Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Back, and Looking Ahead

Like many people, I find that as the year comes to an end, I look back at the previous year, noting various landmarks and events, and look ahead, hoping that, since change is inevitable, the changes in my life will be mostly positive.

While the year in review articles in the media tend to focus on events that affect a broad range of society, my year in review tends to be more personal. I think that most people's lives are like that - while we are aware of larger events, it's our own personal landmarks that are the most memorable for us.

Last year marked thirty years in Saskatchewan for Andrea and me. We arrived here in late September 1979, knowing only a couple of people in town (guys that Andrea had been in university with who worked for PAPCo), and certainly not planning to make any kind of permanent attachment to the community. Now, thirty years later, although we'll always be considered people from away by some residents of the city, I think that it's safe to say that we've each made positive contributions, both professionally and personally, to our adopted city and province. I'm amazed when I look at the changes to Prince Albert over the years. It hasn't grown much in size - while it is a few thousand larger than the 30,000 or so that it was then, it hasn't grown as dramatically as some communities in the same time - we came from Toronto, which has grown from 2 million to more than 3 million in the same time frame, and Saskatoon has added more than 100,000 people over this time as well. We need to recognize that Prince Albert will never be one of the mega-population centres of the province -that's okay, we just need to focus on services and infrastructure that are appropriate and affordable for a community this size.

The year also marked some departures of people from my life. On the personal side, the deaths of friends are always difficult, and leave a gap that will never be filled in quite the same way again. I will particularly miss my friends Alice and Bert, whose humour and common sense never failed to cheer me up. On the professional side, I will miss my former colleague Sharon Karr, who was acting director of the library for more than a year, until a job opportunity in Edmonton, closer to family, was too tempting for her to pass up. I regret that the library board was unable to act quickly enough to give her enough reasons to stay. I also miss Lyn Brown, in her capacity as CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce. She had common sense and the courage to speak up, pointing out where the city could do a better job for its business community - sadly, such courage was not always appreciated by those who see any criticism as being treason.

The civic election this year was my fourth (fifth, if I count the by-election in early 2000 that I lost by 50 votes). Being acclaimed was quite unexpected, and much appreciated. Highlights of council work last year, for me, would be the new provisions put in place by council for secondary suites, and the approval of middle income housing developments in the West Hill - these were both initiatives that helped council meet its objectives for improving housing opportunities in the city. I'm pleased that the new members of the housing committee are continuing to ask the same questions that I asked in my time as chair of that committee - hopefully, their persistence will result in continued improvement in this crucial area.

Looking ahead to the next year, I hope, most of all, for continued good health for my family and friends. As always, these are the anchors for everything that I do - in the end, these are the people who I can trust to give me good advice, support me in whatever decisions I make, and help to put things into perspective whenever I start to feel particularly sorry for myself. Public personas are one thing, but it's the way people treat you day in and day out that really counts.

Professionally, this new council will be facing its first major challenge with the development of the budget. I'm hoping that more common sense prevails, and that we take adequate time to discuss and debate the various options open to us, rather than trying to rush things through as though there were some sort of prize for finishing in the shortest amount of time. I hope that when members of council speak, we hear fewer sound bites and odd metaphors, and more easily understandable statements about what we intend to do. I will continue to hope for more respectful treatment of all members of council, and that some members will realize that treating a councillor with disrespect is, in effect, disrespecting the citizens of Prince Albert who have elected that councillor. And I hope that we start to demonstrate that we are what we claim to be - open and accountable, answering questions that are asked, when we say that we will. Let's keep items that should be open to the public on the public agenda, instead of trying to keep issues that might be contentious within our in camera sessions.

On a personal level, next year Andrea and I will celebrate our thirty-fifth anniversary, and our house will reach the century mark. We'll have to find a good way of celebrating both of these milestones.

For us, far from the rest of our extended family, Christmas and New Year's are always quiet celebrations, which suits us just fine. This year was quieter than usual, since Andrea decided to celebrate with a cold, which she then shared with Ingrid and me. But despite the sniffles and sneezes, it was a good family time, with a few gatherings with friends as well. I hope that your holiday featured similar times of quiet enjoyment and appreciation, and that the new year brings good times for all of us.

" There's nothing worth the wear of winning, but laughter and the love of friends." - Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Committee Appointments - Once Again, Openness and Accountability Come Up Short

At council meeting this past Monday evening, committee appointments were ratified. These are committees appointed by council, at least, according to The Cities Act, they're supposed to be. One would think that, as such, council as a whole would discuss who is to be appointed to which committee, both council members and members of the public. After all, decisions of council should be made by council, not by a single member.

Under different councils, decisions about which council member sits on which committee have been made in different ways. Probably the most open was the year that the different committees were written on ping pong balls, then drawn out of a box. That ensured turnover on committees, gave everyone exposure to different experiences, evened up the workload somewhat, and removed any suggestion that council appointments are some sort of favour to be bestowed on those who have found favour with the decision makers. In other years, at the very least, council had the opportunity to have a full discussion, as a group, before decisions were ratified. In this way, we had the rationale for which committees we were on, as well as the rationale for decisions about public members.

This is no longer the case. The list of who is on which committee, both council and public members, came out of the mayor's office, and council ratified it without discussion. I have no reason why I was removed from two committees of which I was chair (Library and Housing), why I remain on other committees (Saskatoon Airport Authority, North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Planning Committee, the North Central Waste Management Committee, the Joint School Board Committee), or why I was placed on other committees (District Planning Commission, the Heritage Building Committee). I was placed on the Enterprise Zone Committee and the Peter Ballantyne/City Joint Committee, but declined to be on those committees, because they have never met, nor has council referred anything to them. I don't see the need for agreeing to put my name on a membership list for non-functional committees - it's not like I'm interested in padding my resume.

So that's only six committees - not much, compared to the workload some other councillors have been given. In some cases, I'm surprised, since some councillors' attendance at certain committees has been abysmal, and yet they've been appointed to still more committees. However, if you're one of those who see council appointments as plums handed out in return for favours, and some committees as having higher profile than others, and you're interested in furthering your political career, it might make sense from that perspective. However, we shouldn't be approaching our jobs that way - we should be working on the job at hand, not trying to put ourselves in a favourable light for future jobs or future elections.

And, as is so often the case, the process was flawed. Even though it was apparently all right to everyone else on council, that doesn't make it right. Handing over responsibility to one individual to make all the decisions makes a mockery of why we bother electing, and paying, more than one council member. Perhaps some might feel that the result will be inevitable, so why not just go along. The last time I checked, our oath of office didn't include anything about just going along. Perhaps fear of the repercussions of standing up and objecting is top of people's minds. I can sympathize with that - it isn't pleasant to be treated as a second-class member of a council that one is elected to. But acquiescing out of fear isn't the answer either - it's like dealing with the bully who threatens you in the school yard, but then turns on another kid. If you don't stand up with that other kid, because you hope that the bully will now leave you alone, you're sending a message to the bully that he can have his own way, all the time. We've all been elected to do a job, and not doing parts of it because it's easier this way, shouldn't be an option.

As I've mentioned before, the city has sixty-some committees and subcommittees, many of which have vague reasons for existence, some of which never meet. It might have been a better use of council's time if we had decided which committees are needed, which ones various council members had interest in, and moved on from there. We could have discussed rotating some responsibilities (after nine years on the library board, I can see that some might think that I need a change, although I enjoyed working with the library staff, and will miss working with the new director, who I had encouraged to apply for the job), we could have discussed council members' interests, and shared some of the less glamourous (in some people's minds), appointments. We could have discussed not reappointing some members of the public to committees when they have never attended a committee meeting.

But it didn't happen that way. And everyone but me seemed to be okay with that, for whatever their reasons were.

"Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform." - Mark Twain

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Quest for Coherent Logic

Sometimes, I come out of a council meeting wondering if I've mysteriously lost my ability to speak English - perhaps there's some kind of encoding that happens between my utterance and when it makes its way across council chambers. Perhaps that open space in the centre is a Bermuda Triangle for ideas. I certainly felt that way at last Monday's council meeting, after my motion to have a report prepared, as well as a draft bylaw, on the feasibility of a cat licensing system in the city was defeated.

I don't expect that everyone on council agrees with the need for such a bylaw, but I did think that the logical next step would be to have a report outlining the options, to provide the necessary information that council would need before moving forward with a bylaw. However, the reasons given by some council members defied logic - the statement was made that we don't want to commit ourselves to a bylaw. Perhaps a review of the difference between having a report prepared (provision of information), versus voting on a bylaw (making the final decision) is required for some councillors. Until a bylaw is actually given three readings, it has not been passed, and council has not committed itself to anything.

Another councillor said that he felt that the current bylaw needs to be reviewed and updated, but he felt that we should have a report first. This is when I started worrying about whether I had lost the power of understandable speech - that was the first part of my recommendation, and if that was the only part of the recommendation that could be supported, then the councillor could have asked for an amendment that he could support.

