Sunday, December 19, 2010

Making It Up as We Go Along

Imagine how it must feel to work at the SPCA - you spend a great deal of time working with Bylaw Enforcement and the city, having input into a new animal licensing bylaw which should both increase revenues to the SPCA, and include measures to reduce the source of their biggest problem, the uncontrolled reproduction of kittens and puppies, which usually results in unwanted animals being dumped at their doorstep to deal with. Progress has been good, and the bylaw has had its first two readings.

And then, the mayor makes a unilateral decision to remove the differentiation in licensing costs between neutered and unneutered animals (a differentiation that was in the current dog licensing bylaw), removing any financial incentive for pet owners to do the right and responsible thing. Taking a step backwards, making us the only major city in Saskatchewan to not recognize the importance of spaying and neutering. And he chooses to bring this forward, not at Executive Committee the week before, when we could have discussed the pros and cons of doing this, and other options for finding solutions, but when the bylaw is introduced for its third reading. One has to assume that this brilliant thought occurred to him on the spot, because he didn't even have his proposed changes in writing.

Some SPCA representatives were in the audience at the council meeting last Monday evening, and I saw the disappointment and disillusionment in their faces when the changes were proposed, and then passed. Their advice and input, not to mention the time and expense of the report prepared by Bylaw Enforcement, had been cast aside without so much as an apology.

The mayor's changes were apparently made because he heard that some people, who already own unneutered animals, feel that neutering their animal is an expense they can't afford. I would be one of the heartless individuals who suggest that if you can't afford to be a responsible pet owner, then you shouldn't have a pet. If you can't afford the surgery, how can you afford the other basic costs of pet ownership, including regular vet check-ups and vaccinations? And presumably, since the current dog licensing requirements had a cost reduction if your dog was neutered, you haven't been licensing your animal anyway.

Concern for those who feel that they can't afford the extra cost of neutering, was why part of the SPCA proposal was to set up a subsidized neutering program. For the SPCA, the biggest problem isn't funding, it's getting control of the animal population, which in turn would reduce both their costs, and the inevitable stresses that they have to deal with when they have to turn away strays because they're full, and the even worse stress of having to euthanize perfectly healthy animals.

I'm a realist, and I know that for someone who already has an animal, they may have a problem. But that doesn't mean making changes on the fly to a bylaw that had been prepared with considerable thought and consultation. A more sensible approach would have been to request that third reading be delayed until we had a chance to consult with the SPCA and Bylaw Enforcement, and perhaps develop some alternative solutions for those who already have an animal, but are worried that they won't qualify for any subsidized program.

Another alternative would have been to defeat the proposed amendments to the bylaw. Council always has that option, in fact, that's why the third reading process is in place, to allow for changing your vote should circumstances or information change. But this is a council where most members, for reasons that remain beyond me, fear that standing in opposition will result in some horrific punishment from above. And that's sad, because we all were elected to voice our own opinion, not just vote in concert.

"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of someone else." - Judy Garland

Sunday, December 12, 2010

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Budget Time

As you're probably aware, the way the current council prepares its budget is a constant concern for me. As a council, we don't meet to discuss what direction to give administration in their preparation of the budget, our review of it is perfunctory and rushed, with no time for questions, and last year, we weren't even allowed to see the details of one-third of proposed expenditures, that of the police portion of the budget.

What is probably most concerning to me about this is that, for most members of council, this is okay. Their job of representing the citizens of Prince Albert apparently doesn't extend to doing any detailed research into their obligations, or to asking questions that might make other members of council uncomfortable or angry. And the city as a whole is the loser in this equation, as expenditures go unchallenged and savings are depleted.

It is a reflection of our poor planning, and willingness to buy now, pay later. A good example is the request at last week's meeting for an additional $80,000 for irrigation of the outdoor soccer pitches at the soccer centre - why wasn't this considered when the decision was made to have those soccer pitches? And then, the viewpoint was aired that this wouldn't add to tax rates. Instead, your involuntary donation on your tax bill, already extended once to 2015 because of the project was already a half million dollars over budget, will be extended further. But because the mill rate won't go up to pay specifically for this, some can delude themselves that it isn't a tax increase. I disagree - money that could be used for other purposes will be directed for this. The money that will be needed for other purposes will probably require a tax increase. Your taxes were higher last year because the previous council decided, in an election year, that a zero per cent increase would look good. There was no discussion as to what was needed to run the city properly.

