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