Sunday, July 24, 2016

Getting Information Before We Make a Decision - Now There's a Concept

For about ten years now (it dates back to the previous mayor), the city has picked up green waste from the back of people's homes.  The principle of green waste pick-up is sound, as it reduces the amount of recyclable material going to the landfill, but the way we do it has always seemed inefficient to me.  Waste is either in clear plastic bags or, in the case of branches, bundled.  It's picked up by three guys in a 5 ton rear-loading garbage truck.  While residents are asked to put it out on the same day as their recycling day, it may or may not get picked up that day. And for those who still have large communal bins, they have no scheduled pick-up day.  Often, to make up for being badly behind schedule, pick up is done on the weekend, with overtime being paid to the three guys on the truck.  When the program started, there was another individual out at the landfill, whose job was to slit and empty the bags of waste; now the bags are slit and emptied at pick up, but I'm not sure how or where the plastic is disposed of.  And, of course, not everyone uses the program - people still put green waste in with their garbage, because it's easier.

When this would come up as part of the sanitation budget every year, I would ask for the cost, and suggest that this could be a service that we could cut to reduce costs.  The answer was always that it cost $100,000 a year, but we were never given details.  Another block to even considering change is that some members of council are reluctant to reduce services, even those that are only used by a minority of residents.

Then a few years back, I found out that Saskatoon offers a green waste recycling program, Green Cart, that is a subscription service.  It uses the same automated trucks that we use for the roll-out garbage and recycling bins (which have one operator rather than three), and picks up both yard and food waste in green bins.  Waste does not have to be bagged, which saves residents the cost of bags, and the city the costs of  removing the bags or unbundling the branches.  The program operates from early May until early November, and costs interested residents $55 per year.  For those not interested, there's no cost.  To me it seems like a good solution - subscribers pay less than $10 a month, and the program runs more efficiently because the trucks know exactly where to go.  That's got to save time and money over three guys in a truck going down every alley and street, looking for bags and bundles that may or may not be there.

A further impending cost of the current program is the need to upgrade the composting building at the landfill.  This is where the waste is taken and mixed with sludge, with the resulting mixture used as overlay for the landfill.  The equipment within this building, fans and such, is reaching the end of its lifespan, and it will be helpful to find out if there are cheaper alternatives.

Fortunately, I finally got unanimous support from my colleagues at last week's Executive Committee meeting.  We have directed administration to prepare a report on the costs of the current program, and the costs of changing to something like the Green Cart program.  And we've asked for this report to be presented to us by the end of September, as so often reports are requested without a target date, which means that it can be months or years before a report is presented.  So we haven't decided to make a change; we've decided to get the information needed before deciding whether to make a change.

I'm looking forward to seeing this report, which hopefully will contain better information than we've been given so far.  I find it hard to believe that the costs of our current program have held steady at $100,000 per year for the last several years - it would be the only city program I'm aware of where costs haven't increased over the years.  Once council has the report, we'll be able to make a decision made on facts and information, not on emotion.  If we do move to a subscriber program, that means the costs will be borne by the users, not by all residents, and I would hope that the savings would be reflected in the sanitation budget.  That would bring some fairness into a system that too often makes everyone subsidize programs utilized by a few.

"In the absence of information, we jump to the worst conclusions." - Myra Kassim

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Ongoing Quest for Diversity

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Maclean's magazine - I assume my colleagues did as well.  The magazine is working on something about diversity, or the lack of it, on city councils, and wanted to confirm that Prince Albert City Council is like most other city councils - largely made up of white males.  They identified me as a white male, asked me to correct this if it was wrong, and asked if I had any thoughts on how to correct the imbalance.

They weren't wrong, obviously; I am a white male.  And so are most of the other members of council.  And I'm not sure how to fix the visible imbalances, or even if that should be the only objective - to be able to look at a picture of council and say that, yes, it contains the correct proportion of gender and race balance.

To me, it's also important to ensure that council has a diversity of perspectives.  It's not really diverse if everyone at the table represents the same viewpoint, and votes as one.  There are some members of council who think that's how it should be - at least one councillor thinks that council should vote the same way that the mayor does, since he's supposedly the boss (he's not, of course), and another councillor who believes that if everyone votes the same way, then nobody can be blamed for bad decisions.  That's not diversity; that's behaving as if council was just a big rubber stamp.

