Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Back, and Looking Ahead

Like many people, I find that as the year comes to an end, I look back at the previous year, noting various landmarks and events, and look ahead, hoping that, since change is inevitable, the changes in my life will be mostly positive.

While the year in review articles in the media tend to focus on events that affect a broad range of society, my year in review tends to be more personal. I think that most people's lives are like that - while we are aware of larger events, it's our own personal landmarks that are the most memorable for us.

Last year marked thirty years in Saskatchewan for Andrea and me. We arrived here in late September 1979, knowing only a couple of people in town (guys that Andrea had been in university with who worked for PAPCo), and certainly not planning to make any kind of permanent attachment to the community. Now, thirty years later, although we'll always be considered people from away by some residents of the city, I think that it's safe to say that we've each made positive contributions, both professionally and personally, to our adopted city and province. I'm amazed when I look at the changes to Prince Albert over the years. It hasn't grown much in size - while it is a few thousand larger than the 30,000 or so that it was then, it hasn't grown as dramatically as some communities in the same time - we came from Toronto, which has grown from 2 million to more than 3 million in the same time frame, and Saskatoon has added more than 100,000 people over this time as well. We need to recognize that Prince Albert will never be one of the mega-population centres of the province -that's okay, we just need to focus on services and infrastructure that are appropriate and affordable for a community this size.

The year also marked some departures of people from my life. On the personal side, the deaths of friends are always difficult, and leave a gap that will never be filled in quite the same way again. I will particularly miss my friends Alice and Bert, whose humour and common sense never failed to cheer me up. On the professional side, I will miss my former colleague Sharon Karr, who was acting director of the library for more than a year, until a job opportunity in Edmonton, closer to family, was too tempting for her to pass up. I regret that the library board was unable to act quickly enough to give her enough reasons to stay. I also miss Lyn Brown, in her capacity as CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce. She had common sense and the courage to speak up, pointing out where the city could do a better job for its business community - sadly, such courage was not always appreciated by those who see any criticism as being treason.

The civic election this year was my fourth (fifth, if I count the by-election in early 2000 that I lost by 50 votes). Being acclaimed was quite unexpected, and much appreciated. Highlights of council work last year, for me, would be the new provisions put in place by council for secondary suites, and the approval of middle income housing developments in the West Hill - these were both initiatives that helped council meet its objectives for improving housing opportunities in the city. I'm pleased that the new members of the housing committee are continuing to ask the same questions that I asked in my time as chair of that committee - hopefully, their persistence will result in continued improvement in this crucial area.

Looking ahead to the next year, I hope, most of all, for continued good health for my family and friends. As always, these are the anchors for everything that I do - in the end, these are the people who I can trust to give me good advice, support me in whatever decisions I make, and help to put things into perspective whenever I start to feel particularly sorry for myself. Public personas are one thing, but it's the way people treat you day in and day out that really counts.

Professionally, this new council will be facing its first major challenge with the development of the budget. I'm hoping that more common sense prevails, and that we take adequate time to discuss and debate the various options open to us, rather than trying to rush things through as though there were some sort of prize for finishing in the shortest amount of time. I hope that when members of council speak, we hear fewer sound bites and odd metaphors, and more easily understandable statements about what we intend to do. I will continue to hope for more respectful treatment of all members of council, and that some members will realize that treating a councillor with disrespect is, in effect, disrespecting the citizens of Prince Albert who have elected that councillor. And I hope that we start to demonstrate that we are what we claim to be - open and accountable, answering questions that are asked, when we say that we will. Let's keep items that should be open to the public on the public agenda, instead of trying to keep issues that might be contentious within our in camera sessions.

On a personal level, next year Andrea and I will celebrate our thirty-fifth anniversary, and our house will reach the century mark. We'll have to find a good way of celebrating both of these milestones.

