Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Demonstrating Respect - or the Lack of It

You may have caught the story in Monday's Daily Herald about the annual Gay Pride Parade, which was on the previous Saturday. Unfortunately, the focus on the story was that, despite having been invited, nobody from City Council was present to deliver greetings on behalf of the city, and the security staff that had been promised weren't there, so the flag could not be raised.

I got a call from the Herald on Sunday afternoon, asking how this happened. I'm not sure why I was called; perhaps it was because at the previous three parades, I had been asked to represent the city, since the mayor wasn't available, nor was whoever the deputy mayor was at the time. With this mayor, all requests for a member of council to attend an event are funneled through the mayor's office, and he decides who will represent the city. The rest of us usually aren't even informed as to what events are happening. But this year, I didn't receive an email, or phone call, or anything. In fact, it was only the day before that Andrea told me that she had seen a public service announcement that the parade was the next day, but she wasn't sure what time, and she wondered who from the city would be there, since I hadn't been asked, and it hasn't been the sort of event that other members of council rush to be at.

It was bad enough that nobody representing the city bothered to show up, or sent their regrets, but the security that had been promised and paid for wasn't there either.

In my mind, this is totally disrespectful. It's easy to sign a proclamation declaring Gay Pride Week, but a proclamation means nothing if the only public event celebrating this is not supported, and worse if commitments were made and not kept. And, of course, the final disrespectful action was to not apologize for the non-appearance - it wasn't even mentioned at Monday's council meeting.

I realize that the whole gay issue is a sensitive one for some people, but as members of council, we have to remember that we are elected to represent all of our constituents, not just the ones that we feel match our values. And as council, we set an example for the rest of the city. This was the fourth annual Gay Pride Parade - none of the others had caused any problems. It's just a relatively small group of people who believe that gays and lesbians need to be supported in their ongoing attempts to overcome long-standing discriminatory actions from society - a brief parade, a few speeches, the raising of a flag - that's it. But I know that for the participants, it's an important and meaningful ceremony, one which indicates that the city, among others, supports their efforts to be free to be as they are, without fear of recrimination, discrimination, and worse.

I'm not going to say that I know gay people and they're all fabulous. Like any group, they are widely divergent in their interests, their activities, their personalities. But they do tend to be a group that some people feel are an acceptable target for discrimination.

At the first Parade, I spoke about how, a few centuries back, left-handed people were considered dangerous, working on the side of evil, and we still have the adjectives sinister and gauche as hangovers of that now out-moded discrimination. And lefties still have a harder time of it - our son is left-handed, and Andrea still remembers his joy when she got him a pair of lefty scissors when he was about three - finally, he could cut paper. So he is part of a minority - thank goodness, nobody ever suggested that he could be trained out of it, or that this was some sort of choice that he made. And I look forward to the day when being gay is considered the same sort of thing - something that is just as much a part of an individual as their hair colour, or handed-ness, or height, but not something that is considered an acceptable reason to make fun of someone, or beat them up, or that they should be ashamed of.

And I'm afraid that not showing up for the flag-raising ceremony demonstrates that for some members of council, the gay community is less deserving of respect than other groups. It isn't. In one way or another, each of us is part of a minority - whether it be age, race, gender, handicapped - the list is endless. When we allow others to be discriminated against, we increase the likelihood that at some point, we will suffer as well.

"Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me." - Martin Niemoller

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Take Aways from FCM

The first weekend in June, plus the days on either side, was the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities - a good chance to meet a wide range of city councillors and mayors from across the country and find out how they deal with issues that are common to all of us. There are also educational sessions that provide more in-depth opportunities to find out how other communities operate, and see some innovative solutions.

This year's FCM was in Halifax. A number of tours of various features of the city are also part of the conference package, and it was interesting to see how Halifax takes advantage of its natural features, and is dealing with some of the devastation that events like Hurricane Juan have caused.

So, what did I take away from Halifax? It's a city blessed with many natural features, and it has focused on ensuring that these features are accessible, clean, and safe for everyone to use. Along the harbour there is a new, well-maintained boardwalk which extends from the naval yards to past Pier 21, the museum dedicated to the history of immigrants who landed there. Along the boardwalk are numerous informational signs, which discuss the various points of interest, as well as various vendors, restaurants, and buskers. In the downtown area there is the large Public Gardens, and at the far end of the harbour, Pleasant Point Park, with lots of walking trails. All of these areas are well-used by the people of Halifax, of all ages, whether jogging along the boardwalk, playing Frisbee, or just sitting in the sun. It wasn't uncommon to see women walking, jogging, or just sitting, alone. And each area featured clean, accessible public washrooms.I couldn't help but be struck by the comparison with our riverbank - yes, we have the Rotary Trail, but it isn't lighted, we have no public washroom facilities to make it more user-friendly, and I think that a significant portion of city residents would consider it not safe to walk on alone, at any time of day.

Halifax also has an extremely efficient and well-utilized public transit system. In fact, the waitress at one restaurant said that she knew many people who had given up their cars, because it was so easy just to use public transit, including a passenger ferry that runs between Halifax and Dartmouth, which are now both part of the Regional Municipality of Halifax. One interesting fact - they have found it more cost-effective to lease their bus tires, rather than purchasing them.

