Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Small Tale of Crime

Last June, I was barbecuing some burgers for lunch, after being out all morning. While I was barbecuing, I heard the garage door opening, and looked up to see a kid, maybe twelve, sneaking down the driveway. I chased him, but he had the advantage of a head start, and being some forty years younger, although I did get close enough for him to turn and threaten to hit me. I wish that he had - I would have grabbed him. When I got back to the house, Andrea said that when she had arrived home for lunch there was a young girl sitting on a bike in the driveway. When Andrea asked what she was up to, she said that she was looking for her brother, then she rode away.

When I looked in the garage, I saw that Guthrie's bike had been taken down from the rafters. So, in retrospect, I guess these two criminals-in-training had been interrupted - the girl acting as lookout, closing the garage door so the boy could get the bicycle down without being observed. The girl rode about the neighbourhood for awhile, probably wondering if the boy was still inside the garage. I actually saw him that afternoon in city hall square - when he saw me he took off. And I saw him a couple of weeks ago, riding a bike around the Co-op parking lot - I almost stopped to ask him where he'd stolen it from.

Fast forward to this past Friday morning - I was heading upstairs to the attic to check out my emails, when I saw this same kid looking in the bed of a pick-up truck parked behind one of the apartment buildings behind our house. While I watched, he hopped into the bed of the truck, then slid the back window of the cab open and squeezed in. I called the police.

By the time I got out to the back alley, he had taken off, running between the houses toward Ninth Street. The truck alarm was going off, and the owner of the truck soon came out. As I was talking to her, the police arrived. I told the officer where the kid had gone, and he went off to look for him. Then we saw the kid coming down the back alley, having removed his jacket. The truck owner and I confronted him, and he took off. I called dispatch to ask them to let the officer know that the kid was no longer wearing the jacket, and the dispatch person told me that they were not going to pursue this, because the truck owner had said that she knew the kid. Then we saw the police vehicle pass the kid, now strolling casually down Ninth Street, the proud owner of at least one new CD.

Now, what the truck owner had told the officer was that she thought that she knew the kid, that possibly his grandmother lived in her building. What she hadn't said was that it was okay for him to have broken into her truck, but that seems to be the conclusion that both the officer and dispatch came to. I told dispatch this, and the next thing I know, the officer is at my door, after having paid a visit to the truck owner, to ask me what my problem is.

According to the truck owner, when the officer stopped in to talk to her, he advised her against pressing charges, because to do so would likely result in some form of retaliation, such as her tires being slashed. So apparently, when these petty crimes happen, we're not supposed to call the police, because they are unwilling to do anything, even when the criminal is identifiable, and walking past you.

So, yes, I have a problem. Two, actually. The first is that, given the opportunity to let a kid know that there are consequences to breaking into a vehicle and stealing someone else's property, the officer chose to do nothing. The second is that the officer actively discouraged the victim from pressing charges, because to do so might encourage the criminal to take further action.

I will say that I have since been contacted by the police, who have told me that they know this kid, that there are parenting issues, because apparently he doesn't go to school, but that they are going to follow up with the family. And I appreciate their attention to this, somewhat after the fact. Although I wonder what the odds are of there being some sort of improvement to behaviour, if the family doesn't care enough to get the kid to school.

Now, I know that the police are busy. I know that crimes like shootings and murder are of much greater importance than truck break-ins. But I can't help but think that the time taken for follow-up visits with both the crime victim and me would have been more productive if instead the officer had grabbed the kid, put him in the back seat of the car, and suggested to him that he was going to be on their radar, and any time they saw him in a back alley or hanging about with other kids, they would be pulling over to find out what he was up to. Or why not just toss him in a cell for a few hours, then follow up with the family? In other words, put some fear into him of the consequences of breaking the law, no matter how relatively minor it may seem.

It seemed somewhat ironic to read in the paper that same day that, according to a speech given by the police chief at a Chamber of Commerce lunch, their approach to crime is to "fix it (criminal behaviour) at the lowest level". He even suggests paying "a lot of attention to" people in the fifteen to twenty-four age group, since it's people in that age range who commit the most crimes. This kid is younger than that - now would be the time to let him and other junior criminals know that this behaviour is not acceptable - to me, that would be a logical action to take if the police are serious about this approach.

So that's my crime story for this week - nothing major, but sadly, a newcomer to our city (the truck owner) has had a not very positive experience, and a kid who hangs around my neighbourhood has not been discouraged from what will likely turn out to be a life of ever-escalating crime. But I won't forget what he looks like, and I'll be watching.