So my recommendation was defeated, although not totally without support. If there were logical reasons for not supporting this (if, for example, one felt that the current situation was fine, that there is no need to find additional ways of funding the SPCA, that sort of reason), I could understand that. But with the reasons that were given, one might wonder if the actual motive was to not support a suggestion of a particular member of council, possibly for personal reasons.

Now, one wouldn't want to believe that - not from a council less than a month old, which had members at the first meeting talk about the need for greater cooperation and working together. Surely those weren't just words said for show, without any intention of following those words up with actions that would demonstrate commitment to those ideas. A member of council has to put aside personal feelings in doing what is best for the city, otherwise we wouldn't be doing our jobs and upholding our oath of office. We owe each other the respect of listening to everyone's ideas, and figuring out how we can make change work, otherwise we're not respecting the people who elected us to do those very things.

Since we won't have licensing fees to help the SPCA anytime soon, remember to go to, and vote for the Prince Albert SPCA. We've gone from eighty-something place in Canada when I first posted about this opportunity, reached as high as twenty-third place, but have now slipped to twenty-fifth. You can vote once a day until December 20th.

No council or executive meeting this week - I'm not sure why. We have many things to talk about, from the finally released second bridge report, to the new committee recommendations, to the ever-changing numbers for soccer centre operational costs. But we won't be starting any of those discussions until December 7, our next Executive Meeting. Unless, of course, it's decided that we need a special meeting before then.

"What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Cat Question

At the first council meeting of this new council, I announced my intention to look into the feasibility of a cat licensing bylaw. This has provoked a bit of reaction - the local paper ran an electronic poll, asking if people would be in favour of this (a small majority appear to be), and a number of people, ranging from Andrea's co-workers to our vet, have commented on it.

I do not hate cats, as some have suggested. I'm not particularly fond of them, either. I'm actually allergic to them. However, I am part of a family that is made up of cat people, which is why we have them as pets.

I recognize the value that cats (and dogs) bring to a family - they provide companionship, affection, and a non-judgemental ear. And while there are those who claim that cats are less attached to individuals than dogs, there is no denying that Hendrix recognizes Guthrie's step when he comes home from work, and runs to greet him.

I'm sure that most pet owners do their best to be responsible, recognizing that having a pet is a responsibility, not a right. And, like many things, it's the irresponsible few that cause problems for the rest of us. Too many people look on pets as being somewhat disposable, and can't be bothered with the basics of pet ownership, like spaying and neutering, which is why the SPCA is forced to take drastic measures, like the current offering of free adoption of cats, to try to reduce the current volume.

All of the cats in our home are the result of irresponsible pet owners. Hendrix, adopted from the SPCA four years ago, was one of a litter of kittens that was trapped by the animal control officer. He was extremely withdrawn in the first few weeks with us, staying completely within Guthrie's room. It was only after a couple of months that he ventured into the rest of the house - surprisingly, now he's probably the cuddliest of the cats.

Hunter was a stray who showed up on our doorstep three years ago, a half-grown kitten with a tremendous purr. He hung about the yard for a day or so before Andrea brought him in after he almost was hit by a car. We assume that he was abandoned by someone who moved out of the neighbourhood.

Two years ago Guthrie brought Gracie home - she was from a home where they don't believe in spaying or neutering, so usually have litters of kittens about. And most recently, we've been found by Maggie, a stray who hung about the yard all summer, usually running off whenever one of us got too close. She got very friendly when the cold weather came, and now is living in our basement - a long-haired tortoiseshell whose owners cared enough to have her spayed (the vet estimates that she's three or four years old), but who seem to have left her behind when they moved. We were going to take her to the SPCA, but realize their capacity issues right now, and Guthrie was worried that, because of her age, she was unlikely to be adopted. If you know anyone in the midtown area who's missing such a cat, give us a call.

So, how would a licensing bylaw help in controlling the cat situation? My initial thought that it would be a way of increasing revenues to the SPCA, an organization that survives because of the dedication of its staff and volunteers. Requiring that cats be licensed also might help to return cats that have wandered away from home, particularly if, as part of the licensing process, the cat could be microchipped. That might even be a way of providing owners with a tangible benefit of getting a licence.

Saskatoon has had a cat licensing bylaw for a few years - we could review their bylaw, and get a sense of how it's working. I've spoken with the guys at bylaw enforcement - they agree that our pet bylaws need review, and that now is as good a time as any. For instance, we do have a bylaw that limits cat ownership to six, and requires that all cats over six months of age be spayed or neutered unless the owner has a breeding licence. However, our lack of a licensing requirement means that we have no way of knowing where the cats are, or enforcing whether they are able to breed.

People need to become more aware that cats (or any pets) aren't disposable - that there are basic needs that need to be met. If the small cost of getting a licence discourages people from getting a cat - good. That is the smallest cost of pet ownership. And if it provides more funds for the SPCA, and reduces the number of cats who have to be put to sleep because their owner can't be found, all the better.

Next to recycling bins and parking woes, I probably get the most phone calls and complaints about cats, and how to control them. I'm not saying that licensing cats will solve all of these problems, but I think that it's a possible solution that is worth investigating.

"The problem with a kitten is that, eventually it becomes a cat." - Ogden Nash

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

And We Begin Again

Monday evening was the first meeting of this new council. As is usual for the first meeting, the bulk of it is taken up with the swearing in ceremony, and the actual meeting agenda is quite light. And between the ceremony and the actual meeting, we break for fifteen minutes or so for the family and friends in attendance to take pictures and offer congratulations. Then most of the crowd leaves, and we take care of mostly administrative details, like who's going to be deputy mayor when.

Every councillor gets about six weeks of deputy mayor duty, which mostly means chairing the Committee of the Whole section of the council meeting. In the past, we've usually gone in alphabetical order, but sometimes trades happen, because someone is going to be away on extended holiday during their proposed term. Usually the schedule is discussed ahead of the meeting; this didn't happen this time, which led to amendments on the spot, as Councillor Dionne and I traded spots to deal with his planned holidays (we had discussed this before the meeting), then Councillor Martin Ring asked to trade with Councillor Zurakowski for the same reason. If nothing else, this highlighted the importance of council matters being discussed by council as a whole, rather than decisions being made without participants' input.

So far I feel good about this new council. The new council members all seem prepared to work hard for the betterment of the city as a whole, and to understand that, until the whole city is considered a good place to live, we haven't finished the job.

We had an orientation meeting the Monday before the first meeting. At this meeting we were also informed that there would be more meetings during the week, and a bus tour of city facilities on Saturday morning. The lack of notice and my previous commitments to other organizations and family meant that I wasn't able to take advantage of those opportunities. While I'm quite familiar with city staff and most facilities, I would have appreciated being able to spend some time with my new colleagues. However, we do have the next three years of working together, and hopefully there will be more advance notice of meetings - most councillors have busy lives that have just gotten busier, and that needs to be recognized.

I will miss having Councillor Williams to bounce ideas off, and to have open and honest discussions with about city problems. For the past couple of years he's had to commute from out-of-town work opportunities to get to council meetings, and I don't think that other members of council fully appreciated the extra effort and costs that this entailed, nor was there ever any effort made to accommodate his rather special circumstances. Shawn represented the people of his ward well, he wasn't afraid to speak up for what he believed was right, and he refused to be bullied - not always an easy thing to do.

But I'm hopeful that the members of this new council will also remember their constituents and speak up for what they believe is right - if enough of us do that, we should be able to make positive changes to the city over the next three years.

"No man is wise enough by himself." - Plautus

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Some Post-Election Thoughts

The election is over, and we have a new council. Changes to four of the nine seats, which might change the dynamics. And three of the new councillors are women, which will provide some long-needed gender diversity to what is often termed as an old boys' club. I think that an election that results in significant new blood, while maintaining some veterans is a good thing - you end up with a good mix of experience and new perspectives, which is healthy for any organization.

If all members of council are wise, they will pay attention to the issues that were raised during the election. I heard a lot of questions about our increasing debt load, deteriorating infrastructure, the new bridge, and the lack of openness of council. We need to do what we can to answer those questions and change our behaviours, quickly.

Those of us fortunate to be returning shouldn't take our re-election as blanket endorsement of our actions over the last term - the significant number of votes that were directed towards an individual with no council experience, and with relatively little life experience, told me that there were people out there who wanted to plant a vote somewhere, but who weren't willing to select either of the experienced options, no doubt remembering Jerry Garcia's line that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. And those of us who were fortunate enough to be acclaimed need to be aware that it might not have been the right time or place for potential challengers - it doesn't mean that everyone in our wards agrees with everything we have done over the past three years.