I found Halifax to be very clean, with lots of well-designed garbage receptacles - in some cases, bolted a few feet off the ground to light standards, with a plastic internal bin that would be light enough to empty easily, but a bit too high for easy vandalism. Other garbage receptacles, particularly along the harbour, had different sections so that recyclable material, including compostable items, could be separated - a good way of saving space in a landfill.

We did notice far more pan-handlers than in other cities that we've visited, and much of the downtown features empty storefronts and vacant lots, but it struck me as a city that has done a great job in maintaining its considerable historic heritage, while adapting to modern requirements like increased traffic levels, by such things as a network of one way streets to speed traffic flow.

As we have done in the past, Andrea and I took the opportunity to stay on in Halifax for a few days after the conference, and did a bit of touring around Nova Scotia. We had last visited there in 1993, when Andrea had a conference in Halifax, and we found that some things had changed. In 1993, there was one winery in Lunenburg, featuring wines made from blueberries. Now there are seventeen grape wineries all over the province- we visited one of the newer ones - and a whole new area of tourism is developing. We also visited the Joggins fossil cliffs - a UNESCO world heritage site on the Bay of Fundy - where we were free to wander the rocky beach, and saw lots of petrified wood and other plant fossils.

The week after FCM provided a good lesson for all civic politicians, and I'm sorry that it didn't happen until after the other members of council had left. An auditor's report was released on something known as "Cash for Concerts", which was a report investigating a series of concerts that had been held in a public park near the Citadel a few years earlier. Apparently, in the interest of ensuring that these major concerts took place, the mayor of Halifax authorized cash advances to the promoter of these events, without informing the rest of council or following city policies. The result was that more than $300,000 of this money was not repaid by the promoter, leaving the citizens of Halifax on the hook. Apparently, the glory of hosting concerts featuring performers such as Paul McCartney and The Black-Eyed Peas was enough to convince a few people in control that short cuts were justified.

This item topped local news reports for the entire week, and, not surprisingly, both citizens and the other members of council were outraged and looking for answers. Those responsible wanted to focus on "moving forward", promising that it wouldn't happen again. To me, the most telling line in the auditor's report was the one that said "policies to prevent this were in place. They just weren't followed." All members of our city council should take this to heart - we have policies for a reason, and whenever we waive them for expediency, or glory, or bragging rights about first-class facilities, we're not doing our job, and the result can be costly.

"Vanity asks the question - is it popular? Conscience asks the question - is it right?" - Martin Luther King Jr.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Deciding How to Spend Northern Lights Money

For the past few years, the Northern Lights Development Corporation has given $250,000 to the city. A portion of this money, $50,000, is set aside to cover expenses for the annual pow-wow and a golf tournament; the remainder is spent on various things by council.

Last year, the entire $200,000 went for new garbage cans downtown, and a splash park in the east end. In previous years, money was spent on such things as maintenance at the water park, and a van for Family Futures.

The process? Well, it's not public - we don't invite applications from community groups. Instead, councillors are supposed to bring forward suggestions from groups within their wards - this has turned it essentially into a pork-barreling excercise that I'm sure some councillors will be quick to remind residents of in the next election campaign.

The guidelines? There are none, except that the money is not supposed to be used for salaries. We have no submission requirements - no business plans, no indication of what other funding sources are available, no indication if ongoing operating costs have been taken into account (for example, if we're providing funding for a van, how will ongoing licensing and maintenance costs be handled).

The decision-making process? The usual uneven approach - at Monday's meeting we quickly approved one funding decision ($50,000 to provide new skate changing facilities at Crescent Heights Park), then got into discussion about what we should be considering when we make these decisions, after 1/4 of this year's money had already been decided upon. And our consistency is also lacking - although vans have been approved in the past, all of a sudden we're asking questions, and deciding to only grant half the money requested for two vans.

I've made a few suggestions about how the process could work, but none of these has been acted upon.

To start with, I'd make it a public process, and ask community groups to apply to council as a whole for funding, with a business plan that indicates exactly what they would do with the money, and what programs it would support.

I would set up criteria for assessing these applications - perhaps we could require that other funding partners be involved, or that programs requesting money indicate that they are meeting a need for a disadvantaged sector of society, or improve park facilities in an area of the city that has fewer such amenities. We could reserve a portion of the money for projects that would benefit the whole city - the Rotary Trail is a good example of that. I would suggest that funding requests for matters that should rightly be part of the city maintenance budget - such as maintenance of the water slides - not be considered.

Having criteria would also make it easier to make defensible decisions - being able to say that this project earned 17 points over another project that earned only 10 points would make the whole process much more fair.

And finally, I would try to remove the pork-barreling aspect - if a project is going to benefit only a certain part of the city, such as a splash park, the councillor for that ward should remove themselves from the vote.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, none of these suggestions has made it to the final process.

We have been most fortunate that Northern Lights shares this money with us every year, but we should recognize that we have a responsibility to use this money wisely, and use it where it will have the most benefit.

"The test of our progess is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." - Franklin Roosevelt