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