Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Spice of Life

One thing that I'm sure the other members of council would agree on - this is not a job that is ever boring.  The scope of topics that fall within the responsibility of council is pretty wide, and we always have multiple options to consider and discuss.  In fact, if we don't take the time to consider new and different ways of approaching old problems, we're not going to make any headway on some long-standing problems.  As Dr. Phil might say, if you keep doing what you're doing, you're going to keep getting what you're getting.

The scope ranges from the basics of making sure that drinking water is clean, that streets get plowed, and that garbage is picked up, to the longer range concerns about how to encourage economic development and finance big expenditures.

To give a few examples of the variety of topics that we'll be dealing with over the next few months, as we develop the budget:

The airport is one of the topics that I think needs much more public discussion, to figure out how we can make it a more attractive amenity.  For instance, the land is owned by the city, and the current users out there have leases.  I think that we should discuss the option of selling some of the land, so that businesses that choose to locate out there have some incentive to make capital improvements.  Right now, it's almost a lose-lose proposition, with the city not making much  money, and businesses out there reluctant to make major investments to improve their properties, and thus the area, making it more attractive to other businesses.

Another topic coming forward is the need to expand our recycling program.  Increasing the volume of material that goes for recycling means less going to the landfill, which increases its lifespan, putting off the time when we will have to find more land for our garbage.  Our current recycling system relies on people to self-sort out paper and plastic milk jugs, either in individual blue bins, or in communal ones in back alleys.  There is also a plastic recycling service, for a reasonable fee of ten dollars a month, which picks up plastics every two weeks.

There has been some discussion about expanding the current system, so that plastics as well as paper and milk jugs, are all tossed into the same bins that we have now.  I think that before we go down that path, we need to recognize that the current system isn't working particularly well - garbage is often found in the blue bins, and when that happens, the bin is treated as another garbage bin, and its contents are taken to the landfill.  This is extremely discouraging to those of us who try to do the right thing, and it's one reason why my family subscribes to the plastic system - at least we know that the material that we put out every two weeks won't be headed to the landfill.

I think that we need to explore the idea of making recycling optional.  If you choose to have a blue bin, you could get a rebate on the sanitation charge that appears on your water bill.  If you aren't going to bother with recycling, then you would pay the full rate.  And if you took a bin, but put garbage in it, you would lose both the bin and the rebate.

And as a final example of our variety, we have the ongoing issues around the downtown area.  Those merchants who still remain downtown face a range of frustrating circumstances, such as parking limitations, aging buildings, and the ongoing perception of higher crime in the area.  I know that various initiatives have tried to bring more people into the area, with summer street fairs probably being the best and most successful example of these.  I was disappointed that this year, nothing was organized for the Christmas season, after one downtown block last year tried a one day fair that was quite enjoyable, and brought many people in.  Perhaps it's time to look at the current structure and functioning of the Business Improvement District Association, and see if there is a way for it to become a better advocate of the businesses that it represents, with a focus on more ongoing activities, rather than one or two special events every year.

As I said, these are just three examples of the variety of issues that council deals with, all of them with both short and long term implications.  We have to bring energy and ideas to everything that comes before us, and be careful not to fall into the trap of keeping on with what we're doing, because there's always going to be ways of doing it better.

"Two cheers for democracy: one, because it admits variety, and two, because it permits criticism." - E.M. Forster

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Keeping the Field Unlevel

With the setting of user fees for the golf course at last week's council meeting, we've once again missed the opportunity to level the playing field among city facilities.

The golf course does not pay for the water that it uses, which is considerable.  Neither do the Rawlinson Centre, or the soccer centre, or City Hall.  However, city-owned facilities like the library and the Girl Guide Hall do pay for the water that they use, and have to include it in their operating budgets.  And of course, residents and businesses have to pay for their water use.

What this means is that those facilities, businesses and home owners who do pay for their water are subsidizing the facilities that don't pay, because somebody has to cover the costs.  I don't know about you, but I think that it would be a lot fairer if all the costs for a facility are included when setting user fees, and I can't think of a single solid reason why we should exempt certain facilities.

Last year, the last time that fees for the golf course were set, I asked city administration for the water usage and related costs for all city facilities.  I know that these are available - there are water meters in all buildings, and they're read regularly.  However, like many of my inquiries in previous councils, I have yet to get an answer.  I'll be asking again, and now we have the new policy for an answer within 30 days, so I'm more hopeful of a result this time.

The proposed golf course fees, interestingly, are prepared by the Golf Course Advisory Board.  The members of this board, all of whom are golfers, say that their main concern is keeping rates low to attract more players (which, coincidentally, also saves them money).  I understand the need to attract users, but I believe that they should still have to pay a fair portion of what it costs to keep the place running, and until water rates are included as part of the user fees calculation, that isn't happening.

But this council has voted to accept the rates proposed by the Board.  The rationale proposed by some of the councillors who support this is that, by golly, raising the rates might discourage people, particularly those from out of town, from golfing there.  Personally, I don't think that adding a buck or two to the rate for what is a recreational activity indulged in by people who have that kind of discretionary money to spend is going to stop too many of them.

The result will be, of course, that the water rates of people on fixed incomes, like seniors, will continue to subsidize people who are participating in a recreational activity, which isn't fair.  I'm looking forward to our next discussion on raising residential water rates, which have increased several times over the last six years, and we're still being told that the current ongoing increases aren't going to be enough.  The arguments of the five councillors who supported this inequity should be interesting.

In talking to one of those councillors after the meeting, he said that he thought that we should treat all city facilities the same.  He's right, of course, but considering that right now, we're not doing that, I'm quite willing to work towards levelling the playing field one facility at a time, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

"Because we tend to be biased in favour of our own viewpoint, it is important to keep the standard of fairness at the forefront of our thinking.  This is especially important when the situation may call on us to see things we don't want to see, or give something up that we don't want to." - Linda Eller

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Getting to Work

The election was more than a month ago.  Council was sworn in almost two weeks ago.  Like the other members of council, I'm sure, I'm getting anxious to get to the real work.

That's part of the problem of changing councils - it takes time for people in new jobs to learn the basics, and in this case, it's going to take some time before we understand the extent of some of the problems that we have to deal with.  And even when we know that we want to change how things are done, first we have to get a good understanding of the whole situation before we start to implement change, to avoid unpleasant surprises.

To that end, at our first council meeting, after all the ceremonial stuff was out of the way,  the deputy mayor schedule was set, and appointments to just three committees were made.  The first two, the police commission and the library board, have to be in place for those institutions to function.  On a temporary basis, Councillors Ring and Zurakowski have been appointed to the library board, and, also on a temporary basis, the mayor and Councillor Ring will continue on the police commission.

A third committee, the management committee, has also been set up.  This committee is intended to bring policy options and recommendations to council for discussion and final decisions, with a fairly broad scope - a first filter, in a way.  I'm currently on this committee, as is the mayor and Councillor Cody. For example, one of the things that we're looking at is the current list of committees to see which are actually needed, and which can be dissolved.  The previous council had more than 60 committees, some of which met rarely if ever, and some of which duplicated work already covered by policy (the street-naming committee, for example).  I'm hoping that this review will help council to manage our work load more efficiently, although it's certainly going to take some time.  So far the management committee has met twice, trying to determine which issues are most pressing, and setting some priorities for bringing them forward to council.

I think what most members of council (and the public) want to know is: where are we at on several issues?  What's the status of the second bridge study?  What's the status of the water treatment plant repairs?  When is the bridge going to be at full capacity again?  How serious is our financial situation?

I think that, as a council, we're committed to getting answers to these and other questions to the public as quickly as possible.  This is definitely a change in how things were done in the past, but it's one that we're all working towards.  However, like a lot of change, it could take some time.  I hope that residents see that we're working together to provide answers, not cover things up, and are patient as we work these things through.

"Change is the law of life.  And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." - John F. Kennedy

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Looking Forward

The new council will have its first meeting on Tuesday, starting at 7 p.m.  Most of this meeting will be taken up with the swearing-in ceremony, and determining the order of deputy mayors for the next year (each councillor takes a six-week turn).  And then it will be time to get to work.

Even though we aren't official yet, we've already had a few informal meetings, which is a refreshing change in the way of doing business.  On Friday we had a mock council meeting, so that those new to the world of making motions, seconding, chairing part of the meeting, and the other formalities of doing council work could get a taste of the process.  It's the first time in my experience that we've done such a thing, and I think it will help.  Much better than having to have your first meeting experience under the harsh lights of the camera.

