Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Change is as Good as a Rest

The annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) starts next weekend, and after that, we'll be starting our new council meeting process.  What this means is that we'll have fewer meetings (every other week rather than every week), but there will be less repetition between Executive and Council meetings, meaning less wasted time for both council and administration.

The current meeting format, Council meetings every other week, with Executive the week between, hasn't been in place for that long - only since my second term on council, so that means for about ten years.  Before I was on council, meetings were biweekly, and in between there were committee meetings.  So the council of the day got rid of committees such as Finance and Works and Planning, and replaced those committees with Executive, so that all members of council, in effect, were on those committees, and matters relating to those committees were discussed with all of council, rather than having committees meet, then report to council.

However, over the years, Executive Committee became almost a dress rehearsal for council, with the agenda becoming merely what was going to be coming before council the following week. In fact, it had gotten to the point where council meeting almost seemed to be a rubber stamp of what had been discussed the previous week, so motions would pass without any discussion at the meeting itself.  For several years I've been agitating for some sort of change, to make meetings less repetitious, and with the help of administration, we've managed to do that.

So starting in February, Executive meetings will be for the discussion of new initiatives, brought forth either by council or administration, or for the discussion of new or amended bylaws.  It will also be the time for approving routine expenditures that are already within the approved budget.  I'm hoping that the discussion at these meetings will be a less formal and more open exploration of options, ideas and possibilities than happens at council meetings.  The first Executive meeting will be February 9th.   Then two weeks later, on February 23rd, we'll have the first Council meeting, which will feature the standard array of motions and bylaws.

We hope that this structure will result in more efficiency, with less time spent in meetings by both council and administration.  Not only will we have half as many meetings, but administration won't have to be at all Council meetings, as they are now.  They'll only have to be present if matters related to their departments are going to be the subject of discussion.

I'm very appreciative of the efforts of the City Clerk, Sherry Person, and her staff, to take the various ideas proposed by council, and develop the new meeting structure in such a way that the legal requirements of the Cities Act are met.  Instead of spending time telling council why change was impossible, or would take years, they figured out how to make change happen.  That's the kind of initiative that I hope sets a good example for the rest of administration, which sometimes seems to spend more time coming up with excuses to avoid change, rather than figuring out how to help change happen.

I don't know if the new system will be perfect, but I've agreed to be Deputy Mayor for the first few meetings.  That means that I'll be the guinea pig in chairing the new format, but I don't mind experimenting for the sake of improvement.  After all, if I'm going to complain about the current situation, I figure I'd better be willing to step up and help to make it better.

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." - George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Myth of Choosing Your Neighbours

We have three group homes coming before council, with the public hearing piece at this week's meeting. While the opposition so far isn't as orchestrated as the protests against the proposal for Mahon Drive last fall, we've received a few emails outlining the usual fears of allowing such homes into a neighbourhood.

The proposals are for new group homes in three wards - one in Ward Three, one in Ward Five, and one in Ward Six.  One is the same proposal that was made for Mahon Drive - a supervised home for four adolescent girls, all of whom attend school and none of whom has ever been in trouble with the law.  One is for mentally challenged adults.  And one is for seniors.  I'm willing to bet that every person in Prince Albert knows at least one person who would fit in each of those groups, if they don't belong to one themselves, and I'm quite sure that they wouldn't dream of telling those individuals that they're not welcome to live in their neighbourhood. But somehow, putting the phrase group home into the equation makes it objectionable.

The standard argument made is that allowing a group home into a neighbourhood will decrease property values.  While this is said every time, it's really just a red herring - there isn't a single instance of anywhere in the city where a group home has resulted in property values decreasing.  I think that the real, unspoken reason is that people are afraid of people different from them moving in.

Many people live with the illusion that the ideal life is one where you are surrounded by people exactly like you - the ideal demographic of married couples with 2.1 children, who share your values and tastes in everything.  And yet, as soon as you read that, you realized that you know plenty of perfectly nice families that don't fit that demographic, probably including your own family, and that even your nearest and dearest don't necessarily share your values, or your likes and dislikes.  And probably your current neighbours have some habits that you wish they didn't.

Of course, an individual or family can buy a  house without having to clear it with the neighbours.  And while your current neighbours might be just dandy, they could be replaced by a family whose teen-age son is learning how to play the drums, and practises in the garage with the door open, or by a family who likes to have fire-pit parties late into the night, or by a family whose income is derived from dealing drugs, or by members of a motorcycle gang.

