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