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Saskatchewan

Back in the day

Saskatoon Municipal Railway

At one time, Saskatoon had a pretty incredible public transit.

Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche in Saskatoon

I posted some of my photos of Nuit Blanche over at Bridge City this evening.  It was great night for the entire family (we took the boys home over their protests at around 10:00 p.m. before returning) and I can’t wait until it happens again in 2015.

Contextless Thoughts

  • After the Saskatoon Transit lockout is done, I can’t see Ann Iwanchuk winning a second full term.  Especially with Mike San Miguel quietly running again.  Her campaign was largely financed by labour and with the city attacking the ATU like it did, her slim margin of victory, her constituents relying on Transit heavily, and a lack of a signature issue so far, it could be really tough to win re-election.
  • It could hurt Clark and Loewen with their base and could mobilize the non voting parts of Ward 2 to really hurt Lorje.  I am not saying councillors will lose their seats but rather could face much tougher re-election races than they would have.  The right opponents will capitalize on this.
  • Despite what people think, this won’t hurt the mayor at all.  That is what the attack ads are targeted to protect (at the expense of councillors).  In many ways he could come out of this the winner, especially if this weakens rivals and empowers his base which to be honest, never rides a bus.
  • Of course the city being the city, coincided the lockout with the Mayor’s Cultural Gala.  You had some city councillors tweeting pictures of the city’s elite having a fun time while lower class people were being kicked off buses and having to walk home.  
  • Why would the city run attack ads against the very union it needs to negotiate with on the first day.  Saskatoon already has laughable communications and that didn’t exactly make the city look good.  Of course the political nature of the ads was bizarre.  Several city councillors swore to me that they never had any foreknowledge of the ads until they ran but both city staff and some others on council say that council saw and approved the ads in an in-camera session of executive committee.  It’s not exactly breaking news that council members lie to me on issues.  
  • Speaking of executive committees, it would be a lot easier for them to lie to me if council and staff stopped leaking what happened in there.  If only they had a way to investigate the leaks…
  • I have had several discouraging conversations with people who are utterly dependent on the bus for work, to provide care for a spouse who is in a nursing home, to get to school.  In Saskatoon we call those people collateral damage.
  • It is weird to hear councillors go all out in defence of their real fiduciary duty but ignore their responsibility to those who rely on a public service.  Empathy for those who have been hurt by this strike has not been something that has been communicated well.
  • I don’t really miss the NFL.  You would think I would after watching it every week since 1987 but I haven’t.   I glance at some scores but other than that, I haven’t really missed it.  I still have some college football, the Huskies, and the CFL but I have never cared about them like the NFL.
  • Brady Hoke needs to be fired from the University of Michigan.  He sent back out a quarterback with a concussion back onto the field.  That should be a fireable offence in any league (including when the Calgary Stampeders did it a couple of years ago in a playoff game against the Riders).  You send out a player with a brain injury, you are fired or suspended, especially in the NCAA.
  • What could Stephen Harper be thinking?  $300,000 courtesy ride for a couple of European diplomats because he wanted to have them at a reception?  Does he just not care anymore?  That does not look like a move by a politician who is planning on re-election.  Not only that but there is still widespread opposition to the deal in Germany.
  • The NFL is talking with Texas head coach Charlie Strong who has taken some strong steps in dealing with player misconduct. “We can’t compromise and sometimes that means getting rid of the best player.”
  • If you are a big company and you want to associate your brand with a strong event, I’d talk to the people behind Nuit Blanche right now.  Over 5000 people were on 20th Street last night for the inaugural event and it was a big time success.  People were partying, shopping, and hanging out all over the place.  What a great event.  Someone needs to step up and get behind it in 2015 monetarily so it can get bigger.
  • After reading this piece by Cathal Kelly, you will realize that the Blue Jays will never get any better than they are now.  So yeah, that kind of sucks.

City of Saskatoon’s Response to the Transit Lockout

Let them eat cake

I can’t claim credit for this artwork or the quote but that is Saskatoon City Council’s response to the great Transit Lockout of 2014.  The mayor is hoping for increased car pooling.  

Well high school attendance is down.  In one high school it is down by 50% today.  Think about that.  Half of the kids can’t get to school and the only solution the mayor has is “We are hoping people will carpool more”.  That’s it. They aren’t even negotiating.  There is no plan b.  No way to even get high school kids to school, even those that are high risk.  Everyone is left to their own devices.

