Sunday, May 24, 2015

Garbage Pick-up Update

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the decision by council to move from large dumpsters to individual garbage bins for the residents on my block.  The dumpsters were often overloaded, particularly at the end of the month when apartment residents would move out and leave large piles of material in and around the dumpsters, and people from outside the city seemed to think that pulling up at a dumpster and filling it with their garbage was an acceptable alternative to taking it to the landfill themselves.

The change, as directed by council, was supposed to happen by May 15th, and the owners of the apartment buildings in the block were to be notified that they would have to start using a commercial garbage service, like most of the multiple unit buildings in the city.

May 15th came and went, with no change.  So after the long weekend, I spoke with the city manager, wondering why nothing had happened.  His excuse was that he has a lot of balls in the air.  That's not acceptable to me - if something that council has decided will happen isn't going to happen, then the time to let us know that it isn't going to happen is before the deadline, not after.

Friday morning (May 22nd), Andrea and I were enjoying breakfast on the deck when a city truck went down the back alley, picking up the blue recycling bins.  After Andrea expressed some regret that we had a bin of newspapers inside, waiting to be taken out, I wondered why they weren't picking up the other dumpsters, the ones for garbage.  I also wondered why the city hadn't delivered any notification to residents, before starting the process.  It was only a few minutes before I got my first phone call from a resident, wondering what was going on.  Then another resident stopped by on his bike - he had been told that the city was just taking the recycling bins, but leaving the garbage bins, because the apartment buildings didn't have commercial bins.

Unfortunately, the problem wasn't with the recycling bin - it was with the garbage bins.  And the direction in the motion passed by council had been quite clear - individual residences were to have their own roll-out blue bins and garbage bins, and the apartment buildings were to have commercial bins, by May 15th.

Later in the morning a notice was delivered, so I called the number in the notice to find out what was going on.  Not only was that individual not around, apparently nobody else was aware of the situation.  I was told that I could call back next week.  Someone else that I talked to told me that the city didn't have any 300 gallon dumpsters - since that is what we have now, it was an indication of how poor the communication about this issue has been at City Hall.

The city's version of customer service had struck once again.

A short while later our blue bin was delivered.  Since nobody in the Sanitation Department seemed to know what was going on, I left a message with the City Manager, outlining my disappointment in the lack of follow-through of a direction made by a motion of council.

When Andrea and I got back from our usual Friday morning routine of errands, a city vehicle was dropping off individual garbage bins.  I talked with one of the workers, who was writing Apts. Only in marker on the remaining large dumpsters in the alley.  This apparently is the stop-gap measure to be used until the apartment buildings get commercial bins - I'll be finding out next week when they got the notice, and how long they've been given.

So once again I've been annoyed by the lack of action from city hall staff, by the poor communication and coordination among staff, and by the uncoordinated approach of dealing with city residents.  I have a feeling that if I hadn't raised the fact that the target date for bin replacement had passed, I, and the other residents of the block, would still be waiting for our bins.  I don't think that it's part of my job to remind the people who are supposed to coordinate the work done by city staff of the direction that they have been given - that should be part of their work planning process.

We've made some difficult decisions over the last few years with regard to staff.  At some point, I hope that both the new and old staff realize that our expectation is that it wasn't that we wanted different people doing the job the same way, but that we wanted the job done differently.  So far, that hasn't happened.

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading." - Lao Tzu

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Is a Council Meeting the Place for Prayer?

There's been some talk over the past few weeks about the recent Supreme Court decision that prayer at city council meetings is not constitutional.  The decision was largely based on the idea that prayer in a public place is exclusionary - that those who do not share in the beliefs being prayed about are being excluded.

So far our city council has not made any change, although there was some talk about getting a legal opinion (although we're a city council, which was the specific object of the decision, which makes it pretty clear to me).  Regina stopped having their opening prayer immediately; other councils have not made any changes that I'm aware of.

As far as I can tell, most members of council feel that we should continue with prayer, because that's what we've traditionally done.  Others have said that they see no harm in it, and one councillor bemoaned the increasing atheism of society, confusing atheism (a lack of belief in God) with secularism (excluding religious activities from public events).  And some have said that they appreciate the opportunity to gather their thoughts before a meeting.

Personally, I think that we don't need to have a prayer before a meeting.  It's not that I'm against religion - I attend church regularly, have been on my church council, and currently am a member of the board of trustees of my church.  But I know that everyone does not share in my beliefs, and I don't think that a governing body that is supposed to represent everyone in a community should assume that everyone is comfortable with public prayer.  We may think that the prayer is broadly ecumenical and doesn't exclude anybody, but that's an easy assumption to make when you're in the Christian majority.