Even so, I know that the first meeting or two can be nerve-wracking.  If I were to offer one piece of advice to the councillor newcomers, it would be to practice your oath of office, a few times, out loud, in front of other people.  There are a couple of tricky spots in there.  Ingrid still has fond memories of my first council meeting, when another councillor, faced with the word pecuniary for the first time, pronounced it puke-enary.  It's probably her favourite memory from my time on council - she laughs every time we talk about it.

It's evident from these preliminary gatherings that those new to council have lots of energy and ideas, and I hope that, as a council, we work to maintain that energy.  The advantage of the election process is that all of us elected have spent several weeks knocking on doors, hearing directly from city residents as to what their concerns are, and we need to use that input to frame our plans for moving forward.

I think that the message sent by the electors to all of council is that they want more openness, they want more accountability, and they want more cohesiveness from council. They want council to operate as a team, recognizing that our diverse viewpoints and experiences can only make for stronger solutions.  From my perspective, I get the sense that everyone around the council table wants this too.  I'm hoping that we can maintain our focus as we set our priorities and move forward.

And if we start to slip, I'm hoping that people will let us know.

"It's the pack that gets the job done, not the lone wolf." - Mike O'Neil

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Few Post-Election Thoughts

First, I'm glad to be back on council.  Elections can be funny things, and there's no sure bet as to which way residents will decide to vote.  I appreciate all the people in Ward 3 who made the effort to vote, and I promise that I will continue to do the job as I have always done it - asking questions, proposing new ideas, and working toward efficient and effective solutions.  I also appreciate all the support that I received from across the city - both leading up to and after the election I've had many phone calls, emails and conversations  expressing confidence in my ability to continue to serve the city well.

I thought that the entire election campaign was good, with most candidates focusing on the positives that they want to bring to council, not negatives.  I hope that those who weren't successful at the polls continue to be active in making Prince Albert a better place to live - it would be a shame not to use all that energy and enthusiasm.

It was clear from the results that Prince Albert citizens want a change in how things are done at City Hall, and I'm looking forward to that change.  We have a good mix of new and returning councillors, which will provide some continuity, as well as new perspectives.  I'm expecting more openness, and less dependence on the status quo way of looking at and dealing with issues.  This openness has to extend through council and administration to the public - I had many questions through the campaign about things like hiring and contracting practices, where we stand on various projects like the water treatment plant, the bridge, and the Green Industrial Park, how major financial processes like the budget need to be more open and fair, and how council has to learn to live within the budget that is passed, not change its collective mind throughout the year.  Those are all good questions, and have to be acted on.

We've already had one gathering on Friday - not a meeting as such, but one for a bit of orientation and to get some of the document-signing requirements out of the way.  Most of the new council was there, and it was a good chance for informal talks about what our priorities might be.  There's definitely a good variety of experience and knowledge represented around the table, and I think that we're all looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

Because you can rest assured, we do face some serious challenges.  We won't know the full extent of these challenges until we get all of the necessary information, and I have a good sense that most of the members of the new council are going to expect much more information before they make decisions than has been the case over the last six years.

And that is definitely a change for the better.

Our first meeting will be November 13th, the Tuesday after Remembrance Day.  Here's hoping it's the start of good and positive change.

"Change is good, donkey." - Shrek.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Few Final Pre-election Thoughts

Wednesday will be the end of this election campaign.  It's been an interesting one.

Elections are funny things.  Councillor is one of the few jobs where you have to reapply every few years, with no guarantees of getting your old job back.  If you've been doing a good job, hopefully people remember that and hire you back.  If not, well, that's how democracy works.

There does appear to be a fair amount of interest, particularly in the contest for mayor.  There have been two mayoral debates, one at the library last Wednesday evening, and one on local radio last Thursday afternoon.  And for the first time that I'm aware of, there was also a forum held at the Friendship Centre on Thursday evening to which all councillor candidates were invited.  I think that the local media has done a good job of covering both the candidates and some of the issues which have been raised, and I appreciate the opportunity to get my message out in more detail than can be provided in a brochure.

Of course, with the number of ward races going on, there's a limited amount of space that can be given to each candidate.  I found this out with the request from the local paper to answer two questions, which were then printed in last Thursday's paper.

The answers to the questions were limited to one hundred words each, and it took me some time to whittle down what I wanted to say, particularly for the second question: "What's the most pressing issue in your ward?"

I'm sure most candidates had trouble focusing on one - in fact, many didn't, choosing instead to list what they have been hearing from residents.  I decided to go broader - to identify the main problem that I see facing the city.  If we got a handle on this issue, we could solve many of the problems that plague all wards, but may be worse in some than in others.

I believe that the most pressing need for the city is for council to start planning, rather than reacting.  That means we need to follow sound financial practices, starting with an open budgeting process that looks at all our current expenditures to see where savings could be made, identifies priorities for our spending, and sets aside reserves for future expenditures and for emergencies.  We need to stop rushing through the budget process, and start discussing our needs and setting priorities for infrastructure maintenance, replacement, and construction.  We need to follow our own policies for requiring financial statements from city-funded entities before we approve expenditures to those entities.  We need to stop building facilities before we know how much it's going to cost to operate the facilities, and we need to start ensuring that users pay their fair share for using these facilities.

And we need to stop adding expenditures to the budget after the budget has been completed.  When we do this, it's always at the expense of something else that has already been approved, often putting off needed maintenance.  And that sort of thing, of course, usually leads to problems further down the line that are then more costly to fix.

If you haven't voted yet, try looking at potential candidates through that lens.  If they show a recognition that how council operates is more important than a specific wish list, then that's probably a good sign that they've been thinking beyond how to get elected, to how to do the job if they get it.  An election campaign is a few weeks.  The job of being on city council will last for four years.

If you haven't voted yet, don't forget to do so.  Positive change only happens if people care enough to try to be a part of making that change.

"Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all: the apathy of human beings." - Helen Keller

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Importance of Voting

Andrea, Guthrie and I voted at the first advance poll on Wednesday evening.  We usually vote at advance polls - it gets the job done, and takes care of any concerns should Andrea have to go out of town unexpectedly, or if one of us gets sick.  There was a pretty decent crowd there, with small line-ups at each desk (one for every two wards).  The polling staff were, as always, pleasant and helpful, and they had two people right at the entrance, reminding people about the need for voter identification.

There was another advance poll on Saturday afternoon, and there are three more next week - Thursday and Friday, from 5 to 8 p.m., and Saturday from 1 to 8 p.m.  All of these are held at City Hall.  Then, of course, comes election day on the following Wednesday, October 24th, when voting is held at various poll locations across the city.  If you are unable to leave your home, you can arrange for a mobile poll by requesting one from city administration, and this year, there is even the option for mailing in a ballot - check the city web page for details on how to do that.

If you think that there seem to be more and more opportunities to vote than there used to be, you're right.  This is an effort to try to reduce the ever-decreasing voter turnout by making it more and more convenient for people. Civic elections tend to have even lower turnouts than provincial or federal elections, which is surprising, considering that you are more likely to be directly affected by decisions made at the municipal level - your water, sewer, garbage pick-up, snow plowing, street sweeping, are all affected by decisions made by the individuals that you elect to city council.  You're also far more likely to know your ward councillor - each ward contains about 5,000 people, which is far fewer than your MLA or MP represents.  And because we're local, it's also  easier to contact a municipal representative, and phone or email them when you have a question or a concern.

And yet, an amazing number of people do not take advantage of their best opportunity to influence local decisions.  I've heard all kinds of excuses over the years, but I don't buy any of them.

One excuse I've heard - no one really reflects all of my ideas and opinions.  Well, of course not.  Nobody but you can do that.  Even married couples can differ in their opinions (don't get Andrea started on daylight savings time - we don't agree on that one).  You aren't voting for someone because you expect to agree with him or her on all matters.  You are voting for someone whom you have to trust to take your thoughts and ideas, as well as input from many other sources, and make the best decisions possible.  It's more important to know that they take the responsibility seriously, and that they recognize that it is their decision, which shouldn't be directed by anyone else.

Another excuse - one vote doesn't make a difference.  Not very often, although a recent SUMA presidential election was decided by one vote, as was a local constituency vote for a party nominee.  And I recall a tie vote a few years back in a Newfoundland community where the winning mayor was decided upon by a draw out of a hat.  That's not the point - the point is to add your vote in with everyone else's, and the winner is the individual supported by the most individuals.

And one final excuse - I don't know enough about the issues.  Well, that one's your responsibility.  Local news media provide overviews of all candidates throughout the election, you've received pamphlets from at least some of the council candidates, and there's nothing stopping you from calling the phone numbers on those pamphlets and asking a few questions.  And discussing the issues and candidates with your friends, neighbours and co-workers can also help in the education process.

