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Darren Hill

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Donauer said one thing, the rest of City Council says another

David Kirton takes Randy Donauer to task for his comments on today’s Saskatoon Afternoon show.

Ckom afternoonnews header

Listen

You really need to listen to this segment.  It is something else and a fantastic job done by Dave.  It’s the media job in a democracy to hold politicians to account and Kirton did exactly that here.

Ad Volarem Debate

This portion on the September 9th Saskatoon City Council debate on the flat tax is disturbing on so many levels. As you can see in the video clip above, the Mayor is talking about how he doesn’t see the City having a role in wealth redistribution and then goes on to mention affordable home ownership; which is a city run wealth distribution program as money is raised by the Land Bank selling lots at market value and then funnelled into affordable housing and attainable home ownership programs.

Then he launches into the city not using ad volarem for super pipes and doesn’t quite realize that it is only a $2 fee.  Recycling mean while is a fee for service (which is only $4.66 a month).  Finally he gets into the part when he says the people he care the most about are the seniors.  I know what he is saying but there are a lot of people on the west side of the city (that don’t vote for him) that have not benefitted from the economic expansion in Saskatoon and they would be badly hurt by a base tax as well.  So by somehow wanting to keep them in their homes, he plans on taxing them more.  

If you listen to the end, you will hear Coun. Darren Hill challenge the mayor on his suggestions that those who are in favour of Ad Volarem taxes are forcing seniors out of their homes (which is wrong on multiple levels, especially since most low income seniors would pay less taxes under Ad Volarem than under a base tax) and the Mayor denying and demanding an apology.

Here is how Gerry Klein saw the debate

Yet it seemed to have some council members unduly flummoxed, particularly Mayor Don Atchison whose convoluted argument in support of the base tax included insisting that it’s not up to the city to redistribute wealth and claiming that increasing the property tax threatens to throw widows out on the street.

The first part of that argument is clear: The city is responsible for providing services such as maintaining the streets. If charging a ratepayer whose property is assessed to be worth $50,000 the same $170 that is charged to someone whose property is assessed at $1.8 million, well, that’s just fair.

But the second argument appeared to be a non sequitur that contradicts the first. It strayed into wondering why more lowincome seniors haven’t taken advantage of a city program that would allow them to defer payment of tax increases and allow that money to eat into the value of their homes.

The mayor’s argument was so convoluted that it devolved into a painful-towatch war of words with Coun. Darren Hill, who insisted that his rejection of the proposed base tax wasn’t meant to deprive widows of their homes.

“That’s not what I said and I demand an apology,” Atchison replied.

Well, I apologize because, like Hill, that’s what I heard.

Attaching a flat tax that would require 85 per cent of civic ratepayers to pay more in relation to the value of their homes so the remaining 15 per cent – including commercial properties valued in the millions – won’t have to face increases clearly would have a detrimental impact not only on hardpressed seniors on fixed incomes but also on the vast majority of citizens.

In case you are wondering, I downloaded the MP4 of the entire council meeting (40 minutes), imported all four hours of video into iMovie (45 minutes), watched it (kill me now), and then edited some interesting clips and uploaded them to the OurYXE YouTube Channel.  I keep hearing from people who are interested in Council stuff but have no desire to watch hours of it.  Hopefully this will make some of the debates easier to get into.  Of course it almost makes it a lot easier to blog about.

Why Saskatoon is so great

In a lot of cities, politicians are unreachable and need to be lobbied.  Saskatoon isn’t like that as we have a culture of approachable politicians at the civic and provincial level.  How approachable are they?  Well some even troll citizens.  Check out this tweet by my city councillor.


Of course the background was that I have been criticizing council (and Darren Hill) for voting for six lanes on the bridge when the city’s own report says it isn’t going to be necessary.  We have been taking lots of shots at him (and others) on Twitter and in person for the bridge and last night he replied with that tweet which made me burst out laughing.

Some politicians take their jobs and their positions very seriously but its good to see some of them being able to laugh and make fun of themselves and in their case, troll those that disagree with them, even if the 6 lane North Commuter Bridge is still a bad idea.

These were some of the replies

An Open Letter to Saskatoon City Council

Dear Councillors,

Over the last couple of weeks I have seen three minor accidents along the northbound lane on Idylwyld South.  All three have been minor and have “exchanged paint” to use the old NASCAR phrase.  They have been caused by someone trying to brake or avoid a massive pothole around a manhole cover which had been created but not repaired by a City of Saskatoon crew.

