Sunday, December 3, 2017

We're Number 3, We're Number 3!

You're likely aware of the recent report in Maclean's Magazine, identifying Prince Albert as being in third place in the country in overall violent crime and youth crime, and in second place for robberies and break and enters.  Not statistics to be proud of, and not to be downplayed or denied or ignored.

Crime is certainly the first concern raised by most residents.  And the police budget is the largest part of the overall city budget, with requests for increases higher than the rate of inflation every year.  I know that when I was on council, it was always a difficult decision, as some members of council felt that the police should receive whatever they asked for, but there was rarely sufficient justification as to what the additional funds would do as far as reducing crime rates go.

And judging by the comments on electronic news sites, most people would rather that the justice system just lock up criminals indefinitely as their solution to the problem - a rather simplistic solution that ignores the basic reasons behind crime - poverty and poor housing.

Much was made several years ago when the Hub was established - that this was a new way of dealing with crime, by trying to address problems early, but unfortunately, the city has not been kept well-informed about any initiatives under the Hub, or what any results may have been.  And we certainly don't hear much about the Hub lately.  While the Hub is largely funded provincially, the city does provide some funding, and should be kept in the know about what it's doing.

I also wish that the police would try doing things differently as a way to save money, rather than just adding staff.  I've long suggested that they should try patrolling back alleys regularly, but haven't seen any changes.  To me that's a change that would have no additional cost, but might help reduce situations like the regular drug deals that I can see going on through a window in one of the apartment buildings behind our house.

So what else could the city do?  Well, we do have direct influence on one of the causes of crime - poor housing.  In fact, police call records show that many times, repeated calls are made to the same address, even though the residents have changed, indicating that these residences tend to be rented to criminals over and over again. I still think that establishing a housing registry in which landlords are required to meet basic standards would be an effective way of reducing the number of homes that are currently rented that aren't fit for a dog to live in, let alone a family.  The province has a role to play too, in ensuring that rental assistance is only provided for licensed homes, but this is a solution where the city could start the ball rolling.

But we can't just keep throwing more money at the problem to continue on a path that hasn't been very successful in finding solutions.

"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." - Henry Ford

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Rich/Poor Divide

A few years ago, when I was still on council, I was at a meeting of the Housing Committee.  After the meeting,one of the committee members said to me "You have to remember, Prince Albert is really two communities, one rich, the other poor."  That comment has stayed with me, as I see every day how true this is.  It helps, of course, to live in one of the areas that has its share of those less financially well off.

One of the main contributing factors is that those in government, whether civic, provincial, or federal, usually have little experience of financial hardship.  And as is often the case, we think that most people are like us, and either can't fathom that there are others out there without the same benefits, or if there are, then it's their own fault.  As an example, I remember once at a council meeting when we were discussing public transit.  One councillor, who represented one of the richer areas of the city, said that it didn't concern him, because "nobody in his ward took the bus."  He not only ignored the fact that he was supposed to think of the whole city when making decisions, but that encouraging public transit is better for the environment, and would lessen parking issues in the downtown.

Other decisions that show a lack of consideration for the less fortunate include SaskPower's decision to move their office out of the downtown, out to an area not served by public transit.  We still pay our power and energy bills in person, and when we did this downtown, there were always others there, either doing the same thing, or making inquiries.  Not so at the new location, where we're usually the only clients there in person.  I know that the option of paying by phone or on-line is out there, but not for those who may not have computer access, or a bank account.

Or take the new Sarcan location, even farther out than the previous location.  Again, not on public transit routes, which is why I often see people walking along the road, carrying large bags of recyclables.  It may come as a surprise to some, but not everybody has a car.

Or the STC shutdown, to bring the provincial government's recent budget decisions into the discussion.  Rather than looking to see which routes could be kept because they still served a fair number of people, the government shut the whole service down, making those who relied upon it find alternate ways of getting from one community to another.  The son of Ontario friends of ours recently moved to Tisdale, but had no vehicle.  Fortunately, I have a spare vehicle, but he had no way of getting to Prince Albert to pick it up.  He was going to take a cab (not an option for poorer people), but a co-worker was able to drive him in yesterday.  He's a big, healthy young man, so hitch-hiking might have been an option, but what about a woman in the same situation?

One of the responsibilities of leadership in government is to remember that you're responsible to the whole population, not just those who elected you.  And part of that population is less well off, and needs more support to be able to move ahead.  One of the best examples of leadership that I'm aware of is the Saskatchewan government that, more than fifty years ago, was brave enough to bring in universal health care, knowing that it would lead to their defeat in the next election.  It did, but all these years later, it's one of the things that Canadians are proudest of, and appreciate the most, not just those who use the system more than others, but those who are lucky enough not to have to.

So while this current council is contemplating the budget for next year, I would encourage them to remember the less fortunate city residents as they make their decisions, realizing that paving the Art Hauser parking lot or irrigating the golf course will benefit far fewer residents than other expenditures will.

"Anyone who has struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." - James Baldwin

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Some Thoughts about Downtown Revitalization

Andrea and I took a few weeks in October to take a holiday, visiting family and friends back in Ontario.  It was good to see Andrea's Toronto-area siblings, as well as my family, and friends that we haven't seen in awhile.

We spent about a week in the town where I grew up - Fergus.  It's about an hour and a half from Toronto, ten minutes north of Guelph.  When I left Ontario, more than thirty years ago, it had about 10,000 people.  In the intervening years, the population has doubled, largely due to houses for people who are willing to make the commute to Toronto every day.  After leaving Toronto on a mid-week afternoon, it's not a choice that I would make, but apparently many people do.

With the increase in population, it now has businesses like McDonald's and Tim Horton's, and larger malls on the edge of town.  But surprisingly, it also has a healthy downtown.  We went there pretty much every day, and noticed how it's thriving.  Some of the businesses have been around since I was a kid, but others are new.  We had lunch one day at a restaurant that was at the rear of a health food store (and which I remember as the pool hall), visited a combination used book and essential oils store a couple of times, and browsed a chocolate and gift shop for treats for our cat sitters.  We also dropped in at the newly renovated library several times.  It is not a downtown without vacant store fronts, but unlike Prince Albert, the vacant stores are the exception rather than the rule.  It was also, in the middle of the week, full of people, many of them seniors.

So what's the difference between Fergus and Prince Albert?  I don't know all the answers, but I noticed some things.  Fergus does not rely on government offices, so there aren't a lot of offices downtown.  In Prince Albert, much of the prime downtown space is taken up with buildings that are only open five days a week, and aren't the kind of places where you can drop in and browse.  The Fergus businesses that are downtown  are all small, without tons of employees, but they're quite welcoming.  And there are no parking meters, but we never had trouble finding a place to park.

They're also filling niches - the restaurant that we ate at was mostly vegetarian, but was full over the lunch hour, again with many seniors.  Andrea commented that she'd never seen a restaurant serve hot water with lemon as a beverage, but she saw three people have that as their beverage of choice.  That's a business that knows its clientele.  And it's interesting that all three of the businesses that I mentioned had more than one purpose.

And people obviously had no safety concerns about being downtown.  We saw no discarded needles, or panhandlers.

There is a downtown business association.  A brochure, advertising that downtown was open on Sunday afternoons, was at the cash register at businesses.  This may be to help them attract some of the tourists that are the lifeblood of the neighbouring small town, Elora, which has the good fortune to be on a river, and close to a limestone gorge, and is quite a tourist attraction.

