I spent four days last week in Saskatoon, attending the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association, or SUMA. This happens every year during the first week of February, alternating between Regina and Saskatoon. The time is spent mostly in educational sessions, both large and small, as well as in group sessions where various resolutions are proposed and voted on, and winds up with a question and answer session with members of the provincial government.
The greatest value that I've found from SUMA over the years is the time spent networking with colleagues - informal sharing of mutual problems and possible solutions. Listening to the real-life experiences of other councillors provides ideas that tend to be much more practical than the information provided in the formal program sessions.
One of the problems with SUMA is that its members include everyone from tiny villages to the two big cities. The problems in a small community that has maybe two stop signs are going to have very little in common with a city like Saskatoon. The result of this broad range of needs is that the educational sessions tend to be very basic, in order to appeal to as many delegates as possible.
I think that a more practical solution would be to have different associations for the different sizes of communities. Having one for mid-sized cities would be ideal for Prince Albert - Regina and Saskatoon are at a different scale, and could just meet with each other. Then the small municipalities - the towns and villages - could be another. Each could then focus on problems appropriate to their size.
I also don't get much out of the bear-pit session with the provincial politicians. Anyone who thinks that the politicians available are going to provide some new surprising revelation in response to questions from the floor is rather naive. In fact, this year, the premier responded to a surprising number of questions that were directed at different ministers, which suggested to me that we were going to be sure to hear the party line.
Prince Albert did get unanimous support for its resolution on mandatory bike helmets, suggesting that most communities understand that provincial legislation is required in order to move forward on matters of this type. However, we've gotten similar support in the past, without any resulting action from the province, so I would caution against any hope that we'll see legislative change soon.
As I said, I enjoyed the time spent meeting old friends and making new ones, in the time between formal sessions. And even if the other parts of the meeting could be better, I've found there's always something useful to take away. The job of city council isn't one where there are a whole lot of learning opportunities out there, so I try to take advantage of all that I can.
"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." - Ben Franklin