Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Positive Side of Being Negative

Occasionally I'll hear, usually second-hand, that I'm considered a negative person.

I admit, I don't have the happiest face - I'm just not a smiley-face person. Fortunately, in the smile department, both kids took after their mother - they all have great smiles. I don't, and I suppose I do look grumpy a lot of the time, which is not necessarily reflective of my actual mood at the moment. My sister gave me a coffee mug for Christmas once that was labeled My Many Moods, which was covered with identical pictures of a grumpy cat, each one of which was supposed to indicate a different mood - confused, grumpy, content, happy, sad - the expression never varied. My family got the joke at once - I couldn't figure out why she'd given me a mug with cat pictures all over it, or why everybody was laughing. Then I got it.

And my kids' friends were often intimidated by me when they were younger, solely because I looked angry all the time (according to the kids). After helping my daughter move in Saskatoon once, one of her friends told her that he no longer was afraid of me, after we spent some time driving around, trying to figure out how to dispose of a wrecked couch, and coming up with all sorts of ludicrous alternatives before finally taking it to the landfill.

So if you're one of the people who thinks that I'm constantly miserable, just because of the expression on my face, stop to chat, and you might be pleasantly surprised.

And some people think that my tendency to question ideas that come to council, rather than just adding my voice to a chorus of praise, is being negative. Technically, I guess, sometimes they're right. Voting no is coming down on the negative side of a decision, something that many members of council appear to be reluctant to do, even though they might not agree with the decision in question. But if questions aren't asked, if nobody points out areas where improvements could be made, or highlights the potential downside of new initiatives, then how can we expect things to get better? Think of the problems that could have been avoided if enough members of council had asked the right questions at the right time, and voted accordingly.

I will admit that, with the current council, there don't appear to be many councillors who are willing to voice their concerns, and that does tend to make those of us who do so stand out from the rest. To be painted as being negative for doing so is unfortunate, but I'm comforted by being told by many residents that they think that I'm doing a good job, and they wish that more members of council would ask questions and demand believable answers, rather than just going along with the majority every time.

Perhaps of more of us did that, if it became the normal way of doing business, asking questions would no longer be considered being negative, but would be seen as what it is - a necessary step in a good, functional, decision-making process.

"A grouch escapes so many little annoyances that it almost pays to be one." Kin Hubbard

Sunday, August 22, 2010

More Special than Regular Meetings

I've mentioned before that for some reason, not discussed in council, there were only two regular council meetings this summer - one in July, one the first week in August. This assumes that nothing much happens in the summer, and also gives those who take summer holidays the chance to take those holidays without affecting their attendance record.

But this August we will have not one, but two special meetings, one tomorrow, the other the following Monday. You probably won't be aware of these; they weren't mentioned on the city page in yesterday's newspaper, even though the next meetings in September were. And that's my big problem with these so-called special meetings - they are very poorly publicized (notice on the city web page and on a bulletin board on the second floor of City Hall allows us to meet legal requirements, but not the ethical requirements of openness). They also aren't emergencies - often they're set to have the third vote on a issue that didn't receive unanimous approval for a third vote in a single meeting, often caused by me exercising my rights as a councillor for the opportunity for sober second thought before finally making a decision. Can these decisions wait until the next regular meeting, and be included in the agenda then? Of course, but this way, members of council are inconvenienced, and it looks like it's my fault for holding out for democracy.

This week's special meeting is to have third vote on changing the time of regular council meetings, from 7 p.m. to 5 p.m. I disagree with this move for a few reasons. My main one is that this makes meetings even less visible to the public. At 5 p.m. most people are leaving work, heading home, starting supper preparations. It's not usually a good time for sitting down and watching a council meeting on television, and you'd be surprised at the number of people who make a point of watching our goings-on regularly. And while we don't have a lot of members of the public who attend our meetings in person, this will make it more difficult for those who do. I know that some members of council would be quite happy not to give the public the opportunity to voice their opinions in the council chambers during public forum - this will make an already restrictive process even more so.

The change will also make it more difficult for members of council, both now and in the future, to attend meetings without affecting their other, full-time job. Being on council is supposed to be a part-time job, reflected by the fact that it doesn't pay a full-time salary. Moving the meetings means that those whose jobs have regular-type hours needn't bother to apply - you will have to take time off work to attend meetings. And not just every two weeks - the Committee of the Whole, in camera meeting, which currently is held a couple of hours before council, will be moved to the other week, before Executive Committee meetings, that have always started at 5 p.m. And there's the additional time required to clean up and put on a suit, as "business attire" is required for council meetings. Not a problem if you're in an office job, more of a problem if your job isn't one that requires a suit. Taking this extra time might not be a problem if you're in a job with flexible hours, or if you're the boss, or if you're retired, but most people don't have that sort of freedom to leave the job a few hours early, every week.

