Saturday, October 24, 2009

Don't Believe Everything You Hear on the Campaign Trail

A couple of elections ago, I got a phone call from a Ward Three resident. Apparently, one of the councillor candidates, who didn't live in the ward, was doing some door-knocking, and when one resident asked why he was running in the ward if he didn't live there, responded that Lee Atkinson didn't live in the ward either. That resident then gave me a call to find out if I'd moved. I assured him that I hadn't; he assured me that I still had his support, then scoffed at the other guy, who was now guaranteed not to get this guy's vote ever, for anything, because not only did he not live in the ward, but he was also a liar.

I've never believed in campaigning by trying to convince people of the other candidates' weaknesses - I believe that it's best to focus on why I think I have the skills and experiences that will make me a good councillor, and not worry too much about the competition. But to resort to mis-statements about other people to try to build yourself up - well, if you lie about the little things, how can you be trusted on the bigger things?

So I was somewhat concerned at the mayoral debate, to hear several statements made as if they were true, when they are not. When the statement was made that the previous council had fired every senior manager or given them early retirement, I turned to the former councillor sitting next to me, and asked him who we had fired. Nobody, he said. Some senior staff had left for other jobs - that has happened with this council as well. We had also done some organizational restructuring, and some staff had taken early retirement in that process. And some senior staff who were there then are still around.

Statements were also made that the consultant's report on the new bridge was flawed. Apparently the flaw was that the completion of the report took so long because so many changes were requested, that there wasn't enough money left in the budget for the consultants to present the report to council. So the flaws aren't in the report, but in the lack of a presentation, caused because members of this council weren't happy with the first answer that was provided.

Further strange statements have been made since - for example, the soccer centre project isn't over budget. Well, maybe not over the budget after it was adjusted this year, when an additional two years of taxpayers' contributions have been added, just for the construction costs. Originally, your involuntary contributions were to end in 2013 - you'll now be paying until 2015. To me, that means that it's over the original budget.

An even stranger statement was made concerning the operating costs for the centre: apparently, the city manager announced publicly that operating costs for the centre will be $225,000 per year. You may be wondering how you missed that announcement. That's because it was part of an in camera report to council, not a public announcement. In camera means not public, which is allowed for a range of reasons under The Cities Act. In the past, when information provided in camera has been made public, some members of council have been outraged, and suggested that investigations be made to find out who breached council confidentiality. I guess that the investigation won't have to go too far to find the leak this time.

Confidential or not, it's public now, and we don't know what is included in those costs - do they include staffing costs, maintenance, power and electricity? If you remember that the city contributes $300,000 each year to the operation of the Rawlinson Centre (which underestimated its original utility costs by $120,000, which the city has had to make up), and that the Art Hauser Centre had an operating deficit last year of $600,000, then $250,000 probably seems suspiciously low.

Another question was asked about increases to city staffing, with the answer given that staffing levels haven't increased. I'm amazed, because when I've asked for staffing levels, I've been told that they can't provide me with a number, because it's too difficult, since some jobs are part time, some are casual, some are seasonal, and so forth. I find that hard to believe. I also know that there are now two administrative support staff in the mayor's office, where before there was only one, and that there has been a new social development manager position created and filled with a new staff person, with associated new support staff. Unless this council has fired a number of people, I have to believe that those are more positions that taxpayers are supporting. And there were also several seasonal positions associated with Neat and Clean in the first year - those were new too.

There has also been much emphasis made about this year's 0% tax increase. Let's remember that that was this year - the previous two years each featured 6% tax increases. So over the term of this council, your taxes went up 12%, or an average 4% a year. And that doesn't include the ongoing increases to your water rates - 8% compounding every year until 2013. That, of course, is for residential users. Commercial user rates remain the same. Technically, it's not a tax increase. Neither is the increase in sanitation charges that you're now paying. But these are increased costs for living in this city, brought to you by this council.

In my dealings with people, I've found that they can be quite understanding of mistakes that you may make, but they really hate it if you try to deny your mistakes, if you try to cover things up, if you try to blame other people when you should have known better. Nobody's perfect, and we shouldn't be afraid to admit that.

It basically comes down to trying to maintain an image, or being able to demonstrate the substance behind the image. I hope that in this election, people look behind the image, and make their decision based on substance.

If you've already voted at an advance poll, great. If you haven't, please remember to vote on Wednesday. People often feel that a single vote doesn't count - tell that to the village in Newfoundland, where their recent election was determined by drawing a name out of a hat, after the polls ended in a tie. Here in PA, my first win was by 34 votes; other wards have been witness to margins of 10 votes or less. And of course, if you don't vote, you've given up your right to complain about civic government for the next three years.