One thing that they haven't done - spent money on signs pointing out where the downtown is, or on lampposts or fancy paving.  Those things do not attract people - safe streets with thriving businesses do.  Prince Albert needs to figure out how to do that.

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you're heading." - Lao Tzu

Sunday, October 1, 2017

You Pave Paradise, Put Up a Parking Lot

Once again, a long break from blogging, for the same reasons: not much happening at council, and busy with house renovations.
But council made a good decision last week, and this doesn't happen very often, so I thought that it was worthy of comment.
I'm speaking of course, of the decision not to raid the reserves set aside for street maintenance in favour of paving the parking lot at the Art Hauser Centre.  This project first was brought forward with a previous mayor; the cost then was $500,000, so I'm sure the cost has gone up since then.  It's also become a favourite cause of the current mayor, largely because of the baseball championships coming next year.
Once again, it's putting image ahead of needs.  In this case, paving a parking lot to impress people from out of town, while using tax payers' money, already ear-marked for their needs, which have been identified as a priority after several years of neglect under previous councils.  This is not right, but is so often where council goes.  I don't know about you, but rarely do people mention the status of the parking lot as what they enjoyed most about an event.  And considering that the baseball tournament will happen in the summer, common parking lot issues like icy spots and poor drainage are unlikely to occur.
When the matter of funding came to council, five members of council voted against it.  I don't know the motivation of those who voted for it, although one council member has said that he likes to go along with the mayor so that he can get stuff for his ward.  Not exactly thinking about the good of the city overall, that's for sure.
What made it interesting was the mayor's reaction to the defeat of the motion.  He tried to bring it back, saying that a certain council member had voted incorrectly.  Fortunately, said council member had the fortitude to disagree.
Of course, trying to influence another member's vote is against the law, as well as the basic principles of democracy.  But I guess all that pales compared to getting your own way.  Although one would hope that an elected official would show more maturity about the matter.  I often think that there should be a term used for when a mayor forgets that  he's not the boss of the other members of council, since that seems to afflict so many of our mayors.
One hopes that this issue won't come back to council, although intentions to do just that were expressed.  And if it does, one hopes that the result will be the same.
If nothing else, I hope that all councillors learned from this that they don't have to just blindly follow what the mayor wants.  They have equal responsibility to think of what's best for the city, and each of their votes counts, just as much as his.

"It's never wrong to do the right thing." Mark Twain

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Being Bullied

More than a month since the last blog, but I've been busy, and council goings-on are quieter in the summer.

What I've been busy with mostly is, as usual for me in summer, house renovations.  In this case, the side porch on the west side of the house turned out, when I started what appeared to be minor renovations, to need total reconstruction.  Floor, walls and other parts of the structure were rotting, due to less than adequate renovations of more than thirty years ago, which meant tearing down the whole structure, right down to the brick pillars.  But I'm now down to the painting of the interior, which means that the end is in sight.

Renovations tend to be messy.  But I was quite surprised to get a visit from Bylaw Enforcement a couple of weeks ago, citing me for having an unsightly property.  No details.  But considering that a six-foot fence surrounds most of the yard, and a hedge the rest, I was rather surprised, since you actually have to come into the yard to see the messiness.

Now, I make no secret about the fact that yard work is not something that I enjoy.  That was Andrea's area of expertise, and now, of course, she doesn't have the energy for it, plus she is not supposed to be digging in dirt due to the risk of infection.  So she was rather upset by the visit from Bylaw.  As I've said before, your family is more likely to be upset by the actions and insults of others - I always put it down as one of the costs of being in public life.

Then, a week later, another visit from Bylaw, although they didn't even bother to come in the yard this time.

Prince Albert is just a big small town, and it didn't take much to find out who the complainants were - not individuals who live in the neighbourhood, but elected officials who don't live anywhere close, using their authority to try to make my life miserable.  Sorry, guys, but you're rank amateurs in that department if you think that something like a baseless complaint to Bylaw is going to be the worst thing that's happened to our family in the past year.  And I find it rather pathetic that rather than attending to your actual jobs, you make this a priority.  I mean, just look around the neighbourhood and you'll find plenty of properties more unsightly than mine.

But that's what bullies are like - they don't think about all the ramifications of their actions, they're just trying to make people feel bad, as if in some way that makes them look better.

But, as always, the actions of friends more than made up for the actions of a couple of bullies.  I was able to borrow a truck from a friend to take the renovation materials to the dump.  And last Friday, my invaluable media consultant, who is also a close friend, spent most of the day here, helping me to pull weeds and clear out other garden debris.  These kind of actions speak volumes, and I don't know how to adequately thank these people.

Somehow, I doubt that the bullies have that sort of support from friends.  Sucks to be them.

"Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke." - Benjamin Disraeli

Sunday, July 9, 2017

On Being Truthful and Practising Good Grammar

The last week of June Andrea and I headed to City Hall to make the final payment on this year's taxes.  I know, I know, there are some people who think that paying taxes is optional, but like most responsible citizens, we recognize that taxes need to be paid so that the city can function.

Along with the tax notice, of course, came a page of bumph about how hard Council worked to keep taxes at the same rate as originally set in the budget.  Of course, with some of the decisions made by the province in their budgetary exercise, that didn't happen, hence the additional payment.

I understand the impulse to put a positive spin on what Council is doing.  However, I think that putting in some honesty never hurts, and helps to earn respect, although I'm sure that most people don't bother to read these included messages - they know that it's just politics inserting itself.

The first statement that made Andrea laugh out loud was in the very first paragraph.  If City Administration has been looking hard at expenses, why do they keep creating new positions?  One of the most effective ways of cutting costs is to freeze hiring, and to not take on new, expensive projects if they're not essential - I would put the new GIS system in that category, a nice to have, but not essential.  More on hiring later.

The second statement that elicited laughter was in the third paragraph, where the talk is that the decision was made to not let the mistakes of the provincial government be shouldered by the taxpayers of Prince Albert.  Well, taxes went up, plus they decided to duplicate how the province got into this mess by raiding reserves to cover operating expenses.  That's like dipping into your RRSP, which is meant to be saved for the future, to buy your groceries - not smart planning.  Reserves are meant to be saved for specific purposes, like big ticket items.

Then, of course, there is more verbiage about how hard Council is working to do more with less.  While I don't argue with the importance of infrastructure maintenance, it was a priority for the last council too, and as for back lane reconstruction, that's been a headache for years that won't be solved simply by buying another piece of equipment.

Back to hiring.  The city now has not one but two communications officers, and yet inappropriate capitalization - the Oil Spill Water Crisis - really? It had a name? made its way in.  Then, instead of using the subjective form of the first person singular (that would be I) to refer to himself, the mayor uses the word myself, which is wrong.  And on the second page, buses is pluralized incorrectly.  Two communications people, and they didn't catch these.  My resident grammar goddess, whose degree is not in English, was not impressed.

So what, you say? Grammar doesn't matter?  If you have communications people who can't make sure that a communication from council is as good as it should be, someone isn't doing their job, for which your taxes are paying.  Big or small, it all matters.  And yes, some people will notice, and it matters to them.

"Good English, well spoken and well written, will open more doors than a college degree.  Bad English will slam doors you didn't even know existed."  William Raspberry

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Been There, Done That

I see via local news media that a public meeting for Ward 3 residents was held last week, to discuss how the new Neighbourhood Watch group that is being set up in the area could help reduce crime rates in the area.  While I had no prior notice of the meeting, it did take me back in time.