So, what's the impetus behind this move? Well, some members of council find that going so late into the evening (meetings usually end around 8:30 p.m.) is tiring, so they would like to go home earlier. Apparently they missed the part of the job description that says that being on council isn't intended to be a full-time, and certainly not an overtime, commitment, and trying to live up to that expectation could prove to be tiring. Nobody is forced to be at City Hall at 7 a.m. every day, and nobody would have a problem with committee meetings set later in the day, particularly on council meeting days or the day after.

But it's way easier, I suppose, to set meeting times to fit one's personal preferences than respect the public's opportunity to watch and participate in those meetings. The only possible benefit to the earlier meeting time is that it should remove the need to provide meals, not only to council members, but also to staff who attend these meetings, at the tax payers' expense. But that's a small price to pay for making our decision-making processes less visible to those who have to pay for those decisions.

Next week's special meeting is to see the 2009 financial statements for the city. These have to be submitted to the province by the end of August. A more logical approach would have been to include these in an earlier, regular meeting, with sufficient time for council to review before forwarding them to the province. In fact, I'll be interested to find out why these are being reviewed so late in the year, and at a special meeting, to boot. It's not as if this is a new or sudden expectation of the province.

So why two special meetings, and not just one? Who knows. We're just told when, and what's on the agenda. And too bad if you planned your holidays based on the announced schedule of meetings.

I often think how much easier it would be if I could just accept the various actions that are proposed to council at face value - if I could believe, for example, that we were moving council meetings earlier to make it easier for people to attend meetings, which was the reason put forward to the press. But even the slightest consideration of the change shows far more negatives than positives, and it's part of my genetic make-up, I'm afraid, to point these inconsistencies out. And while my pointing things out rarely changes the votes or the minds of others at the council table, at least I'm doing my job in making sure that other points of view are put on the table for discussion - a basic tenet of the democratic ideals that should be driving everyone on council.

"All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility." - John Stuart Mill

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Few Facts About Recycling Bins

Prince Albert's current residential recycling program isn't working. And, unfortunately, rather than admitting that it isn't working and trying to figure out how to make it work, some civic leaders are minimizing the problems, and suggesting that the problems are not as widespread as they actually are. I'm not sure why we think that the way to solve problems is by ignoring them, or by trying to mislead people about the scope of the problem.

The city has had a recycling program for about eight years, although the entire city wasn't provided with this service until the last year. The service is provided either through individual blue bins at each home, or large communal bins, the last to be provided, in the Midtown and East Hill areas.

These bins are meant for recyclable materials - paper, cardboard, milk jugs. The material goes to the material recycling facility which is on 40th Street, at the south edge of town. Once there, it is sorted, and sold to the markets that can be found for these materials.

From the beginning, with the individual bins, there have been problems with garbage being included with recyclables - to put it plainly, people were treating blue bins like garbage bins. In the worst situations, potentially dangerous materials, such as used needles, were tossed into bins. The garbage required extra sorting, and thus extra handling costs, at the recycling facility. The needles added a level of hazard that is unacceptable. The two areas noted for having a high level of contaminated blue bins are the West Flat and the West Hill, which have the individual bins at each residence. In some areas, the problem is so ubiquitous that the bins are taken directly to the landfill, without bothering to take them to the recycling centre for checking.

The problem has been brought to the city several times. The city's most recent solution has been to have someone inspect the bins before pick-up, and tag them if they are contaminated, and thus not suitable for recycling. It would appear, however, that this has merely been a make-work project. When one councillor followed the recycling truck on its route, the result was a bit of a surprise - even untagged bins which were presumably free of garbage were taken directly to the landfill.

The large communal bins are also subject to this sort of contamination, and face another problem as well. They are so poorly designed that water leaks through the hinge on the lid at the top, meaning that the material within gets wet with every rainfall. The bin contents are weighed at the recycling centre, and if they're too heavy, are sent to the landfill, since that means that the material within is either wet, and thus not recyclable, or someone has dumped heavy garbage in there. It's disappointing to me, after waiting for seven years to get a recycling service that I had been paying for from the start, and after noting that my neighbours appear to be extremely respectful of the recycling guidelines, since our bin contents seem limited to paper and cardboard, that one good rain every two weeks makes our good intentions pointless.