You can expect that in the event of the strike but it was a lockout.  The city gave advance notice, created radio ads, and distributed talking points.  All of the things to cover themselves politically but nothing to help at risk high school students to get to school or low wage earners to get to work.

Even in the emergency council meeting to ratify the changes for the city’s pension fund where councillors took all sorts of time to ask questions designed to provide political cover did the topic of “how do we help people get to work”.

You have your answer.  Maybe they can car pool.  City administration cares about the bottom line, city council cares about re-election.  No one cares that much about you.  Despite their promises to taxpayer.

Nuit Blanche is this Saturday

Nuit Blanche Saskatoon 2014

Am really looking forward to this event and the artists it showcases to Saskatoon.

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.

First Day of Grade 1

Oliver on the first day of grade 1

Today was Oliver’s first day of Grade 1.  After school we went for a walk by Mayfair Library and I took this photo.  Below is Mark at the same age and rocking the denim jacket.

Mark Cooper in 2006

What Saskatoon Council is Spending Your Money On (no you won’t believe it)

You aren’t going to believe what Saskatoon City Council is spending your money on now and with the incompetence they are doing it with.

Back when the city moved to their new governance model (the one they say is like all other cities but really isn’t), they created new committees as a part of that.  Committee memberships are done in one of two ways.  They are voted on or they are decided by seniority.  There are many examples of both but when I hear seniority, I tend to think of the U.S. Senate and Congressional committees which are decided exclusively by seniority (the longer you are around, the wiser you become, or at least that is the hope).  

You always hear Saskatoon politicians speak of the “made in Saskatoon” solution.  Our solution was to draw names from a hat for one of City Council’s committees.  It was done in executive committee so it was supposed to be confidential but instead of deciding on a committee by seniority or by merit (as decided by colleagues), names were put into a hat and drawn out.  I first heard some rumours from other media and city sources soon after executive was done who didn’t think it was normal (it wasn’t).  After confirming the rumour with some people from council (who were less then impressed that I knew), I tweeted it.

That upset some on council who were frustrated that council went down that course of action and others found out about it.  As I said to more then one, “If you don’t want to look like a bunch of clowns, stop acting like a bunch of clowns”.  From that the city solicitor was asked to draw up a memo/report to remind council that they were not supposed to be leaking confidential executive committee stuff.  I assume that the term, “acting like a bunch of clowns” was not used in the report.

A couple of weeks later, I was to appear on the regular Saskatoon Afternoon with David Kirton roundtable with David and Bronwyn Eyre.  Show topics are emailed to us by the producer Brittany Higgins.  I like Brittany as she does a good job of politely refusing topics that I suggest that would take David, Bronwyn, myself and a panel of foreign affairs experts a week to talk about and instead sticks to her 5 minute topics which are way better radio.  That day she sent us a link to Charles Hamilton’s article about the Mayor again mentioning that we should have a Twitter Wall in City Council.

I don’t know why the Mayor is always asking for a Twitter wall in City Council chambers.  First of all Twitter is public already.  All of the interesting posts can be found at #yxecc and can be read by anyone at anytime.  Thirdly and I mean no offense to the Councillors that tweet, it’s pretty boring stuff.  You will get the occasional link posted to a report or something but other than that, they may be reading comments but they aren’t making that many comments in council.  Whatever it is that the Mayor wants, is already there, all they need to do is turn on a projector and go to the #yxecc link.  I doubt very much I’ll get credit for this in Council Chambers.

So Bronwyn and I start talking about the Twitter wall and it wasn’t our best segment.  On a good segment there is a sense of flow and cadence and it wasn’t there.  I also called out some on the school board for tweeting during meetings which wasn’t expected and in the end I walked out of the CKOM studio and tweeted something like, “I wish the mayor would stop talking about this stupid Twitter wall”.  If there is a topic that I never want to talk about again, it is the Twitter wall.

(This is a media roundtable gone wrong.  You really haven’t had a fight on air until this or this happens)

Apparently at that exact time, the Mayor was in executive committee and was talking about the Twitter wall.  So the conclusion was made by our wise political leadership that someone had to be leaking to me the contents of executive meetings to me.   It never occurred to anyone to listen to David Kirton’s show or to read the mornings StarPhoenix or just ask me, “what’s up with that tweet?”

A simple subscription to Google News Alerts would have told city council the truth but they decided they needed a leak investigation to find out the source of the leaks.  Or they could have asked me who told me.  While my sources are confidential, I would have no problem telling them that the source for the Twitter wall leak was CHARLES HAMILTON, you know since we talked about it on air and it him that published the Mayor’s on the record comments made during an interview to The StarPhoenix.