You see, Andrea and I have lived in our current home since 1984, and back in the mid-eighties we had a Neighbourhood Watch group.  I agree that people watching out in the neighbourhood is a good idea, but it can only go so far - police action has to be taken promptly.  But you don't need a club to authorize you to call the police - that's something anyone can do, anytime they see anything suspicious going on.

The problem can be with police response.  I called once, several years ago, to report someone breaking into one of the apartments in a building behind us.  The response from the operator was that perhaps they were friends of the person living there, though why they would choose to go through a window rather than knocking on the door makes no sense to me.  Later, after the people breaking in removed a television, it was too late for the police to catch them.

On another occasion, when a young person broke into someone's vehicle, the advice from police to the resident was to just leave the situation alone, in case the young person decided to take some form of revenge.  They didn't even haul the kid in to give him a scare - a lost opportunity, if you ask me.

And I know of several attempts to get drug houses acted on, based on neighbour's complaints of needles and frequent, short visits by questionable characters.  The response is usually that yes, the police are aware of the problem, but no further action results.  I even contacted SCAN (Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods) a couple of years ago, and had a representative from Saskatoon (no SCAN in Prince Albert) sit on my deck for a couple of days, watching an apartment that had significant activity.  While he agreed that there was suspicious activity, and it was a location well-known to police, it wasn't enough to get the place shut down.

Another suggestion to the group is to get to know your neighbours.  Many of the people in this neighbourhood, particularly seniors, have lived here a long time.  They know their neighbours.  The difficulty is that for rental properties, the longevity of residency, and the commitment to the neighbourhood, just isn't there.  One property within view of my house has had at least three different residents in the last few months.  And one never is sure who is a resident, and who is just crashing, particularly in the apartment buildings right behind my house.

It would have been interesting to hear from the police what the current crime rates are in the area compared to past years.  As a long time resident, I think that it's getting worse, which is unfortunate, of course.  But I'm frustrated, and was during my time on council, that police don't try new approaches.  For example, rather than driving down the avenue, try patrolling down the back alleys - those are more secluded, and thus more likely to be sheltering those who may be up to no good, or at least looking for opportunities.  And since they're in the area anyway, why not try a change in tactics?

And we need to recognize that socially, things have changed.  Most people are away from their homes all day, and there just isn't the social structure in neighbourhoods that there used to be.  It would be nice to go back a few decades, but that isn't going to happen.  And the sad truth is that in most cities, neighbourhoods near downtowns are declining along with the downtown area.  I think that there is an opportunity for the city to take an interest in maintaining those neighbourhoods, to encourage more long-term residents, through things like building incentives on vacant lots, but there's been little interest in investing in older areas compared to newer areas.

As I said, I'm all for reducing crime rates, and call the police probably as much as anyone when I see something suspicious.  And I would encourage everyone to spend more time out on their decks and porches, just being visible, and do call the police if you see something suspicious.  But don't feel that you have to join a club to do so - just use your common sense, and hope that the police response is timely.  After all, individuals can only do so much.

"You can't start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one." - Anonymous

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Is It an Advantage to be a Business Person on Council?

One of the mass generalizations that is often made is that council needs more business people.  As with most generalizations, it isn't true.  In fact, during a conversation over coffee with my invaluable media consultant, her opinion was that the way a business operates is different from how a government operates, and that what is needed is either more people with government experience, or more people who understand that the rules for each are different, and when on council, one should operate by the appropriate set of rules.

One of the differences is that people who are used to how businesses run is that they're used to making decisions on their own, not as part of a group.  This isn't how council operates - most decisions are supposed to be made by council as a whole, not by one individual.  And there is no place for backroom deals on council; every decision should be transparent.

That's because council is responsible for its decisions to city residents, not to shareholders of a business.  Plus there is legislation that is supposed to be followed - that can be difficult when most members of council don't bother to familiarize themselves with the Cities Act, but that should be part of the learning process.

There's also a tendency of some of these individuals to hog the credit - to not inform all members of council about public events, for example, so that they can be the only one there for the photo op, or to talk about how they alone have solved problems.  This doesn't make for good team dynamics, to say the least.

I'm not saying that business people shouldn't be on council - they bring a valuable perspective that comes only with experience in having to cover expenses through revenues, one that those who think that just raising taxes is okay don't have. (I'm thinking of administration, most of whom have spent their entire careers in government.)  So raising concerns about efficiency and economy is something that should be valued and encouraged during council discussions.

My personal opinion is that it isn't the previous (or current) profession that matters for council members; it's more to do with their basic character.  I would much rather work as a member of council with people who are willing to work hard, speak up, do the research, and behave with integrity.  For instance, someone who has made questionable financial decisions, such as not paying their taxes, then fighting the city in court over the result of that decision, should probably not be allowed to vote on new tax rates - to me it's coming perilously close to conflict of interest, and they should, at the very least, remove themselves from the discussion and the vote.

I think that's what most people expect from council members - that they follow the rules and act in the best interests of the city as a whole.  After all, members of council are supposed to set a good example, not be a horrible warning.

"To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity." - Douglas Adams

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hey, Council, Remember the Alcohol Strategy?

A few years back, a committee to look at how to better manage alcohol use and the resultant problems in Prince Albert was established to develop an alcohol strategy.  It's no question that this city has an alcohol problem - most of the police calls are alcohol -related, and various initiatives, such as the detox centre, have been started to try to address the problem.  And yet the problem continues - last week, at a little past noon, Andrea and I drove by a drinking party going on in the City Hall parking lot.

So I was a little surprised to hear that a rookie councillor, supported by two other rookies, was advocating that the city increase the opportunities to have alcohol at city facilities.  I'm not sure which facilities they were talking about, as alcohol is already served at the Art Hauser Centre (profits go to the Raiders) and the Golf and Curling Club (which also keeps the profits), or what the motivation would be.  And I think that they may have forgotten that part of council's job is to set the big-picture direction for the city.

The tendency is to assume that people like us don't have a problem with  alcohol - it's those other people.  But we all know that isn't the case - alcohol abuse affects everyone, in all social classes.  I'm fond of a glass of wine with dinner or having a beer on the deck, but I also have (and have had) family members with alcohol addiction problems, and I know that the answers aren't easy.

But you can't say that it's difficult to find alcohol in the city, so the city should make it easier for people to get a drink at activities going on in city facilities.  As I mentioned earlier, in some cases they already can, and I don't see any pressing need to increase those opportunities.

And it's rather ironic that this idea should come out just when SGI has released its new public service announcement about the effect of drunk driving on real families in Saskatchewan.  I was surprised to find that I knew one of the victims, and the family of one of the others.  I can only imagine the pain of losing a family member in that way, and I commend the families involved for being so public spirited as to agree to sharing these memories.  It's a harsh reminder that Saskatchewan as a whole has a problem with drinking and driving, and part of our leaders' responsibility is to stand up against the problem, not pretend that it doesn't exist, for whatever reason.

"I've never seen anyone drink themselves smart, successful or happy.  Most end up broke, bitter and alone." - Anonymous

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Hidden Costs of That Low Tax Increase

The mayor felt it important to point out to Prince Albert in a press release this week that the city set the lowest tax rate increase, 1.5%, in the province.  In doing so, he didn't count the whole cost, and he gave the impression that this was part of a plan of council.