And we can't ignore the fact that most eligible voters in Prince Albert chose not to vote. I don't know what the answer to voter apathy is - I suspect that it isn't one single answer, but several. Four acclamations may be seen as having reduced the reason for voting in half the city, but I don't think that that's the only reason for the low turnout.

I don't think that it's that getting to the polls is particularly difficult. Electronic voting may be worth investigating, or setting up more polls, but honestly, people had several days to find a few minutes to exercise their right, and many didn't. In Saskatoon, advance polls were set up in malls, and their turnout was also pretty pathetic.

Perhaps part of it is that people didn't like their choices, that there wasn't someone particularly inspiring to vote for. Not every election can feature a Barack Obama, who can ignite crowds with energy and a sense of being part of positive change. That doesn't change the responsibility of the individual to study the issues, make a choice, and vote. Actually, you don't even have to study the issues - the only questions that you're asked as you register have to do with where you live, and for how long. In fact, we had a brief moment of levity when we went to vote, when Guthrie turned to Andrea (who had finished casting her ballot) to ask which school board he was voting for - knowing nothing about it didn't stop him from voting (although he did recognize some of the names on the ballot, apparently).

I think that a large part of voter apathy comes from the feeling from many people that, no matter who they vote for, once the election is over, their concerns will be forgotten, so why bother. That's important for each member of council to remember - getting elected is one thing. Being an effective member of council, truly representing and standing up for your constituents, even the ones who may not have voted for you, is a whole new game. But that's the game we're into now.

Perhaps if we all do our jobs well over the next three years, the next election will generate interest, excitement, and the sense that getting involved in leading the city is a worthwhile endeavour. More candidates, more interest, more clearly discussed issues and options, should result in more likely engagement of voters.

To the new faces around the table - welcome. Don't forget the people who elected you, who are now trusting you to represent them. They are now your bosses, and will have the opportunity to fire you in three years if they feel ignored. Treat your vote at council as a trust that shouldn't be violated, and don't let others around the table try to influence you in doing anything but following your own conscience when you vote. Learn the actual rules of the game, and don't hesitate to follow them, even if others at the table get a tad cranky. The democratic process has evolved over time in the way that it has for good reasons; it can serve us well if we remember that.

November 8 will be the first meeting of this new council - I'm looking forward to my fourth term. And don't worry - I won't be agreeing to the third reading in the same meeting if I think that further discussion and public input is required.

"Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Don't Believe Everything You Hear on the Campaign Trail

A couple of elections ago, I got a phone call from a Ward Three resident. Apparently, one of the councillor candidates, who didn't live in the ward, was doing some door-knocking, and when one resident asked why he was running in the ward if he didn't live there, responded that Lee Atkinson didn't live in the ward either. That resident then gave me a call to find out if I'd moved. I assured him that I hadn't; he assured me that I still had his support, then scoffed at the other guy, who was now guaranteed not to get this guy's vote ever, for anything, because not only did he not live in the ward, but he was also a liar.

I've never believed in campaigning by trying to convince people of the other candidates' weaknesses - I believe that it's best to focus on why I think I have the skills and experiences that will make me a good councillor, and not worry too much about the competition. But to resort to mis-statements about other people to try to build yourself up - well, if you lie about the little things, how can you be trusted on the bigger things?

So I was somewhat concerned at the mayoral debate, to hear several statements made as if they were true, when they are not. When the statement was made that the previous council had fired every senior manager or given them early retirement, I turned to the former councillor sitting next to me, and asked him who we had fired. Nobody, he said. Some senior staff had left for other jobs - that has happened with this council as well. We had also done some organizational restructuring, and some staff had taken early retirement in that process. And some senior staff who were there then are still around.

Statements were also made that the consultant's report on the new bridge was flawed. Apparently the flaw was that the completion of the report took so long because so many changes were requested, that there wasn't enough money left in the budget for the consultants to present the report to council. So the flaws aren't in the report, but in the lack of a presentation, caused because members of this council weren't happy with the first answer that was provided.

Further strange statements have been made since - for example, the soccer centre project isn't over budget. Well, maybe not over the budget after it was adjusted this year, when an additional two years of taxpayers' contributions have been added, just for the construction costs. Originally, your involuntary contributions were to end in 2013 - you'll now be paying until 2015. To me, that means that it's over the original budget.

An even stranger statement was made concerning the operating costs for the centre: apparently, the city manager announced publicly that operating costs for the centre will be $225,000 per year. You may be wondering how you missed that announcement. That's because it was part of an in camera report to council, not a public announcement. In camera means not public, which is allowed for a range of reasons under The Cities Act. In the past, when information provided in camera has been made public, some members of council have been outraged, and suggested that investigations be made to find out who breached council confidentiality. I guess that the investigation won't have to go too far to find the leak this time.

Confidential or not, it's public now, and we don't know what is included in those costs - do they include staffing costs, maintenance, power and electricity? If you remember that the city contributes $300,000 each year to the operation of the Rawlinson Centre (which underestimated its original utility costs by $120,000, which the city has had to make up), and that the Art Hauser Centre had an operating deficit last year of $600,000, then $250,000 probably seems suspiciously low.

Another question was asked about increases to city staffing, with the answer given that staffing levels haven't increased. I'm amazed, because when I've asked for staffing levels, I've been told that they can't provide me with a number, because it's too difficult, since some jobs are part time, some are casual, some are seasonal, and so forth. I find that hard to believe. I also know that there are now two administrative support staff in the mayor's office, where before there was only one, and that there has been a new social development manager position created and filled with a new staff person, with associated new support staff. Unless this council has fired a number of people, I have to believe that those are more positions that taxpayers are supporting. And there were also several seasonal positions associated with Neat and Clean in the first year - those were new too.

There has also been much emphasis made about this year's 0% tax increase. Let's remember that that was this year - the previous two years each featured 6% tax increases. So over the term of this council, your taxes went up 12%, or an average 4% a year. And that doesn't include the ongoing increases to your water rates - 8% compounding every year until 2013. That, of course, is for residential users. Commercial user rates remain the same. Technically, it's not a tax increase. Neither is the increase in sanitation charges that you're now paying. But these are increased costs for living in this city, brought to you by this council.

In my dealings with people, I've found that they can be quite understanding of mistakes that you may make, but they really hate it if you try to deny your mistakes, if you try to cover things up, if you try to blame other people when you should have known better. Nobody's perfect, and we shouldn't be afraid to admit that.

It basically comes down to trying to maintain an image, or being able to demonstrate the substance behind the image. I hope that in this election, people look behind the image, and make their decision based on substance.

If you've already voted at an advance poll, great. If you haven't, please remember to vote on Wednesday. People often feel that a single vote doesn't count - tell that to the village in Newfoundland, where their recent election was determined by drawing a name out of a hat, after the polls ended in a tie. Here in PA, my first win was by 34 votes; other wards have been witness to margins of 10 votes or less. And of course, if you don't vote, you've given up your right to complain about civic government for the next three years.

"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." - Abraham Lincoln

Monday, October 19, 2009

Questions That Candidates Should Be Ready To Answer

We're more than half-way through the campaigning process, and you've probably noticed much less of the usual associated bumph, particularly compared to last time. Fewer ads, way fewer signs - one might almost assume that nobody's running. Although, to be fair, in the wards that have councillor contests, there are lawn signs. Perhaps the more sign-happy candidates from last time have become born-again environmentalists. Or perhaps there are fewer people willing to post publicly that they support a candidate who proved to be not quite what they had hoped he would be.

Having four councillors (including me) already acclaimed does take some of the suspense out of the situation, but I would remind everyone that even if you cannot vote for a councillor, you still should make the effort to vote for the mayor, and for the school board.

And I've even thought of some questions that you should ask candidates for council, or those who are wanting to use that big office on the second floor of city hall. Should you happen to run into a candidate, either at your door, or in the grocery store, feel free to ask them questions as if they were candidates in a job interview, because that's exactly what they are. They're applying for the job, and you are one of the bosses. Never run into a candidate? Go to the city web-site ( and check out the elections section for contact information for most candidates. If the information is sketchy for a candidate who is also an incumbent, go to the section on City Council, and click on the contact information there for phone numbers and email addresses.

You may have favourite issues that you have no trouble coming up with questions about. I have a few that should be required for every candidate.

For example, ask your candidate if he or she is comfortable with the current level of debt that the city carries. (The current council has used up all of the reserves that previous councils had created, and gone into much more debt to finance various initiatives. In fact, we had to get permission from the province to go into debt at levels higher than our projected annual tax revenues of approximately $35 million. We've done that, and then some, even though the past two years have featured unprecedented hand-outs from both the federal and provincial governments - hand-outs that probably won't be in the picture for this next council.) What sort of ideas do they have for cost-cutting, or are they of the mind-set that, when you max out your credit cards, you just apply for another.