Well council couldn’t let this stand and decided to hire a private investigator to investigate the leak.  After rejecting some local retired cops, they rejected this guy for having too high of travel costs.

They rejected these guys because they couldn’t tell them apart.

They also wanted this guy but an agreement couldn’t be worked out with STARS over helicopter parking.

They really wanted this group of guys but they couldn’t find them.

So they hired a retired RCMP officer with the ability to question councillors and examine phone, computer and email records to see if they have been the ones that have leaked The StarPhoenix to me. If they were serious (and I don’t think they are), they would have a conversation about the FOI requests that were filed in the lead up to the 2012 elections.  Those FOI’s filed by The StarPhoenix and other media outlets covered @saskatoon.ca emails and there was a lot of embarrassing things said in those emails.  Since then councillors rarely use @saskatoon.ca email for non constituent communications.  Therefore they fall out of scope of the investigation.  Also since there are some precedents of government provided phones being able to be FOI’d, some councillors use two phones or don’t have the city pay for their own phone.  Thirdly, there is a thing called a manilla envelope and it works really well.  Some are just left in my mailbox late at night or mailed to me with no return address.

I have heard the questions that have been asked, the good cop, bad cop routine, and even the follow up questions.  I recently found out that I wasn’t supposed to find out about the investigation because that would compromise it (doh!) but that was after councillors phoned up to ask me if they had sent me anything they might have forgotten about.  Quite the investigation.  The ones that are calling for the investigation then go out and immediately undermine it.

Saskatoon City Council can’t even do a leak investigation properly (someone needs to do a Tumblr for things Saskatoon City Council can’t do properly).

Why is council doing this when most already know the truth?  Here are the answers I have gotten so far.

  • I need to be put in my place.  I am unsure how investigating each other is putting me in my place.  I have been accused (along with other media of making city councillors life more difficult before and apparently them attacking each other is supposed to change that.  While I am disappointed that they are wasting time doing this, I am unsure how this is putting me in my place.  I learn stuff and I write about it.  I am not sure how that changes.
  • This allows for frank discussions in Executive committee.  This is close to the truth.  Saskatoon City Council is the most secretive city council and city hall in Western Canada.  No one else comes close.  Executive Committee’s in camera proceedings are often used to hash out issues away from the public eye to avoid political backlash.  With confidentiality clauses, no one can voice the opposing decisions.  It’s also why media and people pack City Hall chambers from time to time to see a big issues passed without discussion.  John Gormley used to talk about the Gang of Five, now there is a Gang of Eleven.  By comparison, take a look at the Manning Foundation’s Council Tracker which looks at a much criticized Calgary City Council’s actions.  Saskatoon City Council is so secretive we can’t even track how secretive they are.
  • To weaken other councillors.  I have heard from a few councillors, “I know who your source is and they will pay”.  Umm, again… the source is the Mayor as told to Charles Hamilton?  Is this a power play against His Worship, Hamilton, Brittany Higgins, maybe even David Kirton.  I can’t keep track anymore.  In other words it is an investigation using taxpayer dollars for political games.  The truth js that some think that either Darren Hill, Zach Jeffries, or Pat Lorje are my sources.  If they are right (and they are not), then those councillors are weakened going up for re-election.  Pretty amazing work environment that they have going there. 
  • The weirdest explanation is that this will keep Darren Hill from running for the federal Liberals in Saskatoon West.  Apparently he had so muh fun running under Ignatieff and getting 11% he wants to do it again (I could be wrong but I think I was being flippant there).  Even with a 15% Liberal bump from Trudeau and the seat stays Conservative.

My favourite is the accusation that I am sort of a shadowy behind the scenes operative because I am never seen at political events.  This one makes me angry but I can understand it.  When you are a hammer, everything you see is a nail.  When you are a politician, everything is political.

First of all, I am non partisan.  I get attacked by liberals and conservatives (often at the same time).  I have a bias toward a lot of policies but the politics of council make me bored and sad for the city.  One of my most dearly held theological beliefs is best articulated by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in their book, Resident Aliens

When politics is brought to the attention of Jesus (Luke 20:20-26), the whole discussion is portrayed with such jocularity as to suggest that we are to take none of this with seriousness. When wanting to trap Jesus and hand him over to the police (Luke 20:20), they ask Jesus, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Note that was our question, not Jesus’.)

Jesus answers (Luke 20:24), “Who’s got a quarter?”