Today while caught in traffic along there, Wendy and I watched a man who was going no faster than 20 kph hit the pothole, blow his tire and bend his rim on a pothole that had been there for weeks.

Whenever I talk to any of you about potholes, I get told, “report it on the website”.  When a pothole in on one of the major thoroughfares in this city, driven by police, fire, city crews and even you as councillors, one should not have to report a pothole to the city, it should be fixed like it would be in any other city in Canada.  Especially when the pothole was created as part of a sewer upgrade*.

I have heard many stories this summer of Saskatoonians travelling to other cities and hearing apologies for the state of their roads while those same people are going, “this is so much better than the roads we have have in Saskatoon”.  Some of the ways people have described our roads are “war torn”, “goat trails,” and most of all “unsafe”.

They are unsafe to our tires, our rims, and our suspensions.  They are also unsafe for cyclists and pedestrians.  It’s embarrassing that you as a group has allowed our streets to get to this point.

It’s not like you don’t know this would happen.  The 2012 Roads Reports and reports before that ask for more money and tell you each year that unless we have more money, this is going to happen.  You kept telling people how you heard about their concerns regarding roads on the doorsteps.  Instead you gave a small increase and congratulated yourselves on the back despite knowing it wasn’t enough.  Road repair costs rise about 15% each year but Council decides to give about .5% of an increase each year leading to a very big and unsafe gap in services.  You hope to have enough money budgeted to bring hold the status quo by 2020.  By that time there may not be any roads left and the yearly amount needed to fix our roads will be much, much higher.  

Maybe city crews can’t find the potholes because street cleaning in this city takes months.  On Friday I was in City Park and they were finally cleaning it.  It was July 12!  Two months citizens of City Park have had to deal with gravel strewn and dirty streets because again, the City of Saskatoon won’t pay for the equipment needed to clean our streets.  We have such a short summer, you would think this would be a priority but it isn’t.  An email from another ward councillor today showed that much of that ward hadn’t been cleaned yet so don’t feel back City Park.  The quality of street sweeping is poor to say the least.  Talking to councillors in others wards I hear the same thing.  Locally I heard the sweepers but to be honest, our roads are marginally cleaner.

Sure we have the lowest taxes of any city our size in Canada but at the end of the day there is a reason for that, no city can maintain it’s infrastructure at the current rate of funding.  We may as well have Prosperity Saskatoon but we have roads that failing and a bridge that is a laughing stock of the country.  Instead of fixing what we have, all you can talk about is how we need to build more stuff (that needs to be maintained) so we can grow to a city of 1 million people.

While we are talking about growing to a city of a million people; here is a little bit of information you might find useful,  cities can’t grow themselves.  It’s the national and provincial economies that decide that.  It took Calgary 45 years to grow from 250,000 to a million people yet for some reason, we need to start building today.  Hence the $30 million extra for addition lanes on the north commuter bridge that your own city administration recommended against.  Then again, who am I to question policy made out of a campaign promise?

Our provincial economy is far different than Alberta’s oil based economy.  The amount of head office oversight that a potash mine takes compared to thousands of oil wells all over the province is miniscule.  We may be overjoyed by BHP Billiton moving it’s Canadian head office to Saskatoon but look at the result, a couple of stories of downtown office space.  It’s not a reflection of Saskatoon, it’s a reflection of the economy of the province we live in.

Combine that with a city council that just can’t get that quality of life matter in a city and you have a place where companies won’t be able to attract talent to and if they can, they won’t be able to keep it.  Most of the cities that are growing in Canada have higher taxes because a) growth costs b) you need to have great public amenities to have a city that top talent wants to live in.  

Eventually we are going to have to make a decision as a city.  If we keep on this path with crumbling roads and infrastructure many will just choose to leave.  For those that are left, we are going to have to borrow heavily to pay for the stuff that should have been paid for al along just like Toronto has had to do.  You can’t run old buses, garbage trucks, and city vehicles forever.  Eventually something is going to have to give and then you have to start paying for bills of broken equipment, water pipes, and roads.  When those bills come due, it’s over whelming.

Council needs to stop playing politics and start doing their fiduciary responsibility for the citizens of Saskatoon and start taking proper care of our infrastructure and city.  If they don’t, the only good news is that they won’t need to spend so much time worrying about it because we will find another group of public servants that will.

* I shouldn’t be that surprised by a city crew not repairing a pothole.  I had to personally intervene several years ago while a city run backhoe hit a car and was about to drive off.  The utility cut took a couple of years to get fixed.  I also listened to Saskatoon Light & Power crews lie about a pole failure while I was working downtown where they went home for the weekend and left a power pole in a hole without any supports.  The weather warmed up and it fell over.  We aren’t hiring the best and the brightest.