To be clear, the tax rate increase was his election promise, not one that was developed by council before the election.  In my opinion, focusing on what the tax rate is should be the last step in budgeting, not a target to be met.  I'm sure that the public would be happiest with a 0% increase, but that is living in a fool's paradise.  Costs rarely go down, and trying to set a tax rate based upon what you think the public wants to hear, rather than on the work that needs to be done, is extreme short-term thinking.  And of course, with a mostly rookie council in place, two of whom didn't think that it was  important to be at the budget vote meeting, it passed with barely any discussion of what this would mean for the future.

What wasn't mentioned is how council is keeping the rate so low, despite rising costs and no efforts to trim spending in non-essential areas.  To start with, a goodly chunk of operating costs is being covered by dipping into reserves - reserves which are not meant to be spent on operating costs, but to be kept for emergency situations or large capital expenditures in the future.  And this decision was made before the provincial budget hits.  We're already having to go to the reserves to cover the $2.8 million owed to Domtar (that would be a legitimate use of reserves); now they're being used to cover shortfalls in revenue caused by poor budget decisions before the provincial budget, and then the province cutting back on the long-standing grant to municipalities that was meant to cover taxes that would be charged if they weren't a government.  Using reserves, of course, is following the premier's advice on how to deal with the problem - and we've seen his attitude, and the resulting mess, towards reserves.

So we have the money in reserves - what's wrong with using it this way, rather than increasing taxes?  Well, it's like draining your RRSP to pay your credit card bill.  At some point, you're going to need that RRSP money, and it won't be there - it will be in the big screen TV that you didn't really need (like paving the Art Hauser parking lot), but seemed really important at the time.  It's like our finances are being planned by a teenager who forgets that the costs of the car that he really, really wants need to include ongoing maintenance and fuel costs.  So watch out for larger than usual increases in subsequent budgets - once the reserves are empty, it's back to the taxpayer.

And the press release also doesn't include the fact that part of what should be covered in the tax increase is actually included in your utility bill, which rises at a rate of about 10% each year.  This helps to hide operating cost increases for things like garbage pick up in what you probably think is your water bill.  That helps to explain why any efforts to decrease water usage don't result in a comparable decrease to your water bill - there's other things stuck in there, plus the ongoing increase, that help to keep it going up and up.

So don't believe everything you read, especially if it's in a press release from the city.  That's not reporting; that's pushing a political agenda, and such things never tell the whole story, just the part the city wants you to hear.

"You can fool all of the people all of the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough." - Joseph Levine

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Some Thoughts on Safe Injection Sites

A few years ago, when I was still on council, I had the opportunity to attend a conference on HIV and AIDS.  The focus on the conference was identifying practical steps that could be taken to reduce IV drug use, going to the root causes and discussing which actions would have the greatest effect.

Interestingly, safe injection sites were not part of the discussion, because such sites are not aimed at reducing IV drug use, but on minimizing negative effects of such use, ensuring clean needles and safe doses.  They are not set up to put addicts on the straight and narrow, but to mitigate the potential of addicts dying from infection or overdose.

However, some members of council has now decided that they are experts in reducing drug use, and have voted narrowly in favour of investigating how to set up a safe injection site in Prince Albert, to be funded by other levels of government.  Of course, this is not actually doing anything, in an area that is totally out of the city's control.  It matches the futility of telling the province that we don't support the sale of Crown corporations - outside of our circles of control, or even influence.  And in these tough financial times, with deficit budgets everywhere, good luck in getting more than laughter in response to any requests for funding.

This likely comes as another attempt to put some distance from a poorly thought out Facebook post (that was quickly deleted) from before the election, in which the councillor bringing forward the motion said that he was all for a safe injection site "across the river at the garbage dump", and that "we need to stop enabling the addicts and pandering to their every need - the herd will eventually thin itself."  His about-face is interesting, and one has to wonder what caused this change in heart, although he obviously doesn't understand exactly what a safe injection site is. While it might reduce the number of needles in streets, back alleys and boulevards, which is annoying, those needles are only a symptom of a much deeper problem.

It's kind of like expecting that the much-vaunted rehab centre would reduce drunks on the street.  What it has done is give them someplace else to sleep rather than in police cells, which is a good thing, but six days isn't nearly long enough to cure a drinking problem.

So, what did I learn at the conference that council could actually take action on?  Not surprisingly, it's similar to other recommendations for reducing crime - improve housing, and crime rates (and drug use) go down.  Could council take steps to improve housing standards in rental units?  Yes.  Why don't they?  Because it's not a fast solution, nor is this kind of long-term project much for grabbing headlines.

And I may be a cynic, but the timing of this motion, after being kept in abeyance for a couple of months, makes one wonder if the attempt was one of misdirection to distract people from other headlines the councillor has been  making lately.  My experience is that people aren't that easily distracted - as always, focusing on doing your job should be where members of council's energy goes, not on trying to manage their headlines.

"Guilt leads to righteous action, but rarely is it the right action." - Abraham Verghese

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Downside of Being on Council

One of the difficulties of being on council is that people have higher expectations of your behaviour, so that actions that you take (or don't take) get more attention than when you were just a member of the public.  That seems to be unfair to some people, but it goes with the job.  You can't just enjoy the photo ops when they benefit you or your causes - news is what people are interested in, not what you think is important, (but please don't talk about the potentially embarrassing stuff).

Partly this is because the public is now paying your salary, and when they find out that you have not behaved in a way that meets their expectations, they are quite free to voice their opinions - they are your boss.  I have received more than a few phone calls from people since the tax arrears of the company for which one councillor is listed as an officer were made public- how could this have happened?  I explain that it's not against the rules, but my opinion (and this is shared by the callers), is that it should be.  If a company that you have interest in doesn't believe in paying their share of the costs of running the city, it raises all kinds of questions about how you can make decisions that are in the best interests of the city, on all matters.

People don't think that it is right for them to subsidize (for several years) the operations of a company.  I think that it must be even more frustrating for the other downtown businesses, as the Downtown Business Improvement District is funded directly through their taxes, and here's one company that has not been paying their share, but still participating as if they were.

And don't give me that stuff about how it's the company, not the individual.  The public knows that companies don't operate in a vacuum; they are set up to protect the private assets of an individual, but it's the individuals that still make the decisions of the company.  And when other decisions of the company come to light that provide even more information about how a company operates, like hoping to avoid paying bills by exceeding the statute of limitations, it provides further insight into the integrity of the company's officers.

Integrity, of course, is fundamental to building trust.  How you behave, both in public and in your private dealings, should be consistent.  It's like the adage that you shouldn't marry someone who doesn't treat waitresses well - that's an insight into their true character that is invaluable.

It's unfortunate that this information wasn't made public before the election.  I've mentioned before that members of council were bound by their oath of confidentiality for matters that have been discussed in camera, but there was nothing stopping the news media from checking on tax arrears.  Perhaps if they hadn't been so focused on digging up dirt on one mayoral candidate, they would have found what has turned out to be something that actually affects taxpayers.  But again, I don't make those decisions.

Having this kind of negative attention may not be pleasant, but it goes with the job.  If you don't like it, pay what you owe, apologize, and remember that once you are a public figure, in this age of Google, you can't expect to be able to hide any embarrassing secrets.