"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." - Abraham Lincoln

Monday, October 19, 2009

Questions That Candidates Should Be Ready To Answer

We're more than half-way through the campaigning process, and you've probably noticed much less of the usual associated bumph, particularly compared to last time. Fewer ads, way fewer signs - one might almost assume that nobody's running. Although, to be fair, in the wards that have councillor contests, there are lawn signs. Perhaps the more sign-happy candidates from last time have become born-again environmentalists. Or perhaps there are fewer people willing to post publicly that they support a candidate who proved to be not quite what they had hoped he would be.

Having four councillors (including me) already acclaimed does take some of the suspense out of the situation, but I would remind everyone that even if you cannot vote for a councillor, you still should make the effort to vote for the mayor, and for the school board.

And I've even thought of some questions that you should ask candidates for council, or those who are wanting to use that big office on the second floor of city hall. Should you happen to run into a candidate, either at your door, or in the grocery store, feel free to ask them questions as if they were candidates in a job interview, because that's exactly what they are. They're applying for the job, and you are one of the bosses. Never run into a candidate? Go to the city web-site ( and check out the elections section for contact information for most candidates. If the information is sketchy for a candidate who is also an incumbent, go to the section on City Council, and click on the contact information there for phone numbers and email addresses.

You may have favourite issues that you have no trouble coming up with questions about. I have a few that should be required for every candidate.

For example, ask your candidate if he or she is comfortable with the current level of debt that the city carries. (The current council has used up all of the reserves that previous councils had created, and gone into much more debt to finance various initiatives. In fact, we had to get permission from the province to go into debt at levels higher than our projected annual tax revenues of approximately $35 million. We've done that, and then some, even though the past two years have featured unprecedented hand-outs from both the federal and provincial governments - hand-outs that probably won't be in the picture for this next council.) What sort of ideas do they have for cost-cutting, or are they of the mind-set that, when you max out your credit cards, you just apply for another.

Ask your candidate where they think a second bridge should be located, and why. The province, the city, and the RMs of Buckland and Prince Albert commissioned a highway study related to the twinning of Highway 11 and the potential location of a second bridge. This report was completed last November, but hasn't been presented to council yet, for no explained reason. A second bridge is key to the continued development of the city and the region, but unless we can work in partnership with other levels of government, it won't happen.

Open and accountable is a catchphrase that this council has talked about a great deal, but hasn't really put into practice. Ask your candidate what he or she would do to make this a reality. For instance, would they support a bylaw requiring candidates to disclose their financial supporters in an election campaign, such as Saskatoon has. If they're an incumbent, and they say that they would, ask them why they didn't when I made such a motion last year. Not a single incumbent in the race did. How do they feel about financial reports for institutions such as the Rawlinson Centre not being given to council before the budget is passed, even though the budgeting procedure requires it. How do they feel about limiting the questions that a councillor can ask administration, by requiring that a majority of council approve each inquiry?

How do they feel about the number of committees that are currently on the books - 67, according to some research that the Chamber of Commerce did last year, although interestingly only 16 were advertised in the paper as looking for members. Are all of these committees needed? Exactly what is the purpose of those committees that never meet? Should a person have to be a resident of the city in order to serve on a committee which is going to make recommendations to council that could affect tax decisions? What about committees which never publish an agenda for their meetings, or minutes afterward? There is apparently a meeting early tomorrow morning for the soccer centre committee, but there is no agenda, and I've yet to receive a complete set of committee minutes for all meetings of this committee, even though both are supposed to be available to the public.

There are some long-standing hot issues - does the candidate have any ideas about improving the downtown? About the high crime rate? (The summer Stats Can report that noted that our violent crime rate had dropped was mentioned in the local paper; what wasn't mentioned was that Prince Albert ranks seventh for crimes in cities over 10,000, across Canada. Saskatoon ranks 26th; Regina ranks 19th. I haven't heard anyone from the Police Commission talk about how they plan to improve this dismal rating.) What are their thoughts on beautification? Was the money spent on Neat and Clean, at the expense of other infrastructure projects, worth it, or could we have accomplished more by looking at more innovative ways of doing things by partnering with organizations such as the Horticultural Society for flower beds, or the penitentiary work program for painting light standards?

If you're in a ward that faces a councillor contest, does the candidate live in the ward? If not, ask why they don't run where they live. I'm a firm believer in the ward system for a lot of reasons, but an area loses a lot by not having a council representative that truly understands the issues of the area because he lives there.

You wouldn't hire someone without asking a few questions - you should feel free to phone or email your candidates with as many questions as you wish.

And when you have enough information to make a decision, don't forget to vote!

"Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame." - Laurence J. Peter

Monday, October 12, 2009

Surprise! It's Our Last Meeting!

Yes, despite there being one more regular council meeting scheduled (for October 19), as well as an executive meeting for October 13, almost at the end of Monday's meeting, council decided that these scheduled meetings should be cancelled. The reason put forward was that there wouldn't be much to put on the agenda. And the reason given as to why there isn't much to put forward is the idea that we shouldn't do anything that will bind the next council.

