Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Keeping It Professional

One of the aspects of being on City Council that can prove difficult for some, is the need to keep our decisions and actions professional, rather than personal.

As an individual, I'm free to choose what stores to patronize, for whatever reasons I feel are important, whether it be price, service, or what I think of the owner. When making decisions on council, however, I and the rest of council need to make purchase decisions for the city based on objective facts only, not on personal feelings or biases. One way of making sure that decisions are made that way is to tender major purchases and contracts. This should make the process public, and ensure that reasons for the decisions are open and defensible.

Other guidelines that help to keep actions and decisions professional are in our legislation, bylaws and policies. This means that, for instance, if someone applies for a licence, and meets all the qualifications set out in our licensing bylaws and policies, then approval is given. Our decision cannot be affected by our personal relationship with that individual, be it positive or negative. And we can't let our personal feelings about the type of business cloud the decision either - as an individual, I may not agree with certain activities or the businesses that allow them, but if the activity is allowed under law, and the area proposed for business establishment is zoned accordingly, then I can't vote against it based on my own feelings or intangible factors.

Of course, for this to work, we on council have to monitor ourselves. When we fail to follow established policy or legislation, whether it's because we feel that we don't have time, or that we needn't follow decisions made by a previous council, we throw all our processes into question. When we raise irrelevant factors in decision-making, we do the same, because that then suggests that all our decisions are affected by irrelevancies. And when we continuously rush through processes, because we have established our own schedules and ideas on how things should be done, rather than following those rules set in legislation, bylaw or policy, and rather than allowing open discussion and providing the public with realistic opportunity for input, then we give the impression that we're an exclusive club that doesn't have to follow the rules.

We need to remember that, in a democracy, we're not just answerable to ourselves; we're answerable to the people that we represent. And we need to be able to tell those people honestly, that every decision that we've made has been based on the best interests of the city, not ourselves.

Speaking of being answerable, I've heard very clearly from people that using taxpayers' dollars to pay for meals at council and committee meetings is not acceptable. I'm sorry that I didn't see it from that aspect earlier, but I am no longer sharing in the meals provided at council or committee meetings. I always try to say what I think, and act accordingly, and this seems to me to be the right thing to do.

"Impatience never commanded success." - Edwin Hubbel Chapin

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Nuclear Question

Over the past few months, since Bruce Power announced that it might be interested in building a nuclear power facility in Saskatchewan, and especially since the mayor and members of the Chamber of Commerce visited a Bruce Power facility in Ontario, the interest of the public in discussing the possibility of such a facility has grown by leaps and bounds.

This interest took another jump forward after the city commissioned a public opinion survey on the issue, then announced the results just before Bruce Power held open houses here.

You should be aware that the decision to hold the survey was not made by council. We found out about the survey while it was going on. If we had been consulted before the decision was made, I would have suggested that holding such a survey was premature, and that the wording of the questions, particularly including the adjective "green" without defining it, made the results questionable.

However, I am encouraged by the public interest in the issue, and the evident engagement of many thoughtful and committed individuals. The key to effective public involvement is to find an issue that people care about, and this issue is clearly one that people want to discuss and debate, publicly, and would like more information about.

Like many residents, I'm looking for more information. While I grew up in Ontario, where nuclear energy is a fact of life, I still think that there are many questions that should be answered before I can form an opinion about whether this would be a positive step for Prince Albert. With that in mind, I've been taking advantage of the opportunities for learning - I attended an interesting debate on the tar sands at the library, where the nuclear question came up; I went to the Bruce Power open house; I was able to catch the end of a renewable energy options forum at Wesley United Church after a council meeting, and I went outside to listen to the people who gathered at City Hall before last week's council meeting. All of these provided useful information, and raised more questions.

What I would find useful is a straight-forward comparision of all the options out there, answering all the questions, from cost of start-up (and how this would be funded), through ongoing costs, to environmental impact (including impacts on air, water, wildlife, etc), to reliability, to life span of any facility, through to waste disposal. Right now I find that many of the arguments get angry very quickly, without providing that sort of side-by-side comparison that might help people avoid getting caught up in the emotions of the moment. And I'm willing to accept that no solution is perfect, but this way the least risky options could be identified.

I also think that a decision of this magnitude is one that belongs directly to the people who will be affected. We have plenty of time to develop a clear, unambiguous question about whether a nuclear facility should be built in or near Prince Albert, and include it in this year's election.

A side benefit? Having such a question to answer might motivate more people to actually get out and vote, and democratically, that would be a good thing.

"It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it." - Joseph Joubert

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Third Vote Tango

A proposed bylaw must have three separate readings and votes before it takes effect, according to Section 77 of the Cities Act. The first two readings may happen in a single meeting, but for the third to happen, there must be unanimous consent of all members of council present for that to occur.

Why the wait? I believe it’s there to provide an opportunity for the public to comment on any proposed change that will affect them, before the final vote is made. It also gives an opportunity for sober second thought by members of council.

Most times bylaw passing is a mere formality, and I have no problem with consenting to three votes in one meeting. But if it’s something that I feel will affect the public, and I don’t think that there has been adequate time for public input, then I won’t consent. It’s that simple. It’s the process that is laid out in our governing law, and I have to assume that it’s there for good reason.

Several years ago, before I was a member of council, a family came to council one night with a proposal to paint a mural on the wall of City Hall, to honour their father, who had recently passed away. Ignoring the fact that City Hall does not belong to council, that painting over the Tyndall stone probably wasn’t the best thing to do, and that it marred the architectural appearance of a lovely building, the council of the day had three votes in one night, and the painting started the next day. I was appalled, as were many people I spoke to, and that memory has remained with me, reminding me how the public may have a different view than council, and should have the opportunity to provide that view before it's too late.

With that in mind, I don’t always consent to that third vote. In previous councils, when consent wasn’t granted, the third vote would happen two weeks later, at the next council meeting. Once I can remember the mayor of the day, and another councillor, getting a bit cranky with me because I wouldn’t give consent, but they had enough respect for the process not to try to bulldoze through it.

This council doesn’t operate that way – if something doesn’t pass according to plan, then a special meeting is scheduled for as soon as possible, without considering the opportunity for the public to comment.

So on Monday evening, the budget bylaw was read twice, and we voted twice. While there are some things that are good in this budget, there are more things that I can’t agree to support. And I believe that the process was far too rushed, unnecessarily so. Council didn’t have adequate time to review or discuss this massive document; neither did the public. I have yet to hear a good reason for the hurry, since the mill rate, based on this budget as well as other factors, won’t be set until late May. So I voted against the budget, although most of council supported it. When it came time to consent to a third reading, I didn’t consent, so the third vote didn’t happen.

I suppose some people might wonder why I bother, since it’s going to pass anyway. Why not consent, why hold things up?

The answer is easy: voting for what I believe is right is a commitment that I have made to the people of Ward Three, and a commitment that I have kept for the past nine years. If I start voting for things that I don’t believe in, just because I’m not going to win, then I’ve betrayed the trust of the people of my ward. Nowhere in the oath of office does it commit me to voting against my principles just so council can appear to be one voice; nowhere does it say that before every vote I should look to the front of the room to see when to raise my hand; nowhere does it say that a successful council is one on which everyone agrees on everything, all the time.

So I’ll be voting according to my principles once again, at tomorrow’s special meeting, scheduled because this council believes that whatever the majority wants, the majority should have, as soon as they want it, and to hell with the process.

"Strength of numbers is the delight of the timid." – Mahatma Gandhi