I'll admit - I haven't always been thrilled with some of  my neighbours' activities.  And I'm quite sure that there are probably times when they have found some of my family's activities annoying (Guthrie's junior high antics come to  mind).  But I also remember that when I was stranded up on the roof a few years ago, after a wind blew over the ladder, it was a neighbour who came to the rescue, and I'm hoping that another former neighbour still remembers when I called the police when I heard her home being broken into.

Because that's what neighbours do - they lend a hand, or help out in a pinch.  They're not necessarily people that you socialize with, but they say hi over the fence, and keep their eyes open when you're away for the weekend.  And I can't think why group home residents would be any different - if anything, it's an advantage knowing ahead of time what the neighbours will be like.

As members of council, we have to remember one basic fact - group homes exist only because there is a need.  The people who, for whatever reason, need to live in these kinds of homes are city residents with the same rights as the mythical two parent family with 2.1 children.  And we shouldn't let our knowledge of the right thing be swayed yet again by people who think that they have the right to control who their neighbours are.

"You cannot subvert your neighbour's rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own." - Carl Schurz

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Looking Ahead to the New Year

We're at the end of the Christmas holiday season, and looking forward to getting back to work in the new year.  As is the case for many people, this is a time for reflecting on the year past, and setting some targets for next year.

This was a year of family change, as Guthrie started new work outside of Saskatoon, so is only with us on weekends - it's almost an empty nest.  A great move for him, although it meant that we had to find people to feed the cats when we went away for a couple of weeks in August, something that we haven't had to worry about for several years.  Both he and Ingrid (and her cats) were home for a good stretch at Christmas, although Guthrie did have to work two days between Christmas and New Year's - it was good to have the whole family together, and it's the only time of year that it happens.  And nobody got sick, or broke an ankle - the holidays are much better when those kinds of circumstances are avoided.

My big renovation project this year was redoing the living room - tearing out lath and plaster, insulating, dry-walling, ripping up the floor, installing in-floor heating, laying new hardwood flooring, painting, and putting in a gas fireplace insert.  The traditionally chilly room is now quite comfortable, and proving to be very attractive to the cats, who love the warm floor.  It was a large project, and I'm sure there were times when Andrea wondered if I'd ever be finished, but we were able to put the furniture back in a week before Christmas.  The only piece left to be done is to get the fireplace functional - I'll need professional help for that.

Last year was a good year for council - significant progress has been made on the backlog in roads infrastructure, and we completed the budget in record time, without rushing the discussions too much.  The decision not to open the waterslides last summer, while not popular, at least effectively demonstrated what happens when infrastructure maintenance is left unfunded - hopefully we've learned the importance of counting all the costs before we jump aboard the next new facility bandwagon.

For next year, I see several areas where council can improve.  We need to seriously look at the various taxation tools that are available to us, and not just keep on doing the same thing.  The flat tax, and how it's applied, needs to be reviewed to ensure that we're treating both residents and businesses equitably.  We made a bit of progress in that area for businesses, but I know that we can do better.

We need to change the way we apply user fees for the various city facilities.  All costs, including water, should be included for all facilities when fees are set, and user fees should also include a portion that goes into a reserve fund for future maintenance needs.  Only the Rawlinson Centre has such a fund - it should be standard for all city-owned facilities.

And we shouldn't even start talking about new facilities until we have a standard financial management process for all facilities that is sound.  Any proposals for new facilities need to include operating costs up front, and how they will be funded - we can't rely on vague promises that facilities "won't cost taxpayers a cent", since those promises have proven to be broken as easily as they were made.

Our current review of all city facilities needs to continue.  I'd like to see an assessment of city-owned parking lots.  If they aren't being used (and I can't remember the last time I had difficulty finding a parking spot downtown), then we should consider getting rid of them, rather than continuing to maintain something that isn't really needed.

We do have several new staff in management positions.  Let's hope that they bring with them new ideas, new attitudes, and a willingness to try new things, plus the leadership skills that could transform how all of the administrative staff work together.

And I hope that council continues to work respectfully together, focusing on making the remaining two years of this term even more productive than the first two.

"What the new year brings to you will depend a great deal on what you bring to the new year." - Vern McLellan