Tradition is a fine thing, but it's a poor excuse for continuing a behaviour that some may find offensive or exclusionary.  We used to call members of council aldermen, ignoring the fact that such a term excluded fifty per cent of society.  It's not too difficult to find examples of things that used to be tradition, but have been changed or abandoned over the years - remember when stores were closed on Sundays?

As for the opportunity to gather thoughts, nobody is stopping individual councillors from doing that on their own, silently.  I can't think of any other workplace where people pray communally before starting their work - are we suggesting that making decisions at council requires more spiritual guidance than any other job that requires making decisions?

One of my favourite constituents, who passed away recently, phoned me once after a meeting of the previous council, asking if I could get her a copy of the prayer.  When I asked her why, she said that it didn't appear as though many members of council were actually listening to the prayer, judging by their behaviour during the meeting.  That made me laugh, but it also showed the pointlessness of this public display of piety - why bother with it if you're going to forget what was said as soon as the prayer is over?

To me, prayer is an extremely personal thing that doesn't need to be public.  For council to continue to do so, even after the Supreme Court has declared the practice to be unconstitutional, is ignoring the realities of our current society, and excluding people whose beliefs may differ from our own, but who still deserve to feel completely welcome at a city council meeting.

"Never pray for justice, because you might get some."  - Margaret Atwood

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Garbage Options

Garbage pick-up, or as it's identified on your water bill, sanitation services, is probably one of the more crucial services that the city provides - right up there with providing clean water and safe streets.  If you've ever been in a city during a garbage strike, you'll remember how quickly the effects are felt.  Andrea was in Toronto a few years ago during their last garbage strike, and she still remembers how public garbage cans were taped up, full of garbage, to try to prevent more garbage from being added, and how piles of garbage in public parks made things most unpleasant.

While we haven't had to suffer through anything like that, it doesn't mean that we should be complacent about our garbage system, or not try to make improvements.  This is the first year in some time that we've actually reviewed the sanitation budget, and it's something that we should be doing annually, rather than just assuming that the status quo is good enough.

For starters, there are inequities in the system.  Most residents have roll-out bins, with separate bins for garbage and recyclables.  However, some older neighbourhoods (including mine), which still have back alleys, have large communal bins, two or three garbage bins for every recycle bin.  One of the reasons that we kept with the communal bins several years ago was that some residents, particularly seniors, were concerned about their ability to manage rolling out a bin.  However, their are a couple of major downsides to communal bins.  One is that some people seem to think that they should be able to use these bins even if they don't live in the houses that they serve - more than once I've seen pick-up trucks dumping large amounts of garbage into my bin, and when it was full, move on to the next one down the alley.  The other is that people seem to think that they can just leave garbage there, in or out of the bin, including broken furniture, bicycles, and boxes of clothing.  These are not picked up during the regular runs of the garbage truck, so can hang about for weeks until finally getting removed.

We don't treat apartment buildings equally.  Some are required to have commercial pick up, which they pay for themselves.  Others, including the three buildings in the block behind my house, are allowed to use the communal bins.  However, the cost per unit is much less than for the houses on the other side of the alley, even though the volume of garbage produced by the multiple units in each building is much greater than that produced by my house and my next door neighbour.  And often, at moving time, anything left behind by the departing resident is just dumped into the communal bin by the landlord, at no extra charge.  I think that we should move all multiple unit buildings to the same standard, rather than giving some breaks, which end up costing the city money, and requiring neighbours to have to do extra clean-up.

For me, the final straw was walking down the alley one afternoon, and finding a pile of hundreds of needles by a communal bin.  It appeared as though drug users had been taking shelter between the bin and the fence of the home behind to shoot up, then just tossing the needles.  That opportunity wouldn't be there if each residence had its own, roll-out bin.

I called city administration, but after waiting for two weeks for someone to call me back, I just went straight to council, asking to have individual roll-out bins for my block.  Although I didn't get unanimous support, because apparently a couple of my colleagues don't agree that all residents should have access to the same services, it did pass, and my neighbours and I will be getting roll-out bins by the middle of May.  The owners of the three apartment buildings will have to make their own arrangements.  I'm looking forward to having room in my own garbage and recycling bins.