"Pardon one offence, and you encourage the commission of many." - Publius Syrus

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Budget Vote

The budget meeting last week, sadly, wasn't much of a surprise. Despite the glaring inadequacies of both the process and the resulting documents, I was the only member of council to vote against what really is an incomplete effort, both in process and in result.

In fact, this really isn't a budget in the true sense of the word. It sets out, in varying levels of detail, how we propose to spend money this year, and how much more money we will be taking from the taxpayer to fund these efforts. But there was no attempt made to look at previous spending (in fact, when I raised the issue one councillor even claimed that we'd agreed to stick with status quo spending - obviously at one of those meetings that I wasn't invited to). There was no setting of objectives. There was no plan as to how to meet our various obligations - only deferral of things like road maintenance (where our neglected obligations are already at a multi-million dollar level) to some vague future time, when the costs will certainly be greater.

If this were our own personal budget, that's one thing. Let's say you're setting your own household budget. If you decide, for example, to continue buying a full cable package, even though the person in the family who wanted all the sports channels has moved out, well, it's your money. If you want to spend it on non-essentials like cable channels that you no longer watch, rather than fixing the roof, you'll be the one stuck for the damage when the roof starts leaking. But for council, it's not our money, it's the taxpayers who have to trust us not to spend more than we have to, who have to trust us to look at every expenditure to see if it's necessary, and who have to trust us to be spending their money first, on the necessities, then on the nice to haves. Taxpayers could certainly ask why, for example, the mayor and the city manager each need two administrative assistants, for a total of four, when in previous administrations the mayor and the city manager were able to get by sharing one. Ironically, before the budget, it was announced that $4,000 would be cut from the mayor's office budget. That savings was going to be accomplished by leaving one admin assistant position vacant for a month. However, even that small savings won't be realized, since the position has now been speedily filled after a councillor had the temerity to ask during the budget meeting if the position was really necessary.

We also should follow our own policies when doing the budget. For instance, our policy says that we require financial reports from all the entities that we support - the library, the Art Hauser Centre, the Rawlinson Centre, for example, before we approve granting them money for another year. Yet again, the Rawlinson Centre has not provided financials for last year. Not only do we continue to fund them, but this year we have decided to give them an additional $50,000, without even a written request as to why this additional funding is needed. When this sort of thing happens, people start to question what appear to be backroom deals. We talk about being open and accountable, but our actions are exactly the opposite.

We received, once again, a grant from the Northern Lights Casino. This grant is supposed to be used for things that are over and above regular city responsibilities. This year, the money was rolled into the budget, rather than being dealt with separately. This is just wrong, and shouldn't even have been considered.

And finally, and most significantly, the police budget came in with no detail. This has not happened before in my ten years on council. All of a sudden, we are supposed to assume that the police commission is not to be questioned on matters of budget, even though last year they originally budgeted $24,000 for a remote control gadget (which came out of the plans after it was made public), and this year we found out that the local police department replaces its vehicles after only two years of use, even though a bit of investigation by a reporter showed that no other community in western Canada replaces vehicles that quickly. The question that I'm hearing from the public now is "What are they hiding?" If you have a reasonable budget, you shouldn't be afraid to let people see it.

Of course, the response that I got from one councillor was "that's all we legally have to provide". I suppose that legally, he's right. Ethically, it stinks. Perhaps next year the entire budget will be approached that way, as it already is for the police, and the mayor's office budget - forget any detail, let's just have one number for capital expenditures, one for operating expenditures. Because legally, perhaps that's all that's required.

So, after all's said and done, aren't we stuck with this budget? Is it too late to fix it? No, it's not too late. I remember years when the budget wasn't set until May, and somehow, we survived. I realize that a great deal of work has been done; the problem is, the job isn't finished. And instead of just throwing up our hands and accepting a substandard job, we should be digging in, asking questions, cutting unnecessary expenditures, figuring out how we're going to deal with the backlog of poorly maintained roads and lead pipes still in place.

And we should be sharing this process with the public, and seeing how we can improve how we tell people about how we're spending their money.

I can't support this budget, and I can't support the process that was followed. So my only option is to vote against the budget bylaw. I can't support actions of council that so directly contradict the basic tenets of democracy, and that fly in the face of all the promises that are made during elections, and when council is first sworn in.

Open and accountable - no. Closed and arrogant - yes. Sadly, that's not nearly as catchy a slogan.

"It is no use saying 'we are doing our best'. You have to succeed in doing what is necessary." Winston Churchill