"Characterize people by their actions, and you will never be fooled by their words." - Anonymous

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Councillors, Please Just Do Your Jobs (after finding out what that includes)

Part of the problem of having a council made up of mostly rookies is that they appear to come with not much awareness of what their job is supposed to be.  I've mentioned before that it does not include raising issues which are outside council's mandate - council should not be a place to advocate on whatever people complain about, but on whatever is within council's control.  Many on council seem to think that council meetings are an opportunity to beat their own personal drums, not recognizing that they're wasting valuable time, and thus money, on useless discussions.

The other disturbing tendency is for council to decide that the mayor can make decisions, even if policy says otherwise.  This is disappointing, and I'm sure that most councillors don't realize that if you do this often enough, people might start to wonder why you're getting paid, if you decide that the mayor's decision is good enough, so that you don't have to bother.  I'm sure that they also think that, in the case of potentially controversial issues, they can then absolve themselves of responsibility - hey, we left it up to the mayor, so get mad at him.  I hate to tell them this, but most people are smarter than to be fooled by that line.

Council does have some difficult issues before them right now - while the grant reduction imposed by the provincial budget has been partially reduced, it will still have a major impact on how much money the city has to spend.  The $2.8 million owed to Domtar isn't going away, and if paid for out of reserves as planned, will just deplete those reserves, which are already being used for ongoing operational needs rather than their original purpose.  Those reserves are not limitless. And the public awareness that big tax dollars are owed by a couple of downtown businesses, who apparently are only interested in finding excuses rather than paying what is owed (and has been owing for quite some time - just ask anyone who was on the last two councils) is going to lead to demands for council to take some kind of action, not just sit there looking surprised.  And yet there's been surprisingly little discussion about these decisions that definitely have the potential to affect the taxes that you pay, and the services that the city provides.

Council also needs to remember that they are supposed to direct administration, not just approve whatever is brought forward.  Too many times over the past few years council has given direction, only to be totally ignored.  And the worst part is, nobody is ever held to account as to why such things as monthly water billing (direction given more than four years ago now) have never happened.  Other utilities manage, why can our administration not figure out how to do this?  And why is nobody on council asking this?

I know that some rookie members of council are disappointed with the lack of glory that comes with the job, forgetting that respect has to be earned - it isn't automatic.  They don't remember that fewer than half of the residents of the city voted in the last election - for reasons that are beyond my knowing, civic politics just doesn't engage people the way it should.

Or maybe the way that most members of council behave , either during campaigns or afterwards, just leaves people wondering why get involved, when so few people seem to be truly interested in doing the job at hand, just in getting paid for putting on a suit and showing up every couple of weeks..

"Your self-image should not come from the job you do, but from how well you do your job." Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Campaign Spending - Just the First Step in Transparency

News this week is that the mayor is thinking about Prince Albert developing something to ensure that what candidates spend on their campaign be public.  It's not a new idea - I suggested that we develop campaign disclosure practices in my third term on council, and got very little support.  The mayor at the time said that Prince Albert was too small for such a thing, and most councillors didn't disagree.

The article on local media suggests that $600 used to be the standard for spending.  That is not true.  That will cover one delivery of one flyer on plain paper with no colour to one ward.  No signs, no advertising.  I'm not a big spender, and my campaign usually costs between $1,000 and $2,000.  That's for one delivery by Share of a plain paper flyer, signs, and maybe some advertising, but nothing fancy.  If you see a candidate with a glossy, full-colour flyer, more than one delivery, signs, and colour ads in the local media, they're spending far more than $2,000.  And that's just for councillors.  If you're running for mayor, you have to spend money to get your word out city wide, and that costs incrementally more.

And that's not including those who spend money hosting teas or barbecues, or delivering fruit baskets to seniors' residences - practices that veer dangerously close to vote-buying, which is, of course, against the rules.  But to enforce the rules, somebody has to go to court, which costs money.

Of course, big spending doesn't guarantee getting elected.  It provides name recognition, but not much else.   I'm often disappointed by the lack of actual information about candidates' plans, even in flyers, which is about the only place to provide decent background information, and so many candidates neglect this in favour of catchy slogans or meaningless fluff.

The other piece of the picture as far as campaign expenses go is who provides the funds?  For example, if a local car dealership provides loaner cars for a campaign, might there be some favouritism shown the next time a tender goes out for city vehicles?  The same would apply for any company that might be interested in doing work for the city - if they have helped to fund a member of council's campaign, and allowed to remain anonymous about it, such possible favouritism is not going to be known.  I would include in-kind contributions here - no actual money changes hands, but the product that comes out, say free advertising coverage, does have a value, and should be counted.

My personal opinion is that any donation valued at more than $100 should be part of disclosure, and that where the money is spent is also important.  And I'd go even further - I would make it illegal to spend money over a certain amount that provides direct products to some residents and not others - the aforementioned fruit baskets to seniors' residences being just one example.  A benefit that is offered to all - the relatively common offer of a drive to the polls, for example - I don't think would be considered under this.

It all comes back to making your actions match your words.  We heard a lot during the campaign and since about how council has to be transparent.  Talk is cheap; it will be interesting to see how far council takes this in meaningful action.

"A basic tenet of a healthy democracy is open dialogue." - Peter Fenn

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Focus, People, Focus!

One of the ways that Andrea maintains control over stress is to remind herself when something is outside of her control.  If it's a situation that she can do nothing about, she simply says "out of my control", and refuses to worry about it.  If it's something that she can influence, if not directly control, then she will take that step, and of course, if it's something that she can do something about, she'll do it, but she won't waste either time or mental energy on something that she can do nothing about.  As someone who sometimes likes to rant on about other people's stupidity, it can be frustrating when she points out that I'm wasting energy, but I have to admit that it helps her come to more useful decisions in a calmer way, and is a good way of maintaining focus.

It's something that I wish members of council were better at doing - focusing on what they can control, and taking action there, not on matters that are outside their responsibility, or even their influence.  I'm speaking, of course, about the great discussion at the last meeting of council about council letting the province know that they don't agree with the potential selling of Crown corporations.  Not your job, you didn't ask the people of Prince Albert if they agreed, and it's doubtful if the province really cares whether this is something that Prince Albert supports.  It's kind of like the efforts that were made by a previous council for petitions for a second bridge - lots of effort, for no result.  Or like the efforts that were made by a previous mayor in speaking to the federal government of the importance of the pulp mill to Prince Albert - still no smoke coming out of that building, more than ten years later.

Other topics that have been floated recently that are out of council's responsibility - bringing back door to door mail delivery, and providing a safe injection site for IV drug users.  Might be good for getting headlines, but these are matters not within council's control or responsibility.

So why do some members of council want to fill the agenda with such discussions?  Sometimes it's to fulfil their own personal or political agenda, especially if they have aspirations to higher levels of government.  Sometimes it's because it's a topic that someone raised to them while they were door-knocking, and they want to look to their constituents as if they're taking action.  And, I fear, sometimes it's because they don't know what their job is, but if they get their name in the paper, they feel recognized.

I don't disagree that these are interesting topics, but they're topics for discussion over coffee, not when you're supposed to be making decisions that the city can actually implement.

So what's the harm, you say, in letting councillors talk about issues that are important to them?  Well, my big complaint is that there are immediate issues out there that are more important to the people of Prince Albert, and when you spend your limited time talking about stuff that doesn't matter, you're not addressing those important issues.  The big one at the moment, which will likely have a direct impact on your taxes, is the court's decision that the city owes Domtar 2.8 million dollars.  Why isn't council discussing this, in public, not in camera, instead of making statements that they aren't going to talk about it until the end of March?  To me, they've had ample time to come up with a plan, but instead I fear that they're more interested in butt-covering to explain why this wasn't made public before the election.