(Note that Jesus’ pockets are empty.)

When a coin is produced, Jesus asks, “Whose picture is on it?”

We answer, “George Washington.”

“Well, if he needs the stuff so badly as to put his picture on it, then give it to him, ” says Jesus. “But you be careful and don’t give to Caesar what belongs to God.”

Okay. We give up. Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?

From this we learn that a primary biblical way or treating politics is as a joke. Certainly, politicians can make much mischief, but it would be a liturgical and ethical mistake to take them too seriously. Idolatry is as big a problem for democracies as for non-democracies.

If you ask me what I think about politics, I don’t take it very seriously.  If someone, even a politician wants some advice, I give it to them.   I guess it’s why I enjoy commenting on it.   I love policy but the politics side is nothing more of a joke.  I also like most people and I hate the partisan process.  I like going out with people and sharing ideas.  It’s gets brutal when partisan lines are drawn and it interferes with friendships.

I want our city, province, and country to be a better place but at the end of the day, I’ll give that advice to their opponent or anyone who reads this blog, my columns, listens to me on air or a podcast.    Saskatoon is a weird place in that not only are we largely ignorant of best practices of other cities (even winter cities), when we find out about them, we reject them in favour of a “made in Saskatoon” solution.  In other words most of what I suggest is ignored which is fine, even if it does seem to cost us more money as a city.  The only piece of legislation I have ever tried to change was a flawed piece of affordable housing policy that myself and other housing providers opposed.  That’s it.  A public email sent to 10 councillors and the mayor.  10 of the replied.  The mayor did not but the motion failed.  That is what is important.

Provincially I once wrote a letter Premier Brad Wall about the problems of mental health and homeless.  One of his hacks replied with a letter about about hip replacements waiting lists.  I learned two things, writing the government is a HUGE waste of time and my lobbying powers aren’t exactly immense.  I have some sway with Cam Broten.  When I say “sway”, he doesn’t reply back with letters about hip replacement waiting lists.  My big piece of advice to him is that is to never by a Rider jersey without a number because they look stupid.  I also suggest going with a classic number like Ron Lancaster, George Reed, or Ray Elgaard so if the player you choose gets in trouble with the law, you don’t look like an idiot.  There you go.  That is my expertise in provincial politics.  I hate blank Rider jerseys.  That is my shadowy behind the scenes maneuvering.  Rider jerseys and homeless issues.

As for why I am never seen, this is a bit more personal.  Wendy has long struggled with depression and it is getting worse.  She wrote about it here and this has been by far the most difficult year we have ever had as a family.  Not only is her depression worse but it affects Mark in more significant ways as he grows older.  There are many times that we have plans and either Wendy can’t go out in public or Mark has asked if I wanted to hang out with him and Oliver.  The are other times when I come home after just cleaning the house and it is a disaster again.  When there is chaos in Wendy’s mind, there is chaos in my world and it hard to keep up.  So yeah, it means that I don’t go out a lot because I am trying to keep the family together. (why do you think I write about mental health issues as much as I do.  It is largely over how hard it has been to get Wendy good help). It is this and Hauerwas’ writings (which is actually rooted in John Howard Yoder’s writings) that I will never run for political office.  That and Mike Duffy has killed many options for fat bald guys from the media.  (Full disclosure, I was a long time member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan  growing up and ran in 1995 for the Tories in Saskatoon.  I was 21.  My views, hairline, pant size, and opinions on politics have changed since then).

So after I help Wendy deal with her day, help the kids with their world, I sit down on a chair and I read, write, and research.  No shadowy meetings.  No late night phone calls.  Nothing.  Most of it is spent trying to figure out who we get through tomorrow and hoping it isn’t as bad as today was. I don’t drink.  Urban planning, systems theory, and photography are my escape.  The photography gets me out of the house and the books and looking at things through a different lens and experiencing the city in a whole new way.

Considering that I have said in many columns that politicians are psychopaths, plotting world takeovers with them isn’t really high on my to-do list.  

Yes, politicians are more likely than people in the general population to be sociopaths. I think you would find no expert in the field of sociopathy/psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder who would dispute this… That a small minority of human beings literally have no conscience was and is a bitter pill for our society to swallow — but it does explain a great many things, shamelessly deceitful political behavior being one.

As an aside, if any world dominating villain offers me the Denver Broncos, I will accept them with more grace than Homer Simpson did. 

I care about homeless issues, affordable housing, and challenging growing inequality in cities.  The stuff I write about is what I care about.   I don’t care if someone from the right or the left carries that stuff out, as long as it is done.

