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

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