Sunday, November 28, 2010

Changing the Rules as We Go

I've written in this blog before (July 3, 2008) about how members of council don't always seem to understand the processes that we're supposed to follow, or even the actual responsibilities that each member of council has. To compound the problem, some members of council appear to be quite satisfied with their ignorance, with making up rules to suit the whims of others, and with ignoring basic democratic principles. And some members of council seem to be quite all right with giving away their rights and responsibilities.

A couple of years ago I suggested that it might be beneficial if all of council were to have someone from the outside come in and give a presentation on how council is supposed to work, and on the parliamentary procedures that we're supposed to follow. Not surprisingly, considering it was my suggestion, other council members at the time felt that it was too late in our term to try to improve (the phrase "better late than never" being something that they obviously don't believe); others declined because they didn't want to bring in the individual that I was suggesting (which I found odd, because I hadn't suggested anyone). And the new council has shown no indication of being interested in learning about rules and procedures if they're going to slow down the process, and possibly prevent some individuals getting their way.

I was reminded of this recently when some inconsistencies occurred when I tried to recover my expenses for attending one of the committees that I've been placed on. This current council has given away their opportunity to have input to membership on city committees, instead ceding that authority totally to the mayor. In his wisdom, he has placed me on three committees that meet out of town - the North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Committee, which meets in locations ranging between here and the Alberta border, the Saskatoon Airport Authority, which meets in Saskatoon, and the North Saskatchewan River Basin Committee, which meets in North Battleford. I'm not sure how particularly useful it is for the city to have representatives on these committees, but we've been invited, and I do my best to get to these meetings and provide the city's perspective on matters being discussed. For these types of committee meetings, the practice in my ten years on council has been that a councillor who has to travel out of town to attend a committee meeting is reimbursed for vehicle mileage. This was not considered as part of the individual's travel budget, which is used to attend conferences.

Until now. Maybe. I've been told a couple of different stories. It started when I attended a meeting of the North Saskatchewan River Basin Committee in August, and I submitted my expense claim to the city manager's office. The former practice (and no doubt the practice followed still by other members of council) is to submit expenses directly to the mayor's office. I haven't done that for a couple of years, after an incident which occurred while I was in the process of submitting an expense claim to one of the administrative assistants, when the mayor came out of his office and told the assistant not to bother helping me, since I "didn't matter". I don't know about you, but when I get treated with gratuitous rudeness, I won't go out of my way again to deal with that sort of behaviour. So I spoke with the city manager, and my procedure since then has been to submit expense forms to his office, which had been working without incident until now.

When I didn't get reimbursed for that August meeting for several weeks, I called the city manager's office. He told me that I wouldn't be getting reimbursed, as I had now exceeded my travel allowance. I explained to him that the travel allowance was for conferences, that I had been to only two (SUMA and FCM) and didn't believe that those two conferences had put me over budget, and that this travel had been for a committee meeting, a committee that I hadn't asked to be put on. He didn't have any good answers, so I raised it at my first council meeting after returning from holidays.

Well, it seemed that the reason had now changed; I hadn't been reimbursed because apparently there was an error in the form that I submitted. And I received a cheque, although not for mileage, which is the usual practice, but for an amount considered to be equivalent to rental of a vehicle.

But the confusion over my travel budget persists, at least with some. At this past week's council meeting council approved a new travel policy. At least the matter of committee meeting travel has been clarified, and travel expenses for committee meetings will not be taken out of an individual council member's travel budget, which is $3,600 annually. At this meeting, the mayor said that I was the only council member who had exceeded their travel budget, which I find hard to believe, since the conferences that I went to were attended by most other members of council, so why wouldn't those who went to both SUMA (five of eight councillors) and FCM (all members of council) also be cited for being over their travel budget? Administration has not provided me with any documentation on my alleged over-budget status, either.

Also in the new policy are a couple of interesting items - the mayor and the city manager are now allowed to use the city credit card to entertain (I'm not sure where we have budgeted for that sort of expenditure), and the mayor now has the authority to approve any in-province travel, even if you're within your travel budget.

So council has decided to let the mayor decide if you can go to a conference within the province, even if you have travel budget funds remaining - previous mayors seemed to recognize that a councillor could track their own use of their budget, and left the discretion with the individual councillor. And I don't recall there ever being an issue with councillors abusing this discretion. The mayor has already taken over what used to be a council responsibility - approving out-of-province travel, although when he tried to prevent me from attending a housing conference in Toronto a couple of years ago, I brought it to council, which resulted in him changing his mind before a vote could be taken.