Ask your candidate where they think a second bridge should be located, and why. The province, the city, and the RMs of Buckland and Prince Albert commissioned a highway study related to the twinning of Highway 11 and the potential location of a second bridge. This report was completed last November, but hasn't been presented to council yet, for no explained reason. A second bridge is key to the continued development of the city and the region, but unless we can work in partnership with other levels of government, it won't happen.

Open and accountable is a catchphrase that this council has talked about a great deal, but hasn't really put into practice. Ask your candidate what he or she would do to make this a reality. For instance, would they support a bylaw requiring candidates to disclose their financial supporters in an election campaign, such as Saskatoon has. If they're an incumbent, and they say that they would, ask them why they didn't when I made such a motion last year. Not a single incumbent in the race did. How do they feel about financial reports for institutions such as the Rawlinson Centre not being given to council before the budget is passed, even though the budgeting procedure requires it. How do they feel about limiting the questions that a councillor can ask administration, by requiring that a majority of council approve each inquiry?

How do they feel about the number of committees that are currently on the books - 67, according to some research that the Chamber of Commerce did last year, although interestingly only 16 were advertised in the paper as looking for members. Are all of these committees needed? Exactly what is the purpose of those committees that never meet? Should a person have to be a resident of the city in order to serve on a committee which is going to make recommendations to council that could affect tax decisions? What about committees which never publish an agenda for their meetings, or minutes afterward? There is apparently a meeting early tomorrow morning for the soccer centre committee, but there is no agenda, and I've yet to receive a complete set of committee minutes for all meetings of this committee, even though both are supposed to be available to the public.

There are some long-standing hot issues - does the candidate have any ideas about improving the downtown? About the high crime rate? (The summer Stats Can report that noted that our violent crime rate had dropped was mentioned in the local paper; what wasn't mentioned was that Prince Albert ranks seventh for crimes in cities over 10,000, across Canada. Saskatoon ranks 26th; Regina ranks 19th. I haven't heard anyone from the Police Commission talk about how they plan to improve this dismal rating.) What are their thoughts on beautification? Was the money spent on Neat and Clean, at the expense of other infrastructure projects, worth it, or could we have accomplished more by looking at more innovative ways of doing things by partnering with organizations such as the Horticultural Society for flower beds, or the penitentiary work program for painting light standards?

If you're in a ward that faces a councillor contest, does the candidate live in the ward? If not, ask why they don't run where they live. I'm a firm believer in the ward system for a lot of reasons, but an area loses a lot by not having a council representative that truly understands the issues of the area because he lives there.

You wouldn't hire someone without asking a few questions - you should feel free to phone or email your candidates with as many questions as you wish.

And when you have enough information to make a decision, don't forget to vote!

"Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame." - Laurence J. Peter

Monday, October 12, 2009

Surprise! It's Our Last Meeting!

Yes, despite there being one more regular council meeting scheduled (for October 19), as well as an executive meeting for October 13, almost at the end of Monday's meeting, council decided that these scheduled meetings should be cancelled. The reason put forward was that there wouldn't be much to put on the agenda. And the reason given as to why there isn't much to put forward is the idea that we shouldn't do anything that will bind the next council.

This is a first for me. Never before has the excuse of "we don't want to bind the next council" been used so often to prevent information being made available to the public; I've heard it over and over since mid-September. Since this council has made it a common practice to ignore previous council's practices and policies, including recommendations for action (here I'm thinking specifically of the previous council's recommendation that we develop a registry to licence landlords, to ensure that all rental accommodations meet basic standards - current council has not moved on this policy recommendation at all), I'm not sure why they are now professing that anything that this current council does can't be ignored or revised once the new council is sworn in.

And if we were being open and accountable, we would acknowledge that many of the things that this council has done do bind the next council, and councils beyond that, since we set tax payment schedules for the soccer centre that extend beyond our term, and the term of the next council.

There's lots of information that I'm sure the public would love to see - how about the costs for running the soccer centre? I've been asking repeatedly for that for the last several months, at least, because that's probably the question that I get most frequently from the public. After being continually promised, they're now being withheld until after the election. Or how about sharing that study on possible locations for the new bridge - some members of council have been privy to that since last November, but haven't shared it with the rest of us.

It's almost as though some members of council don't want this information public before the election because it might influence voters. I find that odd - the least they could do is put as much information on the table as possible, so that voters can make decisions based on everything that we know, not just on the pieces that are deemed least troubling.

I voted against this motion, as did Councillor Ring. When I asked what about business that might arise between now and early November, when the new council will take office, I was told that we could always have a special meeting. I've mentioned my concerns with special meetings before - they're not well-advertised, so the public doesn't have much opportunity to attend, and they're not televised, so people can't even watch the decisions being made.

And it is somewhat ironic that, less than twenty-four hours after cancelling the regular meeting, a special meeting was set for this Thursday, October 15, to deal with some zoning appeal. I won't be there; I'll be on my way to Winnipeg for a Citizens' Advisory Committee Regional Meeting for Corrections Services Canada (I'm chair of that committee). Had we kept to our original meeting schedule, this matter would have been handled next Monday, when I'll be back.

But that would have required more trust of the system, and less manipulation.

"Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens." - William Beveridge

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Once More With Feeling

Yes, as you’ve probably heard, I decided to run again for the honour and responsibility of representing Ward Three on city council. Then, a couple of days after I announced my intentions and filed my papers, I found out that I was acclaimed, for the first time in my political history. I was quite surprised at the acclamation - usually there have been multiple people interested in the job. While the acclamation removes the uncertainty, and will make the next month less nerve-wracking for me, it does lessen the opportunity to fully discuss issues leading into the election. I will continue to raise these issues at council, and on this blog. I hope that the people of Ward Three remember that there are still two other areas that will require their vote - the contest for mayor, and the public school board elections.

So far, this is an odd election. In past years, candidates, including me, have usually declared in early September. This year there was a mere trickle of announcements, and even in the last week it wasn't a deluge. Perhaps other potential candidates were going through some of the same internal discussions that I went through over the last few months.

Although the personal support from ward residents has been overwhelming, especially over the past year or so, this wasn’t an easy decision for me to make. This term on council was certainly my most challenging so far, and probably the least satisfying. Still, small steps of progress were made in areas that are important to me – approval of secondary suites in all areas of the city should help to make affordable housing easier to find, and we approved the rezoning that will allow the building of duplexes geared for middle-income families in the West Hill area. And blue bins are, after seven years of paying for them, finally across the city.

But there were far more incidents of questions going unanswered, of decisions being rushed through, of discussions being cut off, which adds up to frustration over missed opportunities. And more than one individual has asked me why I continue to pound my head against the proverbial wall.

But after thinking it through and talking it over with Andrea and several close friends, I decided to try once more. For a few reasons, really. One is the number of people who told me that council needs more people like me – people who realize that just showing up isn’t enough, that you have to be prepared to ask tough questions, offer options, and seriously consider the impacts of decisions. If I don’t run for council, that’s one less person like me, and I felt that I would be letting the residents of Ward Three down.

The second reason is that this council has made financial decisions that will be very difficult to deal with over the next term or two of council. While I may not have supported these decisions, and I may have warned the best I could of the hole that we were digging ourselves and future councils into, I was still part of the council that made those decisions, and I feel that I owe it to the city to try to clean up the mess.

And finally, I would miss the opportunity to help out residents of Ward Three in matters big and small – whether it’s been working with Bylaw Enforcement to get a drug house closed, or helping a neighbourhood get their street paved, or just listening to people’s concerns and ideas about what might help the city work better – this is why I got into this several years ago. I’ve never forgotten that I work for the people of Ward Three, and that’s the most satisfying part of the job.

I have nine years of experience that shouldn’t be minimized or overlooked – here’s hoping that the next council, whoever ends up on it, recognizes the need to work together and utilize every resource available to solve our problems for the long-term good of the city – a council that puts that goal ahead of everything else.

“A community is only a community when the majority of its members are making the transition from “the community for myself” to “myself for the community””. – Jean Vanier

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Why We Should Do More for the SPCA

The SPCA has started a drive to move to a better place. They have purchased some land north of the river where they propose to build new facilities, and have started a new fund-raising campaign - A New Leash on Life.

Council members were invited to visit the current facility. I took up the offer a couple of weeks ago, and was toured about by one of the dedicated staff. I was appalled, to put it mildly. The animal rooms are small and overcrowded, and the staff make do in conditions that most work places wouldn't tolerate. That staff have to use as their lunchroom the room where animals are euthanized is unbelievable. While donations of such things as a new furnace have certainly helped, there is no doubt that a new facility is desperately needed.

