Sunday, December 11, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Proposed Budget

City Council spent two full days reviewing the budget proposed by administration a couple of weeks ago.  As always, there was a massive amount of information to go through, hopefully line by line, and it's probably the toughest job of being on council, if done properly.

There are three things in the proposed budget that I find particularly objectionable.  The first is the $4,000 that has been proposed that the mayor can hand out to people that he feels deserving.  Why is this troubling?  Because it puts control in the hands of one person, without any policy guiding it.  Because it could be perceived as the chance for one member of council to buy favours, not a good thing, since we're supposed to follow policy and make decisions as a team.  And it's troubling to me that only three councillors recognized the potential problems, instead hiding behind excuses like "we have to be compassionate".

I would be in favour of having a policy developed on when and how such discretionary funds should be dispensed.  One example that was raised was someone who got a ticket for parking at Sask Polytechnic while donating blood.  It ignores the many more people who did pay for parking, but if council thinks that parking for such worthy causes should be free, then a policy could be developed to hand out free parking passes at blood donor clinics.  That would be fair, and easy to implement.  In fact, there might be many such reasons for which parking could be made available - I know that Andrea used to get passes for people attending meetings in city facilities, such as the library.  And keeping individual decisions out of the hands of members of council would remove any implications of favouritism.

The second area of concern is the idea of using reserves to pay for current operating expenses - the increase in the police budget.  Reserves are set up for specific reasons, and using them in this way has two unfortunate results.  First, it takes away money from purposes that have been identified - for building maintenance, for example, which we're already behind on.  Second, next year that reserve won't be there.  Taxes will have to be raised both to meet the current increase and the inevitable one that will be requested, and likely approved, next year.  Best to be realistic and practical about what actual costs are, and raise taxes accordingly.  I know that nobody likes to pay more taxes, but delaying the pain only makes things worse in the future, and will make dealing with emergencies more difficult in the present.  It's interesting that Saskatoon actually has a bylaw that prohibits using reserves for current operating expenses - something that Prince Albert should consider, to prevent this kind of potential abuse.

The third area is the proposed increase from the province for police services, that will be used for traffic patrols outside of town.  I would much rather direct extra dollars to where people have indicated the need is - more action on activities within town, such as increasing patrols and actions in residential areas.  That one might be more difficult, since it's coming from the province with strings attached, but I think someone on council should have raised the point.

The budget has not yet been passed, and will have to wait until January for a full quorum of council to be present.  Some may think that because the budget committee votes on the budget that it's a done deal, but that isn't so.  What can happen at the council meeting where the actual vote will happen is that council removes questionable expenditures from the budget at that time.  Council needs to remember that their job is to lead, not follow whatever administration thinks should be done.  I know that if I were there, I wouldn't support all the aspects of the budget, and would have asked more questions.

So if you have concerns, call your councillor and raise them.  That's the opportunity for every citizen, and a good chance to find out what your councillor really thinks.

"The trouble with a budget is that it's hard to fill up one hole without digging another." - Dan Bennett

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Findings from the Recount Process

I spent most of last Wednesday at the Court of Queen's Bench, participating in the recount process.  I had asked for the recount for a couple of reasons.  One was that the number of ballots considered as uncounted was greater than the difference in votes for Ward Three councillor; the other was the various concerns that I raised in my last posting that I wanted to be sure the City Clerk was aware of, and hopefully takes action on before the next election.  What I wasn't expecting was to find even more issues that should be taken care of.

The result wasn't the happy ending that I was hoping for, although the margin is now smaller, but I did think that it was a useful exercise in underlining the gaps in the process.  And people should be aware - the problems identified in the recount for Ward Three are probably similar all across the city.

Most of the ballots that were considered uncounted were unreadable by the electronic system.  What we found was that these ballots had been marked, but in the old-fashioned way, by people putting an X next to their preferred candidate.  Voting rules are that if the indication is clear, the vote must be counted, even if it wasn't marked as instructed.  Part of the problem is that people weren't instructed on the new, fill-in-the- blank oval system; part of the problem is that not everybody has the same literacy level so may not have been able to read the new instructions; and part of the problem is likely that someone who has been voting for many elections and wasn't informed of the new system would likely just continue doing it as they've always been doing.  In any case, far more detailed instructions for how to mark the ballot are essential, or else ballots should be counted by hand.  I didn't find the electronic system that much faster than hand counting on election night, so I'm not sure how much time was saved.

The judge overseeing the recount pointed out a number of security issues.  The number of ballots that came from the printer wasn't confirmed, unmarked ballots were left unsecured in boxes, the number of ballots sent to each poll wasn't confirmed, and possibly most worrisome, the deputy returning officer had pre-initialed a large number of ballots, essentially authorizing the validity of a vote on an unmarked ballot.  When asked why, the response was that it was done to save time.  One would hope that after the Mike Duffy trial pointed out the folly of authorizing something before it's actually done would have warned against this, but apparently not.  Saving time for workers should not be our main goal.  Our goal should be to have the vote count as accurate as possible, and to ensure that the process was fair for everyone - the voter as well as the candidates.  While I'm not suggesting that any wrong-doing took place, each of these errors is an opportunity for ballots to be marked after the process, and that isn't acceptable.

The result of the election is still the same, so why does this matter?  Well, I think that if someone takes the effort to go out and vote, their vote should be counted - it's that simple.  I also think that the new system works against the less fortunate in our city - those who already have fewer advantages than those who grew up writing exams electronically (like my kids).  It also works against seniors, another group in our city that deserves to have their voice heard.  We need to do everything possible to ensure that the voting playing field is level.

Having a transparent, fair voting system is the basis of democracy.  I've done what I can to raise the issues - let's just hope that the loopholes are tightened before the next election.

"It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting." - Tom Stoppard

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Voting Process - Are There Loopholes That Should be Closed?

As you may have noticed, the recent election was run differently than previous elections, due to changes in provincial legislation.  As with all new processes, these changes led to some confusion in the process, and may have left openings for voter fraud that were not intentional, but should be tightened before the next election rolls around.

The most noticeable difference was that there was no voters' list.  In previous elections, you may recall, the polling clerk had a list of voters eligible to vote in whichever poll area they resided within. The list was usually made up from the previous election, and you could always get added to it either before the election or at the polling station, provided that you had adequate identification. When you voted, the clerk used a ruler and pencil to cross you off the list.  Very low tech, but effective.  At the last election, all voters were required to provide voter identification, which helped to prevent someone walking in a claiming to be someone else, and voting in their place.

This time, with no voters' list, you had to fill out a form identifying yourself and your address, and sign it in front of the poll clerk.  The form was then put into an envelope, and not looked at again. I know, because I asked. Another change - this time you could vote at one of several polls - not just at an advance poll or the poll in your neighbourhood, but there were also two super polls.  And with no master list where your name is crossed off once you've voted, that's where the opportunity for slipping through a loophole is.

For instance, you could fill out the form, and vote at the advance poll.  There were several opportunities to do that, and nothing stopping you from voting more than once.  On election day itself, you could vote at the polls in your ward, if there were more than one, then drop in at each super poll and vote again.

When a friend of mine pointed this out to an election official the response was disappointing, if predictable - was the suggestion being made that people would cheat in an election?  I'm sure that most people won't, just as I'm sure that most people won't steal my car.  But I still lock my car, because there are those people who will, given the opportunity.

And the solution is simple - have a master voters' list, and cross off someone's name as soon as they vote.

Another issue occurred with poll clerks telling people that they lived in a different ward.  I've had more than one person tell me that they told the clerk what ward they were in, pointed on the map, and the clerk then told them that they lived in a different ward, and sent them there.  In these cases, the clerk was wrong, the individual was right, but assumed that the clerk's training was better than their own knowledge.  Which it wasn't.

And finally, the ballot itself.  For the first time, it wasn't using a pencil to make an X, it was filling out an oval by the appropriate name.  What wasn't communicated to all voters was that you had to use the pen provided at the polling station, not the one in your pocket.  I almost used the pen in my pocket, then thought that perhaps I should use the one provided, and I know that some people will automatically use their own pen as a way of avoiding germs.  This has led to an unusually high number of ballots being recorded as blank - hard to believe that someone would go to the trouble of going to a poll and then not voting.

I don't believe that any of these potential loopholes were intentional, but I know that the first time trying new processes, in this case several new tweaks to the system, is bound to show weaknesses that should be fixed.  I only hope that our elected officials review the processes, and close off the loopholes, before the next election.

