Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Rules of Engagement

Like many workplaces today, City Hall has a sign posted where you pay your bills. It says, in effect, that rude and abusive behaviour will not be tolerated. The main purpose is to provide staff with a first level of defence against that sort of behaviour, but underlying it is recognition that this sort of behaviour just isn't civilized, or productive.

Unfortunately, there are some people who don't think that the same rule should apply to their elected representatives. They seem to have the attitude that, because we've been elected, we should cheerfully put up with being insulted, called names, and having our ethics questioned, both publicly and privately. I was even booed once when I entered council chambers. And then, if you don't respond, they become even more abusive, because apparently being elected means that you owe them a response.

I'm more than willing to engage in respectful discussion. But I'm not willing to enter into discussion with anyone who calls me names, who suggests that I'm not being truthful, or who accuses me of voting for any reason other than my sincere belief that I'm making the best decision possible. To my mind, these individuals don't want discussion, they want to vent their anger in a not very productive way, and I don't see why I should subject myself to their unpleasantness.

Now, I will admit to getting angry and venting, but I do my best to keep it private, with my wife, family, or other close friends. I try to keep my cool in public, and to not respond in kind, because that sort of behaviour doesn't lead to solutions, it leads to problems. When people start calling names, the focus then becomes on the name-calling, not on the actual problem. And Prince Albert is a small town - you never know when you're going to run into a friend or relative of the person that you've insulted - they may not take too kindly to your insults either.

For those who choose to do the insulting publicly, they should remember that behaviour whenever they bemoan the lack of good candidates for any elected office - more than a few people have spoken to me about how they would never run for office, because they wouldn't want to take that sort of abuse.

I often hear talk about how the behaviour of politicians at the provincial or federal level needs to be more respectful and cooperative. I would enlarge the arena for that sort of improvement to include civic politics, and to include all those who take advantage of the opportunity they have to speak at council meetings to share their ideas and opinions - let's all try to remember the old adage about treating others as we like to be treated.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." - Plato

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Strategic Planning - the Pros and Cons

Council spent all day Friday and most of Saturday in a strategic planning session. This meant two days of meeting with managers of the various departments, getting updates on their activities and plans, discussing various issues and ideas, and getting information about some ongoing problems.

It was a good opportunity to hear from everyone, without the restrictions that we have in a council meeting of having to follow procedures, make motions, call for votes, etc. Just listen, ask questions, and talk about possible solutions. And we weren't expected to show up in suits and ties, which also makes for a more relaxed session.

It probably would have been better if such a session had happened earlier, because right now the major focus is on the upcoming budget, which looks as though it's going to be a tough process, and it really wouldn't be fair to staff to expect them to cost out new initiatives when we're going to have to figure out how to deliver on current commitments without costing residents more than we have to. That didn't stop new initiatives being floated out for comment, but I think that we realize that spending for things that aren't necessities isn't going to be acceptable.

I would have found a council retreat to be even more beneficial. What's the difference? A retreat is more of an opportunity for members of council to share ideas, without being restricted to a preset agenda that deals with each department in turn. My preference would have been to have a council retreat shortly after the election, followed by a strategic planning session. I like to do the big picture thinking first, then get into the more specific details later.

On the whole, it was a good couple of days. There were still questions cut short, because they were in areas where solutions are difficult. To my mind, that doesn't mean that we don't ask the questions - we ask them, and try to figure out the solutions. And if there isn't a readily available solution out there, that shouldn't stop us from developing our own by-laws - we have that ability, but seem to be reluctant to use it. One area that I will continue to press for finding a solution is that of boarded up houses - they are a blight in any neighbourhood where they occur, reduce property values, and are a fire hazard, which costs the whole city. Fortunately, I'm not alone in my concerns in this area, so the topic is sure to be raised until we figure out some options.

On another topic, I thought that I would provide a couple of comments on Mr. Simonite's comment on my last blog. While we obviously have different opinions and interpretations, which I'm not going to get into, and I feel that it's unlikely that he might agree with any explanations that I provide, he did wonder where I got the idea that he or his family wanted to drive the bar in question out of business. I wasn't quoting him or any member of his family; I was quoting another resident from an article in the local paper, who said "We're hoping that someday, Belly Up will go belly up." To me, that sounds like they wish that it would go out of business.

The other point that I will respond to is his allegation that I always vote against the mayor and Councillor Dionne for personal reasons. This is not true. While I agree that I often disagree with other members of council, and we have diametrically opposed viewpoints at times, I have never been one to check the front of the room to see how I should vote, whether for or against. I vote based on my interpretation of the facts, and what I think is the best option for the city. I respect that other members of council may have differing ideas on the same topic, but I wasn't elected just to go along. And interestingly, in the last contentious issue that came to council, the approval of a duplex in the West Hill, the mayor and I voted the same way.

I also don't vote based on how other people think I should vote, whether they are council members or members of the public. To do so would be to cave to peer pressure, in effect, which isn't why I was elected. I can appreciate that there are usually two (or more) sides to any argument; my job is to make the best decision that I can, which is all that any of us can do.

And finally, the Animal Rescue Site has another opportunity to vote for the Prince Albert SPCA, to see if it can get some funding through Petfinder. Just go to, and follow the prompts. When last I checked, we were in 67th place in Canada; I'm confident that we can do better, and wouldn't it be great if we made it to the top!