I believe one of the factors that has led to more diversity on council is the ward system.  When council was elected city-wide, most councillors and mayors came from the higher income areas of the city.  Not surprising - it takes a lot of money to run a campaign across the city, and to get the name recognition that is essential to getting elected.  It's much easier and more affordable to get your message out across a ward.  And while it isn't required that you actually be a resident in the ward in which you run, I believe that it's most effective to be represented by someone who lives in the ward, who can truly appreciate the issues that residents of a ward have to deal with every day.  And for the most part, that is the case in Prince Albert.

Of course, there are other roadblocks to achieving council diversity.  One is that many people just aren't interested in the job, for a number of reasons.  One of the reasons that I hear most often is the level of public abuse that seems to go along with the job - people just aren't prepared to have their decisions, and often their motives, subject to all sorts of insults and insinuations from people who don't even bother to call to get your side of the story.

The time required to do a good job is also a factor for many people - if you have a full-time job, a family, and other commitments or interests, finding the appropriate balance is difficult.  I'm betting you could ask any member of council and get good examples of times when council commitments meant that they had to miss something else important.

And, like most governments, council decisions are not made as fast as some people would like, which can be seen as frustrating to those watching.  We have processes that have to be followed, budgets that limit how much we can do, and we have to work with others - not nearly as fast as working alone, but I believe that it leads to better decisions.

A few years ago I was at a housing committee meeting when one of the members said to me "You need to understand; there are two Prince Alberts - a rich one and a poor one.  And the rich one gets to make most of the decisions."  That's where we need to ensure diversity - to ensure that our decisions lessen the differences between low and high income areas.  But we don't have that diversity of perspectives on council now.  We have members of council who think that it's quite reasonable to budget $2 million for golf course irrigation rather than replacing lead water service connections.

I don't know a fast way to get that diversity of perspectives on council while maintaining the principles of democracy (we can't tell people how to vote), but I try - by asking questions, by pointing out the ways that we spend money subsidizing facilities that are used by only a small proportion of city residents, and by advocating for more equitable distribution of amenities like green spaces.  I may be a white male, but I try to represent the diversity of my constituents the best I can.

"One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak." - Gloria Steinem

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Finishing - the Most Important Part of the Job

At Monday's Executive Committee meeting we were given a list of infrastructure projects that are supposedly complete, including some in my ward.  Unfortunately, administration's idea of what complete means and mine (and the residents who are directly affected) differ.

As an example, the 200 block of Ninth Street East is on the complete list.  This is one of the blocks that was started in the spring of last year, then left in August when the crews were pulled off to pave the parking lot behind SIAST, and they did not return, leaving residents to deal with an unpaved street and no sidewalks throughout the fall, winter and spring.

The work is not yet complete.  On the north side of the street, cement work between the sidewalk and residential walks has not been finished.  And on both sides of the street, broken cement and other debris remains, and boulevards still need soil, levelling and seeding.  How anyone could consider this job complete is beyond my understanding.

I pointed this out, and asked what the timetable was for completing this work.  Apparently, there is  none.

Part of the problem is that the construction piece - the road and sidewalk work - is the responsibility of the engineering department.  The final boulevard completion is the responsibility of parks and rec, which always seem to be behind schedule.  I'm not sure why engineering doesn't finish what is started, and it's even less clear to me why the two departments don't communicate better as to where they are on projects.

And more to the point, I don't know why all of this work isn't scheduled and coordinated between departments.  I realize that things like the weather can wreak havoc with the best plans (I'm waiting for a stretch of good weather so that I can do some reshingling), but that doesn't mean that all attempts at planning should be abandoned.  And it certainly doesn't mean that misleading reports should be presented to council, in the hopes that we'll think that things are going better than they are.

This has got to be one of the greatest frustrations to me in my work as a councillor.  I get many calls and questions from residents as to when they can expect this work to be done, and I'm unable to give them an answer that I have any confidence in.  Administration needs to do a better job, so that members of council can do a better job, so that residents can feel that they're getting decent value for their tax dollar.  Until that happens, my only choice is to keep asking the embarrassing questions, and hoping for better answers.

"Stopping at third base adds no more to the score than striking out.  It doesn't matter how well you start if you fail to finish." - Billy Sunday

Monday, July 4, 2016

Why Leaving Wapiti is the Right Thing for Prince Albert to Do

At the council meeting last week, I made the motion that the John M Cuelenaere Public Library (JMC) leave the Wapiti Regional Library, and become instead a city library, like Regina and Saskatoon.  The motion was supported unanimously.  While I'm not currently on the library board, I was chair of the board for many years and represented the city on the Wapiti board.  And I still enjoy good conversations with the current library director about how things could work better, and how being part of Wapiti was hampering many of the innovations that JMC would like to try.