"I wish I could shut up, but I can't, so I won't." - Desmond Tutu

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

After 16 years, I'm no longer representing Ward 3 on City Council.  I'm disappointed, of course.  It's like being fired.  It's as though some residents of Ward 3 said "It's not like you've done a bad job, we're just wanting a change."  Perhaps some thought that I'm past my best before date.  That's the thing about democracy - voters get to decide, which is how it should be.  I know that every defeated candidate feels that they had something valuable to offer.  And every candidate deserves kudos for being willing to put themselves out there, because as soon as you do, you become a target.

There are those who say that being on council is a thankless job.  They're wrong.  I'm quite gratified with the phone calls, emails and conversations I've had with people since last Wednesday, and before, saying thank you for my years of work, and recognizing that I always did  my best to remain true to what I see as the fundamentals of the job - standing up for the people who live in Ward 3, and trying to get more of the benefits for residents of the ward that other city residents take for granted - for example, it took seven years to get recyling bins for Ward 3, even though they were paying for them, but it finally happened.

I did have several people comment on how frustrating it must have been to deal with administration at times.  Where there are many good people at City Hall, I could never get a good explanation as to why my inquiries went unanswered for weeks, months, and in some cases years, when other members of council got much quicker service.  I could not seem to get across the message that these inquiries came from tax-payers who were having trouble getting answers, and that not answering my questions on their behalf was disrespectful to the people who pay the salaries of every individual at city hall.

Are there things that I won't miss?  Of course.  The petty politics that have nothing to do with the job would astound people I'm sure.  You would not believe how some members of council worry about where they sit in meetings - at times it seemed like kindergarten.  I won't miss pancake breakfasts - I don't like pancakes, but so many good initiatives in the community use these breakfasts as a way of increasing visibility and raising money, and as a councillor, you're invited to them all.  I won't miss the anonymous comments on local news websites -  for me, if you can't be bothered to contact me directly about your concerns, your contributions are just so much hot air.

I never minded being the only vote for or against a proposal.  My first time standing alone on a vote was in my first few months.  A group home for parolees, legal under the guidelines at the time, became an issue when neighbours found out, when a resident was accidentally dropped off at the wrong place.  The home had been in existence for more than two years with no problems, providing a service desperately needed in this community, but a council chamber full of emotional people was enough to sway the votes of everyone else.  I didn't get it, but the bylaw was soon amended, and we still turn down group home zoning if it's in the "wrong" neighbourhood - the most recent being a  home for high-school students that was turned down on the imaginary but politically correct reason of concerns about parking.  Thinking back on that original vote, how much would having secure, supervised housing for parolees help with crime rates?  You have new and returning members of council who talk about being concerned about crime in the city - will they take action, or just keep on talking.

Also in my first term on council I voted against third reading on a bylaw that would increase water rates.  That earned me a public dressing down from the mayor at the time, accusing me of costing the city money and ignoring the fact that according to the Cities Act, any member of council is free to vote against third reading of a bylaw in the first meeting.  It wasn't the last time a mayor tried to intimidate me through public shaming - fortunately I'm fairly familiar with the Cities Act, as all members of council should be (but aren't).  Sadly, council still piles increases into water bills, promising to review the proposed increases before they come to pass, but not doing so when the time comes.

I do have some suggestions for the new council - don't be afraid to stand up if you think that something stinks.  I got tired of hearing from other members of council that we should all vote together on contentious things, because then no individuals could be blamed.  Or that we should all vote together because we're a team, or because that's what the mayor wants.  As far as I'm concerned, if you see a problem, you're obligated to the people who elected you, not to covering the butts of the other people around the table, or who work for the city.  In fact, if you'll look around the room, you'll realize that none of your colleagues voted for you - they voted for themselves.

Your council colleagues are not your friends.  You should have civil relationships, but that doesn't mean that you're friends.  I'm lucky - after 16 years on council, I've had three colleagues whom I consider as friends.  Where you will make new friends is by meeting constituents through council work - I've been lucky that way too.

Stand up for what you think is right, and be ready to explain yourself.  I started this blog as a way of doing that, and I've received innumerable comments about how knowing more of the background was really helpful.

Ask the hard questions.  Too often members of council suggest that having something discussed in public might be embarrassing to individuals.  I'm sorry, embarrassment isn't one of the reasons in the Cities Act for keeping things confidential.  Again, your responsibility is to the residents of the city as a whole, and you won't be doing your job if you just let things slide, even though it might make meetings more pleasant.

Accomplishments that I'm proud of - I raised the issue of lead water service connections, and some improvement has happened.  You might not remember, but at the time other members of council called me a fear-monger, and suggested that we should wait until it was proven that lead in water was a health hazard.  Yes, sadly, there's no requirement for the mayor or councillors to be well-informed.  As I mentioned earlier, I got recycling bins in place across the city, although I wasn't done - I was still fighting for all homes to have individual bins, and not have to rely on huge dumpsters in alleys.  I raised issues at budget time that often succeeded in having proposed expenditures brought into the public view - for example, most of council was fine with having the Borealis bail-out hidden in the budget.  We still ended up losing that fight, but at least it was in the open.  I succeeded in getting a tax exemption for the Recycle Store - something that helps to build more houses through Habitat for Humanity, focused on providing affordable housing for those in lower income brackets.  This is a cause that I've supported since before my time on council, because I know that it  makes a real difference to people without a lot of resources.

Some of the calls I've had since the election have been with people second-guessing what I could have done differently.  After one such call, Andrea asked me "Would you have changed anything you did?"  And I have to say that no, considering all the factors, I still would have done the same thing.  Perhaps it comes down to what Andrea has said consistently over the last sixteen years - I'm a good councillor, but not so good as a politician.  Which is how it should be.

I appreciate all the support I received during the election - having people call and ask for lawn signs, or spend a morning hammering them in, was quite heart-warming.  My invaluable media consultant provides advice that I could never afford to pay for.  I appreciate those who were available for conversations  - having that support, from people who are still supportive after the election, is another illustration of what true friendship is.

As always, the support from my family was and is unwavering.  Ingrid helped with my first campaign - she couldn't vote, but she helped fold flyers, which got her some civic marks in her history class.  Guthrie has been able to vote for me a few times, and told Andrea that the best thing that he's learned over the past sixteen years is the importance of standing up for what you think is right.  That makes me feel good.  And Andrea, whose continuous optimism and cheerfulness balances my more pessimistic outlook, is the reason why this blog comes out free of grammar and spelling errors.

Several people have asked that the blog continue, as they value the additional information and insight that it provides.  So when an issue catches my interest, I'll post something.  Even after 317 posts, I still have things to say.  And if it helps to bring issues to light, all the better.  Just as when I was a councillor, I'll do my best for the residents of Ward 3.  After all, I still live here.

"Truth is stranger than any fiction I've seen." - Hunter S. Thompson

Sunday, October 16, 2016

It's Voting Time!

Andrea, Guthrie and I voted on Saturday morning, at the advance poll at City Hall.  We usually vote at advance polls - it gets the job done, and election day can be busy.  We were part of a small crowd, but as usual the officials were efficient at getting people through the process.

I would suggest that you download the voter registration form from the city web-page before you go - that allows you to skip a step.  This is something that wasn't as well advertised as it could have been.  I found out about it at the candidates' information session held last week, and it is in the voter brochure that went out a couple of weeks ago, but I didn't see anyone else with filled out forms while we were there.  With our filled out forms we were able to go straight to the line to get our ballots, rather than stopping at the long table to fill out the form.

The ballot is different from in past years.  Whereas before you would be handed three separate ballots - for mayor, councillor and school board - it's now all on one sheet.  And rather than marking an X, you fill in an oval by your preferred candidate, similar to filling out a multiple choice exam that's going to be marked by a computer.  After you vote the form is fed into a machine like a fax machine, confirming that you've voted.  Quite a change from making sure that the right ballot goes into the right ballot box.  This should make getting results much quicker on election night.

Voter turn-out in municipal elections is usually quite low, which I don't understand.  Civic elections are about the issues that affect your life every day - garbage pick-up, snow-plowing, ensuring that clean water goes into your house and that pipes are there to take away the water after it's been used.  Decisions made by council will affect the state of the street in front of your house, how often sidewalks are repaired, and how many police officers patrol the streets.

Perhaps the low turn-out is because the issues are so ordinary, and members of council are so accessible.  We live right here, not in Regina or Ottawa, we have no staff to organize us or prevent us from saying stupid things, and you're likely to see us in the grocery store or coffee shop, so that you can offer your opinion or ask questions in person, rather than going through communications people.

I would argue that those ordinary issues make civic elections more important to citizens on a day-to-day basis than provincial or federal elections.  Once elected, a member of council is directly responsible to his or her constituents, not to the leader of a party, and is free to vote however they wish, which means that the opinions of residents are taken into consideration with every vote.

