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