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

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