The whole point of residential recycling is to reduce the amount of material going to the landfill, to save the city money in having to develop a new landfill area. It's also the right thing to do, from an ecological perspective. But obviously these reasons haven't been enough to persuade some residents of the city to make the small effort of separating their garbage from their recyclables.

I think that the hard truth is that for most people there has to be some sort of financial incentive. For example, in Ontario, where there is residential recycling for a host of materials, including aluminum cans, we see pop cans all over the streets when we head there for a vacation. In Saskatchewan, where we pay a deposit on cans and bottles, which is then returned when you take your cans to the Sarcan depot, any can or bottle left on the street is picked up in short order, and the line-up at Sarcan is often quite overwhelming because the program is so popular.

So what sort of financial incentive could the city provide to get people to follow the fairly simple rules for recycling? How about, in order to get a recycling bin for your home, you have to sign up for one, and doing so gets you a reduction in your sanitation fee, or your property taxes. That way, only those who were interested would have bins. Then, if there were problems in a certain area, the inspection process could be used to identify the abusers, who would then lose their bin, and their lower tax rate or sanitation charge.

One of the reasons that we signed up for the Crown Shred and Recycling plastic recycling program, even though it costs a nominal amount, was the good feeling that comes from knowing that the materials that we put in our blue bin every two weeks are not adding to the problems at the landfill. But not many people are willing to pay for that sort of environmental service, and for those people who need extra incentives, we have to admit that our current residential recycling efforts haven't been successful, and find a way to make it financially attractive for people to do the right thing.

Finally, just a response to Thomas's comments on the last blog - sadly, Bylaw Enforcement isn't proactive, they are complaint driven. I agree, I think that when they notice a problem they should take action, even if there hasn't been a complaint. And regular inspection tours would be a way of identifying potential problems before things get out of control. And I've asked about the cameras as well, but as is often the case with my inquiries, I have yet to receive a response from city administration.

"To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival." - Wendell Berry

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Few Midsummer Thoughts

Summertime is a time when City Council activities slow to a crawl. For reasons that I'm not sure of, we only have two real council meetings in summer - one in July, one in August, which will be tomorrow afternoon. It does allow those who take their holidays in summer an easier time to do so without missing meetings. And for those who have cottages, they don't have to bother coming in for meetings.

Andrea and I don't have a cottage, nor are we lake people. Which is odd, now that I think of it, when you consider that we met in the summer, when we worked for a canoe outfitting company in Algonquin Park, living right beside a lake. We prefer to take holidays in the fall - crowds are smaller, and since we usually go to Ontario to visit relatives, the weather is more tolerable and the fall colours are an added attraction. In summer, our favourite relaxation spot is our screened side porch - a great place to relax with a book and a beer, without all the work that goes into having a cottage.

And summer is now on the downward slide, with the usual signs. Days are getting noticeably shorter, and in the early morning there's that slight chill in the air. And the Exhibition is over for another year. Councillor Miller, Councillor Whitehead and I walked together in the parade this year, which was a pleasant way to spend the evening, greeting people and giving out candy. Fortunately it didn't rain, although it looked threatening earlier. Not only was it good exercise, but walking the route brings you closer to people than being in a vehicle, and you have a little more flexibility to pause and chat. It was warm, and we neglected to bring water with us, (add that to the list for next year) but fortunately we were able to replenish our fluid levels afterward, as we socialized in our backyard.

My major renovation project this summer was replacing our bedroom windows - the old, rattling single paned sash windows have been replaced with triple-paned units which I lucked into at the Recycle Store. With the major wind storms that we've had, we've noticed the decrease in rattling, and hopefully the winter time drafts will be a thing of the past as well. I've also ripped out the carpet in the living and dining rooms, and found that the original fir flooring is in not too bad shape. The fun of a century house - never an end to the projects.

Weather-wise, it has been an odd summer, not much heat, lots of rain. Those July wind storms have really done a number on city trees, which is a good reminder to Council that we need to have an ongoing plan for our urban forest, to remove aging trees before they become a threat, and also to replace them with long-lived species that perhaps won't rot out as quickly as a species such as Manitoba maple. And we will also need to look at replacing a number of the green ash which suffered winter kill and have dead and dying tops, particularly in the downtown.

But for these next few weeks, I'll try to concentrate on enjoying the last half of summer.

"Summertime, and the living is easy." - DuBose Hayward