You should be asking candidates questions, either by phone, email, or if they happen to catch you at home when they're out knocking on doors, about why they think they're suited for this job that they're applying for.  Being on council is a serious responsibility, and you deserve to know as much as possible about their intentions.  Slogans, sound bites, and feel good messages just don't give you enough information about how well the candidate understands what they're getting into.

If they're already on council, ask them about their voting record.  What motions did they support, and why?  Where do they think council could be doing a better job?  Are they satisfied with the way that council keeps the public informed, or do they see areas for improvement?  I'm sure that you have your own questions for incumbents - I'd wonder if someone is 100% satisfied with the ways things have gone over the past three years, and I'd hope that they would have ideas on where things could be done better.

If you're talking to someone without any council experience, you should have even more questions, because for new members of council, it's a very steep learning curve that they should already be trying to get ahead of.  For example, have they ever been to a council meeting?  Have they reviewed agendas, and do they understand how council meetings are conducted?  Did they review the budget that was passed this year?  Where would they have spent less?  Where would they have spent more?  Do they know what the city debt level is?  What ideas do they have to reduce this?

Some issues come up repeatedly.  Do they have new ideas on how to reduce crime levels, or revitalize downtown?  Do they have ideas on where a second bridge should be built, and why?  Are they satisfied with current levels of road maintenance, or the cost to the taxpayer for various city facilities?  If not, what suggestions do they have?

In the end, your vote is your decision, and no one else's.  To me, that's one of the great things about democracy - once you're standing behind the cardboard dividers, pencil and ballots in hand, it's all up to you.  If you've already voted, thank you.  If you haven't voted yet, please do.  The more people who take the time to educate themselves about the options and then vote, the more likely we are to end up with a strong group of people who can collectively take on the challenges that face this next council.  I sincerely hope that the voters of Ward 3 decide once again that they want me to represent them in these challenges - I'm looking forward to it.

"A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends on the character of the user." - Theodore Roosevelt

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Taking the Dys Out of Dysfunction

One of the media focuses of the past few weeks has been the dysfunctionality of council.  The interest seems to have started when I was the subject of a personal attack at a council meeting, and that became the focus of the local newspaper's coverage of that council meeting.  I blogged about it, then the reporter who wrote the first article wrote a column about my blog, which got him a couple of angry phone calls, one from a current councillor, one from a former councillor, suggesting that he didn't have the complete picture.  So he then wrote an article based on input from a variety of sources, which talked about how differing viewpoints on council are not welcomed, and the responses from other members of council are often disrespectful.

That certainly would be my experience over the last two terms of council.  The disrespectful treatment has ranged from being criticized during a council meeting for the way that I choose to vote, to audible sighs from some council members when a recorded vote is asked for, to eye-rolling when some council members are speaking.  All of these actions reflect a lack of respect for other council members, and for the processes that we are supposed to follow.  Unfortunately, the only behaviour that I can control is my own, and as long as the majority of other members of council go along with this sort of behaviour, things won't change.

But I do have some ideas on how council, as a group, could try to do better.

To start with, we could all learn how a council meeting is supposed to run.  When I was first elected, SUMA offered a one day course for all newly elected members of council, which included information about how a council meeting is supposed to operate, covering such things as how to chair a council meeting, and the purposes of having discussions in camera.  I don't know that any of the newer members of council have been offered, or have been able to take advantage of, such a learning opportunity, but I think that with the next council, a refresher course for all of us should be arranged.  That way people might understand that whoever is chairing a meeting shouldn't participate in the discussion while chairing, and how to hand over the chair to someone else so that you can speak, for example.

I think that understanding when an issue should be kept in camera, out of the public eye, would help considerably.  The Cities Act says that the only matters that should be discussed privately are those involving land, legal issues, and labour, but this council is quite comfortable with putting all sorts of matters onto the in camera agenda, and unless one successfully gets the rest of council to move the matter to the public agenda, there it will remain, meaning that not only does is the public unable to watch the discussion, but members of council are not allowed to speak about it publicly afterwards.

I would also hope that if all members of council were more aware of the rules of the process, then they would be more willing to speak up when the rules are breached, and bring things back on track.  Council really has to police itself on many of these matters, and we have not been very good at doing so.

I think that we also need to remember that, even though we might not agree with someone else's viewpoint, every councillor should be listened to respectfully.  Each of us, of course, represents a much larger constituency, and disrespecting a councillor is, in essence, disrespecting the people who elected that councillor.  To me, that is the basis of our democratic system - listening to and discussing a range of viewpoints and ideas in order to come up with the best possible solution.

Interestingly, whenever I am subject to a public attack at a meeting, I get many supportive phone calls and emails afterwards.  Some of these will even be along the lines of "I don't always agree with how you vote, but I appreciate all the work that you're doing", illustrating that they understand that disagreement doesn't have to result in rudeness.  I also hear from people who say, quite bluntly, that they would never consider running for public office, because they have no interest in being treated rudely simply for voicing an opinion.  To my mind, that is the saddest outcome of all - that good people might be discouraged from even trying to make a difference, because of the way that they see council operating.  That isn't the sort of legacy that anyone on council wants to leave - hopefully, next time we'll actually figure out a way of doing it better.

"Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people." - Barbara Bush

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Some Inequalities Among Inquiries

Asking questions is a big part of a councillor's job, in my opinion.  As with most things in life, if you don't ask questions, you limit your learning.  Questions are how you find out why things happen the way they do, or why things don't happen.

For example, when we first moved to Prince Albert, I was quite surprised to find that many of the streets in my neighbourhood were unpaved - this seemed to be out of place in a small city.  But after asking questions, I found out that the La Colle falls dam project had left the city in debt that didn't get paid off until the 1960s, limiting infrastructure improvements, and that in order to get an unpaved street paved, the majority of property owners on a street had to petition for this to happen, since their taxes would go up as a result.  Once I knew the answer, it made sense.

Since I've been on council, I've asked a lot of questions, some informally, some put as formal inquiries during a council meeting.  Many of these questions come from Ward 3 residents, some come from city residents who don't live in the ward, but figure that I'm someone who will try to find out the answer.  And some questions are my own, of course, prompted when I see something odd in the material that we are sent for review each week before Council or Executive Meetings.

The current mayor and city manager have instituted a practice in which any inquiry made by a councillor is sent as an email to all members of council, as are the answers. This has shown a couple of troubling things.

The first is that, routinely, my inquiries take months, or longer, to answer.  I find this rather surprising, because I see, of course, that other councillors get answers much more quickly, often within a week of posing the question.  My answers tend to get answered all at once - I'll get a flurry of emails with responses to several questions.  No doubt because of the upcoming election, this year's flurry came in mid-September, with responses to several questions, at least one of which dates back more than two years.

That particular question arose after we received some advertising for the Raiders in with our water bill.  My question was whether we have a formal policy with regards to third party inserts in water bills.  The answer:  No.  I find it hard to believe that it took them two years to research that.

Another question I asked last winter had to do with access to the Rotary Trail from residential areas during the winter.  I can now answer the city resident who asked me the question - the city is unable to maintain connecting paths to the Rotary Trail.  Why it took more than nine months to find that out is probably a better question.

The second troubling thing is that, for questions that are a bit more complicated, there seems to be very little effort expended in providing a well-researched answer.  For example, I had asked about the feasibility of moving the advanced left turn signal from 1st Avenue at 12th Street, toward the downtown, to 1st Avenue and 13th Street, headed toward Cornerstone.  The traffic volumes at that corner have gotten quite heavy, and the volumes at 12th Street are much lighter, particularly since three of the four banks that used to be on 12th Street have now moved to Cornerstone.

I asked this in May; in September I got the response - there is no budget to do this.  Nothing about traffic flows, nothing about safety, just that there is no budget.  That answer could have been provided at that meeting.

Of course, I've asked questions that still haven't been answered:  the water usage levels in all city facilities, like the Rawlinson Centre and the soccer centre, to name just two; all costs associated with the boil water order in February; the operating expenses (all of them) for the golf course and the soccer centre; where we stand with regard to a value for money audit; the 2011 Rawlinson Centre financials.

So at the next council meeting, which will also be the last council meeting of the present group, I will be making a motion that any inquiries from any member of council be responded to within 30 days, and that both the question and the answer be recorded on the consent agenda of council, so that there is a record for the public.  This doesn't mean that answers that require a fair amount of research need to be answered within 30 days, but I would expect an update, and possibly a target date for an answer, so that people know that it hasn't dropped off the radar.

As I said earlier, these aren't just my questions - they are questions that I get from tax payers, from both inside and outside my ward, people who want to know how the city is managing their money.  The tax payer is our boss, and we should be doing our best to respect their questions, not ignoring them in the hopes that they will just go away.