Column: Save church as gift to future

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

More than 100,000 churches and parishes across North America have closed their doors over the past decade. Entire denominations have disappeared or have had to merge to survive.

Despite being part of the Bible belt, Saskatoon, too, has been affected by the cultural shift away from Christianity, and we see in the decline the eventual closure of Third Avenue United Church.

The church been a part of the fabric of Saskatoon for almost a century. Its English Gothic architecture has been acclaimed since it was built. At the time, University of Saskatchewan president Walter Murray called the new building, “The first permanent home of religion in Saskatoon.”

Most churches have a life cycle. They are started, grow, mature and then die. With populations shifting to the suburbs, the lack of parking and the changing role of faith in our communities, many churches in downtown areas are struggling to survive.

There are very few examples of a local church being vibrant on its centennial, because many don’t make it that long. In most cases, tears are shed, stories told and the church is closed and sold. That money is invested in new churches and in projects the denomination see as desirable.

That is the path taken by the River Bend Presbytery. Selling the Third Avenue Church will give it the money to invest elsewhere.

The problem is that the loss of the downtown church would be a net loss to Saskatoon. This isn’t just another building. The Third Avenue United Church has legendary acoustical properties and rivals theatres across Canada as a great performance space.

Its capacity fills a niche in Saskatoon as it is larger than the Broadway and Roxy theatres, while at 1,100 seats, it’s smaller than TCU Place. It adds to the city without competing with other performance spaces.

The Third Avenue Centre, a non-profit group that wants to turn the church into a performing arts centre, has made a proposal to the congregation and the presbytery.

The congregation approved the proposal, but the presbytery disagreed and instructed church officials to send it back on to the market for other bids.

As other cities have taught us, when such facilities hit the open market, they can be lost to the community forever. Some communities have learned the lesson and are converting similar buildings to concert halls and performance spaces because of the value they offer a city.

The market for old cathedrals is traditionally soft.

Organizations can buy and convert them for far less than building a replacement.

Once the Third Avenue church is lost, we will never be able to replace it. There is a reason we don’t build facilities like it anymore: It’s too expensive. Its stonework alone would cost approximately $39 million to replace.

Councillor Darren Hill told The StarPhoenix, “I don’t think it’s the city’s position to get involved in the decision making of the presbytery. That is not our role. But if there is the opportunity to strengthen a bid or a proposal to protect the integrity of the church as a performing arts centre, that’s where we need to come in.”

While Hill is calling on the city to intervene, an even better solution would be for Saskatoon’s corporate and philanthropic community to step up and invest in the next century of performing arts in Saskatoon. It would be a timeless investment in both the arts and in Saskatoon as a whole.

Looking at similar and older cathedrals across Eastern Canada, the United States and Europe, there are countless generations of use left in the Third Avenue building if we are willing to invest in it before it is too late.

Saskatoon would not be alone in doing this. Several cities across Canada have stepped in to transform old churches into performance spaces. Some have allowed the congregation to continue to meet in the space – a solution that would work well here.

As builders and trustees of Third Avenue United Church for a century, it makes sense to give congregation members a home as it moves into its next phase of life as a building.

The congregation got us this far. Now it’s up to us as a city to step up and figure out what’s next. We had the vision to add a world-class art gallery downtown.

Now we need to figure out where a world-class concert hall fits in. This opportunity presents itself only once and, if we seize it, the result will be enjoyed by generations to come.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

2012 Municipal Election Roundup

So after spending last night at City Hall waiting for the election results to be made public, here are my thoughts.

