Friday, September 26, 2008

It Ain't What You Say, It's the Way that You Say It

The decision at Monday's council meeting to approve rezoning to allow a new group home has been causing a fair amount of comment in the local newspaper. I don't think that the problem was with the decision - it was the process that was followed to get there, not helped by the lack of sympathy or respect that was shown to residents who came to council to complain.

If you've done any reading about conflict resolution, you'll know that most conflict about decision-making isn't because of the actual decision, it comes from the process that was used to come to that decision. In this case, it sounds as though concerned residents weren't given clear information about what was being discussed, they were led to believe that the decision was a done deal, and they felt intimidated when they asked for more information. The timeline between when information went out and when the decision was made was short. When residents came to address council, they were not listened to respectfully, but told that they were wrong to even voice these concerns. This does not give us the image of being a thoughtful, open council.

Perhaps this storm could have been avoided if, instead of communicating an impending change by sending out letters and expecting residents to seek out the proponent to ask questions on their own, we instead had meetings well before a decision which included both area residents and project proponents. Questions could then be asked and answered directly, with all parties hearing the discussion. It would probably be less intimidating to ask questions in a smaller meeting, rather than in front of cameras at a council meeting. And all present would hear the same facts, rather than only one side. There may still be residents who don't want this type of home in their neighbourhood, but they could not complain that they were given insufficient information beforehand, or that we did not try to accommodate their concerns.

Sure, it would take a little longer, and might cost the city a bit for a meeting room and coffee. But the time saved in the long run, and the prevention of further blackening the image of council, would be priceless, as the commercials say.

For the record, I voted in support of rezoning to allow the group home in this neighbourhood, for a number of reasons. These homes are badly needed, and I think that they should be located all over the city, rather than having them segregated in one or two neighbourhoods. I think that many of the fears that people have about group homes are exaggerated based on lack of information and experience, and that the only way to become more open as a society is to work towards integration, and increasing our tolerance of differences. But I hope that we have learned that the way that we make decisions is as important as the decisions themselves.

The new community plan, Plan Prince Albert, passed almost anticlimactically later in the meeting. I was the only councillor to speak on the subject, raising my concerns about its lack of specifics. No-one from the public commented, possibly because council has not been accepting of criticism in the past. Too bad, because I got the feeling that nobody really cared, or felt that there was any point in commenting. Perhaps people feel that this is a council where decisions have been made before we even go into the meeting - that is not a good thing.

"The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: 'I did not have time'." - Franklin Field

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Going Green

Another enjoyable weekend winding down. Andrea and I celebrated our anniversary (which was a couple of weeks ago) on Friday evening. We started with dinner at Chandelier's (our first visit there), which was impressive, with both food and service excellent. We then spent the night at the Hillcrest Inn Bed and Breakfast. We slept in a comfortable room with a lovely view over the city, and in the morning enjoyed a great breakfast and conversation with Daelene and Morris, our hosts, and with other guests. I highly recommend it as a way to enjoy a brief break without the hassle of traveling.

On our way home Saturday morning we stopped at Memorial Square to take in the Green Living Action Day (GLAD) Festival, put on by Tiger Lily Education and the Downtown Business Improvement District group - another successful partnership for Jayne Remenda and her team. We toured displays of environmentally friendly alternatives - housing, lighting, gardening, solar energy, a solar oven, recycling, food products, crafts, books - plenty to see and discuss. I'm looking forward to hearing more from Tiger Lily Education, and possibly attending some seminars which they're thinking of offering, on subjects such as reducing energy costs and building more sustainably.

We also made our usual weekend visit to the farmers' market - we have really enjoyed trying the various vegetables that are available there this summer. I'm not sure how long into the fall we'll be able to take advantage of the market - if you haven't been, either Wednesday or Saturday mornings, it's well worth a visit.

The GLAD festival reminded me of a couple of things. One is how events such as these show how lively the downtown is when people have a reason to go there, and what a good location Memorial Square is for these events. There was even a small wedding there in the afternoon, which seemed to fit well with the small and friendly attitude of the GLAD displayers. Another was how taking small steps to be more environmentally friendly is not difficult - it just takes a bit of thoughtfulness. I hope that city council can start to be more aware of the environmental impacts of our decisions, and build that awareness into our decision-making processes.

