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.

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

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