Wapiti has been around for many, many years, and when first established was instrumental in bringing libraries and their multiple benefits to many smaller communities.  I appreciate the values that having a library brings to any community, big or small, and the regional structure allows the smaller branches access to services that they otherwise couldn't afford.  It has member branches from the Manitoba border to Leoville, north to Paddockwood, and south to Humboldt - a large geographic area to try to serve efficiently.

Wapiti provided centralized financial, computer and purchasing services.  However, the governance structure, in which each of the forty-six members was represented, definitely gave the bulk of the benefits to the smaller communities, while assessing taxpayers in those communities a far lower rate than taxpayers living in Prince Albert.

For those of us who enjoy the broad range of services at JMC, you would probably be surprised to find that the Candle Lake Paperback Deposit is a member of Wapiti, even though it is open only 3 afternoons a week in the Rec Hall.  The Gronlid Library, another member, is open two days a week, in the school.  The only library that comes close to providing the hours of service that we get at JMC is Humboldt, which is open six full days a week.  JMC, of course, is open seven days a week, except during the summer, when it closes on Sundays.

JMC has the internal capacity to provide the services that Wapiti provides, and will now have control over its financial reserves.  It will also now be able to pursue initiatives more important to city residents, such as considering more branches within the city, to improve services to all residents.  It is unlikely that leaving Wapiti will cost Prince Albert residents more; rather, local services will likely improve.

The issues of working within the Wapiti structure have been well-known to those on the library board for many years.  I think that the time is now right for JMC to be able to focus on the needs of Prince Albert, not get in line with forty-six other branches, while subsidizing their needs because those communities feel that they can't afford to pay comparable fees.

I don't dispute the value of a library to any community.  I do, however, think that our responsibility, as City Council, is to ensure that we make decisions in the best interests of our city, not for the many people who do not live here.

"A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.  It is a never-failing spring in the desert." - Andrew Carnegie

Sunday, June 26, 2016

So You're Thinking About Running for Council

As happens during an election year, people have been declaring their intentions to run for office over the past several months.  We have three people who have declared that they're running for mayor, and another who has rented space on Central Avenue but has yet to formally declare, and several people, both new and incumbent, who have announced their interest in becoming a councillor.

I'm still thinking about it - it's not a decision that I make lightly, and I consider all of the factors before I declare my intentions.

If you are thinking about adding your name to the list of candidates, here are a few things that you should know.

First, the time required to do a good job is more than you think it will be.  The visible hours, those spent in Council and Executive Committee meetings, are the barest tip of the iceberg.  Just reading through the information provided for each meeting takes several hours, more if you need to make notes for questions.  And that doesn't include the time spent for committee meetings, not all of which are in town, which requires additional travel time.

That's just the meeting requirements.  When you're on council, people can and do approach you anywhere, anytime.  I can't go for coffee or to the grocery store without having someone stop me to talk about some city issue.  I don't mind at all, but if you don't like talking to people who may or may not agree with your viewpoint, then this isn't the job for you.  Most times people are pleasant, but there's the occasional jerk who thinks that they have the right to verbally abuse you for a stance that you've taken - you just can't let that kind of person get to you.

If you're married, you'd better be sure that your spouse is on-side.  They're the ones who end up taking phone messages if you're not home, and often have to listen to the whole story behind the question before getting a name and number.  And you won't be around for as many meals as before - both Council and Executive meetings run over the supper hour, and one is often asked to appear at dinner functions for other organizations - more family time that you can never get back.  And you'll have to have some kind of work space in your home - only the mayor gets his own office.  Councillors have to make do on their own, although you do get one drawer in a filing cabinet in the Councillors' Lounge.

That's just an outline of the time required.  The truly hard part is the decision-making.  No matter how you vote, there will be people who disagree with you.  The surest way to do a bad job is to try to make everybody happy - it can't be done, so don't even try.  The only way to do the job right is to make up your own mind according to the best information available, and vote accordingly.

And be aware of the limitations to what you can do.  I'm always surprised at the things people say that they want to make happen at the council level - so far with those running we've had people suggest everything from revitalizing the forest industry to bringing in Costco to increasing some sort of unspecified economic development to the ever-popular building a second bridge.  Unfortunately, all of those suggestions are outside Council's capabilities.  Businesses and industry make their decisions based on far more factors than a welcoming Council, and a second bridge requires the active financial participation of other levels of government - past petitioning efforts have gotten us nowhere.

