Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Quest for Coherent Logic

Sometimes, I come out of a council meeting wondering if I've mysteriously lost my ability to speak English - perhaps there's some kind of encoding that happens between my utterance and when it makes its way across council chambers. Perhaps that open space in the centre is a Bermuda Triangle for ideas. I certainly felt that way at last Monday's council meeting, after my motion to have a report prepared, as well as a draft bylaw, on the feasibility of a cat licensing system in the city was defeated.

I don't expect that everyone on council agrees with the need for such a bylaw, but I did think that the logical next step would be to have a report outlining the options, to provide the necessary information that council would need before moving forward with a bylaw. However, the reasons given by some council members defied logic - the statement was made that we don't want to commit ourselves to a bylaw. Perhaps a review of the difference between having a report prepared (provision of information), versus voting on a bylaw (making the final decision) is required for some councillors. Until a bylaw is actually given three readings, it has not been passed, and council has not committed itself to anything.

Another councillor said that he felt that the current bylaw needs to be reviewed and updated, but he felt that we should have a report first. This is when I started worrying about whether I had lost the power of understandable speech - that was the first part of my recommendation, and if that was the only part of the recommendation that could be supported, then the councillor could have asked for an amendment that he could support.

So my recommendation was defeated, although not totally without support. If there were logical reasons for not supporting this (if, for example, one felt that the current situation was fine, that there is no need to find additional ways of funding the SPCA, that sort of reason), I could understand that. But with the reasons that were given, one might wonder if the actual motive was to not support a suggestion of a particular member of council, possibly for personal reasons.

Now, one wouldn't want to believe that - not from a council less than a month old, which had members at the first meeting talk about the need for greater cooperation and working together. Surely those weren't just words said for show, without any intention of following those words up with actions that would demonstrate commitment to those ideas. A member of council has to put aside personal feelings in doing what is best for the city, otherwise we wouldn't be doing our jobs and upholding our oath of office. We owe each other the respect of listening to everyone's ideas, and figuring out how we can make change work, otherwise we're not respecting the people who elected us to do those very things.

Since we won't have licensing fees to help the SPCA anytime soon, remember to go to, and vote for the Prince Albert SPCA. We've gone from eighty-something place in Canada when I first posted about this opportunity, reached as high as twenty-third place, but have now slipped to twenty-fifth. You can vote once a day until December 20th.

No council or executive meeting this week - I'm not sure why. We have many things to talk about, from the finally released second bridge report, to the new committee recommendations, to the ever-changing numbers for soccer centre operational costs. But we won't be starting any of those discussions until December 7, our next Executive Meeting. Unless, of course, it's decided that we need a special meeting before then.

"What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Cat Question

At the first council meeting of this new council, I announced my intention to look into the feasibility of a cat licensing bylaw. This has provoked a bit of reaction - the local paper ran an electronic poll, asking if people would be in favour of this (a small majority appear to be), and a number of people, ranging from Andrea's co-workers to our vet, have commented on it.

I do not hate cats, as some have suggested. I'm not particularly fond of them, either. I'm actually allergic to them. However, I am part of a family that is made up of cat people, which is why we have them as pets.

I recognize the value that cats (and dogs) bring to a family - they provide companionship, affection, and a non-judgemental ear. And while there are those who claim that cats are less attached to individuals than dogs, there is no denying that Hendrix recognizes Guthrie's step when he comes home from work, and runs to greet him.

I'm sure that most pet owners do their best to be responsible, recognizing that having a pet is a responsibility, not a right. And, like many things, it's the irresponsible few that cause problems for the rest of us. Too many people look on pets as being somewhat disposable, and can't be bothered with the basics of pet ownership, like spaying and neutering, which is why the SPCA is forced to take drastic measures, like the current offering of free adoption of cats, to try to reduce the current volume.

All of the cats in our home are the result of irresponsible pet owners. Hendrix, adopted from the SPCA four years ago, was one of a litter of kittens that was trapped by the animal control officer. He was extremely withdrawn in the first few weeks with us, staying completely within Guthrie's room. It was only after a couple of months that he ventured into the rest of the house - surprisingly, now he's probably the cuddliest of the cats.