  • It was fun doing a quick segment with David Kirton and CKOM on the election.  I have always been a fan of Kirton and my only regret was not seeing more traction on food trucks (Twitter joke).
  • I was shocked to see Troy Davies win in Ward 4.  I had picked Sean Shaw and all of the metrics that myself and others have used to determine campaign victories showed Shaw winning. Apparently I need new metrics.  Either that or I need to start putting polls in the field.  Congrats to Troy Davies for winning and earning the right to be Ward 4 councillor.  Sean is a good friend and I am sure he will be back politically but it’s hard to see friends lose races.
  • I was also surprised to see Ann Iwanchuk win as after 10/11 polls reporting, Mike San Miguel had a sizeable lead but as the old saying goes, “it’s not over until it’s over” and all of a sudden I was looking at a result that I couldn’t believe and that is that Iwanchuk won by 28 votes.  When I talked to her and Andy last night, they kind of had the same reaction. Congrats to her on a well run race.
  • If I am Mike San Miguel, I have to questioning my decision to go negative late in the race with a pamphlet that attacked Iwanchuk and an attacking robo-call that attacked her NDP background.  If anything it probably motivated people to turn out for Iwanchuk.  It was a great campaign to watch that came down to under 100 votes.
  • Zach Jeffries not only becomes the youngest member on council ever but knocked off three term incumbent Bev Dubois.
  • So Tom Wolf came within a hair of defeating a long term incumbent after getting in the race in September.  Impressive campaign by Wolf and they had by far the best campaign t-shirts.
  • Pat Lorje won again in Ward 2 which is what I predicted. 
  • Since this will be long forgotten by 2016, I am planning to do a series of push polls, probably just to candidate homes that go something like, “Would you prefer crazed socialist (or robber baron) [insert councillor's name here] or well respected columnist Jordon Cooper to represent your riding?” just to feed on their paranoia.  I have no intention of running but it would be fun to do.
  • I had a fun conversation with Andy Iwanchuk which is the first time we have ever met. When you think of it, the Iwanchuk family has been in campaign mode for a long time with Ann’s election a year ago, Andy’s provincial campaign and now her re-election campaign which makes for a hectic year.  No truth to the rumour that both of them are getting away for a vacation by working on someone else’s campaign.
  • After following the council pretty closely, I found the entire election disillusioning.  Part of it is the sausage philosophy where you don’t really want to know how it is made.  At the last of the last term, it was a very politically divided council.  That division came across during some of the FOI requests that dropped and also it showed that more than one councillor/candidate had lied to me about some issue or another.  Hopefully with some new councillors on council those bridges can be rebuilt but I am not hopeful that the partisanship will change.
  • I want to thank each of you last night that aggressively shook my hand.  If you noticed tears in my eyes, it wasn’t because I moved talking to you or about your victory, it is because I HAVE A TORN ROTATOR CUFF and it really HURT ME every time we shook hands.  I was ready to be put down by about 8:45 p.m.  It hurt that much.
  • The election day someone put up an anonymous Twitter account bashing Darren Hill to the media and anyone who would listen.  Sadly it was done by someone that knows Wendy and I and lives in Mayfair.  I have a pretty good idea of who it was but it’s still sad.  To be honest, if I was going to attack Hill I would stand behind them.  An anonymous account doesn’t do anything other than provide something to laugh at.
  • Got to hang out with Alex MacPherson and Liam Richards for the first time last night.  I always enjoy MacPherson’s writing in Verb and I have long been a fan of Richard’s photography (which always envying his gear). 
  • So this will be it until the next federal and provincial election when some councillors decide to run.  If they win, we get by-elections and the process starts all over again.

Endorsement: Darren Hill (Ward 1)

I didn’t really plan on endorsing any candidates for the Saskatoon municipal election because I wanted to dispassionately observe it but the funny thing is that when you watch city council as closely as many of us have, you develop some strong opinions on who should and who should not be elected.  While I have strong opinions on all of the wards, I’ll be posting some endorsements for only some of them.

Since I moved into Ward 1 in 1998, I have been represented by Jim Madden, Lenore Swystun, Donna Birkmairer and Darren Hill.  Of the three, only Darren HIll has been re-elected.

I had nothing to do with the first three councillors.  Hill was the first councillor to knock on our door in a campaign where he made enough of an impression on Wendy that she suggested we vote for him.  In that first term the house behind us was abandoned, started on fire, and was knocked down.  The abandoned lot quickly became overgrown with a noxious weed that Killex and Roundup won’t kill and started to take over our boulevards.  Out of frustration with my own lawn and looking at weeds that were six feet tall, Wendy emailed Councillor Hill and didn’t expect much for results.

Wendy was wrong as 20 minutes later, Hill was outside the abandoned lot with a member of Fire and Protective Services.  Over the next couple of days there was a flurry of emails that Wendy was cc:’d on keeping her up to date with the problem, the solution, and what was being done so that she never had to complain again.  While the lot is still abandoned, it s mowed and cleaned up several times each summer and it has never been a problem.  I even got rid of the noxious weed that was in our boulevard. 