Maybe that is why I am so disgusted about this freaking leak investigation that isn’t a leak.  It’s cheap political games that are a pain to deal with, cost us as the City of Saskatoon citizens, and is a sham right from the start.  Plus by the fact that I know about it and councillors are actively undermining it, a city solicitor who doesn’t know realize this a game, and an investigator who doesn’t realize how the game is played, it is a massive waste of time and money at a time when the city has much more pressing concerns than finding out that I read The StarPhoenix (and apparently they don’t read Saskatoon’s paper of record).  As I have written and said before, I don’t think we are hiring (or electing) the best and brightest at City Hall.  Amateur hour shows it.

Leaks happen all of the time in Saskatoon, Regina, and Ottawa.  By the time I have heard something, I know The StarPhoenix has heard it, Rawlco has heard it, and CBC has heard it.  Even the television stations with constantly changing reporters hear the gossip because it goes right from counsellors to reporters.  It always has, it always will.  To stop all of us from finding out about what Council is up to, they have decided to do leak investigation.

My answer is the same as it always has been, if you don’t want to look like a bunch of clowns, stop acting like a bunch of clowns. We deserve more from our City Council than a bunch of silly political games but this is what passes for leadership in Saskatoon.

So in summary

  • I follow a confirmed a leak about Saskatoon City Council behaving ridiculously and that embarrassed them.
  • Saskatoon City Council is full of a bunch of gossips.
  • I read The StarPhoenix and discuss it on the air.  
  • Sometimes Bronwyn Eyre wins those debates (okay many times) and I tweet about it.
  • In summary, it would be cheaper for councillors to sign up for Google News Alerts then hiring private investigators.  It would also be helpful to somewhat aware of what you say to reporters of The StarPhoenix.
  • If council is going to authorize a sham investigation, telling me about it immediately undermines it.

Oh yeah, I emailed Mark Rhogstad at the City of Saskatoon to ask how much the leak investigation was costing us.  He didn’t return my email.

Oliver & Wendy

Oliver and Wendy

This just cracked my 50 most interesting photos of all time on Flickr.  Oliver loved the Fringe but was overcome by a touch of the flu.  He was so sick that he actually turned down ice cream (his loss, my gain).  It was part of a larger group of photos I took at the 2014 Fringe Theatre Festival.

Is the new governance model in Saskatoon for it’s citizens or for the councillors

The StarPhoenix asks some hard questions about the new City of Saskatoon governance model that seems to more about the lifestyle of the councillors than it is about being good for the city.

When city council holds its next meeting a week from today, it will be the first such meeting in nearly two months after city hall adopted a new governance model that has cut council meetings in half to once a month.

Only a couple of voices on council expressed skepticism over the new system, while most heralded the change as making council’s activities more accessible.
However, there’s reason for Saskatoon residents to doubt whether the new system will improve how the city is run and increase people’s access to decisions and those who make them.

The StarPhoenix examined governance formats in seven other western Canadian cities and found little similarity to Saskatoon’s new model.

Few other municipalities hold council meetings just once a month and, of those that do, appearances can be deceiving.

Regina, for example, generally holds council meetings once a month, but held 23 meetings in 2013 and has held 10 so far this year.

Will Saskatoon’s new approach be flexible and allow for special meetings to be called to address urgent issues?

None of the other councils studied held all the major committee meetings on a single day of the week the way Saskatoon city hall plans to on Mondays (or Tuesdays after a long weekend).

Supporters say the new system will allow people greater access to committee meetings, which will now be held in council chambers and broadcast on the city’s website.

Why hold all the committees on the same day, though? That would seem to limit accessibility – particularly for those who happen to be busy on Mondays.

Is the real motivation access for residents, or convenience for councillors and administrators?

City officials cited Regina, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton as the inspiration for the new system, but Saskatoon’s new approach bears little resemblance to the latter two Alberta cities. Both Edmonton and Calgary hold multiple council meetings each month, making one wonder if Saskatoon is really making an effective transition to becoming a big city.

I agree with questions that The StarPhoenix is asking.  From the start I have said that this is about the convenience of City Councillors who want to streamline their work load, make themselves less accountable, and make it far harder for the lowly public to participate or communicate with their elected officials.  Saskatoon City Council took this new arrangement so seriously that they actually drew names from a hat to fulfill one of the committee memberships.  You can’t do that and tell anyone that you take governance seriously.

I’ll give The StarPhoenix the last word.