"I never learn anything talking.  I only learn things when I ask questions." - Lou Holtz

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ward Changes, and Other Election Stuff

The election is now upon us, and with the exception of Ward 7, there is a contest in every ward.  This is good; it indicates healthy public interest in city leadership, and should mean a higher voter turnout.  Three years ago, half of council was acclaimed, which I think limits discussion and awareness of the issues facing the city, and may lead to complacency at council, which is never a good thing.

You may not be aware that some ward boundaries have changed, after the report of the Municipal Wards Commission in November 2011.  Ward boundaries are reviewed every ten years, to ensure that the population in each ward is approximately equal.  It's a tough balancing act, I'm sure, since the commission also has to try to project ward populations for the  next ten years, identifying areas where greater growth is more likely.

They used a city population of 38, 926, based on Ministry of Health population statistics, with an average population per ward of 4,865.  The actual population of each ward ranges from 4,540, in Ward 6, to 5,013 in Ward 2.  The population in Ward 3 is on the higher end - 4,988.

Five of eight wards have had their boundaries changed, so if you live on the edge of wards 2, 3, 5, 6 or 7, you might want to check the new ward map on the city election page.  Ward 3 boundaries have changed the most, taking area from Wards 2 and 7; Ward 6 has taken a small piece out of Ward 5.

Specifically, Ward 3 now extends to the east side of 1st Avenue East, from the south side of 9th Street East to the north side of 19th Street East as far east as 6th Avenue East.  That's an additional two blocks east and 1 block south.  The remainder of the ward, going down 3rd Avenue East to the River, then going east to 11th Avenue East up to 7th Street East, then west to 10th Avenue East, then south to 15th Street, remains the same.  I noticed that Ward 3 is the only ward that is completely internal to the city - all other wards reach city boundaries at some point.

It's probably easiest to say that if you lived in Ward 3 before, you still live in Ward 3.  If you lived on the east side of Ward 2, or the northernmost part of Ward 7, your ward may have changed, and you should look closely at the ward map to make sure that you're headed to the right polling station.

Another change in this election is the requirement to bring identification with you when you go to vote.  Either bring one piece of photo ID that includes your address, such as a driver's licence, or two pieces of ID with your name, at least one of which also must have your address, such as a utility bill.  If you have nothing like this, you can go to a poll with someone who has such valid ID, and they can vouch for you.  I can see this happening, for example, if you have an eighteen year old living in your house who doesn't drive (I used to have one of those) - you could then vouch for them.

As always, you must be a resident in a ward in order to vote in that ward, and eighteen years or older.  Voting for mayor and school boards is, of course, city wide.

I thought long and hard about putting my name forward for another term on council, but after much discussion with family and friends, decided that I can still provide a strong voice for Ward 3, continuing to try to make the ward and the city a better place to live.  I have proven that I'm not afraid to ask hard questions, and I will continue to encourage council to practise greater fiscal responsibility, openness, and accountability.   I hope that I will continue to receive strong support from Ward 3 residents - the greatest blessing of these last twelve years on council is the many new friends that I've met, and continue to meet, across the ward.

And I'm looking forward to knocking on some new doors, and meeting and hearing from new ward residents.

"The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." - Plato

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Red Herrings

At this week's council meeting, there was successful deployment of the red herring strategy to avoid an issue.  It was so successful that the local paper reported extensively on the herring, completely distracted from the issue at hand.

The issue was the motion made by one councillor to cancel council and executive meetings before the end of the term in October, claiming that because the civic election is held that month, it would then be the "silly season", so council shouldn't bother meeting.  The current mayor did this for the last election, as well, although previous councils have been able to manage to keep on doing the work that they are paid for, as well as carry on with the personal work of campaigning.

I objected to this.  In effect, council has given itself extra paid vacation, so that those who are running for re-election can focus on that, rather than on working for their full term.  And for those who have decided to not let their names stand, well, they get to leave work early, with pay.

The fact is, the city runs twelve months of the year, and issues are ongoing.  I think that the most important work of council, the open discussion of issues and solutions, happens at council meetings, when the public has the best opportunity to see its representatives at work.

So I asked if all our work would come to a halt - would committees stop meeting, or would the mayor stop using his tax-payer funded office?

Rather than answering my question, or even providing concrete reasons why we shouldn't meet in October, I was instead the subject of a very personal attack, focusing on the fact that I'm not on as many committees as other members of council are, and am thus not carrying my fair share of the load.

This, of course, is the red herring that distracted the local paper, which didn't bother to speak to me before they ran the article.

If they had, I would have told them a number of things, as well as reminding them of the issue that I raised.  First, this mayor is the one who decides who is on which committee.  It is supposed to be a decision made by council, but this is one of the cases where council has been used as a rubber stamp.  He has removed me, without any discussion, from several committees that I spent several years on, and where I felt there was useful work done.  The two committees that I am currently on are both external committees, and require a full day and out of town travel to attend meetings.  That's a bit more of a commitment than attending a meeting over the lunch hour every few months, or being on a committee that never meets.

Yes, some council members are on committees that have never met.  Some councillors have been named to committees, but have never attended a meeting.  Being on a committee may look good on the resume, but the work happens only if you show up.

Some committees have been established as a place for deeper discussion, with members of the public, of matters that have been referred to them by council.  However, I can't recall the last time that this council referred anything to a committee for discussion.  One wonders what the purpose of having so many committees is, except to pad the resumes of some members of council.  And, I suppose, as fuel when personal attacks are considered to be the best option for avoiding a difficult question.

I've been on most of the major committees in my twelve years on council.  In my first term, I attended every committee meeting that I could, even those that I wasn't on, just to learn as much as I could about how the city worked.  I no longer feel the need for this sort of immersion learning, and with the sheer number of committees that have been created, I don't think that it would be possible.

I wish that council would do an overview of all committees, decide which ones are actually doing useful work, and disband the rest.  Then we should have a full discussion, in council, about how best to distribute committee work.  Until we do that, committee appointments will continue to be handed out like favours, with some members of council afraid to rock the boat in case they get removed from a committee that they feel is important.  They don't have to look far to see the likelihood of that happening.

In the meantime, our real work, council and executive meetings, will be suspended, and I still don't have a good explanation as to why that is necessary.  But we've had a good example of how easily distractions about busy-work can obscure the real issues.

"It's not so much how you are busy, but why you are busy.  The bee is praised; the mosquito is swatted."- Marie O'Connor 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Summer Projects

For me, summer is a good time for getting projects done outside the house.  When you own a house that's more than a century old, the list of projects often seems endless, and this summer I managed to get a couple knocked off the list that have been there for awhile.

The first was replacement of the lead water service connection.  This is something that around 1,000 homes in the older part of the city still have. The city recognizes that these should be replaced, so there is a water service replacement program.  The city will subsidize the home-owner's share of costs, up to $2,000, and replace the connection on the property owner's side.

I'm not sure how many residents have been able to take advantage of this program, and I think that we should look at how it could be made more efficient, to encourage participation.

I have been trying to get a contractor to come to our house to do the required excavation for two years without success.  Part of the problem is that digging up a single yard is a relatively small scale project, and most contractors are involved in much larger, more profitable projects.  This year, a friend who was also arranging for his connection to be replaced gave me the name and number of someone who might be able to help.

Andrea and I had been in Regina for the Folk Festival the second weekend in August.  On the Monday morning, as we were getting ready to leave, I got a text message from a friend - "There's a backhoe in your front yard."  When we got home that afternoon, yes, there was a backhoe sitting in our front yard, and a phone message from the contractor, saying that they would call the next day.  I immediately called the city, saying that I would need someone to come by and mark the water line as soon as possible.  I was told that someone would get back to me.

The next day, fortunately, it was pouring rain, so no digging could be done.  When I hadn't heard from the city by mid-morning, I walked down to city hall to make my inquiry directly.  I was told that maybe somebody could come by on Thursday; after a bit of discussion they agreed that somebody could come by within a half an hour.

On Wednesday morning the digging started, and on Thursday we were able to get the water lines replaced.  We also had to get the excavation and reconnection approved by a city staff person, before the excavation could be filled in.  The city finished their side, including ripping up several feet of sidewalk, on Friday.  Four weeks later, the sidewalk still hasn't been repaired - I'm hoping that it happens before the snow flies.

Lead water service connections are a health hazard that the city doesn't like to talk about much.  If you need to find out about the program, it's on the city web-site, under Residents, then under Water and Sewer.  Right now, it's only scheduled to run until the end of this year.  I think that this is a program that we should target for completion, and work to find efficiencies that would help home-owners.  I've already mentioned the difficulty in finding a contractor for a single yard job.  If the city could target a block at a time, and arrange for and pay a contractor to do all the homes on the block at that time, that would leave the home-owners with only having to pay for the plumbing contractor.  The $2,000 subsidy covers the cost of the excavation; if the city took care of it, that would also save in the administrative cost of processing claims.