But there's lots that Council does control, even though most of it isn't very glamorous.  But it's important - Council is responsible for getting your garbage picked up and disposed of, for getting your street ploughed in the winter and swept in the spring, for getting water going into your house and taken away, for getting potholes repaired and water pipes replaced, for getting your back alley graded and that derelict house down the street demolished.  Most of these things are set during the budget process - that's when we set priorities and spending plans for the coming year, and that's when hard decisions have to be made, because nobody wants to see their taxes go up, but everybody wants better and faster services.  And as a councillor, you often have to help constituents find their way through the bureaucratic maze that is city administration, in order to get their questions answered or to raise an issue.

So what sort of qualities should an aspiring councillor have?  The capacity for hard work, a thick skin for the inevitable insults from those who are sure they know the job better than you do, the patience to listen to other members of council, and the ability to look at all sides of an issue before making a decision.  If you've had experience working with others on committees with a limited amount of money, that experience will serve you well.  You should be able to base your decisions on what is best for the city as a whole, not just for you and your particular interest.

You should also, and probably most importantly, be able to speak up and ask questions.  Too many foolish decisions have been made by this current and previous councils because people were afraid to speak up, were afraid to ask (and were discouraged from asking) important questions, and were afraid of looking negative by saying no.  We have bound ourselves, and our citizens, into commitments to support various facilities without first considering whether such facilities were affordable.  If only a few more councillors had spoken up about spending decisions both big and small, we would not have the backlog of infrastructure maintenance and repairs that we've had to impose a flat tax to pay for, to mention just one area of essential spending.

Think that you've got what it takes?  One more suggestion - come to a Council meeting, just to see how it works.  Then think about whether you're willing to commit to four years of one of those meetings every two weeks, plus Executive meetings every other week.  If you think about it, and are still willing to give it a shot, good luck to you.  This city needs all the hard-working, sensible thinking people that it can get to ensure that the best decisions are made.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

FCM Findings

Along with four other councillors, I spent last weekend in Winnipeg, at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting.  These are large meetings, attended by mayors and councillors from towns and cities from across Canada, with multiple concurrent sessions, tours, and a trade show featuring new products and ideas.

This year I found many good ideas at the trade show.  One that I think would be useful as we're rejuvenating Kinsmen Park after years of neglect, is a new type of barbecue surface.  This surface can be fueled by propane, natural gas or electricity, and has many positive aspects.  For one, no wood is required, which means no clean up of coals and ashes.  Because there is no open flame, there is no risk of fire, so these would be usable during fire bans.  I think that this is an option that our parks people should investigate - I know that many families like to barbecue at the park, and this would make it easier and safer.

I saw a couple of examples of rebar that are meant for corrosive environments - one type was made of fibreglass, the other of galvanized material.  Considering the amount of time and expense that have been required to repair the bridge and various overpasses, using products that last longer only makes sense to me.

Since we still have gravel roads, and administration is still oiling them (despite direction from council to stop), seeing non-oil products that control dust without polluting our water system was encouraging.

For all of these products, I'll be passing the information along to administration - I hope that they follow up.

We toured Winnipeg's flood mitigation system, which they've had to make use of.  Interestingly, even with their recent history of serious flooding, their flood plain is based on a 1 in 200 year flood risk, unlike the 1 in 500 year risk that our provincial government thinks that we should follow.  Even at that, their mitigation system cost more that $1 million - a major investment.

We also got to listen to federal politicians, who recognize the importance of city governance in carrying out their various plans.  The prime minister, for example, spoke about the proposed infrastructure program and its priorities, so that we have a better understanding of how to take advantage of funding opportunities.

As I said, this is a large conference, with multiple learning opportunities - far more than could be taken in if only one or two members of council attended.  I always learn at these conferences, and I appreciate any opportunity to learn how to do my job better, whether by saving money, or solving long-term problems.  I'm sure that my fellow attendees feel the same.

"Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandela

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Should Convenience Trump Fairness?

A contingent of seniors came to Executive Committee last week, to bolster a letter that had been sent by one of their representatives.  What prompted the letter was a decision made by Council a few weeks ago about the polls that will be set for this fall's municipal election.