No one can credibly argue these changes came about due to public pressure or through extensive consultation with voters.

It’s now up to the new model’s supporters to communicate how and why the new system is working and to be candid and admit when it’s failing the citizens who are paying for it.

Otherwise, Saskatoon residents will quite correctly feel they’ve been bamboozled and watched democracy get eroded by those who should be defending it.

When a cop approaches you in Saskatoon

I managed to tear my left quadricep while hiking in Drumheller (more on that later) last weekend.  It hurts worse than it sounds and I can barely walk.  Steps are almost impossible and even a slight incline is horrible to navigate.   I was walking downtown to my car and I was limping and wobbly when I was approached by two Saskatoon Police officers who thought I was intoxicated.  As they approached, I knew they thought I was drunk and two thoughts came to my mind.  

The first was the worst thing that will happen is they will make me take a breathalyzer.  I don’t drink so that isn’t a problem.  Then I realized the worst thing anyone could do would was to poke my leg but I wasn’t really at risk of that happening.  Still my second thought was, “DON’T TOUCH MY LEG”.

The officers got close, realized that I wasn’t drunk and I explained that I had torn my quad which got an immediate response and discussion about that.  Some jokes were made about the smell of A535 and then one asked how hard it was to walk.  I mentioned that it really screws up your balance but I was fine.  A final joke was made about being “wobbly is not a crime” and I hobbled to my car. 

I kept thinking about that non-incident compared to the craziness going on in Ferguson.  Even if the Saskatoon Police Officers were going to be jerks (and they weren’t) my biggest concern was a 2 minute delay.  Instead it was almost a five minute chat about stupid injuries, Louis CK, and getting old.  Wendy and I have been stopped by SPS offers while out taking some photographs.  While people are being ordered and arrested for taking photos in Ferguson, the officers we dealt with had some camera questions and just made small talk about photography.  

Not all Saskatoon Police officers have been like that (over the years) and I have talked to some friends who have never been on the wrong side of the law who are terrified of Saskatoon Police (I am not sure why) but when I am out and I see a beat cop approach, I have never been concerned to worried about anything.  I am old enough to remember when you WANTED a cop to approach you because they used to be your sole source of Saskatoon Blades hockey cards (that was a great idea in the day)

Sadly there are places in the United States who have legitimate reason to worry even if they have never committed a crime and that is an incredibly depressing thing to think about.

Government needs to work

The one thing that Bill Clinton has understood better than any American president is that government needs to work.  FEMA needs to be able to respond to emergencies, pension checks have to be delivered on time, and people need to be able to access services; whether it be housing or grants for small businesses.  Government had to work.

Over the last year the water pipe on the 1300 and 1400 blocks have broken about 10 times.  10 times without water, sometimes for over night or for all day.  Obviously something is wrong with that waterline but they keep patching the patches together.  Sometimes the patches would last for a couple of hours, other times the patches lasted long enough that they would actually patch the hole and repave it until they had to cut through the asphalt again.

The fact that the waterline is broken is not the problem.  That happens. The problem is that even with a scheduled repair (they cut the asphalt open two days ago) that the city won’t give any notice that your water is being turned of.  Once the water is turned off, it can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days until the water truck arrives.

So with a household with kids in it, how does one flush a toilet?  How does one cook?  How does on bath or clean?

So the city knows it is going to repair a stretch of road, schedules a crew to come out, makes sure the backhoe is coming (they park the truck so it blocks my driveway each time… ignoring the abandoned lot beside me) and then goes to work and no one thinks, “we need a water truck there for that block”.

The 1300 block of Avenue D has gone over a week without water this winter.  A week without showers or laundry.  Eventually thanks to a suggestion Ward 1 Councillor Darren Hill, the city opened up city owned facilities for showers.  It was appreciated even if residents didn’t have access to laundry facilities.  It’s like no one at the city can go, “these families have gone a week without water.  What would I do in that situation?”

Last week my water shut off during my morning shower.  No one knocked on my door or let us know.  I was kind of caught of guard because the repair was in a different part than the block and I missed the digging.   Since then I walk out my front door in the morning and check both ways for construction crews before taking a shower.

This week they showed up, left a drinking water advisory on my door (even though we had no water), dug up the street and then went for lunch.  Just what I want to see when I can’t flush a toilet, City of Saskatoon workers taking a long break (yes I know they deserve a break but what about a staggered break so that would can continue?)