I am glad that my home connection is completed, and I appreciate the quick response of the city crew, after some nudging.  I also realize that the average home-owner may not take such direct action when they don't get a response, and I think that city administration needs to be more aware of the need for a timely response - a contractor isn't going to hang about for several days waiting for water lines to be marked, when they could be making money somewhere else.

The second project is not a necessity, more of a nice-to-have.  The week after the water work was complete, I started building a deck on the west side of the house - a project that we've talked about for several years.  In this case, the guy that I called about putting in screw-piles (a faster and easier alternative than digging holes for pilings) showed up the day after I called for an estimate, ready to work.  So I've been in construction mode for the last two weeks, and if you've driven by the house, you've probably seen me out there working.  Fortunately, I've also had a great deal of help from a couple of friends.  Barry and David spent a couple of days helping with framing and laying out deck boards, with the result that I'm now left with just the stairs and railing left to do.  While the final product looks much larger than it did on paper, I think that it's going to be a great place to sit and relax with friends.  It's our version of a cottage, without the high maintenance requirements.

And tomorrow, it's the first council meeting after summer break - back to the suit and tie.  With the election looming, it should be an interesting couple of months.

"Summertime is always the best of what might be." - Charles Bowden

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Once Again, We Vote for Image

I think that if you asked the average citizen of Prince Albert what Council's priorities should be, you'd get a pretty short list.  Reducing crime, fixing roads, cutting excessive spending on non-essentials, keeping the bridge in good shape, making sure the water treatment plant is functioning - these are the topics that I hear about from people.  No-one has ever complained about the fence that runs down the centre of Second Avenue West, to prevent pedestrians from trying to cross between intersections.  In fact, it's probably only the traffic slowdowns caused by bridge repair work that have made some people notice the rust on the  twenty-one year old structure.

So I was rather surprised to hear that the fence is in dire shape, and needs to be replaced.  The report to council didn't include much information as to how this conclusion was arrived at. Apparently, repairs were done to one section last year, and the entire fence was then found to be in imminent danger of falling down.  That's as much information as we were given.  $125,000 was put into this year's budget to replace the entire fence.  Unfortunately, the lowest bid came in almost $44,000 over that, and that's what the vote at last week's council meeting approved.

The fence is rusty, I'll agree.  But in danger of collapse?  I went out and had a look at it.  More than a look,  I got up close and personal, and shook it in several places.  The footings are solid. It is dented in one place, where a vehicle ran into it, and it was solid enough not to collapse with that impact.  The brackets securing the fence to the concrete are not rusted.  What it needs, in my opinion, is a good sandblasting, followed by painting with rust-proof paint.  That would give us what one councillor said that he wants - "a good-looking fence", and could be done for much less than $170,000.

I do understand the importance of keeping up appearances, and I understand the so-called broken window effect.  That's the term used to describe the effect caused when failure to make small repairs leads to an overall decrease in the appearance of an area.  The idea is to catch the small stuff, before it becomes big stuff.  Regular maintenance is key to this - perhaps regular fence painting, before rust starts, is something that we should plan for.  And I wish that we would worry more about the broken window effect in areas where people live and work - those are the areas where it would really make a difference.

About a year ago, when the crack in the bridge was found, I wrote that I hoped that this would be a wake-up call for all members of council to keep regular infrastructure maintenance a priority.  Ironically, we have fallen back to our pre-bridge crisis ways, and taken the money out of the bridge inspection and maintenance budget to help fund this over-budget fence replacement.

"Good fences make good neighbours." - Robert Frost

Monday, August 6, 2012

So You're Thinking About Running for Council

In four weeks, the formal nomination process for city council will start.  Two weeks later, on September 19, nominations will close.  A few individuals have already announced their intentions to run for either mayor or councillor, and have presumably started knocking on doors to meet residents, hear concerns first-hand, and outline why they are a good candidate for the job.

Perhaps you're one of the ones still mulling over the question - you think that you could do at least as good a job as the people currently sitting in the big comfy chairs, and possibly better.  Deciding to run is a decision only an individual can make, so my advice would be that you approach it as you would any career decision.

First, do your research.  The city web page has a guide for prospective candidates, which is a good start, but  is a little light on how much time the job actually takes.  It mentions the time required for council and executive meetings, and the requirement to attend committee meetings, but doesn't mention the time required for reviewing agendas and budgets, preparing questions or drafting motions.  I've found that the time spent in meetings is actually not as much time as is required for preparing for them.  It also doesn't mention the time necessary to respond to residents' phone calls, or do the follow-up research when finding answers.  Trust me, this is a job without set working hours - people will stop to ask you questions any time, any place.  It's actually part of the job that I enjoy a great deal - there are a lot of good ideas and questions out there, but it does take time to listen.

Read The Cities Act.  That's the legislation that governs how the city has to operate.  You may be surprised to find that it doesn't actually contain a great amount of detail.  For instance, our current schedule of two council meetings per month, with only one in February, July, August and December, is not legislated.  That's a practice that's only happened over the last six years, without any explanation offered.  The next council could decide to go back to meeting every other week, or even every week - it's up to council.  It's worth reading through The Cities Act so that you know what is a legal requirement, and what isn't, rather than relying on city staff to let you know.

Watch council meetings, either in person, or by watching the cable or on-line versions.  Being there in person probably gives you the fullest view - cameras can't cover everything.  Download an agenda, and read through it, noting any areas where you would ask questions.  Think about reading through that volume of material every two weeks, plus the agenda for executive meetings, which occur every other week.  Read through the current budget, highlighting areas where you would have questions.  Then imagine going through it at lightning speed, which is how our budget meetings have gone over the last few years, and try to remember the areas where you had concerns.  Not as easy as it looks.

Think about some of the decisions that council has made that you didn't agree with.  What arguments would you have posed; what alternative actions would you have suggested?  Would you have spoken up publicly, or would you have gone along with the majority?

Do you enjoy working as part of a group?  Can you listen to other people's ideas with an open mind?  Council is made up of nine individuals, each of whom has a responsibility to speak up and provide their own ideas and opinions.  You may not agree with their ideas, but you should be prepared to listen, and if you don't agree, to be able to say why you don't agree.

Are you able to rise above the cheap shots and insults that have only gotten worse with the increase in the use of electronic media?  The internet allows individuals to call you names anonymously that they would never sign their names to, or repeat to your face.  You have to be able to ignore that sort of input - it's not worth two seconds of your time.

Do you have the support of your family and friends?  They are invaluable as a sounding board, for reminding you of what really matters in life, and for helping to pound in campaign signs.  I think that people sometimes underestimate the value of having a strong network behind them, who will be there no matter what happens.

If you do all this research and thinking, and still want to try for the job, good luck.  Prince Albert deserves an open and honest city council that is willing to work hard for all its citizens.  The more people that want to help in this effort, the better.

"A man's limitations are not the things he wants to do and can't; they are the things he ought to do and doesn't." - Unknown

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trying a Carrot Rather Than a Stick

As a council, too often when we have a problem, we try solving it through punishment rather than through incentives.  I'm not sure why - perhaps because it's easier.  But it's only the first step that's easier - for example, passing a bylaw that will punish a certain behaviour.  In order for this to even start to have an impact, of course, a whole structure for implementation needs to be put into action, and that is often where the whole punishment idea falls flat.  That's why, for example, even though we may have an anti-spitting (and other disgusting habits) bylaw, people still spit on the streets.

Harder to do, but more effective in the long run, is using incentives to get people to change their behaviour, or even to prevent them from choosing wrong behaviours in the first place.  This is something that we can see happening in the school system.  When I was in grade school, misbehaviour frequently resulted in a student being sent to the principal's office to be given the strap - and, yes, I made more than one of those trips.  Today, the strap is a relic of the past, and at the same school where I was often being punished, my sister, who is now an educational assistant there, tells me that good behaviour is rewarded, when students who are caught behaving appropriately are given tokens which can be redeemed for small rewards.  And it's been found to be a much more effective way of getting students to behave in acceptable ways.

Now, I have no brilliant ideas on how we could use this approach to get people to stop spitting in public, or even the less disgusting but still anti-social and costly habit of littering.  And that might be why we continue to pass bylaws that we know will be difficult to enforce - at least we can be seen to be doing something.  But there are areas where I think that the carrot approach might work better than our current stick attempts.