Hunter was a stray who showed up on our doorstep three years ago, a half-grown kitten with a tremendous purr. He hung about the yard for a day or so before Andrea brought him in after he almost was hit by a car. We assume that he was abandoned by someone who moved out of the neighbourhood.

Two years ago Guthrie brought Gracie home - she was from a home where they don't believe in spaying or neutering, so usually have litters of kittens about. And most recently, we've been found by Maggie, a stray who hung about the yard all summer, usually running off whenever one of us got too close. She got very friendly when the cold weather came, and now is living in our basement - a long-haired tortoiseshell whose owners cared enough to have her spayed (the vet estimates that she's three or four years old), but who seem to have left her behind when they moved. We were going to take her to the SPCA, but realize their capacity issues right now, and Guthrie was worried that, because of her age, she was unlikely to be adopted. If you know anyone in the midtown area who's missing such a cat, give us a call.

So, how would a licensing bylaw help in controlling the cat situation? My initial thought that it would be a way of increasing revenues to the SPCA, an organization that survives because of the dedication of its staff and volunteers. Requiring that cats be licensed also might help to return cats that have wandered away from home, particularly if, as part of the licensing process, the cat could be microchipped. That might even be a way of providing owners with a tangible benefit of getting a licence.

Saskatoon has had a cat licensing bylaw for a few years - we could review their bylaw, and get a sense of how it's working. I've spoken with the guys at bylaw enforcement - they agree that our pet bylaws need review, and that now is as good a time as any. For instance, we do have a bylaw that limits cat ownership to six, and requires that all cats over six months of age be spayed or neutered unless the owner has a breeding licence. However, our lack of a licensing requirement means that we have no way of knowing where the cats are, or enforcing whether they are able to breed.

People need to become more aware that cats (or any pets) aren't disposable - that there are basic needs that need to be met. If the small cost of getting a licence discourages people from getting a cat - good. That is the smallest cost of pet ownership. And if it provides more funds for the SPCA, and reduces the number of cats who have to be put to sleep because their owner can't be found, all the better.

Next to recycling bins and parking woes, I probably get the most phone calls and complaints about cats, and how to control them. I'm not saying that licensing cats will solve all of these problems, but I think that it's a possible solution that is worth investigating.

"The problem with a kitten is that, eventually it becomes a cat." - Ogden Nash

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

And We Begin Again

Monday evening was the first meeting of this new council. As is usual for the first meeting, the bulk of it is taken up with the swearing in ceremony, and the actual meeting agenda is quite light. And between the ceremony and the actual meeting, we break for fifteen minutes or so for the family and friends in attendance to take pictures and offer congratulations. Then most of the crowd leaves, and we take care of mostly administrative details, like who's going to be deputy mayor when.

Every councillor gets about six weeks of deputy mayor duty, which mostly means chairing the Committee of the Whole section of the council meeting. In the past, we've usually gone in alphabetical order, but sometimes trades happen, because someone is going to be away on extended holiday during their proposed term. Usually the schedule is discussed ahead of the meeting; this didn't happen this time, which led to amendments on the spot, as Councillor Dionne and I traded spots to deal with his planned holidays (we had discussed this before the meeting), then Councillor Martin Ring asked to trade with Councillor Zurakowski for the same reason. If nothing else, this highlighted the importance of council matters being discussed by council as a whole, rather than decisions being made without participants' input.

So far I feel good about this new council. The new council members all seem prepared to work hard for the betterment of the city as a whole, and to understand that, until the whole city is considered a good place to live, we haven't finished the job.

We had an orientation meeting the Monday before the first meeting. At this meeting we were also informed that there would be more meetings during the week, and a bus tour of city facilities on Saturday morning. The lack of notice and my previous commitments to other organizations and family meant that I wasn't able to take advantage of those opportunities. While I'm quite familiar with city staff and most facilities, I would have appreciated being able to spend some time with my new colleagues. However, we do have the next three years of working together, and hopefully there will be more advance notice of meetings - most councillors have busy lives that have just gotten busier, and that needs to be recognized.

