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