It's too bad that more members of council don't realize that their responsibility is to the taxpayers of the city, not to their own personal agendas, and make the effort to drag the rest of council back on track.  I know that it's tough to stand up to those who are quite satisfied to just let things slide, but that's not what the job is.

"You'll never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Here's a Thought - Hiding Bad News Doesn't Make It Go Away

Another bombshell hit the news yesterday - the city owes Domtar over 2 million dollars for overpayment of taxes.  This isn't just Domtar's claim, it's a judge's decision, and as such, the taxpayer is on the hook, both for city taxes and for whichever school system you support.

The problem is - we've known that this, or something in this financial neighbourhood, was coming for some time.  I suggested several times in previous years' budget processes that we set up a reserve fund to pay for whatever the final bill was - most of council didn't think that was necessary.  Those who think that just because Domtar is a big company they should just forget about this relatively small (to them, not to us) amount are forgetting that Domtar is not responsible to the city, they are responsible to their shareholders, and they didn't get to be successful by forgiving debts.  Perhaps that's a lesson that the city could use, in tracking down delinquent taxpayers.

In any case, I feel badly for the five new councillors - this was not included in this year's budget, even though administration knew about it.  And now these rookies are being asked questions for which they have no answers, and will doubtless be blamed for not coming clean, even though they didn't know.  There's something wrong with the system when administration keeps vital information from members of council.  After all, council is supposed to be in charge, not administration.  For those members of council who were re-elected in this fall's election, once again they were prevented from talking about this because it was discussed in camera, making it confidential.  Personally, once the court decision was made, which was some time ago, I think that it should have been made public immediately, because court decisions are public, if you know where to look.

No question, this will be a big hit to the city.  So what can be done to lessen the blow to taxpayers?  Well, the budget process should be reopened, to make sure that this legal requirement gets paid before we spend money on wants.  When I talk about wants, I mean the nice-to-have-if-you-can-afford-them things, like paving the Art Hauser Centre parking lot, or golf course improvements, or the mayors' slush fund to pay other people's parking tickets - big or small, all these unnecessary expenses need to be cut.  And an immediate hiring freeze should be put in place.  These are the kind of actions that a normal person would take when faced with a big bill - save wherever you can and put the money towards the essentials.  Because as we all know, interest payments won't stop on this amount - it will only get bigger the longer payment is deferred.  Paying it has to be a priority.

Second, some change in process should be made to ensure that it's not acceptable to try to keep this kind of information under the carpet.  I'm not sure what world some of the people involved in this mess live in, but where I come from the longer you delay letting people know bad news, the worse it gets, and the more people get angry because they feel they were deceived.  Nobody  realistic would ever expect their members of council not to make mistakes; what they want is to be kept informed.  That's what transparency is supposed to be all about - it doesn't mean coming clean long after you know that there's a problem.

And that results in immediate loss of trust.  It takes a long time to build a trusting relationship - it takes only one incident such as this to destroy it, perhaps irreparably.  All the fast talk that can be mustered to try to put a good face on the problem means nothing if it's not followed up with action, and demonstration that a lesson has been learned, by changing the ways that things are done.

"What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Risks of Social Media

The past election had a more active social media presence than past campaigns, largely through Facebook.While every candidate wasn't on Facebook, several were, and some treated it as their main communications tool.  I'm not on Facebook, although Andrea is, mainly to keep track of my side of the family - only one of her seven siblings is also on Facebook.  But she can see photos of various nieces, nephews, great nieces and nephews, and keep up on their doings.  Guthrie is on Facebook and Instagram; Ingrid does not do social media, preferring her conversations to be face to face with real friends.  In fact, a few years ago we were in a restaurant in Saskatoon, and saw a family whose son was in grade school with Guthrie.  We said hi, then a bit later the son showed up.  It turned out to be a birthday celebration for the son.  Andrea suggested that Guthrie go over and say hi; he said no (he's notoriously shy), and said that he'd already said happy birthday on Facebook.  So this guy is a Facebook friend, but not someone you're willing to have a conversation with.  Very strange.

I have no idea how Twitter or Instagram works, and no real interest either.  I guess that my only social media presence is through this blog, which I started several years ago.  At the time I was under attack by most of the rest of council, and Andrea suggested that this would be a way of getting out my perspective on the situation.  Interestingly, at the time, the idea that I would take matters into my own hands, and present a different viewpoint really surprised and annoyed my fellow councillors.  One even got up at a council meeting to say that he didn't want to read about a witch hunt (I had suggested that most of council was just interested in forcing me to resign), I pointed out to him that nobody was forcing him to read the blog, but I wasn't going to stop.  And over the years it's proven to be a valuable tool in keeping city residents and others informed - many people have told me that they appreciate the information that I provide.

Facebook has a lot of clutter.  Andrea logs in maybe once a day, and sometimes complains that the newsfeed is filled with posts that have resulted from people sharing, liking, trying to win contests, or reposting stuff from news media or other sites.  And she doesn't even have that many Facebook friends.  She has figured out how to block some ads, and scrolls through everything else.  So far the benefits are outweighing the costs for her, although she occasionally comments on how most people post about the fun things that they're doing, not about the full spectrum of life.

From what I understand, during the election, the stuff posted by candidates on Facebook tended to the negative.  And because of the size limitations, postings tended to be short and not necessarily relevant to the real issues that face this city.  Pictures are not always worth 1,000 words if you don't know the full context.

And then there are the comments.  Anybody with access to a computer can post a comment, and more often than not, there doesn't appear to be much thought put into being relevant.  Usually it's just trying to make somebody else look bad - as I've said before, people will say things about you on-line that they wouldn't dream of saying to your face.

And once something is posted, it's there.  You can delete a post, but if someone, somewhere, gets a screen shot of your post, it's available forever.  One councillor has found this out, and is now scrambling to justify a post which he made before announcing his candidacy, in which he suggested that the city needs to have a safe injection site out by the landfill, and that we should just let the herd eventually thin itself.  I'm not sure how quickly he deleted it, but not quickly enough - it's been reposted on other sites, and this week a local news site asked him about it.  At the least, it's an embarrassing thing to happen that could have been prevented by not hitting post so quickly, and maybe by having someone else review it, both for grammar and for possible repercussions.

I'm not the final word on what this blog says - Andrea reviews every blog, not just for spelling and grammar, but for accuracy.  If something has been said in a news report, for example, the numbers should match.  She also is a good reviewer for tone - it's okay to be angry, it's not okay to be nasty.  And she's a firm believer in the adage that you shouldn't put anything in writing that you wouldn't want read out loud at your funeral.

Social media is a tool, but it's not the be-all and end-all.  There are some very smart people who don't feel the need to post pictures of their meals, or their vacations, and it's usually worth the effort to make personal contact.  And it's important to remember that if you want your message to get out to everyone, not everyone has computer access.  Don't assume that just because you picked up a number of likes on your post that it means that you have the full support of the community.  Prince Albert is bigger and more diverse than that.

"Say it, forget it; write it, regret it." - Judge Marilyn Milian (The People's Court)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Leadership and Integrity on Council - Maybe Not So Much

The council meeting this week featured a bit of a bombshell - the revelation that one councillor actually owes the city more than $176,000 in back taxes for his business, and council voted to then take back the property.

