Sunday, September 30, 2012

Some Inequalities Among Inquiries

Asking questions is a big part of a councillor's job, in my opinion.  As with most things in life, if you don't ask questions, you limit your learning.  Questions are how you find out why things happen the way they do, or why things don't happen.

For example, when we first moved to Prince Albert, I was quite surprised to find that many of the streets in my neighbourhood were unpaved - this seemed to be out of place in a small city.  But after asking questions, I found out that the La Colle falls dam project had left the city in debt that didn't get paid off until the 1960s, limiting infrastructure improvements, and that in order to get an unpaved street paved, the majority of property owners on a street had to petition for this to happen, since their taxes would go up as a result.  Once I knew the answer, it made sense.

Since I've been on council, I've asked a lot of questions, some informally, some put as formal inquiries during a council meeting.  Many of these questions come from Ward 3 residents, some come from city residents who don't live in the ward, but figure that I'm someone who will try to find out the answer.  And some questions are my own, of course, prompted when I see something odd in the material that we are sent for review each week before Council or Executive Meetings.

The current mayor and city manager have instituted a practice in which any inquiry made by a councillor is sent as an email to all members of council, as are the answers. This has shown a couple of troubling things.

The first is that, routinely, my inquiries take months, or longer, to answer.  I find this rather surprising, because I see, of course, that other councillors get answers much more quickly, often within a week of posing the question.  My answers tend to get answered all at once - I'll get a flurry of emails with responses to several questions.  No doubt because of the upcoming election, this year's flurry came in mid-September, with responses to several questions, at least one of which dates back more than two years.

That particular question arose after we received some advertising for the Raiders in with our water bill.  My question was whether we have a formal policy with regards to third party inserts in water bills.  The answer:  No.  I find it hard to believe that it took them two years to research that.

Another question I asked last winter had to do with access to the Rotary Trail from residential areas during the winter.  I can now answer the city resident who asked me the question - the city is unable to maintain connecting paths to the Rotary Trail.  Why it took more than nine months to find that out is probably a better question.

The second troubling thing is that, for questions that are a bit more complicated, there seems to be very little effort expended in providing a well-researched answer.  For example, I had asked about the feasibility of moving the advanced left turn signal from 1st Avenue at 12th Street, toward the downtown, to 1st Avenue and 13th Street, headed toward Cornerstone.  The traffic volumes at that corner have gotten quite heavy, and the volumes at 12th Street are much lighter, particularly since three of the four banks that used to be on 12th Street have now moved to Cornerstone.

I asked this in May; in September I got the response - there is no budget to do this.  Nothing about traffic flows, nothing about safety, just that there is no budget.  That answer could have been provided at that meeting.

Of course, I've asked questions that still haven't been answered:  the water usage levels in all city facilities, like the Rawlinson Centre and the soccer centre, to name just two; all costs associated with the boil water order in February; the operating expenses (all of them) for the golf course and the soccer centre; where we stand with regard to a value for money audit; the 2011 Rawlinson Centre financials.

So at the next council meeting, which will also be the last council meeting of the present group, I will be making a motion that any inquiries from any member of council be responded to within 30 days, and that both the question and the answer be recorded on the consent agenda of council, so that there is a record for the public.  This doesn't mean that answers that require a fair amount of research need to be answered within 30 days, but I would expect an update, and possibly a target date for an answer, so that people know that it hasn't dropped off the radar.

As I said earlier, these aren't just my questions - they are questions that I get from tax payers, from both inside and outside my ward, people who want to know how the city is managing their money.  The tax payer is our boss, and we should be doing our best to respect their questions, not ignoring them in the hopes that they will just go away.

"I never learn anything talking.  I only learn things when I ask questions." - Lou Holtz

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ward Changes, and Other Election Stuff

The election is now upon us, and with the exception of Ward 7, there is a contest in every ward.  This is good; it indicates healthy public interest in city leadership, and should mean a higher voter turnout.  Three years ago, half of council was acclaimed, which I think limits discussion and awareness of the issues facing the city, and may lead to complacency at council, which is never a good thing.

You may not be aware that some ward boundaries have changed, after the report of the Municipal Wards Commission in November 2011.  Ward boundaries are reviewed every ten years, to ensure that the population in each ward is approximately equal.  It's a tough balancing act, I'm sure, since the commission also has to try to project ward populations for the  next ten years, identifying areas where greater growth is more likely.

They used a city population of 38, 926, based on Ministry of Health population statistics, with an average population per ward of 4,865.  The actual population of each ward ranges from 4,540, in Ward 6, to 5,013 in Ward 2.  The population in Ward 3 is on the higher end - 4,988.