Recycling is another area where we could improve.  I've mentioned before the problems with garbage being placed in recycling bins, both private and communal, which results in the entire recycling load having to go to the landfill.  As well, we have the additional pick-up of clear bags containing leaves and other yard waste, which requires an additional truck with three staff.  I think that we should do as Saskatoon has started doing - have a subscription service for recycling, with an additional bin, so that those who require the service then have three bins - black, blue and green.  I think that it would also be quite reasonable to penalize those who, for whatever reason, don't understand how not to put garbage into a recycling bin.  If garbage is found in your recycling bin, you should lose the opportunity, and have a surcharge on your sanitation fee, since the whole point of recycling is to reduce the demand on the landfill.  And while we're at it, we could have different rates for different sizes of garbage bins, to encourage people to recycle as much as possible, and further minimize what ends up at the landfill.

I would be greatly encouraged if administration could investigate some of these options, so that next year when we look at the sanitation budget, it's more than just the same old thing.  Garbage is not something that's going away, but there's always opportunity for improvement.

"Human society sustains itself by transforming nature into garbage." - Mason Cooley

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Customer Service - What a Concept

A comment often made, by both residents and members of council, is that the city should be run like a business.  I think that when people say that, whether they're part of council or not, they mean that we need to be conscious of spending money wisely, investing in the long-term, and looking for the most efficient way of operating, whether it's running facilities or maintaining infrastructure.

What isn't usually discussed is one of the basic tenets of running a business - providing good customer service.  I had an experience last week that illustrated to me how many of our city employees don't realize that one of their responsibilities is providing good customer service, as they are usually the front line in dealing with the tax payer, who is the customer for the many services that the city provides.

I got a notice from the city over an assessment issue, with a phone number to contact if I wanted more information.  Since I wanted more information, I dialed the number.  The following conversation went like this.

City employee: "Financial Services."

Me: "Who am I speaking to?"

City employee: "Financial Services."

Me: "I know that.  Who am I speaking to?"

City Employee (rather rudely): "Who's this."

Me: "Councillor Lee Atkinson, and I'd like to speak to XXX (the individual who had signed the letter)."

City Employee (slightly more pleasant tone): "He's in Regina." At this point, I would have expected an offer to take a message, an inquiry as to what I was calling about, in case someone else could help me, or at least some information as to when the individual who had signed the letter would be back, or possibly all three.  I got nothing.

Me:  "Okay, I'd like to speak to Joe Day (the director of Financial Services)."

City Employee:  "He's in a meeting."  Again, no interest in why I was calling, or any interest in helping me with whatever my problem is.

Me:  "Never mind, I'll call the City Manager."

I hung up, angry because I had followed the directions in the letter for further information, and was not helped one bit by whoever answered the phone.  This is a good illustration of what I'm often told by frustrated residents who have contacted City Hall with a question or concern - not much help, and a reluctance to identify oneself, so that a person may be told one thing one day, and a different thing the next, but can't tell who the individual was who provided information that may have been faulty.

When I shared this with Andrea, a long-time government employee, she was amazed.  The standard in her workplace is that you always identify yourself when you answer the phone, and if you can't help the person on the other end, you find someone who can.  Their guideline for response to phone inquiries is within 24 hours.  Since I never received a response from the Sanitation Department to an inquiry I made about roll-out garbage bins more than two weeks ago (I finally just went directly to Council with my request), I'm pretty sure that no such standard has been set for city employees.

I suppose that some employees might think that providing good customer service doesn't matter, because it's not like we have any competition in our business.  That being said, it is more efficient to deal with a customer's question the first time it's asked, rather than making them keep trying - you're saving not just their time, but also the time of other city employees who might answer the phone next time, or the time of people up the line who may eventually have to step in to deal with an increasingly annoyed customer.

It's also just plain good manners.  We have signs posted at our cashier stations, warning people who are there to pay water bills or parking tickets that they need to be respectful.  That's more likely to happen if the respect also happens the other way.

Some of my council colleagues have raised suggestions that the city needs to develop a slogan or a brand to help sell ourselves.  I would suggest that if we start with the people who are the first line of customer response, ensuring that they are polite, helpful, and don't think that their job is done until the customer is satisfied, that would be a much less costly way of building our city's reputation, with the people who really count, the people who live here.

Me?  I'm still waiting for an answer to my question.

"You can get through life with bad manners, but it's easier with good manners."  Lillian Gish

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Couple of Things I Didn't Know About the Needle Exchange Program

Friday morning as Andrea and I were headed out to get groceries, we had an unpleasant surprise.  Dumped on the boulevard by our house was what appeared to be a pile of garbage.  When I took a closer look, it turned out to be a large pile of drug paraphernalia - needles, both used and unused, alcohol swabs, cotton balls, spoons, elastics, a variety of capsules (blue, pink, green and yellow), bloody paper towels and tissues, zip-lock bags.  And when I say large, I mean large - more than sixty needles.

