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