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