Sunday, August 28, 2011

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

As has become the pattern for the last few years, summer time is an extremely quiet time for Prince Albert City Council. Only two scheduled council meetings, and two executive meetings, one in July, one in August, although there was a special council meeting last Monday, for no apparently urgent reason.

While the reason for this slowdown has never been discussed (neither has the meeting schedule, which is set in December for the following year), I'm sure it's because some people like having the summer off. Doesn't work for me, particularly, since we prefer to take holidays in the fall, but for those who own cottages, I suppose that it makes sense.

However, if you look about, other city councils use this time to actually plan for the future. Yes, they hold scheduled, public meetings, that aren't regular council meetings, but are used to discuss how their upcoming budgets should be developed.

You may have noticed that Saskatoon City Council has had several meetings over the summer, reviewing in detail how they spend their money, and where current spending could be trimmed. They've talked about everything from reducing the number of times that garbage has been picked up, to how much they spend on putting up Christmas decorations.

Of course, to do this, they have to have a detailed city budget. Rather than dismissing this as more detail than they want to be bothered with (something some of my fellow councillors have professed), they see having the details as being an invaluable tool in decision-making. While so far they have found little to trim, they are looking, and the public can see, and comment, on some of the potential cuts. And they're doing it far in advance of the actual budget development, so that administration can take direction from their decisions.

That seems to me to be far preferable to being handed a document without much detail, then spending a single day going through said document without time for discussion or comment. In our city's budget process, it's more of an all or nothing decision - either we approve the entire budget, or we vote against it - we have neither the time, nor the detail, to make detailed decisions.

When I was in Ontario in July, the same sort of thing was going on in Toronto's City Hall. While I don't agree with much of what Toronto Mayor Rob Ford says, I do have to give him a great deal of credit for looking to make drastic spending cuts before raising taxes, and for making decisions in the open, even having one meeting where members of the public could make presentations. So many people wanted to speak that the meeting went on until the early hours of the morning. Now there's a council that takes being open and accountable seriously.

That's what I don't get about how this council operates - we don't seem to be willing to spend the time reviewing how we do things, or thinking about whether we're spending money wisely, or looking at ways of spending less, whether through reducing services or just working smarter. Being on council shouldn't be about cutting ribbons, or making speeches at various public functions - it should be about thinking about what we want for our city, having open and civil discussions about all the options, and then putting the structures in place to allow the future that we want to happen. When we don't do that, when we leave the detailed discussion up to administration, we're not doing our jobs, and we're leaving the future of the city to people who haven't been elected to do that job.

"If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else." - Yogi Berra

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