With this new council, there seems to be the misconception that the mayor is the boss of council, and councillors should just do as they're told. Well, a read of The Cities Act would probably be a worthwhile effort for several members of council - nowhere is it indicated that all votes must be unanimous, or that one member of council has more authority than another when it comes to decision-making. And when council members give away their authority, either because it's the easy thing to do, or because they want to avoid conflict or being treated badly, or for whatever reason they can come up with, they're not doing their job.

"I have never been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others." - Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Cat Came Back (Maybe)

You may recall that about a year ago, at the very first meeting of this new council, I proposed that we investigate the feasibility of licensing cats, as a way of providing increased revenue for the SPCA, and possibly making it easier to find the owners of abandoned cats, rather than having to have so many of them euthanized.

I wasn't proposing specifics, just that we look into the matter. Nonetheless, at the next council meeting, the motion received limited support and was defeated, with some councillors suggesting that they wouldn't be willing to support such a move unless there was a report first, which I found rather confusing since that was what I was proposing.

In late June, we received a report from the SPCA proposing a subsidized spay program for low income families. We referred this report to administration, and asked specifically that administration look into whether other cities have a subsidized spay program for low income families, and whether other cities require the licensing of cats. Better late than never, I suppose.

The preparation of the report included consultation with both the SPCA and the bylaw manager, so it's good to know that those most directly involved with the problem support the idea of a "Responsible Pet Owner Bylaw". Ideas put forward include the recommendation of licensing cats as well as dogs, as currently happens in both Regina and Saskatoon, eventually moving the location of licensing to the SPCA, giving all licensing revenues to the SPCA, and having a fairly hefty fine for having unlicensed pets. There is also a proposal for a subsidized program for low income families specifically geared towards spaying cats, and a "Get Out of Pound Free" program, which would apply to licensed animals which are picked up and taken to the pound. In essence, the first time that your pet was taken to the pound, you would be allowed to retrieve it for free, and not be charged the usual impoundment fee. This is an excellent incentive for licensing.

I support all of these ideas, and would encourage the SPCA to look into allowing pet owners to purchase additional escape insurance, so to speak, allowing more than one impoundment free of charges, if you pay an insurance fee beforehand. Our cats are mostly indoor cats, but when we had a dog, she was an amazing escape artist. She was never picked up by bylaw enforcement, but more than once I was called to Riverside School, as she had slipped out of her collar and headed down there to play with the kids at recess. So I realize how easily animals can escape, even when you think that they're secure.

I also think that the licence fee for unneutered or unspayed animals should be much higher than the basic fee - the proposal right now is a fee of $15 for a spayed or neutered cat, $30 for an unneutered or unspayed cat, and $20 for a spayed or neutered dog, $60 for an unneutered or unspayed dog. We should at least have the fees parallel, with the fee for an unneutered or unspayed animal three times the fee for having a fixed animal.

Public education would be a huge part of making this successful. In Saskatoon, bylaw enforcement goes door-to-door to ensure that animals are licensed - this adds to the cost, but also to the revenue. Unfortunately, it also would make us look a bit heavy handed. I would try the education and incentive method first, then get tougher if the level of compliance isn't where we need it to be. That's the problem with new bylaws - you have to be able to enforce them when they aren't followed, otherwise you might as well not bother. But you want to give people a chance to comply voluntarily first.

I'm glad that council has looked into this, even if I couldn't get their support on the matter last fall. I understand that the SPCA has had to stop taking in cats at this time because of lack of room - that's the clearest indication that we need to start making people more aware of the responsibilities of pet ownership, and let them know how they can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. That is the difference between dog and man." - Mark Twain

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Complications of Annexation

It was good to be back at council last week, after a month away. I found that coming back reminded me of why I like this job - the opportunity to ask questions, and force others around the table to think, rather than just vote mechanically, is my favourite part of council meetings.

Most of the media coverage from that meeting has been on the proposed annexation of land south of town, to provide more land for industrial development. This land, currently zoned as agricultural and part of the RM of Prince Albert, would be rezoned as industrial. The problem, of course, for residents of the area next to the proposed annexation, is that they aren't interested in living next to industrial development. You would think that, after the ongoing conflicts raised by the residents who live next to the Belly-Up Bar, a situation in which the area had been zoned commercial for quite some time, this council would be wary of getting into what seems to be a fairly obvious area for potential conflict.