"There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew." - Marshall McLuhan

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Questions, questions, questions

I ask a lot of questions at council. Often, they are questions that I have been asked by city residents, and they figure that, as a councillor, I can probably get an answer faster than they can. Other times they are my own questions, when I read something in the council agenda, or in supporting documents, that I'd like more information about, so that I can make a more informed decision when I vote on matters. And sometimes, the answers bring up more questions.

As a council, I think that we owe the citizens of Prince Albert answers, particularly answers about decisions that we've made, because these decisions directly affect them. They may not always agree with our decisions, but we should have sound reasons that are defensible.

When I was in school, asking questions was encouraged, often with the teacher suggesting that asking questions was a key part of learning. I don't ever recall a teacher rolling impatient eyes at any question, as if providing an answer was just more work for her or him. But I often get that sense when I ask a question at council.

Last night at council I asked questions about money - always a touchy subject. We have a proposal before us to borrow another $ 13 million dollars, with a twenty-year time frame for repayment. Of this, $12 million will be for interim financing for building the soccer centre, to cover the five-year time period over which donations from the public will be made. The remaining $1 million will be used to pay for capital projects - those were not specified.

So the Prince Albert taxpayer will be paying upfront even more for the soccer centre than we have been led to believe - going into debt to do this, in fact. I also asked about the possibility of putting some of the excess donations into the contingency fund for unexpected costs, and was told that, no, this money had been donated with the condition that it be spent for additional features. Of course, those donors will not have to pay any additional costs, unlike the taxpayer donors, who have no choice. I guess they were allowed to put strings on their gifts.

I also asked what the total debtload for the city is now. Instead of getting a specific answer, I was told that it was in the budget documents. I've been through those documents a few times, and it didn't jump out at me, so I don't know how we can expect the average citizen to find this information easily. I'll have to haul out the budget documents, and see what I can find. I'll keep you posted.

I mentioned in my last post that the answers to the questions I ask city staff have been amazingly slow in coming lately - two questions, one asked in January, the other in March, were just answered last week. That means that the question that I asked three weeks ago about how much it costs to pave a street will probably get answered next spring. Neither of these questions originated with me; they came from residents who deserve more respectful treatment than that.

I'll continue to ask questions - the residents of Prince Albert deserve answers.

"The only stupid question is the one that isn't asked" - Anonymous

Sunday, September 7, 2008

"Before beginning, plan carefully" - Cicero

The need for having a community development plan is a requirement of the Planning and Development Act, 2007, but it is also just common sense. Having such a plan should give council a framework for making decisions, and give each city department direction when they're developing budgets and work plans for the upcoming year. As Yogi Berra said "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else."

And the new Plan Prince Albert Official Community Plan, which will be discussed at council on September 22, with the opportunity for public comment then, provides some good first steps at setting out that framework. One can't disagree with the statements in the vision, which is how the planners see the ideal city set 20 years in the future - safe, innovative, diverse, environmentally sound, led by a responsible, ethical government.

The vision is a good start. But the best plans say exactly where you want to go, how you will get there, how long it will take, and what will be your measure of success. For example, in 1960, President Kennedy set a goal for the space program that, within ten years, they would have successfully landed a man on the moon and returned him safely to the earth. If any of these elements were missing, the plan would not have been considered a total success. But, going one step at a time (and if you were alive in the 1960s you'll remember the excitement of going from sub-orbital flight, through the successful orbiting missions, through the success of sending more than one man into space, to the final culmination of the moon landing), the entire, long-term plan was successful, because that specific goal had been met, within the projected time.

So, while we have a good start to a plan, I find it lacking in two areas. First, there are very few actions that say how we are going to get to this ideal state. Many of the objectives lack specific detail - there are many well-meaning words like encourage. consider, explore, and facilitate, but no actual suggestions about how, for example, we will "Provide a measure of certainty with respect to future growth patterns" (Objective I'm not sure what that means, or how we will go about trying to do that.