And this is where council is between a rock and a hard place, largely of our own making. Our support for other facilities (which are not in the need category, but in the nice to have area), our unnecessary spending on such things as spiffing up our own meeting area, our putting off street and sidewalk repair and maintenance so that we could brag about having a zero per cent tax increase this year (after two consecutive years of 6 per cent increases), our decimation of the reserve fund, our decision to dedicate taxes directed for the debt elimination fund to pay for the new soccer centre for the next several years - all of these decisions have left us with very little room to support a new, desperately needed facility. And with the election looming, apparently we don't want to talk about it, either.

The services provided by the SPCA are crucial to the well-being of the city. While most people think of the SPCA as a place where you can go to pick up a kitten or a puppy, every day staff and volunteers are there, taking care of all animals that are brought in to them, some in pretty rough shape. If a dog is running loose, they take care of it. If stray cats are trapped, the SPCA is where they end up. Abandoned animals end up there. Staff don't just give animals away to anyone who walks in; they ensure that people understand the responsibilities of pet ownership before adoption, because they see the results when people don't understand, for example, how important spaying and neutering are.

These services are crucial, but services and buildings cost money, and unfortunately, they don't have a lot of fund-raising options. Unlike facilities like the Art Hauser Centre, the Rawlinson Centre, and the soccer centre, we don't have many ways of charging user fees. The animals can't pay, and some people feel that the adoption fees are too high. The SPCA does get the bulk of the dog licence fee (more than four dollars of the five dollar licence fee), but other than that, the only support provided by the city is a small grant each year. This year the grant was larger than in the past - $80,000. To put that in perspective, we gave the Golf Club $48,000 this year to help them pay for their hundredth anniversary party - a party to which most if not all of the guests could have, I'm sure, paid their own way.

I give the staff and volunteers at the SPCA full credit for doing an amazing job. Their dedication and love for the animals is obvious, and they don't waste much time in whining. They do some creative fund raising - they have a big garage sale once a year, and their walk-a-pet-a-thon was last weekend. I'm sure that they'll come up with other good ideas, and I encourage everyone to help out in whatever way that they can.

But I do think that the city needs to figure out a way of providing better ongoing support. Saskatoon licenses cats as well as dogs, and Andrea was sure that Grethyll Adams had been behind a drive to implement cat licences. But when I went to City Hall to buy licences for Hendrix, Hunter and Gracie last week, I was told that there was no such thing. But that could be an area to explore. And if, along with the licence, you were able to have your cat microchipped, then when strays are brought in, the owners could be found, reducing the numbers that have to stay there, hoping for adoption.

Perhaps if members of council sacrificed their meals paid for by the taxpayer, that would provide a bit more money that could be channeled to the SPCA. The animals certainly need feeding more than councillors do. Despite the tightness of the budget that some members of council have apparently just become aware of, we need to find ways of better supporting this facility.

And here's something that anyone who owns a computer can do - go to, click to automatically donate food, then click on the part that says to vote for your favourite animal shelter. Type in Prince Albert SPCA, and you will have voted for the Prince Albert SPCA to receive a share of $100,000. The top prize is $20,000, and it could be tough to outvote American shelters, but there are two $1,000 prizes for Canadian shelters which get the most votes. If enough people find out about this, who knows? You can vote once a day until mid-December. I figure that it's worth a shot. And it won't cost the city anything.

Quick, go click.

"We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words." - Anna Sewell

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some Thoughts on Openness and Accountability

The PA Herald had an editorial last week wondering if there was any way to show how each council member votes, every time. Currently, unless a request for a recorded vote is made by a member of council before the vote, a quick (sometimes very quick) show of hands is used. And some members of the public have noticed that some members of council sometimes do not participate in this show of hands, which could be seen as abstaining (or of having slow reflexes, I suppose). While abstaining on a vote is allowed under the Cities Act, if one does choose to abstain, the reason for abstention is supposed to be recorded. This doesn't happen here.

Anyway, the editorial suggested that being able to see how each councillor voted would add some much needed transparency to council goings-on. I agree, and would add that it would remove some of the opportunity for fence-sitting on contentious issues that is there under the current practice.

Then Barb Gustafson, a former council colleague, provided information in a letter to the editor on how some communities deal with the issue, by not closing the vote until everyone has voted, and by making the results clearly visible – right now, the cameras only show one side of council, so at best, you can see how half of the members vote. These are good suggestions, and perhaps the next council will investigate the costs of these options, to see if it would be feasible for Prince Albert.

I’ve been known to request that a vote be recorded when I think that people will be particularly interested in who votes how. I’ve also been subject to some eye-rolling when I do this, from other members of council who appear to feel that actually verbalizing their vote is some sort of imposition. The eye-rolling doesn’t stop me, though. We have various tools to improve how we deliver democracy, and I believe in using them as I see fit.

Another area where we fail at openness is our habit of holding discussions in camera, or privately, of matters that should be discussed in the open. Once again, our direction in the Cities Act is that the only discussions not to be held in public are those which involve collective bargaining, personnel matters, legal opinions, and land negotiations. Discussions about the nuclear survey done last year is one example of something kept in camera that should have been public; a very recent one is the Green Industrial Park proposal, which we received at an in camera meeting on Monday. That presentation should have been public, and wasn’t. When I question these matters, the justification is usually that it’s strategic planning. That’s all well and good, but the law does not include strategic planning as an allowed reason for secrecy. The result is often that plans are well underway before the public has the option to comment and make suggestions, and then, time is usually too short for full discussion.

Interestingly, Saskatoon City Council reviewed concept plans for their public library expansion at an in camera meeting last week. Following the meeting, the city clerk admitted that doing so had been a mistake, even though no decisions were made. The Star Phoenix found this troubling enough to write an editorial castigating their council for keeping this discussion private, saying that doing so raised questions about what other issues that should be public were being discussed in private, and that it limited the opportunity for the public to be involved in discussions.

As city council members, we are often our own gate-keepers when it comes to following the rules. It’s easy to forget, to try to do things the expedient way, to feel that following the law will just take too long. We should be doing our best to ensure that we follow not just the letter, but also the spirit of the law.

Yes, more transparency is needed. Yes, it’s possible. But more members of council need to feel this way for any kind of change to happen.

Perhaps a simple and no-cost first step would be for us to vote more slowly, and for whoever is chairing the meeting to ensure that everyone has voted, before saying "Motion carried". We were elected to make decisions – the least each of us should do is make a decision, clearly, every time, even those decisions which might upset some people.

"Speak your mind and fear less the label of crackpot than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost." – Thomas J. Watson

Monday, September 7, 2009

Some Summer Reflections

For me, Labour Day always marks the end of summer, probably because where I grew up, school always started the next day. Technically, I know there's a couple of weeks left of summer, and certainly this year it didn't even feel like summer until last week, but to me, tomorrow will mark the first day of fall.

As if to emphasize the point, tomorrow's council meeting will be back at the regular time, 7 p.m. rather than 4 p.m. We were reminded at last week's executive meeting that we'll be expected to be back in "business" attire as well - back to the suit and tie.

So, looking back on this weather-challenged summer, what were some of my highlights? Well, I spent quite a bit of time working on the house this summer. After many years of thinking about it, we finally replaced our ancient boiler for a new, energy efficient model. Doing this required removing the old, asbestos-encased monster, which I did myself. I had to shave my beard (for those of you who might have wondered why I look different), so that I could have a tight seal around the safety mask as I removed the asbestos. The boiler itself had to be cut up - in total I hauled more than 600 kilograms of rusty metal out of the basement. The new boiler is about 1/4 the size of the old one, and is supposed to be 95% efficient. The plumber estimated the efficiency of the old one at maybe 20%. At the same time we replaced the water heater with an on-demand one that runs through the boiler. Although there were some glitches with start-up (when it's 29 degrees outside the rads inside shouldn't be warm), all appears to be working well. The guys from Mr. Plumber did a great job.

I also put in hardwood flooring in the upstairs hallway. Fortunately the subflooring was in decent shape, so I didn't have to remove everything down to the joists, as I did last year when I put in hardwood in the downstairs hallway. Much less inconvenience for everyone, and no cats fell through to the lower floor this time.

And if you've driven by, you may have seen me working to get an old Mercedes in running condition. I've always liked tinkering with cars, but this is the first major restoration I've done since I rebuilt a Volkswagen beetle when I was in high school. Actually, according to Andrea, when I'm working on the car I'm playing, since that's for fun. She gets an odd look in her eye when people ask about the Mercedes - if I'm not careful she'll pick up another cat as revenge.

I made it to the downtown events this year - the street fair in June, the Cinema for Change outdoor movie, also in June, and we're regulars at the farmers' market twice a week. Andrea's partial to the vine-ripened canteloupe; I've been picking up potatoes, beans, broccoli, zucchini. Despite the less than ideal growing season, the selection has been great. And Lyn Brown has some delightful flower-based spreads and dips that we have really enjoyed.