If you still want to vote early, there are three more advance polls - next Thursday and Friday evenings, and next Saturday afternoon, all at City Hall.  If you're waiting for Election Day, the city has done a couple more things to make things easier.  Public transit is free on that day, to make it easier to get to the polls, and two super polls have been added, where voters from all wards can vote.  One is at the Art Hauser Centre, the other at the Field House.  These options might be helpful if you have to pass either on your way to or from work.

How you vote is your decision, of course, but I would suggest that substance be a bigger factor in your decision than image.  I've been on councils where image was the over-riding factor in most decisions, and that left us with a huge infrastructure deficit that we're still trying to make up for, and facilities that require increasing subsidies every year that weren't planned for.  Read all you can, ask questions of your candidates, and make your decision based on facts, not fiction.

"Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote." - George Jean Nathan

Monday, October 10, 2016

Should the City be Run Like a Business?

One of the suggestions that is often made in on-line forums is that the city should be run like a business, and to ensure that, more business people should be elected to council.  I think that, as is often the case, people are looking for a simple answer to solve complicated problems.

Unfortunately, it's just not that simple.  Businesses are owned by one or more shareholders, and their main responsibility is to return profits to their shareholders.  The city, on the other hand, is a government, and its responsibility is to provide services to residents, in return for which the residents pay taxes.  The city is responsible for things considered in the greater good, whether they are profitable or not.  For example, green spaces like parks and playgrounds are not money-makers, nor are they essential like safe drinking water, but most people would agree that they make the city a much more attractive and pleasant place to live.

With businesses, there is competition.  If I don't like the service or products or prices offered at a certain store, I'm free to go elsewhere.  Good businesses know this, and will do their best to provide good reasons for customers to patronize them, whether it be cheaper prices, unique products, or superior service.  With the city, residents have no option.  You don't like how or when your street was plowed?  You can't pick up the phone and call a competitor.  One of the big problems for the city is how to offer equitable services.  For something like snow plowing, priority routes are identified, and the crews do their best to also get to residential areas when priority areas are done, varying which residential areas get service first.  Of course, another storm will set the whole thing back to priority routes, which then results in more complaints.

The double-edged sword of offering tax incentives to attract new businesses is an idea that is being offered by some candidates.  The downside of incentives is that they provide a competitive disadvantage to current businesses - if the city offered a tax holiday to Starbucks if they took over one of the current vacant downtown storefronts, I'm sure that the many coffee shops currently operational in the city would complain loudly over the unfairness of the situation.  Council currently looks at such requests on an individual basis; I think that we should also develop some guidelines around the size of incentives as related to the benefits to the city, whether it be number of employees, potential benefit to related businesses, or other criteria.

With regard to the suggestion that we need more business people on council, you might be surprised to realize that half of the current council is made up of current or previous business owners.  Having a council made up entirely of business people would not achieve the necessary diversity of perspectives that I believe is necessary for good decision-making.  And if we want to look at history, part of the reason that some areas of the city have fewer amenities than others is that before the ward system, council was largely made up of residents of the better-off areas, leading to more money being invested in those areas than in the unrepresented areas.

For all that, I do think that there are areas where the city could be more business-like.  For one, projects could be run more efficiently.  The boondoggle that happened last year on Eighth Street, when the repaving and pipe replacement work was abandoned for paving a parking lot behind SIAST, and not completed until this year, is an example of poor planning and execution that likely wouldn't have happened with a business, where work isn't paid for until complete.

Better communication is also an area where we could learn from business.  Business owners know that you have to keep the customer informed, whether it's about new products, sales, or renovations that are going to affect accessibility.  The city just isn't that good about informing residents about what's going on, in most cases, although the information package that recently was sent to residents about the upcoming election is an exception to that, and I must congratulate the City Clerk for that effort.

Finally, I think that the city could do a far better job in providing better client service.  All too often I'm called by a resident who is trying to get information from City Hall, and they get the run-around.  I've experienced poor service myself, when the person answering the phone in Finance did not identify themselves, and became quite rude until I identified myself.  Another councillor had a similar experience this past week, trying to find out about garbage pick-up.  While I realize that not all employees lack this understanding of the importance of providing good service, I think that setting some standards for how phones are answered, and how quickly messages are responded to, would go a great distance in improving residents' experiences in dealing with problems.

As I've often said, there are no easy solutions to the problems that come up when trying to run the city efficiently and effectively.  Council needs to look at the whole range of solutions, remembering that our final obligation is to provide a wide range of services as equitably as possible to all residents.

"It's easy to make a buck.  It's a lot tougher to make a difference." - Tom Brokaw

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Questions You Should Ask Your Candidates

We're now in full election mode, with signs popping up on boulevards and lawns, ads in the paper, flyers appearing in mailboxes, and candidates knocking on doors.  Signs, of course, provide the least information about a candidate, ads slightly more, and flyers even more.  And the city website provides a brief profile provided by the candidate.  But all of these are the candidate's attempt to put forth the most favourable impression - they don't really go into too much depth.

Should you get a candidate on your doorstep, this is your opportunity to ask more in-depth questions.  Should your paths not cross (and as someone who has done a lot of door-knocking over the years, it's hard to catch people at home in these busy times), their contact information is on the city web-page, and on their flyers as well.  I would encourage you to pick up the phone or drop them an email, and ask these questions.  After all, nobody should be elected based solely on a good looking picture or a snappy sound-bite.

For starters, why are they running for council?  It's a hard job where criticism comes far more often than compliments, and like any job, some people are better suited to it than others.  Beware the candidate who is running because they have a specific interest - they need to be interested in the well-being of the city and its residents as a whole, not just one sector, particularly one that will directly benefit them.

Have they been to a council meeting?  Have they reviewed an agenda?  Do they have previous experience on boards and committees?  Do they understand that council works best when all opinions are heard with respect before decisions are made?

Did they review this year's budget?  Do they understand that council, cannot, by law, pass a deficit budget - that is a luxury only allowed higher levels of government.  To reduce the need to increase taxes, do they see areas where spending could be done more efficiently?  Do they see areas where wants took priority over needs?  How would they persuade the rest of council to get on board?

One of the biggest areas where council was criticized this year was on the bail-out of the Borealis Music Festival.  Would your candidate have supported this bail-out?  What would they have done in the earlier stages to prevent the need for such a bail-out?  We all agree that  new initiatives are needed - how can council members prevent adding additional burdens to the tax-payer?

Do they understand what falls within council's control, and what doesn't?  The unglamourous basics like infrastructure maintenance, garbage pick-up, snow removal and street sweeping are things that affect every resident, and have to be taken care of.  Much as they affect us, social issues are the responsibility of other agencies, and while we can support initiatives from these agencies, we don't drive that particular bus.  Council has to know which areas are our responsibility, and those which we can only support, and focus on the fundamentals that are within our control.

The police budget takes up more than one-third of our expenditures.  What are their ideas for using these funds more efficiently?  Do they understand that there are no quick fixes, but taking a stronger stand on bylaw enforcement for rental properties, for example, would actually help to resolve some of the underlying issues behind high crime rates.

Most council decisions require balancing different needs against resources.  We cannot give tax concessions to one group, for example, without finding revenues from somewhere else.  How would they find this balance?

And finally, and probably most importantly, do they act with integrity?  Do their actions match their words, both now and in the past?  In all three elections in the past year we've seen candidates embarrassed by things that they've posted on social media that don't match what they're saying now.  If this is the case, do they have an explanation?

Your responsibility as a voter is to make the best decision possible, and you can't do that without finding out what your candidate really thinks.  Don't be deterred by platitudes; if they won't give you a straight answer, then they don't deserve your vote.

"There is no stupid question; stupid people don't ask questions." - Anonymous

Monday, September 26, 2016

Communications - That Vital Step that is So Often Screwed Up

The recently cancelled Hydraulic Flushing Program is yet another example about how the city thinks that it's doing a good job of communicating about something, but falls short in the details.

This is something that hasn't been done before - flushing all of the water pipes in the city to remove dirt and build-up, so that water can run more easily, and more cleanly.

Rather than doing a trial run, the program was announced with great fanfare, and a letter was sent to all residents.  Communications glitch number 1 - I don't know what was in your letter, but the letter that came to my house referred to an enclosed pamphlet for more detail.  Unfortunately, there was no enclosed pamphlet in the letter that came to my house.

Notice of when the program was to be in your area was to be given to each household 24 hours in advance, advising that the next day pipes would be flushed between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and that water was not to be used during these 12 hours.

Problems were evident from the start of the program, which began on the West Flat.  Someone involved turned a valve the wrong way, with the result that water was turned off, to several homes, without any warning.  This meant that residents had no chance to stock up on water for any purpose.  When the water came back on, it came with a boil water advisory - again, no chance to stock up on water for drinking or cooking.  After a number of phone calls and emails from the councillor for the area, the cause of the problem was identified, along with a promise that it wouldn't happen again.

