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