I make a point of attending these events because I believe that the only way to make the downtown a vital space is to use it as much as possible. I wish that I saw more of my council colleagues at these events. Council talks a great deal about revitalizing the downtown area, but we don't follow that talk up with enough action. I was very disappointed when the Business Improvement District lost their funding for the Downtown Ambassadors, who were a good, visible part of making the downtown a more comfortable place to be. While the city provides some funding to the BID, I don't think that we give nearly enough to a group that has proven to be very efficient and cost-effective, with their actions speaking more than their words. Perhaps if some of the old Neat and Clean funding had been directed towards the BID, they could have increased such things as garbage pick-up in the downtown area. Instead, Neat and Clean money went to such things as signs telling people not to litter (but without providing garbage cans), new furniture in the mayor's office, new carpeting and paint in City Hall, and new chairs in council chambers for both councillors and staff. And a program that was the focus of the first year of this council is sadly remembered as a considerable waste of money, and doesn't appear to have had any discernable effect outside of City Hall.

If I had a wish for the last eight weeks of this council, to try to improve our collective legacy, it would be that we become what we say we are - open and accountable, without discussing things secretly, then bringing them to council meetings as a done deal. We would be clear about what our goals are as a council, and, with the help of staff, set out plans for achieving those goals. Such things as setting out a timetable for paving all city streets, instead of continuing to oil in some areas, replacing lead service connections so that everyone's water is safe - these are the sorts of things that would give us a sense of accomplishment, and would make this city a better place to live.

"The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never scoring." - Bill Copeland

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Doing the Right Thing

In my nine years on council, when a controversial issue comes to council, often people will crowd into council chambers to make impassioned pleas about why we should vote one way or another. This is, of course, their right. But all too often, the arguments put forth are based on emotion, not fact. And all too often, some members of council have let the presence of the public, and that emotion, influence their vote.

My first experience of this was when residents of a neighbourhood found out that a home in their area housed young men recently released from the penitentiary - and had, without incident, for more than two years. But emotion ruled the vote that day nine years ago, and I was the only councillor to vote against the immediate change to zoning that closed that home. The closure of that home didn't stop former inmates from being released into the community; it merely removed a supportive environment for them to be released to. And it was a decision based on emotion, not logic.

More recently, about four years ago, proponents of a new soccer centre crowded council chambers with young soccer players, insisting that the city invest millions that we didn't have so that these young people would have a place to play. In that case, some members of council got caught up in the euphoria of the crowd, and city residents will be paying for that euphoria for the next several years, and no doubt beyond that, since we still don't know what the operating costs for the soccer centre will be.

So it's no wonder that some residents of the west hill thought that if they came to council meetings to say that they didn't want a piece of privately owned property rezoned to allow for about twenty per cent of it to have duplexes built on it, claiming that this would remove green space from their neighbourhood, then council would bow to the emotion in the room, and vote down the zoning change. The position of the the proponents, that this development will provide affordable housing to working people, taking a small portion of privately owned land, not green space, had no impact on the arguments of the residents. They first came in June, when the decision was postponed to the meeting this past Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening, although there was a motion proposed to delay the decision once again, that motion was defeated. The next motion, to change the zoning, passed. Those who had come to the meeting hoping to influence the decision were understandably disappointed, claiming a lack of consultation by council, but there have been two council meetings, plus a meeting put on by the proponent for residents that was attended by some members of council. As well, several emails were sent by residents, putting forth their arguments, and I, and I'm sure other members of council, had many phone conversations with residents on this matter. Consultation means that we listen and discuss, not that we necessarily agree.

I trust that those disappointed residents will realize and respect that, as a council, we need to act in a way that is the best for the whole city. As I mentioned in a previous blog on this topic, this council has committed to "promote diversity and equal opportunity in housing". This decision, and another decision made Tuesday evening, to allow for secondary suites throughout the city, will provide more affordable housing, and provide more options for lower income residents, too often limited to substandard housing.

I would still like to see a landlord registry, with strict standards set for all rental housing. I think that would be the next logical step, that might alleviate some of the real fears of residents, that these new duplexes will bring down the value of their homes. I live in a diverse neighbourhood, with a range of incomes and housing opportunities. The new duplex built less than a block away a couple of years ago is definitely an improvement over the vacant lot that was there before, and the new owner of a corner property that used to be a party house is doing a great job of cleaning out the yard. Another home a couple of blocks away that was placarded as being unfit to live in a year ago has been cleaned up and is now home to a family that takes great pride in their home and yard - we have shared renovation stories.

These are the kind of opportunities that we owe to everyone in the city. I thought that council took a great step on Tuesday evening in removing some of the barriers to that kind of diversity, and I'm proud to have been part of that decision.

"Common experience shows how much rarer is moral courage than physical bravery. A thousand men will march to the mouth of a cannon where one man will dare espouse an unpopular cause." - Clarence Darrow

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Benefits of Being on Council

The civic election is just over ten weeks away. Compared to last time, it's been remarkably quiet. A few individuals have announced that they're running for council, but so far, no incumbents (including me) have indicated their intentions, and nobody has announced that they're running for mayor.

I like to see the interest from individuals in being part of council - being willing to step forward and help to guide the city and its residents to a better life is admirable.

I did a blog last November on things that I thought potential candidates should consider before running for public office - it's not for everyone, and I know that some members of council were surprised, for example, at the volume of material that has to be reviewed before each meeting. But there are also benefits (and costs) to being on council, that people might not be aware of.

To start with, it is a paying job - the local paper recently published the city accounts of what people employed by the city were paid in the past year. The average payment to councillors was $25,457.99; the mayor was paid $73,329.06. That's a basic salary, plus $100 for a vehicle allowance monthly, and also includes per diems - if a councillor spends an entire day doing council work, for instance at a conference, a per diem rate is paid. This is based on the assumption that being on council, whether as a mayor or councillor, is not intended to be a full time job, but if you do have to take a day away from your other job, you will be paid extra. That's why regular council meetings are in the evenings.

There is also a $500 communications allowance each year. For this, when you make an expenditure that qualifies, you submit a receipt and get reimbursed. Unlike the vehicle allowance, you don't just get the $500. Things like computers are allowable expenditures, cell phones are not. Of course, the mayor has a computer and phone provided.

If you're a councillor, you'll have to set up your own office space in your home, at your own cost. You'll need message manager on your phone, because you will be your own support staff. Only the mayor has an office at City Hall and support staff - at last count, I believe he had two adminstrative assistants. These staff also provide occasional help to councillors (for instance, in making travel arrangements), but for the most part, if you're a councillor, you're on your own. Councillors used to be able to use a room next to the reception room on the second floor, where we had access to a phone and one drawer in a filing cabinet. However, this adminstration converted this room to a media room for the mayor, and moved the councillors' filing cabinets down to the room outside council chambers where council meals are served - hardly a good work space.

While the salary is appreciated, it's certainly not going to make anyone rich, and I don't think that anyone who runs for public office is in it for the money. The greatest benefits that I've received from being on council are the intangibles - the phone calls of appreciation when I've helped a neighbourhood get their street paved or helped to get a problem house placarded; the messages of support when I've held a minority position at a council meeting; the many new friends that I've made, both in the ward and in the city as a whole. It is time-consuming, it is frustrating, it is not always fun, but I do know that doing my best in this job is the important thing to remember.

Whether I decide to run again or not, I hope that the next council is more diverse than this one - not so much in age or race or gender, although that would be good, but in ideas and openness. That would provide an experience for all members of council that would leave a positive legacy for future councils.

The next few weeks, as election plans get finalized, will be interesting.

"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better." - Abraham Lincoln

Monday, August 3, 2009

Special in Name Only

The past couple of years, this council has reduced the number of regular meetings during the summer - instead of council meetings every two weeks, only one in July and one in August. This isn't difficult to understand - things do slow down in the summer, it makes it easier for members of council to take time off without missing meetings, and because staff tend to take holidays then, it puts fewer demands on the staff who have to cover for them.

So it may surprise you to know that in July, we had one regular council meeting, one regular executive meeting, but two special meetings. Not only did we have two special meetings, but we had them in the same week, one last Monday, the next on Friday. And rather than have meetings at the usual time, both were held over the noon hour, with lunch provided at the Monday meeting, not just for members of council, but also for city staff.

The Cities Act does provide for special meetings, as long as twenty-four hours' notice is given. In the case of Friday's meeting, we didn't even have that, so the city clerk had to call each member of council to ask that we waive that requirement. But the provision is clearly meant for emergencies, for matters that cannot wait for a week or so, not for meetings to be called due to impatience.

Special meetings do not provide the public with much notice to attend, and the materials for the meetings are not available to those who may be interested. This contradicts our oft-claimed principle of being open and accountable. They also cost the city - in staff time, to set up for the meetings, notify council members, and attend. And at Monday's meeting, taxpayers paid for lunch, which is an extra cost that, considering the state of our budget, we shouldn't even be contemplating.