Well, it did.  On Friday, September 16, I got a phone call from a resident in the 100 block of 10th Street East - their water was off, with no warning, and he couldn't get through to City Hall to find out why.  It turned out that the same thing had happened - a worker had turned a valve the wrong way.  For several residents, that meant no water, without any warning.  I then started getting calls from residents on 8th Street - same thing, no water, no warning.

Late that afternoon, Andrea and I were enjoying the warm afternoon on our deck.  I went to the front of the house to check something, and on my way back, I saw a yellow door knocker, which had been blown off and landed on a corner of the deck.  It was pure luck that I saw it.

The message on it wasn't exactly clear.  The next day's date, Sept. 17/16 was written in ink at the top, then the generic notice was printed below - that this was 24 hour notice, that the hydraulic flushing program was now in our area, and that we were advised not to use water during the 12 hours, from 7 until 7, until flushing was complete.

What wasn't clear was exactly when the flushing was to happen.  The 17th was a Saturday, and the program was only supposed to run on weekdays.  On the other hand, perhaps they were trying to make up for lost time.  The notice would have been much more informative had it said something like "Flushing will occur in your block on this date."  In any case, we set aside some water for drinking and cooking, and the next day minimized our use of water.  Late in the day, we once again were enjoying the sun on our deck, when I saw a worker on the avenue turning a valve.  I asked him if the flushing was complete; he responded that they hadn't started on our block yet, but it would probably happen on Monday.

Earlier than day, on my way to the Farmers' Market, I had seen a notice tucked into the door of a closed business in the 100 block of 10th Street.  This one was even more confusing - the original date on it was September 18, but over the 18, 16 had been written.  If I had been the recipient of that notice, I would have been even more confused.

On Monday we did the same minimizing water use - I didn't even shower or change into a suit for the council meeting, where I raised my concerns about how the whole program was being carried out, particularly the lack of notice or information to the people whose water was turned off.  And I asked that for those residents who were under a boil water advisory, that testing of those areas be prioritized so that they would be inconvenienced for as short a time as possible.

The next day, city administration announced the suspension of the program.  Originally they said that it was because winter was coming (like they didn't know that when the program was announced); later the city manager admitted that they hadn't communicated things well, and that problems had happened.  No apology to the residents.

I hope that we've learned from this that when we're going to try something new, we should do a small test run first.  If a problem like someone turning a valve the wrong way happens, increase checks so that it doesn't happen again.  Make notification of residents clear, and timely, and when something goes wrong, let them know as quickly as possible, and even make a gesture like providing bottled water.  Such actions would go a long way in convincing residents that we take our responsibilities of providing such basic services as clean water seriously, and when something goes wrong, we will do our best to make it right.

And good communication is a key part of this.  Council just approved the hiring of a second communications person (I did not agree with this, as I don't think we should be adding positions without seriously considering whether the position is truly needed, and if it is, then let's have an open competition).  Let's hope that at the very least, we develop better processes for communicating with residents.

"The single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Once More Into the Breach

I filed my papers for the election this past week.  While others announced their intentions weeks, even months ago, I like to take my time before making the decision.  It's making a commitment for the next four years, and there are a lot of factors to take into consideration.  But after much discussion with family and friends, and many inquiries and much encouragement from Ward 3 residents, I decided that I still have a great deal to offer.  More than one Ward 3 resident, in encouraging me to run, said that council needs more people like me, who aren't afraid to ask the hard questions.  If I don't run, then that's one less person.

My objective in being on council is the same today as it was when I first ran - to make Ward 3, and Prince Albert, a better place to live.  Substandard housing, increasing crime rates, aging infrastructure and inequitable distribution of recreational amenities across the city are all issues that are not solved quickly, but I can look at various actions that I've encouraged during my time on council that have made a difference, and I continue to look at new and better ways of doing things.

A frequent refrain in the comments section on local media is that a whole new council is needed.  In my experience, what usually happens is that we get a mix of new councillors and veterans, and that works well.  Too many new faces means that there is greater reliance on administration making decisions, and people should remember that administration wasn't elected.  A couple of council terms ago that ended up with the police budget being withheld from council, and it took a couple of years to pry the details loose so that all of council could see how more than a third of our budget was spent.  It's helpful to have veterans on council in those situations, particularly people like me who aren't afraid to call bull puckies when appropriate.

Many candidates talk about grandiose projects that they would like to see - a new arena has been mentioned, and of course a second bridge is a perennial goal.  I prefer to see council focus on fundamentals - replacing century-old pipes, as was done last summer during the Big Dig project, may not be sexy, but these are the necessities to keep water running.  Maintaining infrastructure, which has been a focus of this last term of council has the added advantage of not adding to our ongoing financial responsibilities, unlike some of the big ticket items that previous councils felt were the best use of tax-payers' money, and have left us with new ongoing costs that weren't discussed when the projects were first proposed.

There is also the misconception that new people are needed on council to provide new ideas - in fact, many new candidates will say that very thing, without providing examples of what these new ideas might be.  I would say that anyone, no matter how long they've been on council, has the ability to generate new ideas.  Just last week I suggested to the deputy police chief that doing patrols down back alleys might be a more effective way of discouraging crime than driving along the streets, because the back alleys are where people trying to avoid being seen tend to gather.  He hadn't thought of deploying forces that way, and couldn't see why police couldn't start doing that.  A new way of doing something, without any increase in expenditure required - to me that's the kind of new idea that's needed.

I would also caution people that just because an idea is new, doesn't mean that it's good, or that further scrutiny isn't required.  Think of the Borealis Music Festival, where  my questions about the budget were ignored, and which ended up costing tax-payers over $100,000, counting the original support plus the bail-out.  A new idea, but not an idea that was well-thought-out.

I often say that being on council is the only job where you have to reapply every few years.  But that's how democracy works.  I only hope that my hard work over the past 16 years is appreciated by the residents of Ward 3, and that they put their confidence in my ability to do the job once more.

"Regardless of who wins, an election should be a time for optimism and fresh approaches." - Gary Johnson

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Crime Reduction - Is There a Magic Wand?

In any survey, including the community meetings held over the last year, the number one issue that comes up is the need to reduce crime in the community. For me personally, it comes up in phone calls, and in conversations with people who see me downtown or at the grocery store, or who drop by for a visit.  It's a no-brainer, really, people want to feel safe where they live, they want to feel comfortable in their yards, they want to feel safe when they're out in the community, they want to feel safe in parks and playgrounds.  And I share their concerns - I too want to live in a safe neighbourhood.

I don't know anyone on council who hasn't wrestled with this issue.  It's one of the reasons why the single biggest expenditure in the budget is for police services - it's a priority, and we emphasize that priority by allocating financial resources accordingly.  We've also invested in longer term initiatives like the Hub project, which tries to coordinate efforts at preventative levels.  Unfortunately, longer term initiatives like the Hub take longer to show results, and people want problems to be fixed now.

I was interested in the Saskatoon police chief's comments following the release a few weeks ago of national crime statistics, when once again Saskatchewan communities ranked at the top - one of the lists no city wants to be at the top of.  He said that the underlying causes of crimes are poverty, racism and poor housing - all problems that can't be solved by more boots on the ground.

These are also problems that point more toward dealing with situations before a crime has actually happened, not afterward, and they are problems that require the entire community to take action.  It's only common sense that putting more effort into prevention rather than punishment will pay greater dividends.

Of these three areas, poverty and racism are outside the scope of city council.  However, the third, poor housing, is something that council has some control of.  I've been advocating for improved housing standards for as long as I've been on council, even trying to coordinate such basics as placarding houses as unfit to live in where the water has been turned off, so that these houses are not available as rentals.  I've also advocated for a landlord registry, and for quicker action against derelict properties.  Again, these are not quick solutions, since we are often restricted by court proceedings, but I think that there are many situations where council could be less forgiving, and set our expectations higher.  I've also suggested that we look into incentive programs to develop vacant lots within current neighbourhoods - these are lots that are already serviced, and everyone would benefit by encouraging new housing on what can otherwise be an eyesore in an area.  You can see the positive results in any Habitat for Humanity home.

To answer my original, and somewhat rhetorical question - of course there is no magic wand.  But we, the community as a whole, need to look at the whole scope of the problem, look at a wider scope of potential solutions, and do something wherever we can, not just with empty promises, but with real action.

"Prevention is a whole lot less costly than treatment, and maybe more effective." - Debbie Adair

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Exceptions for Some, But Not for Others

City Council is a funny group.  Not the laughing type of funny, the hard to explain kind of funny.