At the end of all of these watermain breaks over the last five years I have realized that our city doesn’t have the organizational capacity to get men and equipment to a job site at the same time, let alone get a needed and emergency source of water to a site; despite the repair being scheduled.  We also don’t have the technical capacity to fix a seldom travelled roadway properly.

So what is the reason?  Some say a bias against the westside.  I tend to wonder if we are hiring competent managers in Public Works and if we aren’t, what is the problem and how do we fix it as a city.  This isn’t a manpower issue.  It’s a customer service issue (and apparently an engineering one).

For those of you who suggest calling Public Works, in 15 years of calling that department has left me jaded from the lies.  People I talk to just make things up.  My favorite was calling about a water truck.  Wendy was assured it was on route to the location.  It never arrived for another 8 hours.  I was told that there was supposed to be flyers delivered about the repair today (and I assume about the repair last week).  There were none.

Since we can’t coordinate men, equipment, and water to a job site at the same time, I don’t think we are going to be able to solve this one.

Government needs to work.  Someone needs to fix it when it doesn’t.  Sadly no one seems that interested in doing that.

Susan Delecourt talks about Stephen Harper

but is largely describing how Saskatoon City Council operates in Saskatoon.  It’s really depressing.

Do Cities Really Want to Change?

Maybe Saskatoon doesn’t change because it is afraid of it.

The civic world is obviously more complex than this simple joke. But given the persistent failure to change the trajectory of so many places despite the enormous time and energy — not to mention vast sums of taxpayer money — spent on it, it’s worth pondering the possibilities.

Problems are problems, but they are also sometimes solutions to certain sets of questions. One of these is how to mobilize, allocate, and deploy community resources and power. Fighting decline has become the central organizing principle in many places.

As a friend of mine from the IT industry once put it regarding what he termed “rackets”: “A racket is when folks have something they complain about and commiserate about but don’t fix. Upon delving into the roots of a racket one finds that the folks don’t really want it fixed — the subject of the racket is a unifying force that if corrected will remove the common complaint and thus the unifying force. The cultural changes that would ensue from the change in practices that ‘no one wants’ are not acceptable to [the complainers]. In corporate organizational behavior, it is important to break the rackets. It is also difficult. But, I imagine, far easier in a company with some semblance of common objectives than it would be in an each-man-for-himself city.”

In short, economic struggle can be a cultural unifier in a community that people tacitly want to hold onto in order to preserve civic cohesion.

Jane Jacobs took it even further. As she noted in The Economy of Cities, “Economic development, whenever and wherever it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” And it isn’t hard to figure out that even in cities and states with serious problems, many people inside the system are benefiting from the status quo.

They have political power, an inside track on government contracts, a nice gig at a civic organization or nonprofit, and so on. All of these people, who are disproportionately in the power broker class of most places, potentially stand to lose if economic decline is reversed. That’s not to say they are evil, but they all have an interest to protect.

Consider one simple thought experiment: If a struggling community starts booming, that would eliminate a big part of the rationale for subsidized real estate development, which constitutes the principal form of economic development in all too many places, and which benefits a clear interest group. It might also attract highly motivated, aggressive people from out of town, folks who are highly likely to agitate for better than the current inbred ways of doing business. This would inherently dilute the positions of the current powers that be.

Look but don’t touch

I know most of us are more concerned with the roads but have any of you noticed the condition of many of our light standards in the city.  Some are almost completely rusted through.  I have poked at more than one and had my finger go right through.  Others are really swaying in the recent wind. 

According to city reports, City Council has not only ignored city roads but also our electrical grid.  I know, I know, marking priorities is hard.

There were roads, bridges, and snow to neglect and now we have light poles that are not structurally safe and are rusting out. It’s actually remarkable that council could let so many things at the same time.

Oh wait, amidst all of our infrastructure falling, we have a clear goal.  In case you have ever wondered what drives the Mayor and council’s desire to keep taxes low when our city needs revenue, it is Calgary.

This is from 2011.

Saskatoon’s mayor is eyeing a property tax increase of one per cent per year less than Cowtown’s over the next decade.
In 10 to 15 years, Saskatoon’s tax rate could equal that of Alberta’s biggest city, where ratepayers have the lowest property taxes among major cities in the country, he said.

Calgary has fun with this.

To help set its mill rate, Calgary relies on a so-called municipal inflation rate, a combination of costs for salaries, service contracts, fuel and materials. Saskatoon’s administration is coming up with a formula to calculate its own municipal inflation rate and Atchison has said in the past it makes sense to try to tie property tax hikes closely to that amount rather than the consumer inflation rate.

