Sunday, February 22, 2009

What Shall We Do with the Money from the Province?

As you're probably aware, the provincial government announced at the SUMA meeting in early February that they were making funds immediately available to cities for infrastructure, both to bolster local economies and help with long-standing infrastructure concerns. This money, under the Municipal Economic Enhancement Program, is being given on a per capita basis, which means that Prince Albert's share is around $3.7 million.

This money is to be used for actual work, not to be used to pay down debt or buy land. There is also a fairly tight turnaround for applying for it - by the end of the month. Since we slipped off our regular meeting schedule, tomorrow's meeting is the first chance we will have to discuss and decide where this money should go. We will be discussing a report from administration on several possible projects. It's available in the council agenda, on the city web-site.

My preference will be for projects that address broad city concerns - upgrading the water treatment plant, for example, or paving some of the gravel streets that remain in areas of the city that have been overlooked for some time. I would prefer that the money not go to projects that benefit only special interest groups, such as paving the Art Hauser Centre parking lot or adding further upgrades to the soccer centre. As usual, I will be trying to focus on needs, rather than wants. We shall see where the discussion takes us.

For a meeting with this much potential for discussion and subsequent impact on the city, it's been remarkably poorly advertised. The traditional half page ad in the local paper on Saturday, which has upcoming meeting dates as well as other city information, had the next council meeting dates in March, which is no doubt an unintentional error, but unfortunately could deprive some members of the public with the opportunity to have input on how we should spend this money.

I don't think that we take full advantage of the city page, or of the city web-site, in getting the word out about not just council meetings, but also committee meetings. As I've said before, The Cities Act requires that all meetings of council and council committees be advertised, and open to the public. While in the past few months, some committee meetings have been listed on the city web-page (for the first time in over two years), we could certainly inform more people if they were also listed in the local paper, in space that we're already paying for.

Previous councils managed to make all meeting notices much more public. I have been informed by the city solicitor that, as long as notice of meetings is posted in city hall 24 hours in advance, we are meeting the requirements of The Cities Act. While we may be meeting the letter of the law, I would suggest that we are not acting in the spirit of the law, nor are we meeting our much-voiced goal of having an open and accessible council. But if you are interested in attending committee meetings, check the city web-site, and show up - it's your legal right.

"Laws control the lesser man...Right conduct controls the greater one." - Mark Twain

Monday, February 16, 2009

Leadership versus Micromanagement

No council meeting this week, although normally in a week when there's a statutory holiday, the meeting is held on the Tuesday following the holiday. I guess that the powers that be decided that we could skip a week, rather than getting on with the business of council.

At last week's executive committee meeting it was somewhat disconcerting to discover that, despite the significant and ongoing meter service charge and infrastructure charge increases for residential users (8%, compounding every year, until 2013), which were intended to create a reserve fund for eventual replacement of our aging water service infrastructure, this hasn't happened. Instead of building a reserve, that reserve now shows a negative balance of more than 4.6 million dollars, more than 2 million greater than last year. No question that, if the increase had included the 700 commercial users in the city, not just residential users, the hole wouldn't be as deep. That was why I voted against Bylaw 41 of 2007 - not that I wasn't in agreement with funding water infrastructure improvements, but I wasn't in agreement with only applying the increase to residential users.

If we had also chosen to charge for water usage at an even rate, or added on a surcharge after a certain volume, rather than decreasing the per cubic metre charge as usage gets higher (in effect encouraging large users to use even more) the situation might not be as serious. But this council chose to put the burden of creating a reserve on residential users, even though an updated water system would certainly benefit the city as a whole. And even more concerning, it doesn't sound as though this issue will be addressed in this year's budget - apparently there just isn't time.

As far as I'm concerned, if the direction that we've chosen to go isn't solving the problem, we should be making time to figure out what we can do, not just throwing our hands up in the air, and blaming a lack of time.

Another issue that came up at executive, that's at the other end of the spectrum, was asking for approval to change the identification crests used by building inspectors. Cost of doing this - in the neighbourhood of $100. You might wonder, as did one of my colleagues on council, why city administration thinks that it's necessary to bring these matters before council - we're certainly not experts on such details, and it's hard to imagine how many of us would even notice the change. It's also kind of ironic, considering that last summer we blithely handed over decision making on contracts for the construction of the soccer centre, contracts that will total in the millions of taxpayers' dollars, to the city manager, but approval for an expenditure of $100 comes before council.

I'm not trying to blame city staff for this confusion. It's probably hard for them to figure out what matters they can handle on their own, and what matters some members of council feel that they should approve every detail of, based on some of the direction that they have received over the past couple of years.

And that brings me back to a concern that I've raised here before - I'm not sure that all members of council understand what the job of city council is. It's to lead, not to micromanage every decision made by city staff. We should be setting the overall direction, and figuring out how to get there. City staff should be trusted to make day-to-day decisions, whether it's how to plow streets, or which infrastructure needs are most crucial. Our job should not be adding project after project, until nothing gets done well, because there's more to do than time or money will allow. And when it's brought to our attention that there's a problem that's beyond the scope of city staff to resolve, we should be able to sit with senior staff to brainstorm ideas that will provide good, doable solutions, with the well-being of the city as a whole, not just certain sectors, in mind.

Until we figure out how to do that, I'm afraid that we'll just keep solving all our problems by increasing taxes or service charges, or adding to our debt load, leaving it to future councils to figure out how to keep the water running and the garbage picked up, because we thought that we could have it all, whether we truly needed it or not.

"The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails." - John Maxwell

Friday, February 6, 2009

Reflections After a Year in the Blogosphere

January 26, 2008, I made my first steps into the blogosphere, with my first entry on this blog. My main purpose was to give city residents, particularly those in Ward 3, some insight into the goings-on of council from my perspective, and some background into the reasons for my voting on whichever side of the issue that I end up on. I read somewhere that the average blog only lasts 3 entries, and I've seen a few with only one, so having managed to make more than 50 entries, that works out to about 1 entry a week - not too shabby.

So, after a year of doing this, what have I learned?

I've learned that a wide range of people read the blog, and most have said that they appreciate the information that I provide, and that they have learned details about the city that they weren't aware of before.

I've learned that members of the media check the blog, and will quote from it, which was rather surprising the first time that it happened. I've always been aware of the warning not to put in writing anything that you wouldn't want read at your funeral, and that has kept me careful in how I say things on the blog. Just as emails may end up in places that you never expect, so can blog entries.

I've learned that one voice can be heard, sometimes more clearly than a group of voices speaking in unison. And it has reinforced my belief that it is my responsibility to speak up for what I believe in, and not to try to please everyone, for in trying to do that, you generally please no-one.

An unplanned result of the blog is that readers have probably gotten a better sense of who I am, as a person, as I've shared some personal details about my life that I might not have otherwise. Those readers who don't know me outside of my life in civic politics now know that I watch old movies, have relatives in Ontario and Alberta, enjoy history, and have cats (despite being allergic to them - another personal detail). And I think that inclusion of my personal life is inevitable in a blog - it is made up of my opinions and perspectives, which are inextricably linked to who I am - and like everyone on council, I'm much more than a guy in a suit.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to speak freely, and to explore issues in far more depth than is possible at a council meeting. I realize that there are those who don't like the blog - fortunately, they always have the option not to visit this site.

If I have any regrets, it's that I didn't start doing this earlier. I was surprised at how easy it was to start, and I continue to find plenty to talk about. As we work through the budget process, and continue on in an election year, I'm sure that the topics will keep on coming.

"Real success is not on the stage, but off the stage as a human being, and how you get along with your fellow men." - Sammy Davis Jr.