I will miss having Councillor Williams to bounce ideas off, and to have open and honest discussions with about city problems. For the past couple of years he's had to commute from out-of-town work opportunities to get to council meetings, and I don't think that other members of council fully appreciated the extra effort and costs that this entailed, nor was there ever any effort made to accommodate his rather special circumstances. Shawn represented the people of his ward well, he wasn't afraid to speak up for what he believed was right, and he refused to be bullied - not always an easy thing to do.

But I'm hopeful that the members of this new council will also remember their constituents and speak up for what they believe is right - if enough of us do that, we should be able to make positive changes to the city over the next three years.

"No man is wise enough by himself." - Plautus

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Some Post-Election Thoughts

The election is over, and we have a new council. Changes to four of the nine seats, which might change the dynamics. And three of the new councillors are women, which will provide some long-needed gender diversity to what is often termed as an old boys' club. I think that an election that results in significant new blood, while maintaining some veterans is a good thing - you end up with a good mix of experience and new perspectives, which is healthy for any organization.

If all members of council are wise, they will pay attention to the issues that were raised during the election. I heard a lot of questions about our increasing debt load, deteriorating infrastructure, the new bridge, and the lack of openness of council. We need to do what we can to answer those questions and change our behaviours, quickly.

Those of us fortunate to be returning shouldn't take our re-election as blanket endorsement of our actions over the last term - the significant number of votes that were directed towards an individual with no council experience, and with relatively little life experience, told me that there were people out there who wanted to plant a vote somewhere, but who weren't willing to select either of the experienced options, no doubt remembering Jerry Garcia's line that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. And those of us who were fortunate enough to be acclaimed need to be aware that it might not have been the right time or place for potential challengers - it doesn't mean that everyone in our wards agrees with everything we have done over the past three years.

And we can't ignore the fact that most eligible voters in Prince Albert chose not to vote. I don't know what the answer to voter apathy is - I suspect that it isn't one single answer, but several. Four acclamations may be seen as having reduced the reason for voting in half the city, but I don't think that that's the only reason for the low turnout.

I don't think that it's that getting to the polls is particularly difficult. Electronic voting may be worth investigating, or setting up more polls, but honestly, people had several days to find a few minutes to exercise their right, and many didn't. In Saskatoon, advance polls were set up in malls, and their turnout was also pretty pathetic.

Perhaps part of it is that people didn't like their choices, that there wasn't someone particularly inspiring to vote for. Not every election can feature a Barack Obama, who can ignite crowds with energy and a sense of being part of positive change. That doesn't change the responsibility of the individual to study the issues, make a choice, and vote. Actually, you don't even have to study the issues - the only questions that you're asked as you register have to do with where you live, and for how long. In fact, we had a brief moment of levity when we went to vote, when Guthrie turned to Andrea (who had finished casting her ballot) to ask which school board he was voting for - knowing nothing about it didn't stop him from voting (although he did recognize some of the names on the ballot, apparently).

I think that a large part of voter apathy comes from the feeling from many people that, no matter who they vote for, once the election is over, their concerns will be forgotten, so why bother. That's important for each member of council to remember - getting elected is one thing. Being an effective member of council, truly representing and standing up for your constituents, even the ones who may not have voted for you, is a whole new game. But that's the game we're into now.

Perhaps if we all do our jobs well over the next three years, the next election will generate interest, excitement, and the sense that getting involved in leading the city is a worthwhile endeavour. More candidates, more interest, more clearly discussed issues and options, should result in more likely engagement of voters.

To the new faces around the table - welcome. Don't forget the people who elected you, who are now trusting you to represent them. They are now your bosses, and will have the opportunity to fire you in three years if they feel ignored. Treat your vote at council as a trust that shouldn't be violated, and don't let others around the table try to influence you in doing anything but following your own conscience when you vote. Learn the actual rules of the game, and don't hesitate to follow them, even if others at the table get a tad cranky. The democratic process has evolved over time in the way that it has for good reasons; it can serve us well if we remember that.

November 8 will be the first meeting of this new council - I'm looking forward to my fourth term. And don't worry - I won't be agreeing to the third reading in the same meeting if I think that further discussion and public input is required.

"Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill