Category Archives: Columns

Atchison could face toughest challenge in 2016

The StarPhoenix brought back the City Hall Notebook (it hadn’t really gone anywhere but for a while it was as silent as City Council during the transit strike) with a fantastic post by Phil Tank on Don Atchison’s re-election chances.

Atchison breezed through the 2006 and 2009 elections, easily beating challenger former councillor Lenore Swystun both times with 64 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively.

Then, Atchison faced his toughest challenge as incumbent in 2012 when political newcomer agricultural scientist Tom Wolf collected 48 per cent of the vote to Atchison’s 52. The mayor’s support has dropped six per cent each election.

Many politicians would read this result as a warning that it’s time to quit if a candidate can come out of nowhere and come close to victory. Not Atchison, who will become Saskatoon’s longest serving mayor at 13 years if he completes his current term.

All indications suggest Atch will be back to defend his crown in 2016. In a midterm interview, Atchison said he’s “leaning” toward running for a fifth term in two years. It would be a surprise if he bowed out.

His potential challengers must feel encouraged by the 2012 result, but must also be aware that a vote split three or more ways can result in anyone winning.

Did Wolf tap the entire extent of anti-Atch sentiment or was his support limited by his political inexperience?

Could an incumbent councillor with greater name recognition, like Darren Hill or Charlie Clark, have beaten Atchison two years ago?

Will Atchison fatigue be an even greater factor in 2016?

The StarPhoenix: When it comes to transit, Saskatoon talks a better game than it delivers

From today’s The StarPhoenix editorial.

Given the fiasco involving route cancellations that greeted riders on the first day of a new school year, it’s difficult to take seriously the City of Saskatoon’s commitment to developing a bus rapid transit system, improve services to meet the demands of growth and lessen the urban carbon footprint.

City Hall seems to be pinning the blame in part on a shortage of qualified heavy duty mechanics in the market, as well as an inability to reach a contract with its transit employees, which is forcing it to advertise for mechanics at wage rates based on the expired 2012 contract.

A month after transit director Bob Howe apologized to commuters after cancelling seven routes because too many buses needed repairs for short-staffed mechanics to fix them all, and described the situation as an “anomaly,” frustrated university students and high schoolers on Tuesday saw the cancellation of direct routes to campus, downtown and many high schools.

In addition, no buses will be added to the busiest routes at peak travel times, and transit officials advise commuters to avoid peak morning and evening trips if possible. It’s those who are trying to get to work or school on time, and return home afterward, who are creating the “peaks,” and it’s transit’s job to accommodate their needs, not the other way around.

The cancellations and delays in the implementation of new routes were announced on Friday, before the Labour Day long weekend. Transit users, who have had to cope in recent years with frequent changes to routes and services, can’t be blamed for questioning why the city cannot seem to get its act together on managing the service properly.

“We have been in an environment of labour uncertainty for the last number of months which has proven to be challenging,” noted the city’s news release on Friday.

Yet, what isn’t clear is what role Saskatoon’s policy of buying second-hand buses that other cities don’t want is playing in creating the demand for more mechanics and a repair backlog that had rendered the transit service unable to field a full complement of buses for its routes.

Mr. Howe says transit has sent as many buses as possible to be repaired by private companies. Given that the problem has been obvious for at least a month, when the previous route cancellations occurred, when did the city began to contract out the work?

Surely, transit officials should have known long before Friday that they lacked enough buses and told the public, instead of waiting until the last possible moment to disclose the fact. This is far from acceptable customer service and effective issues management.

Mr. Howe said in July that transit was upgrading its aging fleet and expects to get five new buses this fall. It’s now obvious that the decrepitude of his 158-bus fleet has reached a point where even more replacements are needed soon, making council’s decision to use for the new commuter bridge the funding slated for bus replacements seem unwise.

When it comes to transit, Saskatoon talks a better game than it delivers.

Excellent editorial but I have one bone to pick with it. I am not even sure City Hall talks a good game about transit.  If anything the message that I have heard from City Council at budget time is that transit is a burden on the city as they transfer more costs onto riders.

I have written about our aging fleet before but it is worth repeating.  Some of our busses are so old that people travel to Saskatoon just to ride of them like rolling museum pieces.  They shouldn’t be repaired by Saskatoon Transit but the Western Development Museum.  Instead of replacing them, Saskatoon City Council is building a bridge for cars.

It is to be expected.  With the retirement of Myles Heidt and the defeat of Bev Dubois, there are no councillors who are strong on public transit.  Unlike Calgary and Edmonton who both feature mayors who use and advocate for public transit, I am unaware of any councillors who actually use it.  Maybe that explains some of the problems that we have.

The other problem is the Saskatchewan government contributes nothing to the bottom line of our transit in cities.  Whereas Manitoba pays for almost half of Winnipeg’s transit costs (and injects capital for BRT), we get nothing except some money for Access Transit.  Arguably that money is spent on STC which is still needed but it means that Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, and Regina are some of the few cities that are left trying to provide funding for transit with no help.  While I agree that council has handled this poorly (again), a big part of the blame lands with governments going back to the Blakeney era that ignored public transit in the cities.

A bit of this and that

None of these really need a full blog post but for those that care and for those that don’t…

A New Project

I am starting a book that I hope to have done by the end of the year.  I have a full Moleskine of things that I have left out of my The StarPhoenix columns, thoughts that I haven’t shared on The Saskatoon Afternoon Show with David Kirton (or talked about after we got off the air), or are just ideas that I have been working on and haven’t done anything with.  Basically I am just trying to figure out Saskatoon and along with it, the ethos of Saskatchewan that makes us do things the way we do.

For many years Steven Johnson has been one of my favourite authors.  Instead of writing books about what he knows, he writes about what he does not understand and in the process of learning about a subject, he brings you along for the ride.  I hope to do the same thing.  Look for it 2015.

Sports and Politics

I read a great bio of Michael Grange who said he wanted to write about foreign affairs but he was offered a sports job.  I love writing about local and social issues but if Grantland calls, I am leaving it all behind (I’m kidding but the Grantland podcasts look like so much fun).  To pass the time between now and when Bill Simmons discovers me, I am now talking sports with David Kirton and Justin Blackwell on Wednesdays at 5:15 on the CKOM Saskatoon Afternoon roundtable.  David joked about it a few weeks ago that we should just talk sports and since then we have had quite a few roundtables with sports.  The response has been cool but I was at McNally Robinson the other day and a stranger comes up to me and says out of the blue, “You know, I really hate what Pete Carroll did at USC too.”  I looked at him and he said, “I attended Oregon” and shook my hand.  I can now check, “Call out Pete Carroll for cheating” off my bucket list.  

A Year in Saskatoon

I have been writing an OurYXE Neighbourhood Guide each week.  Every Wednesday and Sunday, I sit down and research what is good, bad, and interesting about a neighbourhood.  It’s been an incredible amount of fun exploring some of Saskatoon’s most loved (and unloved) neighbourhoods.  I have been discovering a lot of history and out of the way places to check out in each of them.  Part of the project is making sure we have some good photography for each neighbourhood which means I have been out a lot with a couple of cameras and my new 50mm f/1.8 lens.  While the cold hasn’t been a lot of fun to shoot photos in, seeing parts of Saskatoon again for the first time has been excellent.

Along with the photos, I have been shooting a lot of video.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it but I had been thinking of a montage of a year in the life of Saskatoon.  Something that showed the bitter cold of winter and the incredible warmth of fun we have in the summer.  Saskatoon isn’t all good and it definitely isn’t all bad.

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted it to look like.  Many of the videos I had seen had been time lapses and I have about 5000 time lapse photos taken, I was initially been thinking of doing something with time lapse. It’s fun and amazing but i miss the emotion of just video.

 If it is as half as interesting as this video by Andy Clancy, I’ll be very happy.

Saskatoon has some great places to film but I want more than that, I want to see if I can find the kind of street life and community vibrancy in Saskatoon.  If you have ideas for where me and my DSLR need to be, let me know.  As I chase some city scenes, hopefully I will find some stories for the book, Saskatoon Afternoon’s roundtable, and my columns.  Oh yeah, there will be some fun stuff for my blog as well.

Now if only it would warm up outside.

Column:Mobile services effective option

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

My ears perk up whenever I hear Coun. Pat Lorje talk about the concentration of social service agencies in Saskatoon, because it is a very hard problem to fix once it has developed.
Social services tend to be located in poor areas of the city because that is where the need is. For many people, that is the end of the debate, but it’s more complicated than that. Those agencies are located there because of need and because real estate is cheap.
Despite the rhetoric of government, most see social services as an overhead cost, and if money can be saved by locating an agency in a less expensive part of town they will do it, nine times out of 10. For agencies not funded by the government, it is seen as a good stewardship of donations and resources to pay as little as possible for rent or a mortgage.
In Saskatchewan, the need is somewhat artificial because for years the province’s rental supplement has been geared toward accommodation that’s close to supports and services. It provides an incentive for people to live close to social agencies and concentrates poverty.
Once a critical mass of social agencies gets concentrated in one part of town, they tend to drive out other businesses and decrease property values even more. For people who depend on those services, it makes more sense to move to where cost of living is lower and close to where the services are provided. Of course, then you have more social service needs.
It’s an endless cycle that can do a lot of damage to the economic districts of some communities.
An interesting trend in a variety of cities over the last couple of years has been the creation of mobile social services, which are offered all across a city or region. Often these take the form of converted school buses or motorhomes, and provide such things as medical services (i.e. the Saskatoon Health Region’s health bus), as well as mobile showers in San Francisco and even a grocery store that’s driven to areas that do not have easy access to healthy food.
It’s not an new idea.
Libraries were doing this long before it was hip and trendy. I know many people who grew up in Saskatoon who can tell you when the Bookmobile came to their neighbourhood, and exactly where it stopped. It was by no means revolutionary, but it was part of community life.
Today we have the health bus. It doesn’t replace a hospital, but provides many services that one can access without going to a hospital. Being mobile, it can adjust its routes and schedule to meet people’s needs.
The advantages of mobility is that it allows the provision of services to neighbourhoods that need them, but aren’t within walking distance from the main location of a social agency. When many service agencies located in Riversdale, the area had some of the lowest rent and family incomes in Saskatoon. Redevelopment in Riversdale has significantly changed the neighbourhood.
The next place that could see big changes is Pleasant Hill, where the Junction development is slated to proceed. The impact that has seen real estate prices soar elsewhere is yet to be seen here, but the potential exists for affordable housing to move far away from the core and needed services.
There is a reason why studies in many cities show homeless people and those in extreme poverty will walk up to 20 kilometres a day to obtain food and shelter services. Even in Saskatoon, some of the most affordable living areas have almost no access to social services. Either rent eats up one’s food money and you can access services, or you have affordable rent and no access. For many it is a loselose situation.
Using outside-the-box ideas to use buses, local schools or faith-based organizations to deliver needed social services allows agencies and the government to meet needs inexpensively, while having a minimal impact on a local community.
Not only are the startup funds needed for such programs relatively small – one community recently made a significant dent in its food desert with a $100,000 bus – but it is temporary. If a grocery store comes in and wants to build in the neighbourhood it can, and the bus rolls out to another section of town. It can create markets, not kill them.
Without a long-term investment in a property, these programs can also be suited to economic conditions.
Saskatoon is changing.
With that comes the need for the province and city to adapt to how they deliver services in a way that helps people and minimizes the impact on the neighbourhoods where they live.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: War on drugs wrong approach