This is a first for me. Never before has the excuse of "we don't want to bind the next council" been used so often to prevent information being made available to the public; I've heard it over and over since mid-September. Since this council has made it a common practice to ignore previous council's practices and policies, including recommendations for action (here I'm thinking specifically of the previous council's recommendation that we develop a registry to licence landlords, to ensure that all rental accommodations meet basic standards - current council has not moved on this policy recommendation at all), I'm not sure why they are now professing that anything that this current council does can't be ignored or revised once the new council is sworn in.

And if we were being open and accountable, we would acknowledge that many of the things that this council has done do bind the next council, and councils beyond that, since we set tax payment schedules for the soccer centre that extend beyond our term, and the term of the next council.

There's lots of information that I'm sure the public would love to see - how about the costs for running the soccer centre? I've been asking repeatedly for that for the last several months, at least, because that's probably the question that I get most frequently from the public. After being continually promised, they're now being withheld until after the election. Or how about sharing that study on possible locations for the new bridge - some members of council have been privy to that since last November, but haven't shared it with the rest of us.

It's almost as though some members of council don't want this information public before the election because it might influence voters. I find that odd - the least they could do is put as much information on the table as possible, so that voters can make decisions based on everything that we know, not just on the pieces that are deemed least troubling.

I voted against this motion, as did Councillor Ring. When I asked what about business that might arise between now and early November, when the new council will take office, I was told that we could always have a special meeting. I've mentioned my concerns with special meetings before - they're not well-advertised, so the public doesn't have much opportunity to attend, and they're not televised, so people can't even watch the decisions being made.

And it is somewhat ironic that, less than twenty-four hours after cancelling the regular meeting, a special meeting was set for this Thursday, October 15, to deal with some zoning appeal. I won't be there; I'll be on my way to Winnipeg for a Citizens' Advisory Committee Regional Meeting for Corrections Services Canada (I'm chair of that committee). Had we kept to our original meeting schedule, this matter would have been handled next Monday, when I'll be back.

But that would have required more trust of the system, and less manipulation.

"Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens." - William Beveridge

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Once More With Feeling

Yes, as you’ve probably heard, I decided to run again for the honour and responsibility of representing Ward Three on city council. Then, a couple of days after I announced my intentions and filed my papers, I found out that I was acclaimed, for the first time in my political history. I was quite surprised at the acclamation - usually there have been multiple people interested in the job. While the acclamation removes the uncertainty, and will make the next month less nerve-wracking for me, it does lessen the opportunity to fully discuss issues leading into the election. I will continue to raise these issues at council, and on this blog. I hope that the people of Ward Three remember that there are still two other areas that will require their vote - the contest for mayor, and the public school board elections.

So far, this is an odd election. In past years, candidates, including me, have usually declared in early September. This year there was a mere trickle of announcements, and even in the last week it wasn't a deluge. Perhaps other potential candidates were going through some of the same internal discussions that I went through over the last few months.

Although the personal support from ward residents has been overwhelming, especially over the past year or so, this wasn’t an easy decision for me to make. This term on council was certainly my most challenging so far, and probably the least satisfying. Still, small steps of progress were made in areas that are important to me – approval of secondary suites in all areas of the city should help to make affordable housing easier to find, and we approved the rezoning that will allow the building of duplexes geared for middle-income families in the West Hill area. And blue bins are, after seven years of paying for them, finally across the city.

But there were far more incidents of questions going unanswered, of decisions being rushed through, of discussions being cut off, which adds up to frustration over missed opportunities. And more than one individual has asked me why I continue to pound my head against the proverbial wall.

But after thinking it through and talking it over with Andrea and several close friends, I decided to try once more. For a few reasons, really. One is the number of people who told me that council needs more people like me – people who realize that just showing up isn’t enough, that you have to be prepared to ask tough questions, offer options, and seriously consider the impacts of decisions. If I don’t run for council, that’s one less person like me, and I felt that I would be letting the residents of Ward Three down.

The second reason is that this council has made financial decisions that will be very difficult to deal with over the next term or two of council. While I may not have supported these decisions, and I may have warned the best I could of the hole that we were digging ourselves and future councils into, I was still part of the council that made those decisions, and I feel that I owe it to the city to try to clean up the mess.

And finally, I would miss the opportunity to help out residents of Ward Three in matters big and small – whether it’s been working with Bylaw Enforcement to get a drug house closed, or helping a neighbourhood get their street paved, or just listening to people’s concerns and ideas about what might help the city work better – this is why I got into this several years ago. I’ve never forgotten that I work for the people of Ward Three, and that’s the most satisfying part of the job.

I have nine years of experience that shouldn’t be minimized or overlooked – here’s hoping that the next council, whoever ends up on it, recognizes the need to work together and utilize every resource available to solve our problems for the long-term good of the city – a council that puts that goal ahead of everything else.

“A community is only a community when the majority of its members are making the transition from “the community for myself” to “myself for the community””. – Jean Vanier