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

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