It should make every tax paying resident of this city angry.  In effect, the councillor, elected to represent residents, seems to expect that the other tax payers will subsidize his business, because for several years (not the two years that the city financial manager implied was the situation in a newspaper interview) the business has continued to receive city services without paying the legally mandated amount of taxes.  This is, in essence, breaking a city bylaw.

That the individual is now on council is an added insult.  I don't know about  you, but I expect that the people who want to represent citizens on council will set a good example, and that means following the rules.  Trying to rationalize such behaviour by claiming that employees pay taxes so that makes up for it is ridiculous - every other business in town that has employees could use the same pathetic excuse, and we'd be in worse financial shape than we are now.  And for someone who claims that revitalizing the downtown is paramount, the fact that the Business Improvement District is funded directly through the taxes paid by the businesses involved is an important note and a further insult.  No taxes paid means that the BID was shorted too.

One would think that someone with integrity would have come clean about this before the election, if only to demonstrate openness and transparency - you know, those things that council keeps talking about as if they were important guiding principles.  It wasn't a secret to those of us on council - those who owe back taxes are listed every year.  However, it's brought forward as an in camera item, and thus members of council are bound by our oath of office, as matters discussed in camera are not to be made public.  That's not to say that an enterprising news outlet, say, couldn't have done a Freedom of Information request before the election, but they were perhaps too busy digging up dirt on other candidates to make the effort.  Or perhaps other factors came into play.

As usual, things like this bring up more questions.  Are there other large tax bills outstanding?  What is the city's practice in dealing with deadbeats like this?  Is it standard, as it should be, or do we make allowances for some businesses or individuals and not for others?  Are we tougher on residents than we are on businesses?  Our dealings with everyone, resident or business, should be the same.  And why are these matters kept confidential through in camera meetings?  I suppose that once legal action has commenced, it does fall under allowable reasons for in camera, but a published listing of those who owe taxes would probably embarrass some into paying before legal action was necessary.

I feel very strongly that not following city rules should make individuals ineligible for public office.  After all, these are the people making the rules, and it's a legitimate question to wonder how, for example, they should be allowed to set tax rates if they have no plans for payment.

And I feel badly for those individuals who voted for this person.  If I were one of those, I would feel betrayed - by the lack of openness, by the lack of respect, by the lack of leadership and integrity.  I can only hope that the city starts to work at improving the tax collection processes to prevent situations getting to this level.  After all, those people who don't pay their taxes mean that those of us who do, pay more to make up the difference.  And that should make everybody sit up, take notice, and demand change.

"You can either be a good example or a horrible warning." - Catherine Aird

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Another Group Home Proposal; The Same Old Excuses

I see that another group home proposal has come forward to council for approval - this time in Ward 5.  As usual, the same old trumped up excuses are being raised as a smokescreen for keeping people "not like us" out of the neighbourhood.  I say trumped up, because none of the excuses being put forward has the benefit of being based on fact, but only on emotion, and that emotion is fear.

This proposal is for a home for children.  A maximum of five, between the ages of 9 and 12.  So, of course, one of the reasons being put forward is concerns about parking, even though the proposed location has sufficient parking for staff, and I'm pretty sure that children that age aren't driving, let alone owning their own vehicles.  Another is the eternal concern over property values, even though there is no evidence that having a group home in a neighbourhood has any effect.

People seem to forget that, if it were an ordinary sale of a house to a private individual, neighbours have no control over these things anyway.  Your neighbours may be loud, have parties, keep more vehicles than you would, or play music into the night that is not too your liking.  Good luck at stopping them from moving in.

But to me the really sad part about this is that every single member of council elected in the last election spouted concerns about reducing crime in the city.  And we have several years of advice, and are trying to move forward with our dealing with rising crime rates through initiatives such as the Hub and Core, where we know that helping children on the right path is the long-term solution.  Here is an opportunity to do just that, but that doesn't seem to come up in the discussions.

This home would offer children in unstable situations some stability - the ability to continue to go to school, be fed, and have a safe place to sleep.  For most of us, we take those advantages for granted; for a sad proportion of the citizens of Prince Albert, it isn't the case.  And people would rather hide behind their fears of what may or may not happen, than do the right thing.

Ironically, this is something that council could show some leadership on, because it is actually within their control, unlike fake goals like safe injection sites, which are outside council control.  I hate to break it to members of council, but your job is to do what will make the city better, not just worry about getting re-elected in four years.  And leadership is doing the right thing, not just parroting what your more vocal and fearful constituents tell you to say.  As Andrea said this week, if the NDP had put their concerns about re-election ahead of doing the right thing back in 1960, we wouldn't have medicare.  They lost the next election, but set the example for the rest of Canada that we now take for granted and brag about.  That was leadership.

I attended the rally at City Hall on Thursday evening, to demonstrate my support for diversity within our community after the shocking killings in Quebec City last week.  Another irony - at the same time as residents were showing their support for Muslims, a closed door meeting was being held with residents of Ward 5,  including city staff, presumably so that residents could air their concerns about diversity anonymously, too cowardly to demonstrate publicly the courage of their convictions.  So much for transparency in discussions, yet another council commitment conveniently forgotten.

Residents have promised to pack the next council meeting, a proven method for intimidating council into doing what a few dozen shouting individuals want.  I hope to be pleasantly surprised by council standing up for themselves, but don't expect more than one or two to resist.  Much easier to go along with the crowd.

As long as our leadership says one thing, but does another, don't expect this city to move forward.  And mourn yet another lost opportunity to make life better for children who already have enough issues to deal with.

"Never, never be afraid to do what is right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal  is at stake.  Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way."  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Ward 3 Community Meeting - Deja Vu All Over Again

I went to the Ward 3 community meeting a week and a bit ago - sadly, it was pretty much as I expected.  A repetition of the issues raised at the previous two meetings, generic reports from city staff that didn't relate directly to comments or suggestions made by residents at those meetings, and no reports of actual actions taken or budgetary commitments to action.

By my count, 14 highly paid city staff were there, with about twice as many ward residents.  The meeting itself showed poor planning - it was at Riverside School, but the gym wasn't available, so we were crammed into the library, which isn't meant for large meetings, and the various displays were put up in the hallways, which meant awkward transfers of people from the library to the hall and back again, and of course, there wasn't room in the hallway for people to have a clear look at the displays and ask questions.

I've been to all three meetings, and some of the audience was new, while others had been to one or both of the previous meetings.  In talking to some of those who had been at previous meetings, they were disappointed that it was just the same old message being delivered again, and nothing seemed to be focused on the particular issues of the ward.  One would hope that at some point, city staff would move away from solutions proposed in books to adapting those solutions to something that will actually work in the particular conditions found in the ward.  And then put those solutions into the city budget, so that action could actually take place.

It was also disappointing to hear a resident raise an issue,and then have staff dismiss the proposed solution.  This resident commented about how it's difficult walking her dogs in the winter, because the lack of sidewalks, particularly along the avenues, means that she has to walk in the road, which is definitely dangerous.  The response from city staff - sidewalks are expensive.  Yes, they are.  But I would hope that residential safety would warrant spending money both to improve safely and make the area more attractive to residential traffic, which has been proven to also reduce crime, another ongoing concern.  Unfortunately, the current council would rather allocate a half million dollars of tax money to pave the Art Hauser parking lot, or figure out how to get 2 million dollars to irrigate the golf course with potable water.  Where they actually take action shows what their real priorities are.

