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.