The second area where I find the plan lacking is in having measureable targets. For example, it's one thing to set the West Flat area as a priority area for residential redevelopment (4.7)- I would like to know exactly what this means, and whether other older areas of the city (Midtown, for one), should also be included in residential redevelopment plans. To me a clearer goal would be to have all city streets paved by a certain year. For a goal like that, we could set a budget, and a manageable number of streets per year, and at the end, it would be clear if we had achieved the goal. Another area which deserves some redevelopment consideration is the area north of the river - a worthy goal there would be to provide these neighbourhoods with sewer, water, and transit service by a certain date. This would help to achieve a number of the broad vision statements, and help to bring all neighbourhoods up to what should be a basic level of service in the community. Right now, all that this area merits in the plan (10.9) is a commitment not to sell any more land in the area until it is possible to fully service the area.

I appreciate that preparing this plan was a major challenge, and I commend the city planners, and the members of the public that participated, for their efforts so far. This is apparently the final draft, and I'm not sure if there will be any consideration to making changes before the plan is formally adopted by Council. The plan does talk about the need for ongoing monitoring and changes to the plan; I hope that, as we get into plan implementation, we will find ways of providing more specific details in all aspects of the plan, so that we will be able to assess whether the plan has been successful in helping us move toward the vision for the city of the future.

"When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind." Seneca

Monday, September 1, 2008

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Measure twice, cut once. It's an old carpenter's axiom, suggesting that it's best to be sure, before you take an action that can't be reversed. As a long-time home renovator, it's a phrase that Andrea says to me quite often. But it works well in life, too, telling you that it's best to have all pertinent information before moving forward on decisions that aren't easily corrected.

I thought of this when I received an update memo on Friday on the soccer centre construction. The first step in construction, putting in the pilings, is going to cost more than twice the amount that was in the estimates - $638,846.00 rather than $256,640.00. This is apparently due to the soil condition on the site, which lacks strong glaced till. To cover this shortfall, $382,206 of the $962,980 contingency fund will be used, leaving less than $600,000 in the contingency fund to cover any other discrepancies between budgeted items and the actual tenders that may be received for the rest of the construction. This decision was made by the City Manager - in July, council gave him sole authority for arranging tenders and contracts for the soccer centre when the awarding of such tenders would not fall within the normal cycle of council meetings. Since council hasn't met since August 11th, this decision would qualify, although emergency council meetings have been called for less costly items.

A number of questions come to mind. Was a soil survey done before the site was selected? What factors were considered when the decision on where to build the centre was made? Were other building budget decisions made on insufficient evidence that will require further dipping into the contingency fund? Considering the way that construction costs seem to be rising daily, is there anything that can be done to put more money into the contingency fund, so that taxpayers won't be expected to pay even more for this facility?

I have asked repeatedly to see minutes of soccer centre committee meetings. I would like to know what information the committee used to make the decision to locate the centre in a location that is on the edge of town, and on land that has to be purchased, rather than using existing city land that is more centrally located. So far I haven't received any response. Considering that last week I received answers to two inquiries, one made last December, the other in March, and have several more outstanding, I don't expect to get the answers to most of these questions anytime soon.

In July, council also decided to add additional features to the soccer centre, since more money was donated than originally anticipated. We did this, even though a poll in the local paper had 31% of respondents suggesting that putting the money into a contingency fund would be a good idea, with 43% supporting putting the money into future operating costs, and only 27% supporting a bigger, better centre. A poll that I ran on the same topic had 44% in favour of reducing the city's contribution, to give a break to taxpayers, 37% wanting the money set aside to help pay for operating costs, 10% thinking that adding the money to a contingency fund was the way to go, and 6% wanting more features added to the centre.

Is there anything that council can do, now that more than one-third of our contingency fund has been spent? We could reconsider the motion to add additional features to the centre, instead putting excess funds into a contingency fund. Should the entire fund not be used, then leftover funds could help to pay operating costs.

This item was not included in the agenda for Tuesday's Executive Committee meeting, but the report will be on our desks for the meeting. Because the decision has been made, it will be only an information item on next week's council agenda. But I will pursue the matter, to try to get some answers to questions that could have long-term financial implications for taxpayers. Doing this, although some might see it as being negative, is part of doing my job.

"Never be ashamed to admit you were wrong. You're only saying that you're wiser today than you were yesterday" - Dave Gilpin