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