For us, far from the rest of our extended family, Christmas and New Year's are always quiet celebrations, which suits us just fine. This year was quieter than usual, since Andrea decided to celebrate with a cold, which she then shared with Ingrid and me. But despite the sniffles and sneezes, it was a good family time, with a few gatherings with friends as well. I hope that your holiday featured similar times of quiet enjoyment and appreciation, and that the new year brings good times for all of us.

" There's nothing worth the wear of winning, but laughter and the love of friends." - Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Committee Appointments - Once Again, Openness and Accountability Come Up Short

At council meeting this past Monday evening, committee appointments were ratified. These are committees appointed by council, at least, according to The Cities Act, they're supposed to be. One would think that, as such, council as a whole would discuss who is to be appointed to which committee, both council members and members of the public. After all, decisions of council should be made by council, not by a single member.

Under different councils, decisions about which council member sits on which committee have been made in different ways. Probably the most open was the year that the different committees were written on ping pong balls, then drawn out of a box. That ensured turnover on committees, gave everyone exposure to different experiences, evened up the workload somewhat, and removed any suggestion that council appointments are some sort of favour to be bestowed on those who have found favour with the decision makers. In other years, at the very least, council had the opportunity to have a full discussion, as a group, before decisions were ratified. In this way, we had the rationale for which committees we were on, as well as the rationale for decisions about public members.

This is no longer the case. The list of who is on which committee, both council and public members, came out of the mayor's office, and council ratified it without discussion. I have no reason why I was removed from two committees of which I was chair (Library and Housing), why I remain on other committees (Saskatoon Airport Authority, North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Planning Committee, the North Central Waste Management Committee, the Joint School Board Committee), or why I was placed on other committees (District Planning Commission, the Heritage Building Committee). I was placed on the Enterprise Zone Committee and the Peter Ballantyne/City Joint Committee, but declined to be on those committees, because they have never met, nor has council referred anything to them. I don't see the need for agreeing to put my name on a membership list for non-functional committees - it's not like I'm interested in padding my resume.

So that's only six committees - not much, compared to the workload some other councillors have been given. In some cases, I'm surprised, since some councillors' attendance at certain committees has been abysmal, and yet they've been appointed to still more committees. However, if you're one of those who see council appointments as plums handed out in return for favours, and some committees as having higher profile than others, and you're interested in furthering your political career, it might make sense from that perspective. However, we shouldn't be approaching our jobs that way - we should be working on the job at hand, not trying to put ourselves in a favourable light for future jobs or future elections.

And, as is so often the case, the process was flawed. Even though it was apparently all right to everyone else on council, that doesn't make it right. Handing over responsibility to one individual to make all the decisions makes a mockery of why we bother electing, and paying, more than one council member. Perhaps some might feel that the result will be inevitable, so why not just go along. The last time I checked, our oath of office didn't include anything about just going along. Perhaps fear of the repercussions of standing up and objecting is top of people's minds. I can sympathize with that - it isn't pleasant to be treated as a second-class member of a council that one is elected to. But acquiescing out of fear isn't the answer either - it's like dealing with the bully who threatens you in the school yard, but then turns on another kid. If you don't stand up with that other kid, because you hope that the bully will now leave you alone, you're sending a message to the bully that he can have his own way, all the time. We've all been elected to do a job, and not doing parts of it because it's easier this way, shouldn't be an option.

As I've mentioned before, the city has sixty-some committees and subcommittees, many of which have vague reasons for existence, some of which never meet. It might have been a better use of council's time if we had decided which committees are needed, which ones various council members had interest in, and moved on from there. We could have discussed rotating some responsibilities (after nine years on the library board, I can see that some might think that I need a change, although I enjoyed working with the library staff, and will miss working with the new director, who I had encouraged to apply for the job), we could have discussed council members' interests, and shared some of the less glamourous (in some people's minds), appointments. We could have discussed not reappointing some members of the public to committees when they have never attended a committee meeting.

But it didn't happen that way. And everyone but me seemed to be okay with that, for whatever their reasons were.

"Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform." - Mark Twain