One of the problems that Prince Albert has, particularly in older neighbourhoods, is vacant lots.  I'm speaking of the vacant lots where a house (or houses) once stood, but no longer.  They quickly become weed-covered, which causes problems for neighbouring yards, and can even become a place where less-desirable types gather.  In general, they just bring the neighbourhood down.

In an attempt to get the owners of these eyesores to take action, council decided to double the tax rate on vacant lots.  I think that the thought was that the punishment of the extra taxes would encourage the owners to take some kind of action - preferably to build a house, or sell the property to someone who would build a house on the lot.  Unfortunately, the punishment of the extra taxes hasn't had the desired result - I don't know of any vacant lots whose owners have been encouraged by this action to build.

So, if the stick hasn't worked, what sort of a carrot could we as council offer?  How about an incentive for someone wanting to build on these lots - maybe a tax reduction for a few years?  These are lots with a great deal to offer - the infrastructure of water, power and sewer is already in place, and services like roads, sidewalks, and parks are there too.  Providing new housing in older neighbourhoods helps with revitalization.  While tax revenue would be lower for the years of tax reduction, in the long run, tax revenues would be higher for a house than for a vacant lot.  Such a solution could be a win-win, with everyone, including the city, ending up better off than we are now.

Who knows - if we started looking at every problem this way, we might even be able to solve the spitting and littering problem.

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." - Anonymous

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ignoring Advice We've Paid For

As Council, we ask administration for advice and information.  We're not the experts (although some members of council might disagree with that) - our job is to take the advice and information and use it to help guide our decision making.  One of the areas in which some city staff have more expertise than council is community planning.  A community plan should be used to provide direction to help ensure that the ways in which a community grows are attractive, efficient and effective.

We currently have a community plan that's still in draft stage - that is, it hasn't been formally approved.  But some good thinking and common sense has gone into it, and I often wonder why we don't consider the advice available, even in draft form, when we make some of our decisions.

For example, at the last two council meetings we have approved high density developments - new condos.  The draft community plan recommends that such higher density developments should be built along major arterial routes, with consideration for amenities such as parks and bus routes.  The logic is that such amenities shouldn't be thought of after the development has been made, but as part of the planning process.

The two developments that council approved, one at each meeting, haven't considered this advice.  Both are in the far east end of the city - one on 1st Street East, the other east on Highway 302.

When new developments are built without consideration for currently available amenities, they will also cost the city more, because additional pressures are put on city services.  Snow removal, garbage pick-up, fire protection services, bus route extensions - when these have to be extended into new areas, it costs the city more.

I'm not against new developments.  I understand that they increase the tax base, which we sorely need.  But I think that if we have advice on how to make them more economical, so that we're not just at a break even (or worse) situation, but might actually have revenues increase faster than expenses, then we should follow that advice.  After all, we've paid for it.

"There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions.  Nothing pains some people more than having to think." - Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why Asking Questions is not Being Negative

Some of the comments after last week's entry about questions that I have after reviewing the financial statements for the Arts Board, including the Rawlinson Centre, focused, not on the questions, but on my alleged constant negativity.  I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, I deliberately started the entry by saying how much I enjoy attending a wide variety of functions at the EAR, and that it is a wonderful facility.  However, going through the financial statements raised a number of troubling questions.  Asking these questions doesn't mean that I want the facility to close; it means that I want it to function well, within the rules and policies that have been developed; it means that I think that council needs to do a better job of ensuring that the tax payers' dollars that are used for this facility are spent as efficiently as possible.  Second, those complaining about my negativity did not address the concerns that I raised, or provide any explanations.  I guess it's easier just to resort to name calling, rather than providing constructive input.

Apparently, in the minds of some, asking questions is just being negative.  I'd be interested to know if they follow that same principle in their own lives, just going along with and approving whatever happens, because to do otherwise is to be negative.  If a mistake is made in their order at a restaurant, they wouldn't question it, because that would mean that the restaurant was terrible.  If an item at the grocery store is scanned incorrectly, with a higher price being charged, they wouldn't question it, because that would mean that the grocery store was terrible.  If an employee consistently comes in late, they wouldn't mention it, because that would mean that hiring that employee had been a mistake, and the employee was terrible.

However, most of us are reasonable enough to recognize that mistakes happen, and asking questions about what led to those mistakes may result in improvements to service.  Most businesses would much rather you brought problems to their attention, so that they can make improvements, rather than losing your business, and possibly the business of others, who may have had similar problems.  That chronically late employee?  Unless you ask, you won't learn the reason for their lateness, and they won't learn that punctuality is important in your workplace.

The unfortunate culture of the day at city council is that to ask questions is not acceptable, because it suggests that the way the city is run is not perfect.  I'm not sure where the Utopia is that some members of council seem to have come from, but my experience is that, even if something is going well, you can probably improve things.  That's actually the basis of the principle of continual improvement - a principle that most successful businesses and organizations have adopted as a fundamental way of doing things.

If we don't answer questions, if we don't figure out what led to problems, then we can't even start to improve things.  Constant cheer leading doesn't bring about change, it just leads to complacency.

I've mentioned before about the experience that my children had when they were in the local music festival - the adjudicators always told all the participants how they could do better, and this often came after the adjudicator had asked questions about how their performance had come about.  If children can be expected to take criticism and use it to improve, why is it so hard for city council?

"If you're really good, then you know you can be better." - Lindsay Buckingham

Monday, July 2, 2012

Finally, Financials from the Rawlinson (well, some of them)

Let me start by saying that the EA Rawlinson Centre for the Arts is a wonderful facility.  With the exception of City Hall and the library, I probably go there more often than I go to any other city facility.  I've been to plays, dance recitals, concerts, comedy performances, at least one conference, and both Vinyl Cafe events, and had a great time.

And let me also say that I appreciate the invaluable support that the volunteers who help run the events there provide.  Like most volunteers, they give their own time because they support having this facility in their community.

But these two facts - the quality of the facility and the efforts of the volunteers - do not allow me to ignore my responsibilities to the citizens of Prince Albert.  The value of the facility and the volunteers does not give those who run the place the option of not providing the information that is required before getting a share of tax payers' dollars, nor does it mean that questions about those same operations shouldn't be allowed.

Council has, for too many years, approved budget increases for the EAR, through the Arts Board, without requiring that they submit the financial reports and budget that other facilities, such as the SPCA, the library, and the Tourism Board, routinely provide, without complaining, before the budget is provided to council and the public.  And the increases have not been insignificant - in 2007, the grant provided by the city was $97,000.  This year, 2012, the grant is $287,270.  And council has approved these increases without receiving any financial reports on how the money is spent, without a budget showing how the money is planned to be spent, and without any written communication from the Arts Board as to why such increases are necessary.

I've been asking for financial reports for years, and my requests have been dismissed, with other members of council often citing what a wonderful facility the EAR is, or suggesting that, by asking for financial reports, I'm insulting the volunteers.  Despite these red herrings, we've finally received, in June, the audited financial statements for the years 2008, 2009, and 2010.  I'm not sure why the delay - the reports indicate that the 2008 report was prepared July 29, 2009, the 2009 report was prepared January 20, 2011, and the 2010 report was prepared October 18, 2011.  The documents were ready, but for some reason, no one could find the time to walk them over to City Hall.

Now that we have the long-awaited financials, questions are bound to arise (even though some members of council equate asking questions to attacking the facility).  One of mine has to do with the two transfers of money that occurred in 2009 and 2010.  This money was in the Capital Reserve Fund, a fund that is made up of a fee that is charged on each ticket sold.  This is a good thing - a user fee being set aside for future needs, rather than going to the tax payer when the inevitable problems happen. The Capital Reserve Fund is intended to be kept in reserve for future capital expenditures - when the building needs major repair or renovation.  It is not intended to be used for operating expenses, and to prevent this from happening, city council is required to approve any expenditures from this fund.

However, in 2009, $123,468 was transferred from this fund to the Operating Fund.  In 2010, a similar transfer was made, this time the amount was $140,725.  Council approval was not requested in either case.  Since this isn't allowed, the financial report has presented these transfers as a loan.

I would love to hear an explanation - how did this happen?  when were you going to tell us? -  from the members of council who sit on the EAR Governance Committee, but I didn't get one when I asked the question at last Monday's council meeting.  I also made a motion asking that we see this year's budget on a quarterly basis, and have it reviewed by Financial Services, to ensure that such unpleasant surprises won't happen again.  After all, we see the budgets for other facilities before we do up the city budget, and since we haven't seen the EAR budget yet, this seems logical.  Not only that, but there is now the "loan" from the Capital Reserves to be repaid - I'd like to see the repayment plan.  Much to my surprise, because I thought that keeping tighter tabs on an organization that hasn't been able to meet end of year deadlines, and whose budget keeps leaping upwards, was a no-brainer, only Councillors Miller and Whitehead agreed with me.  The rest still find it easier to go along with the majority, perhaps for fear of upsetting some people.  Me, I'm more concerned about the reactions of the people who elected me - they're the ones I feel responsible to.

