revitalized downtown, which is a sign of a healthy city, we need to encourage, support and attend events like this one. It didn't require millions of dollars, and it was accessible to everyone.

I'm hoping there will be more outdoor movies in Memorial Square, and when there are, I intend to be there.

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world" - Mohandas Gandhi

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Few Odds and Ends

There was no Executive Committee meeting this week - I'm not sure why. We didn't get any notice that the meeting was cancelled, nor do I recall any discussion that a meeting wasn't necessary because last week's council meeting was held on Wednesday rather than Monday. Perhaps the decision was made months ago. Perhaps it's part of our summer hours. How meetings are set, and the process for changing them, is one of the things that an audit of our practices would help to clarify. I suppose that in the big picture this seems like a trivial matter, but more clarity and consistency might leave me feeling less out of the loop, for no reason.

There are a couple of items from last week's council meeting that I wanted to mention. One was the approval to build a new residential building higher than the original plans had indicated, which left me feeling that the residents in the area, who had clearly indicated that this was not something that they wanted, were the victims of an end-run approved by council.

To give a bit of history on the matter, several months ago a developer brought forward a proposal to build a six-storey condo building on a lot on River Street that was zoned for single family residential. This is in Ward 3, and residents of the area had made it quite clear to me in phone calls and meetings that they did not want this sort of development in their neighbourhood, largely because of the additional impact of more residents in a small area, without adequate parking. The motion to rezone was defeated, although one member of council tried to have it brought back for reconsideration during the same meeting, which is not allowed. A few months later, council was given a new proposal for the same site, for a two-storey low-rise development. Council then approved the rezoning to allow for this. At last week's council meeting the developer was back - now the building will be three storeys, without adequate parking, and they will have to encroach on city land. One could suspect that this was their plan all along, and who knows how many storeys it will end up being. In any event, council approved the change, even though there was no explanation why the change of plans was necessary. Understandably, residents of the area feel let down by council, although one woman who called me was kind enough to thank me for trying.

At last week's meeting I also asked if it would be possible, since the fund-raising project for the soccer centre was so wildly successful, raising far more than their target, if the city's contribution could then be reduced. We could redirect some of the money to a number of projects, including the repair work required for the Harry Jerome track, which is in such a state of disrepair that the city is now unable to host large track meets. And some of the money could be used to give tax-payers a bit of a break in their taxes in future years. I'm not particularly hopeful, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Finally, I wanted to discuss a bit more my upcoming motion for the city to undergo an audit of its practices. Such an audit would not only be valuable for council members, but also for city administration, which is the other half of the team that runs the city. In my almost eight years on council, we have had four city managers, as well as one acting manager for several months. Many of our department heads are new. We've undergone several reorganizations, some major, some minor. We've had the usual round of retirements and people leaving for other jobs. All of this change means that, inevitably, there's a loss of corporate knowledge. An audit would give everybody, both council and administration, a common understanding of roles, responsibilities, and processes. I don't see this, as the poll on the web-site of the local paper puts it, as a way of resolving our differences - a healthy council should have differences of opinion. I do see it as a way of helping us get to a point where our differences can be discussed respectfully and openly, in such a way that we come to the best possible solutions for the city. Some may think that it's too late - however, this council has to work together for another sixteen months, and I don't think that it's a poor investment for us to get some help to allow us to do that.

"Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress." - Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Playing by the Rules of the Game

When you were a kid (or older), did you ever play Monopoly? Did money collected from various taxes go into the centre of the board, and get claimed by whoever landed on Free Parking? Did you know that, according to the Monopoly rules, that's not supposed to happen? So if you knew the real rules, but were playing at someone's house who played a slightly more flexible game, you might be a bit confused. A lot of games are like that, with the same basic rule framework, but individual quirks that might be regional or just have passed into common use. But you have probably experienced just how frustrating it is when you think that you're following one set of rules, then find out that the other people around the table have a different set of rules, or maybe no rules at all.

City Council operates under a hierarchy of rules as well. The broadest, and the ones that aren't written down, are our principles - things like being open and accountable to the public. Next broadest is the Cities Act, the provincial law that governs things like how elections are run, bylaw procedures, financial administration, and public accountability. Within the city, we pass bylaws relating to specific matters within our powers - zoning, utility rates, tax levies. More operationally, we have policies that govern how we make decisions, to try to ensure that all residents are treated equitably.

Within this framework of principles, legislation, bylaws and policies, the city operates. Our decisions, and the way that we make them, are governed by these rules. If we claim to follow the rules, but don't, our credibility and functioning suffers badly.

Where I've been having difficulties, is that quite often, the rules of the game seem to be ignored, or changed without telling everybody at the table. This may be due to the large number of people on this council who were brand new to council when they were elected, and some may have had difficulty in understanding that city council is not a private business - many of the rules of our game are different. And it may just be that they're not aware of all the rules, or of the importance of following them. When I first was elected, I had the opportunity to attend a Municipal Leadership conference that provided newly elected council members from across the province with an overview of their responsibilities. It was truly eye-opening. I don't know if the newer members of council have had this opportunity, which may be part of the problem.

That's why I think having an audit of current city practices against our current legislation, bylaws and policies would be useful. I think that it would be enlightening for everyone on council to have an overall view of how we should be operating, and where we're not following the rules, rather than having concerns brought up in a piecemeal fashion, and then argued about, which seems to be what has been happening lately.

As one example of an area where we aren't following the rules, the Cities Act says that, with a few exceptions, council and committee meetings are required to be conducted in public (Section 94, Public Accountability). Past practice of council was that notification of all committee meetings was public, and I regularly got notice of, and attended, committee meetings even when I wasn't a member of the committee. I found it a great way of learning more about how the city operates, and about the variety of issues that we have to deal with. However, in the past two years, I haven't received notice of meetings of committees of which I am not a member, and I haven't seen public notification of these meetings either. So we're in contravention of the Cities Act (Section 96), and also not following an established policy, which was developed to help ensure that committee meetings were open to the public.

The City of Saskatoon underwent such an audit a few years ago, done internally, and found several areas where they were not following their own rules. They now do this on a regular basis, to ensure that everyone on council is kept aware of the rules. In 2003, the City of Lethbridge had an outside consultant do a corporate review on how council and city administration could better function together, which is quite interesting reading.

Obviously, an internal review would be much more economical than hiring a consultant, but we might be best served by someone not connected with the city to do this, to ensure impartiality.

I will be making a motion that we do this at the next council meeting, July 14. Let me know if you agree that this would be a worthwhile thing for us to do.

"The shortest and surest way to live with honour in the world , is to be in reality what we would appear to be." - Socrates