And the residents have taken the opportunity to let their concerns be known - first, at the council meeting on Monday, and then again, at a meeting in the neighbourhood, at which, despite being held at an inconvenient time (5:30 p.m.) on an inconvenient evening (the night before a statutory holiday), more than 100 residents showed up to ask questions and express their opinions.

There are several steps to annexation - it basically means taking land from the rural municipality, adding it to city land, then rezoning. This doesn't happen for free - the RM has to be compensated for loss of taxes, for example. In this case, apparently discussions with the RM have already set the price - the same that Saskatoon paid to the RM of Corman Park for a recent annexation. That land, of course, already has industrial development and some servicing, so for Prince Albert to agree to pay the same level of compensation for land without industrial development or servicing, seems to be a bit naive.

Land within the area that is privately owned may also have to be purchased, should the owners not be interested in living within an area zoned for industrial development, so that will be an additional cost. Finally, the provincial government has to approve the annexation.

As is often the case, council members have only been provided with partial information. I was quite surprised, at the Wednesday evening meeting, to see maps and reports that hadn't been provided to council. I'm always amazed that there are people who think that information should only be doled out to us in dribs and drabs, and who don't recognize that we can't do our jobs properly without being provided with all relevant information. It's interesting that as soon as problems were identified, out came the information.

Do we even need to annex this land? That should be the first question. I'm not aware of any situations where we've turned away potential industrial development because we had insufficient land. Are there other options? How about the much-bragged about green industrial park, which as far as I know, is still tenantless. Or there's an area west of the current landfill, which was identified for potential industrial development during the site selection process for the green industrial park - I think that it would have been a better site, since it wouldn't have been limited by the airport. That land is still there. And of course, there's industrial land along the highway to the pulp mill which is also available. What we should try to avoid is putting an industrial boundary about the city, which will cause problems when residential areas try to expand. An example would be the relocation of Barzeele and Burkowsky, which took several years of discussion, when their historic location started to conflict with commercial development and the associated traffic patterns with the Cornerstone development.

The city manager was fairly insistent that this has to be done, but didn't provide any reasons that I found particularly compelling. For example, he stated several times that we can't afford to develop anywhere else, ignoring the fact that developing this land will have a cost. It's also somewhat ironic that the previous council managed to find $12 million dollars to service potential residential land in the west hill - this is land owned by private developers, who now have serviced lots to sell, but even having that incentive has not caused a wave of residential development in the area. When we want to, we seem to find the money.

A number of residents have pointed out that this potential development is not included in the city plan released to great fanfare not that long ago. Of course, the soccer centre wasn't included in the west hill development plan of a few years back either. This is not a council that worries much about plans that have been developed, which makes one wonder why we go to the effort and expense of preparing plans, and asking for public input on them, if we're only going to ignore these plans once complete.

The maps showed the proposed area divided into three phases. An attempt was made to placate residents by saying that only the first phase was likely to be serviced - phases two and three would be too expensive to service. This brings two questions to mind - why, then, annex it all, and, is this council going to continue the pattern of the previous council, and rezone with abandon, whenever the spirit strikes? If so, don't count on these comforting words to hold much weight down the line.

Council postponed its decision on Monday, to wait until after the public hearing, which is part of the process when applying to the province for annexation. Wednesday evening's meeting was actually supposed to be that public hearing, but the unexpected level of opposition changed that plan.

Another factor that will be key in the equation is the location of the new bridge (the report on which has yet to be presented to council). A new bridge, and any supporting highway, will undoubtedly have an impact on land uses at the edge of the city.

Once again, we're approaching things in a piecemeal, uncoordinated fashion. We've had the west hill residential development, the green industrial park, and now this new proposed industrial annexation, all brought before council as separate, unrelated developments, without an overarching plan that sets priorities and funding requirements. Until this happens, we'll continue to lurch about, making decisions that in the long run, will cost the taxpayers far more money than if we did our homework and looked at the big picture.

I commend the citizens who took the time to come to either the council meeting or the public meeting, and who presented their concerns respectfully and coherently. Despite whatever reassurances some members of council or administration may have tried to provide, the truth is that no one has a crystal ball - we can't promise what will or won't happen on this land in the future. And, as has been demonstrated once again, the voices of private citizens get the attention of some members of council in a way that their colleagues don't seem to be able to.