One of the things that demonstrates this is its willingness to give some people breaks, but not others.  The people who get the breaks - usually the ones with more resources than your average individual.  The people who don't - usually those who are already disadvantaged.

This came up at the last council meeting, where we had a resident who had received a water bill of more than $6,000, that the resident does not have the resources to pay.

Now there is fault on both sides.  The resident had had a water leak in the basement that caused part of the problem, which they neglected.  But the city also bears some responsibility.  Administration is supposed to note when a water bill is unreasonably high, and notify the resident - this did not happen.  As well, if we were billing monthly, presumably the problem would have been identified when the bill was only a third the size that it ended up being.

And billing is supposed to happen monthly.  In May 2013, council voted to start monthly billing for water starting in 2014.  More than two years later, and billing is still done quarterly, with no explanation from administration as to why they didn't follow council's direction.

You may not be aware that only half your water bill is for actual consumption - the remainder is for infrastructure and sewer charges.  Administration proposed removing these charges from the bill, which would reduce it by half. Unfortunately, that amount is also unaffordable for the resident.  The amount that was offered was $300.  The motion to accept this offer was defeated.

This is a council that thought that the right thing to do for businesses who got stiffed by the Borealis Music Festival was to give them $82,000 to pay off their debts, over and above the $30,000 in cash and in-kind support that we'd already given them, despite their wildly unrealistic expectations.  And this was after nobody responsible came to council to explain why they should be bailed out.

And while this resident had to make her plea in public, if a business wants to argue to have its taxes reduced, they get to do that in camera, so the public doesn't know.  And if they don't pay their taxes, it isn't made public, even though the amounts owing make $6,000 look like pocket change.  These are businesses, who can deduct such expenses from their earnings - residents have no such backstop for their water bills.

In my opinion, we'd get far more bang for our buck if we would spend more time chasing the big tax evaders, rather than going after the little people who have few if any resources to fight City Hall.

Council has spent quite a bit of time developing a strategic plan.  One of the operational themes of this plan that is supposed to guide our approach to operations and projects is that we are compassionate - the exact quote is "Understanding that the services we provide are valued, and understanding the needs and challenges of the end user and working to make their experience positive."  I'd say that we missed the mark on this one.

I don't like exceptions, but I understand that sometimes there is no other practical solution.  Let's stop going after the little guy so relentlessly, and put some of that same effort into collecting from the big guys.

"Most bad luck is the misfortune of not being an exception." - Mason Cooley

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Is There a Place for Party Politics at City Council?

One of the things that I like best about being on City Council is the fact that I'm independent - nobody tells me how to vote (or at least, not successfully), I'm free to express my own opinions, and there's no party line that I have to follow or support publicly.

Now I realize that at higher levels of government, provincial or federal, some sort of organization is necessary to coordinate direction, and that without political parties, trying to run a large government would be like herding cats.  The downside to that is the expression of individual opinions at that level is discouraged, and straying from the party line, especially in voting, is usually punished.  So while constituents elect their representatives, once elected, the constituents become less important to their representative than the party leader.

But in such a small group as council, nine individuals, we don't need to be divided into groups to ensure that we don't go madly off in all (or nine) directions.  Each member of council is free to form their own opinions, express their own ideas, and be influenced by others' good suggestions.  In fact, what can happen is that an idea, after open discussion, can morph into an even better idea that can get support from all members of council.  Of course, we all tend to one or the other side of the spectrum, but it's best when we can meet in the middle and come up with a solution that is best for the city, not for one political party or another.

Now, I understand that for some people on council, as for many individuals, they have firm beliefs that align with a particular political party, and they extend their support to being members, sometimes quite active, of whatever party they wish.  I'm not disagreeing with their right to do this, in fact, I've belonged to different parties over the years, usually after being asked by a friend to support them in a nomination battle.  But I decided a few years ago that tying myself to a particular party line wasn't the best way to represent Ward Three, so I no longer hold membership in any party.  Each party has ideas that I can support - this way I'm free to select what I see as the best option, without feeling that I should support a particular stance because I'm a party member.  It also means that I'm free to speak up about anything that I disagree with - open criticism is the first step in changing things.

Another reason for not belonging to a particular party is that, as a council, we have to be able to work with higher levels of government, no matter what the political stripe of the party in power.  We don't need additional artificial barriers to conversations that might block positive discussions because of misconceptions about where we stand on various issues.  One of the things that members of the public often say is that we need more cooperation, focusing on what we have in common, rather than holding fast to opinions based on what the party has decided.

One of the odd things that I've noticed is that sometimes, when we've had a vote at council that was unanimously supported, after the meeting, a council member or  two will disavow their support for the vote that they just made, perhaps because it didn't match the direction made by the party that they belong to.  Why they felt the need to vote with council, then try to take it back, is a mystery to me.  I think that in every vote, each council member should vote for what they believe is the best option, not try to sit on the fence in a vain effort to please everybody.

I know that some members of council will disagree with me on this - that's fine, they too are entitled to their opinions.  But over the years I've had many constituents tell me that they appreciate that I'm not afraid to speak up and ask questions, and that they value the fact that I stand behind my own opinions.  Frankly, I work for those constituents, not for any other member of council, or any political party.

"The most courageous act is still to think for yourself.  Out loud." - Coco Chanel

Monday, August 1, 2016

Can We Learn Anything from the Water Crisis?

Into our second week of dealing with water restrictions, what longer term thinking could this difficult situation inspire?

First, it's a classic example of how needs and wants differ.  One of the basic services that the city provides to its residents, safe drinking water, was put in jeopardy through circumstances totally beyond our control.  I want to commend the city staff who wasted no time in getting on top of the problem, figuring out potential solutions, and communicating with residents.  Last weekend was a constant stream of phone calls from residents wondering mostly about whether the water was safe to drink; once the information flyer was delivered on Monday, those calls have decreased considerably.

Clean drinking water is a need.  Other water uses have been identified as wants, and actions taken accordingly.  Residents have certainly responded positively in reducing their discretionary use of water - I know that we're not the only family who has cut back on showers, laundry, and toilet flushing, and who stockpiled water that we're using for cooking and making coffee.  This kind of community support has proven invaluable in stretching out our available water reserves.

But the emergency has also pointed out that our reserve capacity may be lower than it should be.  Perhaps, instead of building more facilities that use water, we should look at investing in more reserve capacity.  It's not just our growing population that we need consider, but our commercial arrangements with surrounding RMs also need to be considered - have we increased our capacity to match these growing needs?

We also need to consider the wisdom of allowing city facilities to use water without paying for it.  As far as I'm concerned, the cost of water should be included when user fees are calculated; right now, they aren't, meaning that tax payers are subsidizing recreational users.  I find it interesting that when the golf course couldn't use potable water for irrigation, they managed to find a solution by accessing non-treated water.  Perhaps, instead of investing $2 million in a new irrigation system that will continue to use potable water to keep the greens nice, we should be looking into a system that doesn't use our most expensive water for what is definitely a want, not a need.

At present, we don't know when things will get back to normal.  Temporary solutions, which will lessen the pressure on our reserves, appear to be close, but these solutions are only temporary.  It will be important, over the next weeks and months, to continue to be careful in our water usage.  And it will be just as important, when we are able to once again use water directly from the river, to think about changes that we can make, to reduce the impact of future situations, not just go back to business as usual.

"You don't miss the water till the well runs dry." - Anonymous

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Getting Information Before We Make a Decision - Now There's a Concept

For about ten years now (it dates back to the previous mayor), the city has picked up green waste from the back of people's homes.  The principle of green waste pick-up is sound, as it reduces the amount of recyclable material going to the landfill, but the way we do it has always seemed inefficient to me.  Waste is either in clear plastic bags or, in the case of branches, bundled.  It's picked up by three guys in a 5 ton rear-loading garbage truck.  While residents are asked to put it out on the same day as their recycling day, it may or may not get picked up that day. And for those who still have large communal bins, they have no scheduled pick-up day.  Often, to make up for being badly behind schedule, pick up is done on the weekend, with overtime being paid to the three guys on the truck.  When the program started, there was another individual out at the landfill, whose job was to slit and empty the bags of waste; now the bags are slit and emptied at pick up, but I'm not sure how or where the plastic is disposed of.  And, of course, not everyone uses the program - people still put green waste in with their garbage, because it's easier.

When this would come up as part of the sanitation budget every year, I would ask for the cost, and suggest that this could be a service that we could cut to reduce costs.  The answer was always that it cost $100,000 a year, but we were never given details.  Another block to even considering change is that some members of council are reluctant to reduce services, even those that are only used by a minority of residents.

Then a few years back, I found out that Saskatoon offers a green waste recycling program, Green Cart, that is a subscription service.  It uses the same automated trucks that we use for the roll-out garbage and recycling bins (which have one operator rather than three), and picks up both yard and food waste in green bins.  Waste does not have to be bagged, which saves residents the cost of bags, and the city the costs of  removing the bags or unbundling the branches.  The program operates from early May until early November, and costs interested residents $55 per year.  For those not interested, there's no cost.  To me it seems like a good solution - subscribers pay less than $10 a month, and the program runs more efficiently because the trucks know exactly where to go.  That's got to save time and money over three guys in a truck going down every alley and street, looking for bags and bundles that may or may not be there.

A further impending cost of the current program is the need to upgrade the composting building at the landfill.  This is where the waste is taken and mixed with sludge, with the resulting mixture used as overlay for the landfill.  The equipment within this building, fans and such, is reaching the end of its lifespan, and it will be helpful to find out if there are cheaper alternatives.

Fortunately, I finally got unanimous support from my colleagues at last week's Executive Committee meeting.  We have directed administration to prepare a report on the costs of the current program, and the costs of changing to something like the Green Cart program.  And we've asked for this report to be presented to us by the end of September, as so often reports are requested without a target date, which means that it can be months or years before a report is presented.  So we haven't decided to make a change; we've decided to get the information needed before deciding whether to make a change.

I'm looking forward to seeing this report, which hopefully will contain better information than we've been given so far.  I find it hard to believe that the costs of our current program have held steady at $100,000 per year for the last several years - it would be the only city program I'm aware of where costs haven't increased over the years.  Once council has the report, we'll be able to make a decision made on facts and information, not on emotion.  If we do move to a subscriber program, that means the costs will be borne by the users, not by all residents, and I would hope that the savings would be reflected in the sanitation budget.  That would bring some fairness into a system that too often makes everyone subsidize programs utilized by a few.

"In the absence of information, we jump to the worst conclusions." - Myra Kassim

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Ongoing Quest for Diversity

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Maclean's magazine - I assume my colleagues did as well.  The magazine is working on something about diversity, or the lack of it, on city councils, and wanted to confirm that Prince Albert City Council is like most other city councils - largely made up of white males.  They identified me as a white male, asked me to correct this if it was wrong, and asked if I had any thoughts on how to correct the imbalance.

They weren't wrong, obviously; I am a white male.  And so are most of the other members of council.  And I'm not sure how to fix the visible imbalances, or even if that should be the only objective - to be able to look at a picture of council and say that, yes, it contains the correct proportion of gender and race balance.

To me, it's also important to ensure that council has a diversity of perspectives.  It's not really diverse if everyone at the table represents the same viewpoint, and votes as one.  There are some members of council who think that's how it should be - at least one councillor thinks that council should vote the same way that the mayor does, since he's supposedly the boss (he's not, of course), and another councillor who believes that if everyone votes the same way, then nobody can be blamed for bad decisions.  That's not diversity; that's behaving as if council was just a big rubber stamp.

I believe one of the factors that has led to more diversity on council is the ward system.  When council was elected city-wide, most councillors and mayors came from the higher income areas of the city.  Not surprising - it takes a lot of money to run a campaign across the city, and to get the name recognition that is essential to getting elected.  It's much easier and more affordable to get your message out across a ward.  And while it isn't required that you actually be a resident in the ward in which you run, I believe that it's most effective to be represented by someone who lives in the ward, who can truly appreciate the issues that residents of a ward have to deal with every day.  And for the most part, that is the case in Prince Albert.

Of course, there are other roadblocks to achieving council diversity.  One is that many people just aren't interested in the job, for a number of reasons.  One of the reasons that I hear most often is the level of public abuse that seems to go along with the job - people just aren't prepared to have their decisions, and often their motives, subject to all sorts of insults and insinuations from people who don't even bother to call to get your side of the story.

The time required to do a good job is also a factor for many people - if you have a full-time job, a family, and other commitments or interests, finding the appropriate balance is difficult.  I'm betting you could ask any member of council and get good examples of times when council commitments meant that they had to miss something else important.

And, like most governments, council decisions are not made as fast as some people would like, which can be seen as frustrating to those watching.  We have processes that have to be followed, budgets that limit how much we can do, and we have to work with others - not nearly as fast as working alone, but I believe that it leads to better decisions.

A few years ago I was at a housing committee meeting when one of the members said to me "You need to understand; there are two Prince Alberts - a rich one and a poor one.  And the rich one gets to make most of the decisions."  That's where we need to ensure diversity - to ensure that our decisions lessen the differences between low and high income areas.  But we don't have that diversity of perspectives on council now.  We have members of council who think that it's quite reasonable to budget $2 million for golf course irrigation rather than replacing lead water service connections.

I don't know a fast way to get that diversity of perspectives on council while maintaining the principles of democracy (we can't tell people how to vote), but I try - by asking questions, by pointing out the ways that we spend money subsidizing facilities that are used by only a small proportion of city residents, and by advocating for more equitable distribution of amenities like green spaces.  I may be a white male, but I try to represent the diversity of my constituents the best I can.

"One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak." - Gloria Steinem

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Finishing - the Most Important Part of the Job

At Monday's Executive Committee meeting we were given a list of infrastructure projects that are supposedly complete, including some in my ward.  Unfortunately, administration's idea of what complete means and mine (and the residents who are directly affected) differ.

As an example, the 200 block of Ninth Street East is on the complete list.  This is one of the blocks that was started in the spring of last year, then left in August when the crews were pulled off to pave the parking lot behind SIAST, and they did not return, leaving residents to deal with an unpaved street and no sidewalks throughout the fall, winter and spring.

The work is not yet complete.  On the north side of the street, cement work between the sidewalk and residential walks has not been finished.  And on both sides of the street, broken cement and other debris remains, and boulevards still need soil, levelling and seeding.  How anyone could consider this job complete is beyond my understanding.

I pointed this out, and asked what the timetable was for completing this work.  Apparently, there is  none.

Part of the problem is that the construction piece - the road and sidewalk work - is the responsibility of the engineering department.  The final boulevard completion is the responsibility of parks and rec, which always seem to be behind schedule.  I'm not sure why engineering doesn't finish what is started, and it's even less clear to me why the two departments don't communicate better as to where they are on projects.

And more to the point, I don't know why all of this work isn't scheduled and coordinated between departments.  I realize that things like the weather can wreak havoc with the best plans (I'm waiting for a stretch of good weather so that I can do some reshingling), but that doesn't mean that all attempts at planning should be abandoned.  And it certainly doesn't mean that misleading reports should be presented to council, in the hopes that we'll think that things are going better than they are.

This has got to be one of the greatest frustrations to me in my work as a councillor.  I get many calls and questions from residents as to when they can expect this work to be done, and I'm unable to give them an answer that I have any confidence in.  Administration needs to do a better job, so that members of council can do a better job, so that residents can feel that they're getting decent value for their tax dollar.  Until that happens, my only choice is to keep asking the embarrassing questions, and hoping for better answers.

"Stopping at third base adds no more to the score than striking out.  It doesn't matter how well you start if you fail to finish." - Billy Sunday

Monday, July 4, 2016

Why Leaving Wapiti is the Right Thing for Prince Albert to Do

At the council meeting last week, I made the motion that the John M Cuelenaere Public Library (JMC) leave the Wapiti Regional Library, and become instead a city library, like Regina and Saskatoon.  The motion was supported unanimously.  While I'm not currently on the library board, I was chair of the board for many years and represented the city on the Wapiti board.  And I still enjoy good conversations with the current library director about how things could work better, and how being part of Wapiti was hampering many of the innovations that JMC would like to try.

Wapiti has been around for many, many years, and when first established was instrumental in bringing libraries and their multiple benefits to many smaller communities.  I appreciate the values that having a library brings to any community, big or small, and the regional structure allows the smaller branches access to services that they otherwise couldn't afford.  It has member branches from the Manitoba border to Leoville, north to Paddockwood, and south to Humboldt - a large geographic area to try to serve efficiently.

Wapiti provided centralized financial, computer and purchasing services.  However, the governance structure, in which each of the forty-six members was represented, definitely gave the bulk of the benefits to the smaller communities, while assessing taxpayers in those communities a far lower rate than taxpayers living in Prince Albert.

For those of us who enjoy the broad range of services at JMC, you would probably be surprised to find that the Candle Lake Paperback Deposit is a member of Wapiti, even though it is open only 3 afternoons a week in the Rec Hall.  The Gronlid Library, another member, is open two days a week, in the school.  The only library that comes close to providing the hours of service that we get at JMC is Humboldt, which is open six full days a week.  JMC, of course, is open seven days a week, except during the summer, when it closes on Sundays.