How and why this pile of garbage got there I don't know - I know that it wasn't there the afternoon before.  While I'm sort of accustomed to seeing needles in the gutters as we walk downtown everyday, and on a recent walk down our back alley I found a horrendous pile of needles between a dumpster and a neighbour's fence, it was more than a little upsetting to see this, on a boulevard where children walk to school every day, and people walk their dogs.

So I called the Harm Reduction Program, and two people came to pick this stuff up.  Since I had them handy, I asked a couple of questions, and the answers surprised me, and might surprise you.  Since there were so many needles, I asked how many needles they hand out to any individual at any one time.  The answer was, to my mind, unbelievable and indefensible.


What possible reason can there be to hand out twenty needles at one time?  I suppose that an argument could be made that it saves the user repeated trips to the Harm Reduction Office.  But I'm not sure what part of harm reduction is delivered by making it easier for the user to take drugs - I would have thought that reduction meant encouraging less use, not more.  And of course, more needles makes it easier to share, and increase the number of drug users, not decrease.

The other piece of rather surprising information is that it's not really a needle exchange program, despite the name.  To get those twenty needles, the user does not have to turn in twenty needles.  Nope.  Not even one.  The rather impressive figures handed out to illustrate the success of the program count every needle turned in as a return.  But that includes the needles that are placed in drop boxes, the needles picked up by the Fire Department, and the needles picked up by the Harm Reduction Program, including the sixty-odd that they picked up on Friday from the boulevard outside my home.  That's how they get a shortfall of only 81,196 needles from the 2012-13 year, when they handed out 1,278,150 needles and got back 1,196,854.

 I think that using the phrase needle exchange is being somewhat misleading - no exchange takes place.  Needles go out, needles come back, but needles are not exchanged.  I also think that handing needles out in such large numbers in a single transaction is only making the problem worse, and I really don't see how the city can support such a program.

I understand that providing needles helps to prevent other complications.  But I resent the program being presented as something other than what it is, and numbers being used to present as rosy a picture as possible.  Develop a program with some realistic controls, be honest about how it's working, and maybe we can work together to reduce the number of needles that keep showing up on our streets.

"Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth." - Buddha

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Flood Worries

Back in the 1970s, the provincial government established guidelines for floodways and 100 year flood zones.  This was well before my time living here, let alone being on council, and I'm not sure if it was ever adopted by the city, or factored into any decisions, since building has subsequently occurred within that zone without any restrictions.  More recently, in the time of the previous mayor, more restrictive zoning, to allow for a 500 year flood zone, was established by the province.  Flood zones are merely a way of assessing risk, that at some point within the specified time frame, it is more than 90% likely that a flood will occur which extends to the area within the zone.

It is, of course, a difficult prediction, with the accuracy of the prediction being reduced the longer it's extended.  And climate change makes it even more difficult to make accurate predictions.  Nevertheless, the province has set a new 500 year flood zone, which council has not yet adopted.  Our new city planner has suggested that we do so, to enable us to move forward with a new community plan.

Thursday evening we held a community meeting, and we will hold another meeting in May.  Not surprisingly, the couple of hundred people in attendance had many questions, and unfortunately we don't have a lot of answers.  But starting with questions is a good first step, although we're in a bit of a difficult spot - the province has set the rule, and we can't fight it or opt out, we just have to figure out how to move forward.  I think having these meetings is a good first step in doing that.

What most people want to know is what difference this will make moving forward.  The rules for new house construction are clear - the lack of clarity comes with how current home owners and their properties are affected.  For example, are they required to flood-proof their residences?  Apparently, this is not  mandatory, but it isn't clear what would happen if you don't take those steps, and then are affected by a flood.  Will there be areas that are off-limits for any new construction, no matter what adaptations are made?

Not surprisingly, most of the questions that came at the meeting related to the effect that these new guidelines will have on current property values.  Will there be a caveat attached to properties in the event of resale?  I think that anyone can understand the concern that people have when what is probably their greatest financial asset may no longer be valued at what it might have been, but it is also true that the value of a property can't be definitively set until it is sold.

Change is a constant in everyone's lives - our best recourse is to determine the range of potential effects, and try to mitigate them whenever possible.  We can't guarantee that those whose homes lie within the new flood zone guidelines will not have to deal with some change, but the more questions we can find answers for, and the more information that we can provide, either through meetings, reports, or one-on-one conversations, the better prepared we will be for whatever lies ahead.