We were supposed to get the budget documents before the end of the year, but now apparently, it won't be in time for tomorrow night's meeting, the last council meeting scheduled before the end of the year. We did, however, have a forewarning that the police budget won't be included. At last week's Committee of the Whole (in camera) meeting, the police chief gave us a one page budget summary, which included no detail, but which we had to return at the end of the meeting. You may recall that last year, we were told that, unlike the other cities in the province, we weren't allowed to see the detailed police budget because criminals might use that information to figure out police crime-busting strategies. Considering how council is being treated again this year, perhaps we're suspected of having criminal leanings.

And, of course, we've already spent money that will come out of next year's budget - it's so much easier to put things on a credit card than it is to figure out how to live within your means. Those iPads, for example, will be paid for out of next year's budget. And in the meantime, we're told that there's no money for proper snow removal left in this year's budget. There was, however, money for each member of council to get full colour Christmas cards, twenty-five each. At least this year's cards don't contain a total fabrication about Prince Albert being known as Canada's Christmas city, and I hope that, unlike in one past year, any copyright concerns were dealt with ahead of time. Because dealing with potential court actions is also a drain on your tax dollars.

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery." - Charles Dickens

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fewer Meetings, Fatter Agendas

We didn't have an executive meeting last week, even though it was two weeks since the last one. Or a council meeting. No reason was given.

In theory, we're supposed to have council meetings every other week, with an executive meeting the week in between. Our last council meeting was November 22, which means that last week should have been an executive meeting, but there was nothing.

I found this odd, so I checked the 2010 meeting schedule, or at least the latest revision, which we received August 26. While it would be a logical assumption that there should be 26 council meetings a year, one every two weeks, this council will meet only 20 times in 2010. Two meetings in January, March, April, May, June, September, October, and November, but only one meeting in the months of February, July, August and December. I don't recall previous councils skipping meetings with that frequency - the work of running the city doesn't take a holiday, and neither should council. About the only times that I can recall meetings being rescheduled would be if the scheduled meeting was set to fall during either SUMA or FCM, when most of council is away at those meetings, but there was none of this going weeks between meetings for no apparent reason.

A cynic might suggest that someone is arranging meetings to fit with a holiday or other planned absence schedule, so that one could take breaks but still have a perfect attendance record.

So why is this a problem? One reason that it poses a problem is that agendas then become very lengthy. For tomorrow's executive and committee of the whole meetings, we have more than 1,000 pages of material to review. This is material that we received late Thursday, then more documents came by email on Friday. This is a lot of pages to go through, think about, and mark for questions and comments, over a few days. And the matters in the committee of the whole agenda tend to be subjects that haven't been raised before, so we're usually starting from ground zero for those.

I'm not sure how long tomorrow's meeting will last - our last executive and committee of the whole meetings, on November 15th, went from 4 p.m. until almost 8 p.m., which posed a bit of a logistics problem for those of us who had tickets to Ron James at 8 that evening. It can be a real temptation just to let things slide as the evening wears on, and thought processes do get more difficult.

Another reason that it's a problem is that fewer meetings means fewer opportunities for the public to keep track of what's going on. I know that the meeting schedule is posted on the city web-site - it may come as a shock to some of the electronically addicted out there, but not everybody goes on a computer to get their information. And I know that it's also in the paper, but if Saturday's paper is any indication, it can't be counted on, since it indicates that tomorrow's meeting is scheduled for next Monday, where it will run smack into the next council meeting.

We've already become more inaccessable, after moving council meetings to 5 p.m. from 7 p.m., and shifting committee of the whole (our in-camera session) to follow executive committee, rather than the previous practice of having it immediately before the council meeting. Add to that the habit that some members of council have adopted of moving the acceptance of all matters considered at committee of the whole in a block, at a special council meeting that is set immediately after committee of the whole. That's right, the same evening. Remember, these are matters that are usually brand new to council, and they're being passed in a block the same day that they're discussed, so are never put on the agenda that is available to the public before regular council meetings, or openly discussed or voted upon at a regular council meeting. Further adding to the obscurity - council meeting is the only place that a recorded vote can be requested, so for these matters that are passed in a block it gets even harder for members of the public to follow what decisions are being made, and why.

At our last strategic planning session, I proposed that we go back to having council meetings weekly, and getting rid of executive committee altogether, since I don't think that having that committee has improved our performance as a council at all. If we're going to be meeting weekly, why not have the most open meeting that we can? You can imagine the lack of support that my suggestion received.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but if we really mean to be open and accountable, then our actions have to match our words. And, while I'm not afraid of reviewing a reasonable amount of material before a meeting, I think that everybody's work load would become more manageable if we had less to focus on each time, but focused more often.

"Hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?" - Charlie McCarthy