"You can't base your life on other people's expectations." - Stevie Wonder

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Making Decisions Based on Fact, not Emotion

The decision to approve a parking lot for the Belly-Up Bar, with conditions attached, was approved at last week's council meeting. As expected, the decision has not been a popular one with the local residents. I understand that they want a peaceful neighbourhood, and they are concerned that they may be losing this. But I would hope that they would have an appreciation for my perspective, which is that I have to vote according to the legal facts of the situation, as well as the actual evidence that we have.

My vote was based on the following facts:

First, the land in question is zoned commercial, C-2, and has been for many years. The previous council was mis-informed by a member of the city administrative staff, when we were told that it was zoned residential, R-5. Because it is zoned for commercial use, council has no discretion over this decision, and it should never have come to council for a vote. People may be confused, because there was a house on the land, but residential housing has been built on land zoned commercial. Before we lived in our current house, Andrea and I lived in a little house on 13th Street East that was (and is) in a similar situation - the whole block is zoned commercial, but there are residences along the north side of the street, businesses along the south side, although when we first lived there a couple of homes were built in between the businesses on the south side of the street - closer to 6th Avenue East, that is still the case. If you live adjacent to commercial development, this may well be your situation.

Second, the lot in question has not been used as a parking lot, so I'm not sure why residents are so positive that allowing it to be used for parking, especially with the sound and security accommodations that have been proposed by Mr. Tesar, will lead to the dire consequences that they are predicting. A restaurant and lounge are located directly across the street, with a parking lot in the rear, and this doesn't seem to be a problem for residents. To not allow it in this case would be discriminatory.

Third, our requirement of commercial licensees is that their establishment has adequate parking for patrons - Mr. Tesar is trying to comply with this requirement, and is willing to meet additional conditions that other businesses owners have not had to, in an effort to allay the residents' concerns. There doesn't seem to be much appetite from the residents to meet him half-way, which is unfortunate. Quotes from residents indicating that they hope to drive the business to failure indicates that they aren't even interested in looking for a win-win situation.

The arguments that have been made since this decision are based on emotion, not on providing additional factual information. I can't speak for any other member of council, but I have made it my practice of voting according to the facts, not based on emotion, threats, insults, or personal aspersions on my character, none of which help to find solutions.

The last time this came to council, one of my fellow councillors accurately pointed out that we hadn't solved the problem, and it would continue to drag on, which it has. My suggestion at that time was that the city should try to work with Mr. Tesar to find an alternate solution. Wouldn't it be great if we could get someone with his obvious business talents to set up downtown, which desperately needs more development to get people there in the evenings, after the offices have closed and the daytime occupants have left. This would be moving toward a solution that would benefit all parties, plus the city as a whole.

We also need to develop plans for dealing with future potential conflicts, since, as I've indicated, similar residential areas are zoned for commercial use. In the meantime, we need to focus more on finding creative solutions and compromises, not on delaying decisions or making them based on emotions and personalities - that only causes long-term pain, as we are seeing now.

And finally, as a council, let's learn to listen to each other respectfully, and not act as though disagreement is to be taken as an opportunity for questioning each others' commitment, capability, or understanding of the job. Those of us at the table should understand better than anyone how difficult it is to make decisions on these matters, and should appreciate that we're each, in our own individual way, trying to do our best for the city.

"Hating people is like burning down your house to get rid of a rat." - Harry Emerson Fosdick

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Opportunity to Recycle Plastic

Since this past fall, Prince Albert residents have had the opportunity to recycle household plastic. Crown Shred & Recycling has a pilot project for residential recycling, similar to programs that they currently have in Regina and Moose Jaw. As vice-chair of the North Central Waste Management Authority, I figured that I should be setting a good example, so we signed up right away.

There is a nominal cost - $10 per month, which translates to $120 per year, paid in advance. I was quite impressed - the day after signing up on-line, two blue boxes, about 24 by 18 by 18 inches, were delivered to our door. Since we waited for seven years (paying every year via our water bill) for our back alley recycling bin, it was nice to have the service provided as soon as it was paid for. Now, every second Wednesday morning, we carry the bin out to the edge of the yard, and by the end of the day, it has been emptied.

What sorts of things go into the box? Well, at this moment, our bin holds a shower gel bottle, a dish detergent bottle, a courier bag, a milk jug, a parmesan cheese container, several yogurt containers, a cottage cheese container, take-out coffee lids, and a couple of cake and sandwich trays. They weren't all ours - Andrea has taken to bringing plastic home from work or church, to help the cause. The program accepts kitchen, bathroom and laundry room plastics, but not oil or antifreeze containers. If you check the number inside the little recycling symbol, they take anything with a number from 1 to 7.

While ours isn't a huge amount, it has reduced the amount of garbage that goes into the back alley dumpster. And while I realize that the milk jug could go in the communal blue bin in the back, I'm familiar enough with the difficulties that these bins have posed for recycling to know that the contents may end up in the landfill, rather than being recycled.

And that's my main reason for subscribing to this service. I know that using this will help, in a small way, to reduce the amount of material going to the landfill, and thus prolong our ability to use that site. In the long run, if enough people took advantage of this opportunity, we could extend the life of the landfill and reduce the costs that will come when we have to develop a new site.

I know of one conscientious family who live outside the city, where the service is not available. However, they have partnered with someone in the city who lives alone, and share the costs - an ingenious solution that works for them, and illustrates for their children the importance of taking small actions that collectively, will make a difference.

I'm surprised that the city hasn't done more to publicize this opportunity, since it's the city that stands to gain the most benefit. Relatively few homes have signed up for the program - I'm hoping that by the end of this year, enough residents will have decided to take this small step so that the pilot project can become permanent. If you haven't, I encourage you to go to their web-site,, and see how you can become part of the solution.

"Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." - Mahatma Gandhi