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


Lorne said...

As always, great points Lee. This blog should be mandatory reading for all residents of Prince Albert. Congratulations on your acclamation and thanks for being so dedicated to bettering the city. Looking forward to the next time we chat.

Donna said...

I agree with Lorne, Lee, although I almost cried reading all the facts about how much the past term has cost me and now realizing how much the next term will cost as well. I was distraught at the number of people who chose not to vote, and also with those who refuse to learn about the issues.

As for the in camera meetings, is it possible for the council members to refuse to go - to stand up against the mayor as a group and demand openness and transparency? Maybe without the "A" team, it won't be as bad as my heart is tellin me it could be.