I've just returned from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) annual general meeting, which was held this year in Vancouver. As we often do, Andrea and I went out a few days early for a bit of a vacation before the work began. Just my luck, those were the rainy days, but even in the rain, Vancouver gave us lots to see and do. It's a great city that has put a great deal of thought into keeping its development balanced with maintaining accessible green space in a very livable and vibrant downtown.
There has been some questioning in the media about the value of FCM for members of council. It is definitely not, as one letter to the editor of the paper said, a "paid vacation". I think that people often don't consider that there is no school that one can attend to learn how to be a member of city council. Our education might best be termed as self-directed learning. I've found that one of the best ways of doing that is by talking to others about their experiences, and the best venue that I've found for that is FCM. The six members of council who attended FCM spent long days and evenings taking advantage of as many educational opportunities as possible.
There are four different types of learning opportunities at FCM. There are the formal working sessions, which feature presentations on various issues, and you can select the ones most appropriate for your circumstances. For example, this year a particularly timely one for Prince Albert was on the location of cell phone tower locations, which offered solutions that have worked in other communities.
There is an enormous trade show, which has new products and ideas ranging from new voting systems to waste disposal options. It's a good place to get ideas which can then be passed along to administration for further assessment, to see how such ideas could work for Prince Albert. I saw a couple of things that might be useful for the Rotary Trail. One was using LED for public lighting - this could be an inexpensive and environmentally friendly option for providing lighting along the trail. The other was a self-cleaning public washroom, one of which is already being used in downtown Vancouver - the lack of public washroom facilities has been cited as one of the drawbacks to using the Rotary Trail.
There are study tours which offer the chance to see solutions that are actually being tried. I took one tour that focused on housing solutions for those who are difficult to house. In Vancouver, the provincial government has actually taken the lead on this problem, and owns housing that is utilized for this purpose, and the city has staff that are dedicated to implementing the solution. I think that partnerships like these are those most likely to succeed with problems like housing that stem from a range of root causes.
And finally, there are the informal learning opportunities that come from networking with councillors from cities and towns across Canada. All that we really have in common is our jobs as members of council, and that's what we talk about. It's a chance to pick people's brains about what they have done about perennial problems like crime, downtown areas, recreational developments, managing growth, or disappearing industries. For example, I had a good conversation with the mayor of Oliver, BC, whose town was devastated when the local mine closed, but which has been revitalized by the growth of the wine industry.
If we don't take advantage of the opportunities to learn how other communities do things, we'll miss the chance to learn from both their mistakes and their successes. We'll keep on doing things the way we've always done them, because we won't have learned about recent innovations. Part of doing the job well is learning how to do the job smarter and better, and conferences like FCM are a good investment in that, both for members of council, and for the city as a whole.
"The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action." - Herbert Spencer