What were the crises that needed to be dealt with so quickly?

Monday's meeting was about adding a vice-chair to the Heritage Committee, reviewing a tender,and discussing some long-term financial matters in-camera.

At the Friday meeting, we were asked to vote to approve expenditures for the water treatment plant, and to approve the issuance of a Request for Proposal to study the current transit system. We received the report outlining the RFP the evening before, so weren't even given enough time to review this lengthy report before we were expected to approve it. I had several questions, but got the predictable response from other members of council - either the matters that I raised would be part of something else (not sure what), or I could have attended the Transportation Committee two days earlier (which didn't have quorum, so couldn't make any recommendations on the proposal), or that other councillors planned to make suggestions for changes later, after they had time to read the report, even though it was going to be approved by council, and thus shouldn't be able to be changed. I'm not even sure if anyone who actually uses the transit system on a regular basis was consulted in the preparation of the report.

Were any of these items so time-sensitive that they couldn't be deferred to the next meeting of council? Or were they matters that, with a bit better organization, could have been brought to the regular July meeting, but the necessary reports just weren't ready in time? I think that both council and administration need to work better together to ensure that all materials required for meetings, particularly those which are going to require a decision, be provided to members of council and the public well in advance of any meetings. And we should be trying to minimize the number of times that we ask both council and administrative staff to meet to discuss only a couple of relatively minor matters, especially if it will take staff away from their actual jobs.

I didn't see any need for either special meeting. It seems to be more a matter of impatience, of wanting to finish things off without taking the time needed for full and open discussion. If we would just slow down and plan, we'd get where we want to go a lot more quickly. When we call special meetings without a true urgent need, but to rush through matters without full consideration, and without giving the public the opportunity to comment, we don't give the impression of operating efficiently or of moving systematically towards our goals, whatever they may be. Instead, we run the risk of appearing to be like the hero in the Stephen Leacock story, who "flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions". We may be moving fast, but we don't appear to be making any progress.

"More haste, less speed." - Anonymous

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where Did the Benches Go?

Until last spring, the fountain in front of City Hall was surrounded by benches - nothing fancy, just comfortable metal park benches that could be used to sit for a moment, enjoying the spray from the fountain on a hot day, before moving on. Staff from City Hall used them on breaks or at lunch; I'd even sat on them a time or two, often when I ran into someone with a quick question or suggestion.

Then, last May, just before the western premiers' three day meeting in Prince Albert, they were removed. I don't know why they were removed; it certainly wasn't a question that came to council, probably because there wasn't much logic to it. There are still benches in front of City Hall, but they're the uncomfortable wooden slat, backless objects that are quite firmly set in concrete along the edge of the square, under the trees- those aren't coming out without a great deal of work. But the comfortable, attractive benches - those are gone. A few people have asked me where they went, and when they're being replaced - I've asked a couple of times, but haven't received an answer yet.

Those benches by the fountain made the area in front of City Hall a more welcoming place, and suggested indirectly that downtown is a welcoming place to be be - a destination where people are welcome to stay for awhile. Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps we subconciously are afraid that, if we provide places for people to sit and rest, the "wrong" people will do so. And we often define the "wrong" people as those who are different from us, ignoring the fact that everyone who lives here should be able to enjoy what the city has to offer. Or perhaps we're trying to discourage people from taking a break, not wanting to appear to be a city that lazes about in the sunshine.

Removing the benches, for whatever reason, discourages everybody from using the area. As the Downtown Business Improvement District people keep reminding us, the more people that use the downtown area, including the riverbank, the safer it becomes. So we should be doing what we can to encourage people to use these areas, not discourage them.

Currently, the area in front of City Hall is rather boring - a nice fountain, and several containers of flowers lined up militarily, some grass that I never see anyone sitting on, the Diefenbaker statue, and the War Memorial. Plenty of room, but very few people. Looking across the street at the courtyard of the Forest Centre, it appears much more welcoming - no straight lines there, but curved beds with a variety of plants, trees and shrubs, and attractive benches, garbage containers and a bicycle rack, all of similar design. And people sit on those benches - staff that work at the Forest Centre are often seen there taking a break and enjoying the sunshine.

Two of the most welcoming cities that I've visited in recent years had lots of benches - Montreal and Quebec City both encourage pedestrians, and part of that is providing places to sit and enjoy the view and watch people pass by. In neither city did I feel threatened by others who also used the benches - and it was a range of people - working people on a break, young families, less fortunate people who looked as though they were spending the day because they had nowhere else to go.

There are nice benches provided by the city, at the south end of Second Avenue, not exactly a park-like ambience, and I can't remember ever seeing anyone sit on those benches. Now that warmer weather is here (I hope), it would be nice if the square in front of City Hall looked welcoming, rather than the opposite, for anyone who wanted to take a break and enjoy the warm weather while it lasts.

"Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop." - Ovid

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Walking the Talk

A small crowd showed up a last week's council meeting, to protest the proposed rezoning of an area on the west hill to allow for Northern Spruce Housing to build duplexes on privately owned land that used to be a school yard.

While I'm all for more people coming to council meetings to see what goes on there, I'm not particularly fond of people who pack the audience area in the hopes that mere numbers will persuade members of council to vote according to their wishes. Some may find it intimidating to speak against the majority opinion, and it is - it's hard to go up against a crowd.

But as members of council, we need to think of the needs of the whole city, not individual neighbourhoods. And we need to speak up for the principles that we, as a council, have agreed to.

Ostensibly, the argument is that this will remove "green space" from the area. Two points on that - it isn't considered green space by the city, because it's privately owned land. It may be a convenient place for people in the area to walk their dogs, but it isn't a city park. I'm surprised that those who were advocating to maintain this area as part of their green space didn't protest when the city turned over park area near St. Anne's school - green space - to the school board to pave over for additional parking for the school. But we heard nothing from residents about that loss of green space. The second point is that the west hill area has more green space than many other areas of the city - more than 6 hectares per thousand residents. The only area of the city with more is Carlton Park, with almost 8 hectares per thousand residents. The area with the least - Midtown, with less than 1 hectare per thousand residents.

It is an issue, particularly in older neighbourhoods - how to ensure an ongoing supply of green space? We need long-term planning for this, not a policy of allowing its removal sometimes, but protesting other times.

From the various comments made by presenters, it appears that the real issue is that they would rather not see rental housing built in their neighbourhood. I understand the concerns, but I'm more concerned about what encouraging such segregation says about us as a city. The assumption is that those who rent rather than own their homes need to be kept out of certain areas. We have a housing shortage in this city - there is not enough decent, affordable housing for singles or families. We need to be building more good housing, and ensuring that it is well-managed, not restricting where these homes can go.

In my last term on council, I proposed that we require landlords to have to meet certain standards for their properties, and if those standards are not met, then the landlord would not be able to rent out substandard properties. Right now, I'm appalled at the living situations that some people are forced into, because they have no other choice. When Andrea and I first lived in Prince Albert, we rented a house from a non-resident landlord, which was in such poor shape that in the winter, ice formed on the inside walls. Doing repairs around the house to improve things was strongly discouraged. That house, thirty years later, is only now under a demolition order. Perhaps if that landlord had been forced to meet certain standards in order to rent, that house would still be habitable. In any case, this current council has shown no interest in following up on this idea.

Council speaks a great deal about the need to improve housing in the city, as a solution to many of our social problems. In fact, we are signatories to the UNESCO Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination. One of the actions that we have signed on to in this document is to "support measures to...promote diversity and equal opportunity in housing". At the Canadian Housing Renewal Association conference in Toronto that I attended earlier this year, I posed the question to one of the speakers about setting aside areas in communities where rental housing wasn't allowed. That, he said, was exactly what not to do if you truly support integrated, diverse communities.

As a council, we need to recognize that it's not enough to sign proclamations - we have to then take the actions that will allow the spirit of the proclamations to become reality. If we're not willing to do that, then perhaps we need to consider the implications when we sign onto something, if we aren't willing to stand up and be counted when we are faced with a room full of people who aren't interested in change, at least, not in their neighbourhood.

On a different topic, a blog reader asked what the city pays to support the Rawlinson Centre and the Art Hauser Centre each year. First, financial statements from either operation are extremely difficult to come by - I've asked several times, and the most recent ones that we've seen are for a couple of years ago. Last year's subsidy for the Rawlinson Centre was $300,000. For the Art Hauser Centre, the annual loss varies between $400,000 and $600,000 each year.

I wasn't here when the Comuniplex (now the Art Hauser Centre) was built, but I do remember the grandiose plans for the Rawlinson Centre, one of which was that schools could have their Christmas assemblies there. However, the cost of renting the Rawlinson makes that impractical for schools, and even the local theatre companies don't use it except for special events like this year's provincial drama festival. So we have a wonderful facility that is dark most nights of the year, unable to pay its own way. That's part of the reason that I've been so persistent in trying to find out what the operating costs will be for the soccer centre - because we'll likely end up picking up a big part of the tab for that facility as well.