Today’s column for The StarPhoenix

Unlike politicians who are riding high in the polls, I have never used pot, or any other illegal drug for that matter. That puts me out of touch with voters both north and south of the border, which more or less is the story of my life.

I am in good shape locally, as Saskatoon has the highest percentage of arrests for pot possession in the country. In Halifax you have an 82 per cent chance of being let off by the police if you are caught with a small amount of marijuana, while in Saskatoon you have an 82 per cent chance of being charged. You are 35 per cent more likely to be charged if you are in possession of some pot in Saskatoon than anywhere else in Canada.

It’s hard to disagree with the Saskatoon Police Service. The service is open about having a zero (well, 12 per cent) tolerance for illegal drug possession. Pot is an illegal substance, and police are doing what they are sworn to do, which is to uphold the law. The added bonus is that it also keeps the chip and snack aisle at my local convenience store

safe from being plundered.

Drug policy in North America historically has been that we want to punish those who have illegal drugs. Police officers make the arrests and the courts decide on punishment, which often is probation or a fine for small amounts. Larger quantities of drugs often are connected to trafficking and offenders are treated more severely.

Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government attempted to take a different approach, which was to decriminalize the possession of marijuana. You would be fined, but not charged with a felony offence for possessing small amounts. That notion died when Paul Martin’s quest for power forced out Chrétien.

The tough-on-crime Conservatives have cracked down even more on drugrelated offences including possession, and introduced mandatory minimum sentences. More people are sent to jail, but with the reduction of funding to Corrections Canada, drug treatment behind bars is even harder to get. If the goal is rehabilitation and a reduction in drug use, the government’s approach isn’t working.

While Colorado and Washington have received a lot of attention for doing what Chrétien failed to do in decriminalizing marijuana, there is an interesting example that we should look at. Portugal has decriminalized all drugs.

In 2001, the Portuguese government was faced with a rising number of drug abuse-related deaths. Instead of cracking down further on drug use, which had proven ineffective, it decriminalized not just marijuana but even heroin, cocaine, LSD and other Schedule 1 drugs.

By focusing on treatment and prevention rather then jailing people it hoped to reduce the number of deaths and sexually transmitted infections. However, the laws related to selling drugs were unchanged. Law enforcement would come after drug dealers, but addicts were allowed to have a small amount of drugs in their possession – defined as enough for 10 days.

By changing the focus to prevention and treatment, overdoses related to drugs fell by more than half. STIs declined by 75 per cent. Drug use fell as well, with more people able to seek treatment without fearing criminal penalties.

The War on Drugs has shown that jail time isn’t an effective deterrent to drug use. The United States government has published several studies that show the approach has never worked, and made drug dealing more profitable. While the supply of drugs ebbed and flowed, use remained about the same.

The risk of STIs and other societal issues that come with drug use haven’t been a deterrent, either. Saskatoon has the highest rate of drug possession charges in Canada, yet the province also is known internationally for its high incidence rate of HIV and STIs.

After decades of the futile war on drugs, do we think that cracking down even more will work? A growing chorus of leading political figures are calling for a better solution to combat drug use and addictions.

Former UN secretary general KofiAnnan, former U.S. secretary of state George Schultz, a veteran of the war on drugs, and even embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who made a name for himself as a criminal prosecutor, are calling for approaches ranging from regulation to decriminalization. Even the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs is calling for the option to issue tickets for pot possession instead of laying charges for minor pot possession.

If our goal is to reduce drug use and its consequences, then we should be taking steps toward that end. The way to win the war on drugs is to stop waging it and have Ottawa look at alternatives that actually work.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix