Sunday, March 20, 2016

Saying Yes and Saying No

Part of the job of being on City Council is making decisions.  Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no.  Usually what happens is a proposal comes to council, through administration, for a decision.  It surprises me when some members of council see themselves as merely a rubber stamp for whatever administration has recommended.  We aren't.  We are responsible for taking the information they provide, reviewing it, and then making up our own minds.  That is because, ultimately, council is responsible for the decision, not administration.

Two good examples came forward this week that illustrate council taking the responsibility for its own decisions.

The first was the request from Humpty's Restaurant for a reduction in their taxes for this year, due to the fact that Second Avenue, where their business is, was under construction for the Big Dig, for almost four months, costing them a great deal of money.  This was the second summer that their business took a big hit - the summer that the bridge was closed was also costly for them.  I thought that their argument was reasonable; administration's recommendation was that we grant no concessions.

We are a council with a history of offering tax breaks and concessions to try to attract new business, but when it comes to giving a break to a business that has been in the community for several years, we become much less generous.  We bear some of the responsibility for the excessive time of the project, as we did not complete the work as quickly as we could.  It was only toward the end of the project that we started having crews work longer days.  I'm not sure why we didn't do this right from the start - at least once a week I would get a call or a comment from someone asking why we weren't taking advantage of the long summer days to get the work done faster.

While some members of council worried about setting a precedent, others were agreeable to putting a time limit for when such requests will be considered.  When it came time for the vote, the decision was unanimous, even though a couple of fence sitters didn't have the courage of their convictions to vote the way they said they felt - something that I don't understand.  In any case, we now have some structure around when we will consider similar cases - 100 days - and that should give administration some extra impetus to manage these projects more efficiently.

We said no, however, to a recommendation from the new housing committee.  They were asking for money to hire a consultant to make recommendations on how to deal with housing problems in the city.  The members on this committee are relatively new - I think that they've only met twice - and it might seem to them that the first thing to do was get some advice from consultants.  Housing is one of my major concerns, and has been in all the time that I've been on council, so why would I vote no on this?

Simple - we have housing reports from consultants (and staff) up the wazoo.  Why not pull some of those reports off the shelf and see what recommendations were made, then recommend some actions.  The problem is that it's much easier to get advice than it is to follow it, but some people feel that getting a report is taking action - it isn't.  It's like we spend all our time aiming, but never firing to see if we're actually anywhere close to the target.

So there's two examples of votes, and why I made the decisions that I made.  As a councillor, I'm responsible for reviewing the information provided, and the reasons for the recommendations.  But when it comes down to the final decision, my responsibility is to make the one that I think is best for the city, according to my judgement, not on what somebody else may think.

"Trust that when the answer is no, there's a better yes down the road." - Anonymous

Sunday, March 6, 2016

It Takes More Than a New Idea to Effect Change

A few individuals have started to declare their interest in running for council in October.  One of the consistent themes that they put forward is the need for new ideas.  They don't actually talk about what their new ideas might be, but they understand that new ideas are needed.

I've had some experience in proposing new ideas at council, and I wish that it were that simple.  I'm reminded of a quote from the author Arthur C. Clarke about the three stages of new ideas.

  1. It can't be done.
  2. It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing.
  3. I knew it was a good idea all along!
What seems to happen with new ideas that are brought to council is that they usually end at step 1.  If you're lucky, you might get to step 2 before the whole idea is scuttled, because your council colleagues don't see any value in the proposed change.  And there have been times when council has made it to step 3, and endorsed a new way of doing things, but administration has then gone back to step 1.  While I understand that figuring out how to change things is more work than just keeping on doing the same thing, the responsibility of both council and administration is not to make sure that things are convenient for ourselves, but rather that we are doing things as efficiently and effectively as possible for the residents of Prince Albert, because they are the ones who are paying the bills.

Tuesday's meeting to discuss the outstanding budgets was a good example of this.  Just like the main budget that was passed in the fall, these proposed budgets were just status quo with new things added on.  There was no attempt to find ways of doing things more efficiently, or to identify areas of spending where cutbacks could be made.  Suggestions that have been made at previous discussions have not been adopted, even if vague commitments were made to look at these suggestions.  One might almost think that administration has figured that if they delay things long enough a new council will come in, who won't remember, or care, that, for example, the previous council voted to move to monthly billing for sanitation and water, and things can go on just as before.

If I were a new candidate for council, I would attend a few council meetings to see just how complicated the process can be.  I would also not just make vague promises for new ideas - I would have a few solid examples of new ideas, and how to make them saleable to both your hoped-for colleagues and administration.  And work on developing your stamina - as one who has been there, done that, I know that you need to develop patience and a thick skin to keep fighting for the same ideas until they get adopted.

A new idea is just the start of the process.  Implementation - that's the difficult part of the job.

"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as escaping from old ones." - John Maynard Keynes