"It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark." - Howard Ruff

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Balancing Risk with Reality

Last week's council meeting featured our decision on supporting three community events, using the previously budgeted $50,000.  I asked that the three requests be separated, but was refused, so I had to vote against all three, even though I only have serious reservations about the realistic prospects of one, the proposed Borealis Music Festival, which asked for, and received, $15,000 of the total amount, as well as $15,000 of in-kind support.

Of the three, only the baseball tournament actually managed to put in its proposal a year ahead of time, which is one of the prerequisites, but most other councillors were okay with approving all three.  The reasoning behind having groups submit proposals a year ahead of time is the recognition that a successful event of provincial or national scope cannot be pulled together in the space of a few months, but in this case, impatience ruled the day.

It was unfortunate that one councillor chose to respond to my questions with personal insults rather than reasoned debate, but I guess that's what you do when you don't have good answers.  Responding that way does no favours to either me, the rest of council, or the public, and it certainly doesn't provide the public with what they deserve - a council that shows it is thoughtful before spending tax payers' money.

My over-riding concern with the proposed music festival is that, while I'm sure the proponents are well-intentioned, they haven't done the required homework, and they're trying to be too big, too fast, before they know whether this is a good idea or not.  I know that you never know if something will work for sure before you try it, but I also know that most successful ventures didn't spring fully grown and massive their first year.

For example, the music festival has a projected attendance of 5,000 people a day.  That's a lot.  They compare themselves to other festivals, ignoring the fact that these festivals have long histories, and have built reputations and a client base over that time.  So while it might seem reasonable to feel that this festival would be comparable to Ness Creek, held near Big River, which has an annual attendance of around 4,000, the hard fact that has been ignored is that Ness Creek has been around for 25 years, has developed its brand of ecological awareness and home-grown music, and its attendance in the first year was around 200.  It grew over time, which is only reasonable.

The promoters have not identified the type of music that will be offered, saying that they don't want to tie themselves down.  Unfortunately, by not having a brand, they aren't likely to attract people who are unfamiliar with the specific bands that will be there.  If you like folk music, you may go to the Regina or Winnipeg Folk Festivals, even if you haven't heard of all of the musicians, because you know that music in a style that you like will be offered.  But if you don't even know the genre, why would you drop $50 (for one day) on the off-chance that you'll like the music.

The promoters are also thinking that transporting people in from the lakes will swell the crowds.  My gut feeling is that people who go to the lake on a long weekend do so because they want to be at the lake.  If the weather is good, why on earth would you be interested in coming back into the city?  If the weather is lousy, attending an open-air music festival isn't going to be a popular option.  And people are likely to be unwilling to depend on a bus to get them back and forth - people like the flexibility that having their own vehicle offers, even if there is totally inadequate parking.

Merchandising is a big part of their proposed business model, with projected beer sales of 2 per attendee, and the assumption that most attendees will spend money on a T shirt.  Again, if I've spent $50 just to get in the gate, I'm not going to be willing to spend that much again on beer and a T shirt, so perhaps testing the waters for demand in the first year would be prudent, rather than sinking money into merchandise.

And probably most crucial, this all has to be pulled together in four months.  That's not a lot of lead time when you still need to put together the organizational team, and sign enough acts for three days, especially when they say that they will be operating in multiple, undefined venues. Both Ness Creek and the Regina Folk Festival are advertising their line-ups now, and are selling passes.  The Borealis Music Festival web-site is still under construction, with only five acts listed.  The proponents haven't even set up the required registered non-profit group, but are operating through the Tourism and Marketing Board.

As I said, I got no answers to my questions, which isn't surprising.  It's not that I'm against Prince Albert doing what it can to attract people, but we shouldn't extrapolate numbers from other events, or other communities, and assume that the same results will occur here, for a product that hasn't been defined, on a long weekend.  Yes, people travel from outside the community for events at the Rawlinson Centre, but there aren't 5,000 of them at a time, and they aren't coming for a non-defined event.

I'm sure that the reason that I didn't get answers to my questions is because the organizers don't have them yet.  Part of that may be because they've rushed into this, without realizing the time, people and research required to reduce the risks and increase the odds of success.  It's a shame that, because they're in such a rush to do something this year, they may reduce the chance of building something that would last.  And that will make it harder to get support in the future - a big price to pay for not doing the research up front.

"Sometimes questions are more important than answers." - Nancy Willard