You can view the financial reports for yourself, by going to the City of PA website, then go to City Council, then Meetings and Agendas.  Click on the City Council Meeting Agenda for 2012-06-25, and scroll down to page 40.  If, like me, you've long had questions about how much money it costs to run that place, you should find it quite interesting reading.

"In my life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil.  It's hardly so epic.  Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing." - Deirdre Sullivan

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Bridge Inquiry

At the end of last week's Council Meeting, I made an inquiry that has set off a bit of a firestorm of public reaction.  I asked administration for the traffic volume that crosses the Diefenbaker Bridge every day, and, if there was a toll, what sort of revenues might be generated.

I made the inquiry mainly because this is an idea that occasionally gets mentioned as being a possible solution for our ongoing infrastructure funding woes, and I believe that if we're going to start bringing up ideas, then we need to do so as publicly as possible, so that the public has the chance to let us know their opinions.  As a council that has repeatedly said that it is open and accountable, that's what we need to do.  And the place to start is with some numbers, to assess the feasibility of the concept.

While the general public response has not been favourable to such an idea (the adjective bone-headed is one of the kinder descriptions that I've heard, for both the idea and me), tolls are used in other places.  In Halifax last June, when we were there for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting, I was quite surprised when the cab stopped to pay a toll on the bridge between Dartmouth and Halifax.  When I asked the cab driver about it, he explained that there was a one dollar toll on both bridges between the two cities, but it was only a loonie, and the money went directly to pay for bridge maintenance.  Bridge and expressway tolls are quite common when travelling through the States, as well.  And in Toronto, one way of avoiding the congestion of Highway 401, as you bypass Toronto, is to travel the toll route of Highway 407, a privately built and maintained expressway that collects its fees by electronically recording your licence plate as you enter and exit, then sending you a bill.  We have found that the fees can be avoided with a Saskatchewan licence plate, but not with a rental car.  So the idea has been implemented successfully elsewhere.

We have to face the fact that Prince Albert has an ever-increasing infrastructure repair and maintenance deficit, and our budgets haven't been successful at addressing the issue - we've instead avoided talking about it, probably because such discussions aren't much fun.  The reality is that a city council has only two options within its control for raising money - taxes and user fees.  This particular council is limited by past decisions that have followed our desires for big city amenities without admitting that we don't have the big city industrial and residential tax base to pay for such facilities.  For many of these facilities, the user fees aren't sufficient to cover the ongoing costs, with the result that we raise taxes to make up the difference.  And to avoid having high tax increases, we have delayed maintenance and repair of the less glamorous, but still vital, infrastructure requirements like roads and water mains.  We can also appeal to higher levels of government for funding assistance, but this is usually limited to certain types of programs, for which they set the criteria.  And sadly, it's much easier to get, for example, $2 million from the province to help fund the construction of the soccer centre, than to get assistance with basic infrastructure maintenance.

And it's only going to get worse.  About the same time as we were having bridge problems last year, council and the province agreed to our participation in the Urban Connector Program.  In this program, highway sections that are within city limits which have been maintained by the provincial Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure, will become the responsibility of the city, after Highways and Infrastructure has brought these sections up to necessary standards.  So, at some point in the not too distant future, the city will have to fund maintenance and repair of the highway out to the pulp mill, and the Shellbrook overpass.  Our costs are going up, not down.  And money has to come from somewhere.

Despite the negative tone of much of the public feedback, I'm glad that people are interested enough to comment, and I've had several good discussions with city residents since last Monday, which is how it should be.  I'm also glad to see that many people are coming to the realization that we have to look at many options,  including how we're currently spending money, to see where we could cut back on unnecessary expenditures, and that perhaps raising user fees at city facilities, and charging non-city residents a higher fee for accessing these facilities, are ideas that should be considered.

One last thought - people have to remember that, if you want an open and accountable council, the open discussion of ideas has to be encouraged, not jumped upon.  There are far too many people on council who are reluctant to talk about things openly, because of the fear of negative public feedback.  The result of that is backroom discussions and decisions - not the open, democratic process that would likely produce better results for everyone.

"No idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered with a searching but at the same time a steady eye." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Trying to Plug the Leaks

As well as Executive Meeting last Tuesday (delayed from Monday because of the wrap-up of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Saskatoon), we had a Special Council Meeting for the third reading to pass the new water rates.

As I've mentioned before, I voted against the new rates for several reasons, one of which is that I've seen no attempt by administration to deal with increasing water costs by doing anything except raise water rates.  In this case, the increase is greater for residential users than for commercial users, another reason why I couldn't support this increase.

One of the more disturbing pieces of information to come from administration is that, since 2006, the amount of water not accounted for, and thus not paid for, has increased by 80% - from 42 million cubic feet to 76 million cubic feet.  In the same time, residential use has decreased, probably because people are trying to keep their water bills manageable by reducing their usage.  So while those who are paying are trying to conserve, the amount of water that isn't being paid for is increasing, and this increasing waste is being paid for by city residents - no wonder the average residential water bill has increased by 50% over the same time period.

So where does this unaccounted water go?  Some of it is in leaks, some is through water main breaks, some is lost through fighting fires, some is due to incorrect water meter readings, and some is used in city-run facilities that don't pay for their water use, like City Hall, the golf course, the soccer centre, the Rawlinson Centre, and the City Yards.

It's time that we took a look at this, to stop pouring money down the drain.  To me, it makes sense to reduce the volume of unaccounted and unpaid for water.  I made a motion at Tuesday's meeting, asking administration to provide us with the volume of water that is used, but not paid for, at city facilities.  Although I was told last year that there were no water meters at these facilities, I've since found out, from a more reliable information source, that not only are there meters at, for example, the golf course, the soccer centre, and the Rawlinson Centre, but they are read on a regular basis.

To me, it only makes sense that these facilities account and pay for their water usage.  While there will be those who think that, because they are city facilities, we would only be moving money from one city pocket to another, we should be including these costs when we're calculating user fees, so that the user fees truly reflect the operating costs of the facility.  After all, if the library and the Girl Guide Hall can pay for the water they use, why shouldn't golfers?

For facilities like City Hall, where we don't charge user fees, we should be aware of what volume of water we use, and encourage staff to be thoughtful in their use.  Greater awareness of how much is being used could lead to reductions, for example, by not watering the grass around City Hall the day after it rains.  Or perhaps each department should be paying for their water use, as part of the budgeting process - the taxpayer would still be footing the bill, but through their taxes, not through their water bills.

We should also develop a plan to address the areas where water is lost.  For example, we should track water main breaks, and put those streets with high frequency of water main breaks on a priority list for water main replacement.  We should be tracking where leaks occur, and fix them. What is being done to improve the accuracy of meter readings?  Just like fixing a leaky tap or a running toilet in your home can lower your water bill, the city should be trying to lower its bills, not just pass the increased costs on to residents.

I'm looking forward to the report from administration, and I hope that council will then take meaningful steps to make payment for water use more equitable.

"When the well's dry, we know the worth of water." - Ben Franklin

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Now There's a Thought - Let's Look at Our Spending

The blog has been quiet for a few weeks.  Andrea and I took advantage of a Via Rail seat sale which nicely coincided with her return to good health, to go to Ontario for a couple of weeks to visit family and friends.

On the agenda for my first council meeting back, there was a report on various tax tools that we could use to get more money out of tax-payers' pockets.  I saw this as an opportunity to suggest that, instead of thinking that our only solution to financial problems is to hit up the taxpayer, we could instead examine how we currently spend money, and see if there are efficiencies to be found there.

I suggest this every year as we're going through the budget process.  Every year this suggestion has been ignored by most members of council.  The assumption has been that we will continue to spend money as we've always spent it, even though, when times are tough, we might not need to spend $40,000 each year on floral decorations, for example.  But we don't even discuss the necessity of such expenditures, or even if we could spend less, or if there are alternatives to having barrels of petunias set out on Memorial Square.

Imagine my surprise, when other members of council thought that this might be a valuable exercise (although a couple were of the opinion that this is already happening), and we have agreed to ask the city manager to prepare a report on how we could do this, and what processes other municipalities have used in such reviews.  Coincidentally, this was also the topic of a panel discussion at the pre-Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) meeting that many senior staff attended in Saskatoon this week, so they should already have picked up some valuable ideas that they can use.