JMC has the internal capacity to provide the services that Wapiti provides, and will now have control over its financial reserves.  It will also now be able to pursue initiatives more important to city residents, such as considering more branches within the city, to improve services to all residents.  It is unlikely that leaving Wapiti will cost Prince Albert residents more; rather, local services will likely improve.

The issues of working within the Wapiti structure have been well-known to those on the library board for many years.  I think that the time is now right for JMC to be able to focus on the needs of Prince Albert, not get in line with forty-six other branches, while subsidizing their needs because those communities feel that they can't afford to pay comparable fees.

I don't dispute the value of a library to any community.  I do, however, think that our responsibility, as City Council, is to ensure that we make decisions in the best interests of our city, not for the many people who do not live here.

"A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.  It is a never-failing spring in the desert." - Andrew Carnegie

Sunday, June 26, 2016

So You're Thinking About Running for Council

As happens during an election year, people have been declaring their intentions to run for office over the past several months.  We have three people who have declared that they're running for mayor, and another who has rented space on Central Avenue but has yet to formally declare, and several people, both new and incumbent, who have announced their interest in becoming a councillor.

I'm still thinking about it - it's not a decision that I make lightly, and I consider all of the factors before I declare my intentions.

If you are thinking about adding your name to the list of candidates, here are a few things that you should know.

First, the time required to do a good job is more than you think it will be.  The visible hours, those spent in Council and Executive Committee meetings, are the barest tip of the iceberg.  Just reading through the information provided for each meeting takes several hours, more if you need to make notes for questions.  And that doesn't include the time spent for committee meetings, not all of which are in town, which requires additional travel time.

That's just the meeting requirements.  When you're on council, people can and do approach you anywhere, anytime.  I can't go for coffee or to the grocery store without having someone stop me to talk about some city issue.  I don't mind at all, but if you don't like talking to people who may or may not agree with your viewpoint, then this isn't the job for you.  Most times people are pleasant, but there's the occasional jerk who thinks that they have the right to verbally abuse you for a stance that you've taken - you just can't let that kind of person get to you.

If you're married, you'd better be sure that your spouse is on-side.  They're the ones who end up taking phone messages if you're not home, and often have to listen to the whole story behind the question before getting a name and number.  And you won't be around for as many meals as before - both Council and Executive meetings run over the supper hour, and one is often asked to appear at dinner functions for other organizations - more family time that you can never get back.  And you'll have to have some kind of work space in your home - only the mayor gets his own office.  Councillors have to make do on their own, although you do get one drawer in a filing cabinet in the Councillors' Lounge.

That's just an outline of the time required.  The truly hard part is the decision-making.  No matter how you vote, there will be people who disagree with you.  The surest way to do a bad job is to try to make everybody happy - it can't be done, so don't even try.  The only way to do the job right is to make up your own mind according to the best information available, and vote accordingly.

And be aware of the limitations to what you can do.  I'm always surprised at the things people say that they want to make happen at the council level - so far with those running we've had people suggest everything from revitalizing the forest industry to bringing in Costco to increasing some sort of unspecified economic development to the ever-popular building a second bridge.  Unfortunately, all of those suggestions are outside Council's capabilities.  Businesses and industry make their decisions based on far more factors than a welcoming Council, and a second bridge requires the active financial participation of other levels of government - past petitioning efforts have gotten us nowhere.

But there's lots that Council does control, even though most of it isn't very glamorous.  But it's important - Council is responsible for getting your garbage picked up and disposed of, for getting your street ploughed in the winter and swept in the spring, for getting water going into your house and taken away, for getting potholes repaired and water pipes replaced, for getting your back alley graded and that derelict house down the street demolished.  Most of these things are set during the budget process - that's when we set priorities and spending plans for the coming year, and that's when hard decisions have to be made, because nobody wants to see their taxes go up, but everybody wants better and faster services.  And as a councillor, you often have to help constituents find their way through the bureaucratic maze that is city administration, in order to get their questions answered or to raise an issue.

So what sort of qualities should an aspiring councillor have?  The capacity for hard work, a thick skin for the inevitable insults from those who are sure they know the job better than you do, the patience to listen to other members of council, and the ability to look at all sides of an issue before making a decision.  If you've had experience working with others on committees with a limited amount of money, that experience will serve you well.  You should be able to base your decisions on what is best for the city as a whole, not just for you and your particular interest.

You should also, and probably most importantly, be able to speak up and ask questions.  Too many foolish decisions have been made by this current and previous councils because people were afraid to speak up, were afraid to ask (and were discouraged from asking) important questions, and were afraid of looking negative by saying no.  We have bound ourselves, and our citizens, into commitments to support various facilities without first considering whether such facilities were affordable.  If only a few more councillors had spoken up about spending decisions both big and small, we would not have the backlog of infrastructure maintenance and repairs that we've had to impose a flat tax to pay for, to mention just one area of essential spending.

Think that you've got what it takes?  One more suggestion - come to a Council meeting, just to see how it works.  Then think about whether you're willing to commit to four years of one of those meetings every two weeks, plus Executive meetings every other week.  If you think about it, and are still willing to give it a shot, good luck to you.  This city needs all the hard-working, sensible thinking people that it can get to ensure that the best decisions are made.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

FCM Findings

Along with four other councillors, I spent last weekend in Winnipeg, at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting.  These are large meetings, attended by mayors and councillors from towns and cities from across Canada, with multiple concurrent sessions, tours, and a trade show featuring new products and ideas.

This year I found many good ideas at the trade show.  One that I think would be useful as we're rejuvenating Kinsmen Park after years of neglect, is a new type of barbecue surface.  This surface can be fueled by propane, natural gas or electricity, and has many positive aspects.  For one, no wood is required, which means no clean up of coals and ashes.  Because there is no open flame, there is no risk of fire, so these would be usable during fire bans.  I think that this is an option that our parks people should investigate - I know that many families like to barbecue at the park, and this would make it easier and safer.

I saw a couple of examples of rebar that are meant for corrosive environments - one type was made of fibreglass, the other of galvanized material.  Considering the amount of time and expense that have been required to repair the bridge and various overpasses, using products that last longer only makes sense to me.

Since we still have gravel roads, and administration is still oiling them (despite direction from council to stop), seeing non-oil products that control dust without polluting our water system was encouraging.

For all of these products, I'll be passing the information along to administration - I hope that they follow up.

We toured Winnipeg's flood mitigation system, which they've had to make use of.  Interestingly, even with their recent history of serious flooding, their flood plain is based on a 1 in 200 year flood risk, unlike the 1 in 500 year risk that our provincial government thinks that we should follow.  Even at that, their mitigation system cost more that $1 million - a major investment.

We also got to listen to federal politicians, who recognize the importance of city governance in carrying out their various plans.  The prime minister, for example, spoke about the proposed infrastructure program and its priorities, so that we have a better understanding of how to take advantage of funding opportunities.

As I said, this is a large conference, with multiple learning opportunities - far more than could be taken in if only one or two members of council attended.  I always learn at these conferences, and I appreciate any opportunity to learn how to do my job better, whether by saving money, or solving long-term problems.  I'm sure that my fellow attendees feel the same.

"Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandela

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Should Convenience Trump Fairness?

A contingent of seniors came to Executive Committee last week, to bolster a letter that had been sent by one of their representatives.  What prompted the letter was a decision made by Council a few weeks ago about the polls that will be set for this fall's municipal election.

It started when the City Clerk brought a proposal for where polling stations should be to Council several weeks ago.  The proposal removed one polling station from each of Wards One, Three and Four, leaving those wards with just one poll each, and reduced the special polling stations from the high rises in Ward Two from three to two, meaning that Ward Two would have four polls.  The other wards remained the same, at two polling stations each.

This first proposal was discussed at length, with some of us wondering what the criteria are for the special polls in high rises.  It turns out that there aren't any - these polls were set up many years ago, as a convenience for the residents of those buildings, most of whom are seniors.

I want to be clear that we aren't talking about care homes here.  The people who live in the buildings that are used to this convenience are all living independently, able to get about on their own - each building has its own parking lot, which implies a certain mobility.  But there are many buildings like this all over the city, where we expect the seniors to be able to get out to vote - and they do.  And for individuals who still live in their own homes, but aren't mobile enough to get out to a poll, mobile polls can always be arranged - I've helped to arrange such polls in the past for residents of my ward.

So we asked the City Clerk to check what is required by the Cities Act - the legislation that governs how we do things.  And she came back with a proposal that was then approved by Council - no special polls in any ward, two polls in most wards, one poll in each of Wards One and Three.  And that's what Council approved.