"The most important political office is that of the private citizen." - Louis Brandeis

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Acting on Impulse

When making decisions, this council seems to follow one of two paths - topics are either discussed to death, with decisions being delayed and deferred for what can seem like forever, or else a suggestion is leaped upon as though it is a limited time offer that will solve multiple problems, and acted on immediately, without being thought through as to all of the possible consequences, or even evaluated as to whether the solution is appropriate to the issue. The first method is frustrating, because it can seem as though some members of council are afraid of making a decision in case it upsets somebody, so they would rather wobble on the fence indefinitely, asking for more reports and opinions. The second is probably more expensive, as the action taken usually has a cost, and can have impacts down the line that also have costs that could have been avoided if we had better discussion up front. Short cuts can be great, but they can also get you into trouble.

An example of the second kind of decision-making is the current thinking around moving to electronic, rather than paper, copies of meeting agendas and reports. Actually, it won't be moving from one to another, it will be doing both.

The initial impetus for this discussion came from concern about the amount of time it takes city staff to make and distribute multiple copies of the material required for each Council and Executive Meeting. Along with that, for some people, is the desire to reduce the amount of paper used. When it comes to staff time, I would point out that this is only an issue if it requires overtime - otherwise, they're being paid for doing this work, even if it is boring, and unless we plan on reducing staff levels, it shouldn't be an issue. As for the concern about using paper, my forester wife often reminds me that paper is a renewable resource, and messages such as "Save a tree - think before printing out this email" are misguided and not really helpful to the forest industry. And there would still be the need to produce paper copies of agendas and information for the many city committees that exist.

However, the concern was raised, and a few months ago someone in administration suggested that Kindles (electronic readers) should be provided to council, rather than the binders of material that we receive weekly. At the time I pointed out that the local public school board has been using laptops for this purpose for a few years now, and that a laptop would be more practical and have multiple uses, rather than a single use gadget such as a Kindle. Before our recent vacation, someone suggested to Andrea that she should get a Kindle, so that she could load up several books on one book-sized object, rather than bringing along a dozen or more books. She responded that if she dropped a book, she could always find her place again, but if she dropped a Kindle, she would be out both the books, the gadget, and the purchase price. However, she did try a demonstration model in a Chapters in Peterborough, and found it quite frustrating - it took longer to load a page of the book than it did for her to read the page. And when we both finished books on our vacation, we left them behind in hotel rooms or on the train, for others to enjoy - no such opportunity to share with a Kindle.

Nothing further happened with the Kindle idea for council, but now it has resurfaced in a slightly different form. The suggestion now is that each member of council, plus several senior staff members, should get I-pads - 22 in total. Agendas and attachments could be sent out electronically, rather than being delivered to each councillor every Thursday, as is the current practice.

I have several concerns about this - one is that this is a fairly new gadget, and I don't believe in buying the first version of any new electronic gadget. There are just too many operational issues that aren't usually resolved until subsequent iterations, and the price also goes down. I was reminded of my first term on council, when the then-city clerk purchased a new gadget (for $70,000) that was supposed to help the office run more efficiently - it was never even taken out of the box, because it turned out not to be suitable for the purpose in mind.

Anyway, I checked on some web-sites about problems that have been occurring with I-pads, and apparently there have been a number of complaints about users being unable to download sent information, and difficulty in making connections to wireless networks - these problems would be directly applicable to the purposes for which these I-pads are being proposed.

Another concern that I have is that this expenditure has not been budgeted for (not a surprise with this council and administration, but still not a good way to operate), and the proposed solution from administration is that for the eight councillors, we could pay for them using our communications allowance for the next two years. This is the allowance ($500 annually) that we can use for our home office expenses - computers, newsletters, fax paper, that sort of thing, but not cell phones. The mayor, of course, doesn't have to pay for his office expenses, nor is administration proposing that he pay for his I-pad. And of course, the dozen or so that they are proposing be purchased for city adminstration would be paid for out of the city budget.

I resent the assumption by administration that they can redirect the allowance that I get for my home office expenses. I also resent that this hasn't been discussed by council - not how serious the issue is, or whether this is the appropriate solution. Once again, it's as though some members of council (and administration) want to get their hands on the latest toy out there, whether it's what we need to do our job well.

The final irony to this proposed solution? Paper copies of everything will still be on our desks for every meeting. The only savings will be in not having the material delivered by hand once a week.

"There are no shortcuts to any place worth going." - Beverly Sills