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.