For whatever reason, this decision got no media coverage whatsoever.  However, residents of the buildings affected were informed by someone that they were going to be losing the convenience that they have enjoyed for several years, so a letter was written, and several of them came to Executive Committee to try to sway Council.

I'm not sure what they expected - Executive Committee does not pass motions.  What we could have done was voted to move the matter to the next council meeting.  We did not, as the matter had already been discussed at length.

I understand being upset at losing a privilege that you've enjoyed for years.  I can appreciate how pleasant it must be to vote without having to put on a coat, or even shoes.  But I'm also aware that Council needs to be fair to the residents of the city as a whole, and providing this special privilege to the people who live in three buildings (although there were some in the crowd who wanted to add one more building, that is also in Ward Two) is not fair to all city residents.

What about other buildings in the city who also are home to seniors?  It's interesting to note that some of those who purport to speak for seniors are actually only speaking for the seniors in these particular buildings in Ward Two.  Nobody is advocating for this privilege for the seniors who live in the Molstad Homes, or Abbeyfield Place, or Connaught Village, or others.

And of course, having a poll doesn't happen for free.  According to the City Clerk's office, the cost of having a poll ranges between $2,500 and $3,000, depending on the number of staff required.  If we gave the seniors who came to the meeting to protest what they asked for, that's $10,000 minimum added cost to the election, which is, of course, paid for by all tax-payers.  Not a lot in a multi-million dollar budget, I agree, but I've spent most of my time on council trying to get rid of the unfair subsidies that seem to be part of a way of life in this city, and I'm not about to close my eyes to $10,000.

It gets even costlier if you try to accommodate all seniors living in similar situations.  I estimate that there are about twenty buildings that would meet the same criteria as the current buildings.  Now we're up to $50,000 minimum.  Is it starting to look ridiculous yet?

The senior who wrote the letter seems to feel that a valid reason for continuing the subsidy is because it's been the practice for so long.  Her logic seems to be that if you have a leaky pipe, you might as well just let it keep on leaking.  Unfortunately, I know that there are some members of council who feel that you're treading on dangerous  ground if you take away something that people have enjoyed.  Sadly, they're thinking about what might affect them politically, not what is the best thing to do for the city.  And I can think of plenty of examples where we no longer provide services that we used to - we no longer mow boulevards, but expect residents to do that.  We no longer pick up residents's garbage from individual cans, often carrying them from back yards to the street in front, but instead expect residents to roll out their own garbage bins (and don't pick them up if they contain something that they shouldn't).  We've done those things to save money, and removing polls where they're not required is just another one of those cost-saving measures.

I do know that the removal of the poll from East End Hall is taking away a poll that has been there probably for longer than the high rise polls have been in place, and that it will be an added inconvenience for those in my ward who now have to travel further to vote.  But I respect Council's decision, and I know that we're meeting our legal requirements.

Perhaps this is a sign that we should be looking at ways to make voting more convenient for everybody.  I'm specifically thinking of on-line voting.  If the census can be filled out on-line (and we got the long form, which threw Andrea for a bit, but she managed to do it within the required time frame), we should be able to figure out a way to vote securely on-line.  That would make it more convenient for everybody, and also might attract the demographic that is currently under-represented - young people.  Fair and cost-effective - that's what we should be looking for, not continuing special privileges for a few people, paid for by the rest of us.

"What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient." - Bodie Thoene

Sunday, May 15, 2016

When is Flying a Flag Appropriate?

The biggest news around City Hall this past week was the attention drawn to the flag that was raised on Monday, for Celebrate Life Week.  The week is intended to call attention to the pro-life side of the ongoing abortion debate.  To say that this is a contentious issue, with strong emotions on both sides, is understating things.

The policy for flags to be flown in Memorial Square is pretty straight-forward - proclamations like this one, that are divisive or politically contentious, or that have a religious basis, are supposed to come to council for a decision.  This didn't happen for this situation, perhaps because the flag has been flown for several years, without ever receiving approval from council.

Personally, I don't think that most people are aware of what flags may or not fly in front of City Hall on any given day.  But this one, this year, caught the eye of a couple of young women, who wondered, rightly, why the city would consider it the right thing to do to endorse one side or the other of such an emotional debate.  So in the rain, they stood, holding signs in protest, planning a larger protest later in the week.  When we saw the picture in the paper, we realized that one of the people is a friend of our daughter's - not really a surprise, as her friends are young people who are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

The arguments coming out of City Hall in defence have been rather pathetic.  First, there's the old excuse of we've done this for years.  At one point, the blame was placed on newcomers to town - almost how dare people come here and point out the folly of our ways.  There was the popular defence of freedom of speech. But the weakest was probably that flying the flag doesn't mean support, we just fly the flag of anyone who asks.

That last argument is ridiculous.  Flags are symbols of support.  It's easy to come to the conclusion that a flag flown in front of City Hall, along with the Canadian, Saskatchewan and Prince Albert flags, means that the city supports the pro-life side of the debate.

On Thursday, there was a noon-hour rally at Memorial Square that I attended, for a couple of reasons.  I support the young ladies who were brave enough to bring this to public attention, and I agree with them.  I think that abortion is a matter of personal choice, and I don't think that it's anyone's right to tell anyone else what to do in such a difficult situation.  Legislative changes made it a legal option more than thirty years ago, and it's not appropriate for City Hall to enter the debate.

Some of the bravely anonymous comments on various web-sites have likened this flag to the flag that we fly every year during Gay Pride week.  After all, there are people who have difficulty with the idea of extending equal rights to people with different sexual orientations.  However, it is different, because in that case, we're speaking out against discrimination, and saying that, as a city, we don't believe in that kind of discrimination.  As well, the Gay Pride flag isn't trying to get anyone to change their sexual orientation - those supporters are just asking that people be more aware of the discrimination that they face in living their lives, and do what they can to change that.

So what should the city do when a group approaches us to fly their flag?  Well, I think that following our policy would be a good start.  I also think that we should identify when a flag is likely to give the impression that something has broad endorsement when it doesn't.  Some flags will be easy to agree to - Anti-Racism Week, Heart and Stroke Month, the Cancer Society's Daffodil flag during April - those are causes that the city supports.

And also, when someone points out that what we're doing is offensive, stop making excuses.  There's nothing wrong with admitting that a mistake has been made, and taking action to fix that mistake.  That on its own would have prevented some embarrassing headlines this past week.

"The endorsement process is an evolution.  You endorse someone that you believe in, whose ideas and solutions align with yours." - Herman Cain

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Putting the Golf Cart Before the Horse

At Executive Committee last Monday we were asked to approve a proposal for a ten-year Asset Management Plan for repairs and upgrades at the golf course, including $2 million to replace the irrigation system.  Once approved, this would be followed by a financial plan for how this all would be paid for.

You might have thought, as I did, that this is the sort of thing that should have been raised during budget proceedings, rather than being brought for approval in the middle of the year.  I mean, we're not talking insignificant amounts, and these needs should have been known last year.  Putting it before Council now, and claiming that it's now urgent, is poor planning, in my opinion.

I was also amazed by the statement by one member of council - that the golf course makes money for the city.  For the record, it returns no money to city revenues.  It does claim to be self-sufficient, but its financial tracking is murky - I know that in the past Parks would buy equipment that would later turn out to be used exclusively by the golf course.  This kind of convoluted financial figuring makes one suspicious.  And, of course, like other civic facilities, it doesn't pay for its water usage, which means that $90,000 yearly is spent watering the greens with drinkable water, and this plan didn't include anything that indicated that they were intending to change this wasteful practice.

And to be quite  honest, a golf course is not something that only the city can provide.  I do not golf myself, but Guthrie occasionally golfs with his buddies, and they don't go to Cooke - they go to one of the private golf courses just outside the city.  This tells me that a golf course doesn't need to rely on taxpayers' money to survive.  Now I can just hear golfers getting worked up - those smaller courses don't provide the level of golfing that they like.  I don't dispute that; I just think that they should not expect the taxpayer to subsidize the minority of city residents that golf at Cooke.

And golfing at Cooke is not for lower income residents.  The basic green fee, according to the city website (which still was using 2015 rates) was $51.00 - no wonder Guthrie goes elsewhere.  Annual memberships can run into the thousands.  But that seems to be how we do things - we want to provide residents with "world class" facilities, but we don't expect them to pay full freight.

And then to expect us to approve this plan, before we have any idea how it will be financed - well, that's the corner we're too often backed into - we approve something before we know all the costs, then have to go to the taxpayer afterward to pay the bills.  Let's start acting responsibly, try living within our means, and stop subsidizing those who can afford to pay for their own recreational preferences.

"You'll  never out-earn your bad habits and stupidity.  You have to change your habits and get smart with your money." - Mary Hunt