Property tax increases since Atchison became mayor have averaged 3.7 per cent annually. During the same period, Calgary’s property tax has gone up by an average of 4.2 per cent with the municipal portion jumping an average of 6.5 per cent.

Atchison’s wish already has a fiscally prudent Calgary alderman, Andre Chabot, chuckling.

He notes this spring council chose to boost the education portion of the property tax by a onetime whopping 10.4 per cent to take advantage of the province’s move to cut its portion of the property tax.

By comparison, Saskatoon’s property tax rose by a relatively small four per cent in 2011.

“For the mayor of Saskatoon to make a claim like that, it certainly is a politically astute kind of selling feature for his proposed tax increases,” Chabot said, “because he can always make the argument that it was at least one per cent lower than Calgary’s increase.

So how many miles of roadways does “politically astute” pay for?

Of course there is a reason why Calgary’s mill rate is lower.  They collect more business tax.

Jack Vicq, professor emeritus of accounting at the University of Saskatchewan Edwards School of Business, said there are differences between how Saskatoon and Calgary are funded that need to be accounted for. The amount in business tax collected in Calgary keeps its property tax rate lower, he said.

More from Vicq

“Let’s make sure the framework we’re in is the same,” Vicq said. “I would go at it from the perspective of really, what is it we should be doing in the city of Saskatoon and how are we going to do that? And maybe that takes a property tax that is higher than Calgary. You can get into trouble by just looking at Calgary and saying, ‘I want to be there.’

“You might lose sight of what you should be doing as a city or what residents expect as a city.”

As an aside, as the video below shows, I am not sure that our mayor even understands basic tax policy.

Back to what we are talking about.

First of all, the reason we have a lower rate is that we don’t fund the city the same way.  We have inferior snow removal and road repair policies to Calgary.  We also do things like underfund transit and force them to purchase worn out busses from places like Edmonton.  Parts of our bus fleet are so old that people come from all over North America to ride them.  The reason we keep using them, they are cheap to run (but you knew that already).

We don’t repair things like light poles is no big shock but now we have the cost of replacing them that is going to be a big shock to the bottom line.  Either that or we will just watch them fall over.

If you are ever in budget review meetings, you hear city managers say, “If you cut this amount, I can’t afford to do maintenance on parks” or “We won’t have enough for fuel”.  Those things are cut anyway.  You know because why do city vehicles need fuel budgeted for properly.  In many ways I think you can say that Calgary is getting far more bang for their tax dollars than we do.

Instead of funding the city the way it needs, we have actually developed our own spin that blames “freeze thaw” for bad roads (we don’t have a freeze thaw cycle, it just freezes) or that rain wrecks our roads (because we are too cheap to use rock base and instead only use sand).  My favourite is listening to council talk about how brave and hard working our city workers are doing instead of talking about how underfunding is creating this mess.  My favourite was when Pat Lorje suggested that city council was under siege last winter because of the lack of snow removal which was something she voted against.

The whole things reminds me of Winston Churchill underfunding the defences of Singapore in 1937 while First Lord of the Admiralty and then calling the British general performance there abysmal when Japan invaded in 1942 and they had no defences to work with.

We have roads that are brutal because the Mayor and council stopped funding the roads years ago.  We have light posts that aren’t safe because the city doesn’t have the cash (because of our desire to beat Calgary) and our city is dirty and grimy into July because it is cheaper to clean the streets slowly rather than quickly.  We get upset that we don’t have enough swim lessons but underfund leisure services as the city has grown.

Jack Vicq is right.  Instead of playing political games, we need a council (who can override the mayor) and fund the city properly.  Instead we get a Twitter feed that is constantly tweeting power outages because they take large dividends out of Saskatoon Light & Power, a #BetterRoadsYXE hashtag, new pylons and lots of emails from the city telling me how much they are doing (that’s another topic).

While the 2011 article mentions the mayor, it is also the fault of city council.  Darren Hill, Pat Lorje, Charlie Clark & Tiffany Paulsen have all been there at least two terms and are working on their third terms.  Mairin Loewen, Ann Iwanchuk, Randy Donauer have all been re-elected once.  They are all there when the council pulls a mill rate out of Calgary and agree to it.  When you are as integral part of the problem, can you be part of the solution?

Sadly repairing the grid or maintaining the Traffic Bridge doesn’t get people elected.  New bridges and low taxes do.  This problem isn’t going to go away and if we don’t do something about it in 2016, the mess will be just huge when we do.