"How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?" - Harry S Truman

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Budget Only Works if You Follow It

We received two pieces of disturbing financial news at last week’s executive meeting.

The first was that the construction of the soccer centre is over budget. Those who suggested last summer that funds donated over the initial target amount should be kept in reserve for such an eventuality now have "I told you so" rights over those who decided that it was far better to add more features to this facility. And, of course, we don’t know yet how much it will cost to run the place. The result of this – an additional two years of tax payers’ contributions just to pay for construction, until 2015 rather than the original 2013 end date.

Another interesting question about the soccer centre levy: I had a look at my tax notice to see what my donation to the centre will be this year. It went up, I assumed because of reassessment, but then I noticed that the mill rate for that part of my taxes was higher than it was last year; the other mill rates for Municipal Residential and Public School Residential went down. I asked administration why this was, and was told that they decided to round it off – I’m not sure why, or why they rounded it up, rather than down. It’s another example of how this council seems to want to do things secretly, rather than letting people know up front what is happening.

The second piece of bad news, which is potentially more serious, is that last year’s operating costs were more than $400,000 over budget, and administration didn’t bring this to our attention until now. This occurred after a 6% tax increase. This year we have a 0% increase and are now, because of this, effectively in the hole already. Who knows where we’ll be if we continue to spend according to past patterns, including unnecessary items such as gifts for the mayor to give visitors to his office (most recent addition to the gift selection – golf shirts with a $26.95 price tag).

In my opinion, when following a budget, whether for a large entity, such as the city, or a small entity, such as your household, you need to constantly track where the money is going, and when expenditures start to exceed the budget, some adjustment of priorities and reduction of spending needs to happen. If you’re hit with a big increase in your power bill, you’ll likely reduce the money you spend on eating out, for example.

If council had known about this during the year, might we have cut back on everything from new banners to meals for council and committee meetings? If we had known about this shortfall during the budgeting process, would we have given $48,000 to the Golf and Curling Club for their 100th Anniversary? You may remember that, during the final budget meeting, I suggested that we were rushing the process too much, and I was criticized by other members of council for holding things up unnecessarily. In fact, one council member even said that for him, budgeting happened 365 days a year. I’m not sure what goes on in his year-round budgeting, because he appeared to be as surprised as the rest of us.

Instead of taking preventative action, we will deal with this shortfall from last year by depleting our stabilization reserves (after making a first token effort in this year’s budget to replace a small portion of what this council has taken out of these reserves during its term), and we will borrow from an employees’ vested sick leave fund. I have seen no plans for how we will pay that money back, but that will certainly add to future tax burdens.

I’m often asked if I’ve heard of any new contenders for council, and my response is usually "Who would want to take on the job?" Managing a city which has blithely mortgaged a hefty chunk of its future, while increasing its obligations to pay for various facilities that require ever-increasing subsidies, means that whoever ends up on the next city council has inherited one ugly financial mess. To fix that, sadly, will take a lot more than a catchy slogan.

"Let us all be happy and live within our means, even if we have to borrow the money to do it with." – Charles Farrar Browne

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Coming Soon to a Radio Near You - A Council Infomercial

Last week's council featured more debate than usual, a refreshing change probably because no one present felt the need to call for the vote before discussion was finished. The topic that took up the most time was the new proposed communications plan, and the part of that which brought up the greatest difference of opinion was the $42,000 to buy time on the local radio chain, for regular interviews with the mayor, city manager, or a designate.

The proposed plan didn't say why paying for something that we currently get for free would be an improvement, since the radio now interviews the mayor after every council meeting, every other Tuesday morning. But the opinion of some members of council was that this would be better, because we could "control the message".

So the plan isn't to provide more information about city council, it's to provide a controlled message about how great we're doing. This, by any definition, would be called propaganda, and shouldn't be something that we spend taxpayers' dollars on.

I'm all for keeping the public informed about what we're doing, preferably before we do it, so that there's the opportunity for input and ideas before final decisions are made. But my repeated suggestions that the city page, which we already are paying for, include information about upcoming committee meetings, as well as council and executive meetings (which the Saskatoon city council does on their page of advertising), have been ignored. Somehow, I don't think that in our controlled message there will be mention made of all the maintenance activities that were left out of the most recent budget, or the reduction of the fiscal stabilization fund from $1.9 million at the end of 2005 to $239,804 at the end of March, 2009 - yes, this current council depleted the fund by more than $1.5 million before it decided to put a small fraction back in this year's budget. But letting people know about that wouldn't be the kind of message that this council wants people to hear.

This is, of course, an election year. What this will do is provide free pre-election coverage for some members of council. It's interesting that councillors get $500 each year as a communications allowance - this is frozen six months before the election, because it wouldn't be right for taxpayers to pay even slightly for a councillor's election expenses. But $42,000 to pay for infomercials is considered okay.

The communications plan (to use the word lightly), doesn't even set any targets, or evaluation criteria. The reasoning behind putting more money into radio spots was that "young people don't read newspapers". I have news for some members of the administration - they don't listen to the radio either. They're on the internet, on Facebook or You Tube. They download what they want to listen to onto their Ipods, and I'll bet listening to someone on council talk about how great this year's banners look won't be something that they would even think about downloading. And we have no idea how to measure the success of this change - unless, of course, it helps some people get re-elected - then they'll no doubt point to major success.

Provide people with unbiased information, before decisions are made, and let them make up their own minds about whether council is doing a good job - don't be trying to control the message, because that sort of tactic tends to backfire.

"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark: the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." - Plato

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Pros and Cons of Conferences

Last Thursday's local paper had an opinion piece from the Vancouver Sun, criticizing the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), currently going on in Whistler, BC. Although it wasn't mentioned related to the piece, 6 members of city council are there right now, at a cost of about $3,500 each. The piece suggested that such meetings are a waste of time and money, largely because the agenda items were outside of civic areas of responsibility, dealing with such things as global warming and international relations. The social aspects of the conference, particularly the main banquet, were also roundly criticized as being a waste of taxpayers' money.

I've been to FCM meetings in the past - what I've found most useful are the smaller sessions, where topics directly related to my work as a councillor have been discussed - water treatment, raising awareness of local tourism opportunities, improving council efficiencies - learning how other communities deal with these issues is very helpful. I've also found touring the host community, both as part of the conference and on my own, to be a source of new information and ideas for things that we could try here. If another community has a solution that works, we don't need to try to reinvent the wheel. Conferences for any profession, including members of council, should first and foremost be seen as an educational opportunity directly related to our work.

I chose not to go to Whistler - I didn't see much on the agenda that I thought would be directly useful to me, and Whistler is a community drastically different from Prince Albert - I didn't think that there would be much to be gained from exploring a relatively new, recreationally focused community to help with Prince Albert's issues of old infrastructure, improving race relations, and dealing with inadequate housing.

This doesn't mean that I haven't been to conferences this year. I went to two, each focusing on an area of priority for my council work. In April I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Housing Renewal Association in Toronto, as I chair the Housing Committee. This conference provided plenty of opportunity to discuss housing problems and how other communities have tried to solve them, with the bonus of having supper with several of Andrea's siblings and their families, one of whom is a social worker in Toronto. She was able to tell me of her experiences with some of the programs that were discussed at the conference, so I could compare theory to reality.

Then the last week of May I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Library Association in Montreal. As chair of the local library board, I've been to a few of these conferences over the years, and have found that there's always something to learn, whether budgeting, programming, or dealing with staffing issues. And, being in Montreal, I had the opportunity to explore another city that deals with aging infrastructure (much road construction underway) and has housing issues like any other community.

Neither of these conferences was as large, or featured the extensive social opportunities that FCM does. They were also much cheaper to attend. I believe in staying within the travel budget that is alloted to each member of council - councillors are allotted $3,600 each year, the mayor's travel budget is twice that. I'm not sure where the money will come from for the councillors that are at FCM, since they all also went to SUMA (I didn't, this year), which cost $2,500. Now, apparently, the travel budget does not include conference registration - $800 for FCM. I'm not sure what part of the budget is set aside for that. I will be asking that question - once again, what is the point of setting out a budget for travel, if it doesn't include all related costs.

So, is FCM worth it? I guess that you'd have to ask those who attended, and not just whether it was worth it, but what did they learn? What ideas did they pick up that they will use in their work as a councillor? And, if the answers are disappointing, perhaps council needs to rethink its policy which sends everyone who wants to go to a national conference that is maybe not focused on the issues that should matter to city council. But conferences are a good opportunity to learn from others in the same situation, how they tackle their issues, how successful they've been, and how your community could take advantage of their experience. And learning is always a good thing.

"It is only the ignorant who despise education." - Publilius Syrus