I think that for maximum value, we want more than a service review, such as the one that Saskatoon went through this past year.  That was more of an evaluation of what areas of expenditure are most valued by residents.  I would like to see a review that combined that sort of evaluation with an examination of how expenditures could be made more efficiently.

For example, there's no question that police need to buy new vehicles periodically.  However, an examination of how such an expenditure is made could  show that other municipalities replace their police vehicles less frequently, or find that less expensive vehicles are adequate for police work - that's where real savings could occur.

Are staff being used most efficiently?  Previous mayors managed to share one secretary with the city manager.  Now, the mayor has two secretaries, the city manager has one (plus other staff with vague job titles).  Are all these support staff really necessary?

I think that all areas of expenditures should be looked at - staffing, capital, operational.  For this to really work, there should be no sacred cows.

Along with most members of council, I'll be attending FCM in Saskatoon this weekend.  I'll be looking to talk with representatives from other cities to find out, not just how they've done such reviews, but how they've been able to put their findings into practice.

"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it." - Abraham Lincoln

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Second Bridge Campaign

No question, Prince Albert needs a second bridge.  I've lived here more than thirty years, and people have been talking about the need for at least that long, and no doubt longer than that.  Last year's bridge repairs certainly underlined the importance of the bridge for both businesses and the general public, and kicked it to the forefront of discussion once again.

Having said that, I'm not sure of the usefulness of the current Build a Second Bridge campaign.  The purpose of this campaign is to encourage surrounding municipalities, businesses, and residents to send a letter to the mayor's office, indicating support for a second bridge.  These letters will be collected and presented to the Premier and Cabinet. A budget of almost $12,000 has been identified for what is really just a high-priced petitioning exercise - an exercise that the provincial government has already indicated won't loosen up any more money.

Now, I'm sure there are those that will say that perhaps the powers-that-be in Regina might be swayed by a massive volume of letters dumped onto someone's desk.  Even if I believed that, I don't think that we need to spend thousands of tax-payers dollars to do this.

The budget proposes spending $500 on paper and printing, $3,500 on developing the web-site, $1,700 for postage, $1,000 for stickers, and $5,000 on media advertising.  I'm a little surprised that city staff couldn't develop the web-site (and it should have been proof-read a little more closely).  In this age of email, postage and paper costs shouldn't be necessary - certainly not close to $2,200 worth.  If we really want to overwhelm Regina with numbers, why not have petitions available for signing at city hall, and at supporting businesses - people are far more likely to sign a petition than go to the trouble of writing a letter on their own.

The bulk of the money ($4,000 so far) is going to pay for TV and radio advertising to support this effort, and in this day of cable, I doubt that it will be all that effective.

How much more effective it would have been if the province's bridge report had been made available both to all members of council as well as the public, when it was completed in 2008.  We could have started discussions with the province on how to make a new bridge a reality, not just an ongoing topic of conversation.  Instead, a few individuals chose to ask for changes to the report, apparently because it didn't include a recommendation that a new bridge be within city limits.

More than four years later, the only action that we're taking is to spend money to tell the provincial government something that they're already aware of, to make it look as if we're doing something.  And we're spending your money, already in tight supply, to do this.

"The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What I Hope We've Learned from This Year's Budget Process

Well, the budget is now done for another year, after the budget bylaw was passed at a special council meeting last Monday.  That it passed wasn't a surprise for anyone involved, despite its defeat through a tie vote at an executive meeting two weeks earlier - we all know that votes at executive aren't the final word, and some council members are known for changing their minds when things come to council, for whatever reason.

But now that the process is over for another year, I hope that all involved, both council and administration, have learned from the experience, and will try to do better next year (or at least, those who are still around after this fall's election).  I have a few specific suggestions where we could build on some of the things that happened, both good and bad, in this year's process.

First, having more information helps in making decisions.  The financial information that we were given by administration before the budget process even started was quite enlightening, and was more detail than has been provided in the past few years.  Of course, once that information is available, it should be used more than it was.  I was disappointed that, even though we were given numbers related to the amount that needed to be in the budget to maintain roads, for example, the numbers in the final budget didn't seem to take that into account.

Second, don't make changes at the last minute, without a map showing how the change being proposed will affect the rest of the budget.  The way that numbers were being juggled over the last month reminded me of a shell game, as we pulled money from various projects or unspecified maintenance activities, to satisfy the wants of a few special interest groups and make up for unexpected shortfalls.  If we decide to make those changes, fine, but we should be able to say exactly what is being sacrificed, and why we feel that other uses, heard from late in the process, should take priority over previously identified needs.

Third, any facility that is supported by taxpayer dollars should have to provide full financial records and budgets to both council and the general public.  This year was the first time in six years that council was shown financial records (for 2010) for the Rawlinson Centre, after years of inquiries and requests.  However, that information was  provided in camera, rather than openly to the public, for reasons that still aren't clear to me.  Hopefully we'll see their financial records for 2011 soon, and a budget for the upcoming year, such as is provided by the library, should also be required. All facilities should have to follow the same rules before they get a share of tax revenues - that's fair to the facilities, and it's only fair that the public can see where their money is being spent.

And finally, no-one involved should count chickens before they're hatched. This year, revenue assumptions were made based on population numbers that were not confirmed by the census. As a result, we ended up about $300,000 short, and had to scramble to produce a budget that balanced. It's kind of like when we go ahead with a project assuming that federal funding will be available, then find out that we've been turned down, so have to find the money elsewhere.  Far better to make decisions based on a worst-case scenario, then be pleasantly surprised when revenues are higher than planned, or funding comes through.

As I've said before, preparing a budget for the city is like preparing your own household budget, although at a much larger scale.  But the same principles apply, and one of those principles is figuring out how to do it better the next time.

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." - Douglas Adams

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Popular Misconceptions

One of the difficulties of being on council is trying to refute the misconceptions that seem to pop up everywhere. Sometimes they're the result of a rumour being repeated and exaggerated for effect, sometimes they're put out there by some members of council to defend council decisions, or they may be put forth pseudonymously on electronic news sites by those who try to appear that they're just wondering about stuff, but they're really trying to confuse the issue.

So, since there was no council or executive meeting this past week because of Easter Monday, I thought that I'd use today's blog to talk about a few of these misconceptions, and give my perspective.

First, a few times during and immediately following the boil water order, it was suggested that the defeat of a proposal to increase water rates last summer was part of the reason why the boil water order was put in place, and an editorial in the local paper implied that those of us who voted against the increase (including me) were somehow to blame. Not so. In fact, if you review any of the explanatory material that was provided during the boil water order, lack of funding was not mentioned. It was an unfortunate set of circumstances, complicated by the ongoing upgrading, and an investigation of how it happened would probably be worthwhile, in order to avoid such circumstances in the future, but that's it.

I was open about my reasons for not agreeing with an increase last summer - in the previous five years, water rates had increased four times, including an ongoing 7% increase, compounding annually for the next several years, that this increase will be over and above. I wanted administration to look at decreasing unnecessary expenditures to make up any shortfalls, rather than hitting up the taxpayer yet again. And I specifically disagreed with charging city residents a higher rate for the same volume of water than rural users. To me, this means that city residents are once again subsidizing other users of our services, just like we do with the soccer centre, the golf course, and other facilities that are largely supported through your taxes, and I'd prefer to level the playing field a bit.

Another misconception that floats out, particularly during budget times, is that this council is hampered by decisions of previous councils to not increase taxes. Well, it's only happened once in my time on council, which started in 2000. The only year that any council passed a budget that had a 0% increase was in the year of the last election. I voted against that budget because I felt that it was an extremely short-sighted election goody, but four members of the current council were part of the majority that supported this move.

And finally, probably the most damaging misconception is one held by some members of council, and some members of public - that council decisions are best made without debate and discussion, but instead with all members of council voting in unison, to give the illusion of solidarity. It's unfortunate that, over the last six years, the discussion seems to start with the preferred answer being brought forth from a vacuum, and any questioning of that preferred answer, even asking to see how it was developed, is treated as being somewhat akin to treason. It's as though some members of council are quite happy to be treated as a group rubber stamp, rather than making their own decisions, and providing good reasons for those decisions.

I have been part of councils that believed in setting goals and priorities before the budget was developed, that weren't afraid to send administration back to do further work because their first shot missed the mark, and that didn't mind spending more than the minimal amount of time reviewing the budget before passing it, to ensure that we were making the best decision possible, collectively. I think that some members of council might be surprised at how satisfying the job can be, when the whole process is approached collaboratively.

But how much easier it is to spread rumour and misconception, in an attempt to fool the public, and possibly even ourselves.

"Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please." - Mark Twain