Five of eight wards have had their boundaries changed, so if you live on the edge of wards 2, 3, 5, 6 or 7, you might want to check the new ward map on the city election page.  Ward 3 boundaries have changed the most, taking area from Wards 2 and 7; Ward 6 has taken a small piece out of Ward 5.

Specifically, Ward 3 now extends to the east side of 1st Avenue East, from the south side of 9th Street East to the north side of 19th Street East as far east as 6th Avenue East.  That's an additional two blocks east and 1 block south.  The remainder of the ward, going down 3rd Avenue East to the River, then going east to 11th Avenue East up to 7th Street East, then west to 10th Avenue East, then south to 15th Street, remains the same.  I noticed that Ward 3 is the only ward that is completely internal to the city - all other wards reach city boundaries at some point.

It's probably easiest to say that if you lived in Ward 3 before, you still live in Ward 3.  If you lived on the east side of Ward 2, or the northernmost part of Ward 7, your ward may have changed, and you should look closely at the ward map to make sure that you're headed to the right polling station.

Another change in this election is the requirement to bring identification with you when you go to vote.  Either bring one piece of photo ID that includes your address, such as a driver's licence, or two pieces of ID with your name, at least one of which also must have your address, such as a utility bill.  If you have nothing like this, you can go to a poll with someone who has such valid ID, and they can vouch for you.  I can see this happening, for example, if you have an eighteen year old living in your house who doesn't drive (I used to have one of those) - you could then vouch for them.

As always, you must be a resident in a ward in order to vote in that ward, and eighteen years or older.  Voting for mayor and school boards is, of course, city wide.

I thought long and hard about putting my name forward for another term on council, but after much discussion with family and friends, decided that I can still provide a strong voice for Ward 3, continuing to try to make the ward and the city a better place to live.  I have proven that I'm not afraid to ask hard questions, and I will continue to encourage council to practise greater fiscal responsibility, openness, and accountability.   I hope that I will continue to receive strong support from Ward 3 residents - the greatest blessing of these last twelve years on council is the many new friends that I've met, and continue to meet, across the ward.

And I'm looking forward to knocking on some new doors, and meeting and hearing from new ward residents.

"The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." - Plato

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Red Herrings

At this week's council meeting, there was successful deployment of the red herring strategy to avoid an issue.  It was so successful that the local paper reported extensively on the herring, completely distracted from the issue at hand.

The issue was the motion made by one councillor to cancel council and executive meetings before the end of the term in October, claiming that because the civic election is held that month, it would then be the "silly season", so council shouldn't bother meeting.  The current mayor did this for the last election, as well, although previous councils have been able to manage to keep on doing the work that they are paid for, as well as carry on with the personal work of campaigning.

I objected to this.  In effect, council has given itself extra paid vacation, so that those who are running for re-election can focus on that, rather than on working for their full term.  And for those who have decided to not let their names stand, well, they get to leave work early, with pay.

The fact is, the city runs twelve months of the year, and issues are ongoing.  I think that the most important work of council, the open discussion of issues and solutions, happens at council meetings, when the public has the best opportunity to see its representatives at work.

So I asked if all our work would come to a halt - would committees stop meeting, or would the mayor stop using his tax-payer funded office?

Rather than answering my question, or even providing concrete reasons why we shouldn't meet in October, I was instead the subject of a very personal attack, focusing on the fact that I'm not on as many committees as other members of council are, and am thus not carrying my fair share of the load.

This, of course, is the red herring that distracted the local paper, which didn't bother to speak to me before they ran the article.

If they had, I would have told them a number of things, as well as reminding them of the issue that I raised.  First, this mayor is the one who decides who is on which committee.  It is supposed to be a decision made by council, but this is one of the cases where council has been used as a rubber stamp.  He has removed me, without any discussion, from several committees that I spent several years on, and where I felt there was useful work done.  The two committees that I am currently on are both external committees, and require a full day and out of town travel to attend meetings.  That's a bit more of a commitment than attending a meeting over the lunch hour every few months, or being on a committee that never meets.

Yes, some council members are on committees that have never met.  Some councillors have been named to committees, but have never attended a meeting.  Being on a committee may look good on the resume, but the work happens only if you show up.

Some committees have been established as a place for deeper discussion, with members of the public, of matters that have been referred to them by council.  However, I can't recall the last time that this council referred anything to a committee for discussion.  One wonders what the purpose of having so many committees is, except to pad the resumes of some members of council.  And, I suppose, as fuel when personal attacks are considered to be the best option for avoiding a difficult question.