I wish that council, rather than always expecting taxpayers to pick up the tab, would look more at directing a portion of user fees for those expenditures that benefit only a few.  For example, a surcharge of fifty cents on each ticket sold for events at the Art Hauser Centre could be put into a fund to pay for parking lot upgrades.  Similarly, golfers should already be paying for water (it's provided by the city free of charge, unlike the drinking water that comes into your home), and irrigation improvements should be part of the fees collected from golfers, the actual beneficiaries.

I also wish that I could figure out a better way of getting input from the public rather than these wasteful, of both time and money, public meetings.  I know that some members of the public have good ideas, but it's only discouraging to those who take the time to come to these meetings to have their issues agreed with, but then no action taken.

In fact, it was almost funny to hear the city planner talk about how parks are really important, to residents of a ward that has no city parks.  Not one.  I'm not sure if the city planner knows that, because he certainly didn't follow up with any plans to rectify the situation.  That's the problem with planning.  Unless it's followed up with action, it's just so much talk.  We've heard the talk, three times now.  It's more than time for some action, not just confirming the issues.

"Words may show a man's wit, but actions his meaning." - Ben Franklin

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Code of Ethics - Will It Make a Difference?

The province is requiring that the city adopt a code of ethics.  As with most initiatives, this was brought on by a problem, this time in a municipality where the province had to get involved to remove someone who was acting unethically, in conflict of interest.  They believe, or hope, that making each community have a code of ethics to guide its elected officials will prevent such problems in the future, even though most councils in the province already had councillors taking an oath that they would excuse themselves from discussions in which they had a pecuniary interest..

Just having a code of ethics won't solve all the problems.  Unless there are clear lines of responsibility for enforcing the code, what will happen if someone breaks the code?  It might end up like the current situation for enforcing election rules.  For example, if someone submits their nomination papers with ineligible signatures, the City Clerk doesn't take any action.  It has to go to court, which costs money for the individual bringing the complaint.  And that's when the rules are black and white.  Ethics tend to be more subjective - treating other members of council with respect is something that might be difficult to judge (and making a complaint about it would likely be a waste of everybody's time).

If a decision is made by council that something was unethical, there are more problems.  If all it takes is a majority of council members to decide what behaviours cross that ethical line, previous councils have shown that most council members will drift to the majority vote, if only to avoid the wrath of the mayor.  And what actions might be taken?  In my third term on council, most of the members of council thought that I should resign, and seemed to expect that the wish of the majority should force me to do so.  They were quite surprised when I told them that only a judge could remove a member of council from office, and they never had the courage of their conviction to take that step, knowing that they were on shaky ground.  The penalties for someone found in fault of the code of ethics will have to be understood and fall within the legal limits, otherwise the potential for a majority of council members to gang up on someone who is simply raising a concern that others want to sweep under the rug is too great.

One example of this is the tendency of council to try to hide things that should be public by moving topics in camera, so that not only can the public not see the discussion, but council members aren't supposed to divulge what was discussed.  The Cities Act is quite clear about this, but quite often the majority of council is more than willing to move things that might prove embarrassing into private discussions - not a good reason in my opinion, nor a reason that is in the Cities Act.  If someone raises this as being unethical, whether a member of council or a member of the public, what action will be possible if the majority of council decides that it is ethical.  As I've said, most members of council aren't at all familiar with the Cities Act, and show no tendencies to become more knowledgeable.

And there are bigger issues out there that should be covered by changes to the Cities Act, not just in a code of conduct that can be changed by council.  For example, right now the limitations to who can be on council are pretty basic - you have to be a Canadian citizen, and a resident of the community which you wish to represent for a certain period of time.  I think that more serious concerns should be addressed - for example, if you owe the city money, whether it be for taxes or parking tickets, you should be ineligible to run for office (and the City Clerk should be able to reject your nomination papers).  To me that's a basic ethical question - if you can't follow the city rules, what right have you to be in a position to establish those rules.

Sadly, I'm quite sure that council will adopt a code of ethics, and applaud themselves for doing so.  I'm equally sure that it will focus on things like treating each other with respect, and following all applicable legislation.  And just like the current rules, council members will find a way around the rules to get to do what they want.

The basic truth is that people who need a code of ethics to tell them the difference between right and wrong, are not the kind of people who should be in positions of authority.  Unfortunately, the democratic system hasn't yet figured out a way of keeping them out.

"Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is right to do." - Potter Stewart

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Community Meetings - Are They Accomplishing Anything?

The city has now started its third round of community meetings, with the first being held in Ward 1 this past week.  Although the article in the paper didn't mention it, it attracted a crowd of fifteen.  And once again, the meeting was filled with people voicing complaints, with no realistic solutions being proposed.  I would have hoped that by this point, the city planners who are running the show would have developed some proposed strategies to address some of the problems - strategies that would take into account the unique features of the area in question, and recognize the realities of restricted budgets.

I know that it's difficult to get people to move beyond discussing problems to discussing solutions - that's why the city planners should be facilitating the group to find solutions, not just take notes about complaints  yet again on how people want to feel safe in their neighbourhoods, and have better access to recreational facilities.  These meetings have a cost to the city, and therefore to the taxpayer, and one would hope that in the time between meetings the focus is on how to move to the next phase.  I know that the previous two meetings that I attended in Ward 3, the meeting content was pretty much identical between the two, and nothing that couldn't have been predicted.  It's a shame that city administrators keep holding these meetings, and get people's hopes up that some action will be forthcoming, but then fail to move forward.

I also think that not providing information about what is already available in each ward has been an oversight.  It would help to illustrate that some wards are sorely lacking in some of the amenities (like parks) and facilities.  One of the issues that I continually tried to raise in my time on council was the need to bring parity between wards, rather that providing additional facilities in areas that already have several.  It's no secret that Ward 3 is woefully lacking in green space, and even the public tennis court, at Midtown Hall, has been allowed to disintegrate to the point where it is unusable.

I also wonder if any effort has been made to invite people representing different organizations, rather than just opening the doors, posting a notice on Facebook, and hoping that people show up.  What happens in the current situation is that people with a particular axe to grind show up, but people who might represent organizations that could help don't show up.  When Andrea was involved in land use planning for the province, she found that people who were specifically invited to represent their organization would show up, and often have valuable advice to offer from their perspective.

Finally, the city planner said that he wants to put together a committee made up of twelve representatives from each ward.  That would be a group of close to one hundred - not really feasible for developing solutions.  It's the kind of suggestion that only a little thinking about exposes its inherent unworkability.  The idea that the more people you crowd into a committee means that more viewpoints can  be heard is understandable, but would make for meetings at which you have a choice - either only a few people can speak, or everyone can, making meetings interminable, and very quickly, people will stop coming.  Another concern is where the money to fund this gigantic committee is going to come from.  These ideas should be thought through before being said publicly.

Personally, I think that planning for the sake of planning is a good way of avoiding taking any action.  It's a good way of looking like you are doing something, without actually doing anything constructive.  It's like being on a firing range, and going ready, aim, aim, aim, aim - forgetting that your actual objective is to fire, to find out how good your aim actually is.  Like many city residents, I would much rather see action than another committee set up to complain about problems that have been known about for years.

"A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow." - George Patton