It started when the City Clerk brought a proposal for where polling stations should be to Council several weeks ago.  The proposal removed one polling station from each of Wards One, Three and Four, leaving those wards with just one poll each, and reduced the special polling stations from the high rises in Ward Two from three to two, meaning that Ward Two would have four polls.  The other wards remained the same, at two polling stations each.

This first proposal was discussed at length, with some of us wondering what the criteria are for the special polls in high rises.  It turns out that there aren't any - these polls were set up many years ago, as a convenience for the residents of those buildings, most of whom are seniors.

I want to be clear that we aren't talking about care homes here.  The people who live in the buildings that are used to this convenience are all living independently, able to get about on their own - each building has its own parking lot, which implies a certain mobility.  But there are many buildings like this all over the city, where we expect the seniors to be able to get out to vote - and they do.  And for individuals who still live in their own homes, but aren't mobile enough to get out to a poll, mobile polls can always be arranged - I've helped to arrange such polls in the past for residents of my ward.

So we asked the City Clerk to check what is required by the Cities Act - the legislation that governs how we do things.  And she came back with a proposal that was then approved by Council - no special polls in any ward, two polls in most wards, one poll in each of Wards One and Three.  And that's what Council approved.

For whatever reason, this decision got no media coverage whatsoever.  However, residents of the buildings affected were informed by someone that they were going to be losing the convenience that they have enjoyed for several years, so a letter was written, and several of them came to Executive Committee to try to sway Council.

I'm not sure what they expected - Executive Committee does not pass motions.  What we could have done was voted to move the matter to the next council meeting.  We did not, as the matter had already been discussed at length.

I understand being upset at losing a privilege that you've enjoyed for years.  I can appreciate how pleasant it must be to vote without having to put on a coat, or even shoes.  But I'm also aware that Council needs to be fair to the residents of the city as a whole, and providing this special privilege to the people who live in three buildings (although there were some in the crowd who wanted to add one more building, that is also in Ward Two) is not fair to all city residents.

What about other buildings in the city who also are home to seniors?  It's interesting to note that some of those who purport to speak for seniors are actually only speaking for the seniors in these particular buildings in Ward Two.  Nobody is advocating for this privilege for the seniors who live in the Molstad Homes, or Abbeyfield Place, or Connaught Village, or others.

And of course, having a poll doesn't happen for free.  According to the City Clerk's office, the cost of having a poll ranges between $2,500 and $3,000, depending on the number of staff required.  If we gave the seniors who came to the meeting to protest what they asked for, that's $10,000 minimum added cost to the election, which is, of course, paid for by all tax-payers.  Not a lot in a multi-million dollar budget, I agree, but I've spent most of my time on council trying to get rid of the unfair subsidies that seem to be part of a way of life in this city, and I'm not about to close my eyes to $10,000.

It gets even costlier if you try to accommodate all seniors living in similar situations.  I estimate that there are about twenty buildings that would meet the same criteria as the current buildings.  Now we're up to $50,000 minimum.  Is it starting to look ridiculous yet?

The senior who wrote the letter seems to feel that a valid reason for continuing the subsidy is because it's been the practice for so long.  Her logic seems to be that if you have a leaky pipe, you might as well just let it keep on leaking.  Unfortunately, I know that there are some members of council who feel that you're treading on dangerous  ground if you take away something that people have enjoyed.  Sadly, they're thinking about what might affect them politically, not what is the best thing to do for the city.  And I can think of plenty of examples where we no longer provide services that we used to - we no longer mow boulevards, but expect residents to do that.  We no longer pick up residents's garbage from individual cans, often carrying them from back yards to the street in front, but instead expect residents to roll out their own garbage bins (and don't pick them up if they contain something that they shouldn't).  We've done those things to save money, and removing polls where they're not required is just another one of those cost-saving measures.

I do know that the removal of the poll from East End Hall is taking away a poll that has been there probably for longer than the high rise polls have been in place, and that it will be an added inconvenience for those in my ward who now have to travel further to vote.  But I respect Council's decision, and I know that we're meeting our legal requirements.

Perhaps this is a sign that we should be looking at ways to make voting more convenient for everybody.  I'm specifically thinking of on-line voting.  If the census can be filled out on-line (and we got the long form, which threw Andrea for a bit, but she managed to do it within the required time frame), we should be able to figure out a way to vote securely on-line.  That would make it more convenient for everybody, and also might attract the demographic that is currently under-represented - young people.  Fair and cost-effective - that's what we should be looking for, not continuing special privileges for a few people, paid for by the rest of us.

"What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient." - Bodie Thoene