I've been on most of the major committees in my twelve years on council.  In my first term, I attended every committee meeting that I could, even those that I wasn't on, just to learn as much as I could about how the city worked.  I no longer feel the need for this sort of immersion learning, and with the sheer number of committees that have been created, I don't think that it would be possible.

I wish that council would do an overview of all committees, decide which ones are actually doing useful work, and disband the rest.  Then we should have a full discussion, in council, about how best to distribute committee work.  Until we do that, committee appointments will continue to be handed out like favours, with some members of council afraid to rock the boat in case they get removed from a committee that they feel is important.  They don't have to look far to see the likelihood of that happening.

In the meantime, our real work, council and executive meetings, will be suspended, and I still don't have a good explanation as to why that is necessary.  But we've had a good example of how easily distractions about busy-work can obscure the real issues.

"It's not so much how you are busy, but why you are busy.  The bee is praised; the mosquito is swatted."- Marie O'Connor 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Summer Projects

For me, summer is a good time for getting projects done outside the house.  When you own a house that's more than a century old, the list of projects often seems endless, and this summer I managed to get a couple knocked off the list that have been there for awhile.

The first was replacement of the lead water service connection.  This is something that around 1,000 homes in the older part of the city still have. The city recognizes that these should be replaced, so there is a water service replacement program.  The city will subsidize the home-owner's share of costs, up to $2,000, and replace the connection on the property owner's side.

I'm not sure how many residents have been able to take advantage of this program, and I think that we should look at how it could be made more efficient, to encourage participation.

I have been trying to get a contractor to come to our house to do the required excavation for two years without success.  Part of the problem is that digging up a single yard is a relatively small scale project, and most contractors are involved in much larger, more profitable projects.  This year, a friend who was also arranging for his connection to be replaced gave me the name and number of someone who might be able to help.

Andrea and I had been in Regina for the Folk Festival the second weekend in August.  On the Monday morning, as we were getting ready to leave, I got a text message from a friend - "There's a backhoe in your front yard."  When we got home that afternoon, yes, there was a backhoe sitting in our front yard, and a phone message from the contractor, saying that they would call the next day.  I immediately called the city, saying that I would need someone to come by and mark the water line as soon as possible.  I was told that someone would get back to me.

The next day, fortunately, it was pouring rain, so no digging could be done.  When I hadn't heard from the city by mid-morning, I walked down to city hall to make my inquiry directly.  I was told that maybe somebody could come by on Thursday; after a bit of discussion they agreed that somebody could come by within a half an hour.

On Wednesday morning the digging started, and on Thursday we were able to get the water lines replaced.  We also had to get the excavation and reconnection approved by a city staff person, before the excavation could be filled in.  The city finished their side, including ripping up several feet of sidewalk, on Friday.  Four weeks later, the sidewalk still hasn't been repaired - I'm hoping that it happens before the snow flies.

Lead water service connections are a health hazard that the city doesn't like to talk about much.  If you need to find out about the program, it's on the city web-site, under Residents, then under Water and Sewer.  Right now, it's only scheduled to run until the end of this year.  I think that this is a program that we should target for completion, and work to find efficiencies that would help home-owners.  I've already mentioned the difficulty in finding a contractor for a single yard job.  If the city could target a block at a time, and arrange for and pay a contractor to do all the homes on the block at that time, that would leave the home-owners with only having to pay for the plumbing contractor.  The $2,000 subsidy covers the cost of the excavation; if the city took care of it, that would also save in the administrative cost of processing claims.

I am glad that my home connection is completed, and I appreciate the quick response of the city crew, after some nudging.  I also realize that the average home-owner may not take such direct action when they don't get a response, and I think that city administration needs to be more aware of the need for a timely response - a contractor isn't going to hang about for several days waiting for water lines to be marked, when they could be making money somewhere else.

The second project is not a necessity, more of a nice-to-have.  The week after the water work was complete, I started building a deck on the west side of the house - a project that we've talked about for several years.  In this case, the guy that I called about putting in screw-piles (a faster and easier alternative than digging holes for pilings) showed up the day after I called for an estimate, ready to work.  So I've been in construction mode for the last two weeks, and if you've driven by the house, you've probably seen me out there working.  Fortunately, I've also had a great deal of help from a couple of friends.  Barry and David spent a couple of days helping with framing and laying out deck boards, with the result that I'm now left with just the stairs and railing left to do.  While the final product looks much larger than it did on paper, I think that it's going to be a great place to sit and relax with friends.  It's our version of a cottage, without the high maintenance requirements.

And tomorrow, it's the first council meeting after summer break - back to the suit and tie.  With the election looming, it should be an interesting couple of months.

"Summertime is always the best of what might be." - Charles Bowden