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