That has been Darren Hill’s pattern through the last two terms in office.  When there is a problem, he acts on it whether we talk to him in person, email, or even on Twitter.  Sometimes the results are better than others but I at least know he worked hard in trying to get those results.  Of course because Hill is so transparent in how he communicates with City Hall, it has empowered Wendy and myself to contact people ourselves from time to time.  Through Hill’s interactions, City Hall is a lot less intimidating of place to dialog with.  While you can’t fight City Hall, you can navigate it and for many, that makes life a lot easier.

Some of you might ask, “don’t all councillors do this?”  The answer is no.  Some never reply to an email, respond to voice mail, or really do anything with constituent concerns.  You have no idea how many times I have been at council meetings and it is painfully obvious that a councillor hasn’t read their council package.  What makes me frustrated is that they are paid almost $60,000/year to do this job.  I can read their council package, Hilary can blog the council package, yet some councillor’s do not.  So yes this stuff matters and I appreciate a councillor that makes it matter.  Hill does that.

I don’t always agree with his votes and stances at City Council but that could be said for any of the councillors.  I have questioned some of his votes and at the end of the day, it’s well thought out and considered a lot of factors, even if I still disagree.   By in large Hill has a track record of being open to and a source of new and innovative ideas for the city while remaining a fiscal conservative.  He can dream but understands the bottom line which are two qualities that make for an effective city councillor.

When over a month ago when we heard gun shots in our alley way (and found the spent cartridges), Wendy and Mark were scared and wanted to move to someplace safer.  Hill had a series of meetings for myself and also for others with the community association and also (others met) with the Saskatoon Police Service to come up with solutions to the crime issues in Mayfair.  Hill’s work at finding the solution was one of the major reasons we didn’t move.  That’s a big deal for all of us.

Last year when a lot of (poorly informed) people asked me why I didn’t run for City Council, I would always answer back that, “Darren Hill does a really good job representing our ward”.  Not that I was inclined to run but even if I was going to be, it wasn’t going to be against a councillor that does a fantastic job both looking after the ward and city’s interests.

So what about Robin Bellamy?

Hill’s opponent is former Ward 7 public school board trustee Robin Bellamy.  Bellamy is a long time candidate for city council and the provincial legislature but his campaign platform leaves a lot to be desired and I think comes from a misreading of the ward and community.  I was at the community meetings over needle exchange and while there are a couple of ideologues that oppose needle exchange, it doesn’t represent the viewpoint of the neighbourhood, the professional opinions of the public health officers from the Saskatoon Health Region, or even reflect an understanding of the neighbourhood dynamics.  What really bothers me about is that it shows a lack of leadership in dealing with the real problem.  His platform reads like John Gormley talking points on the topic rather than anything that resembles an informed platform.

It goes on with his commitment to Cosmopolitan Industries, which ignores the requirement of the RFP, council bending backward to ensure that Cosmo receives it’s required recycling material, and the “Do No Harm” motion that council has adopted towards Cosmo, all things that Cosmo accepted.  Even Loraas made some concessions that it didn’t have to make to Cosmo to keep them supplied with guaranteed growth.  While there is a debate to be had about Cosmo, it would be great that if it could happen on the merits of what happened rather than the spin that surrounded it.

At the end of the day I am comfortable with another four years of Darren Hill as Ward 1 councillor.  He has a proven track record, seems as passionate as ever, and brings an open mind and new ideas we will face as a city.  Saskatoon and Ward 1 is a better place if he wins re-election on October 24th.

Disclaimer:

I am not part of a campaign team and I don’t sit on any committees with Hill or as far as I know, am dependent on his vote or support for any projects that I am undertaking.

Saskatoon Civic Election Roundup : October 1st Edition

This week’s roundup was more of a road trip with an extensive drive that took me through Wards 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 & 10.  Other than learning that we need to spend more money on roads in this city, I did get to see a bit of the ground game as it is playing out across the city.

Ward 1: While Robin Bellamy has some sign strength in some parts of the city, Darren Hill is still out in front, especially on east side of the river/ward.  It’s a bit hard to judge as a lot of Darren Hill signs have been knocked over.  I saw ten down Saturday while driving around the east side.  I was able to observe both candidates in the same room this week as they were at the Mayfair/Kelsey Woodlawn/Hudson Bay Park Community Association AGM in the warm up shack of Henry Kelsey rink.  Seriously, we met in a hockey change room that still smelled like my hockey bag.  That’s the glamorous world of civic politics; awkward meetings in rooms that smells bad.  If I ever think of running for public office, someone show me this post while sitting me down beside a hockey bag.

Ward 2: Owen Fortosky’s campaign website has launched while I am seeing a lot of Pat Lorje lawn signs going up all over Ward 2.  Of course the secret of Ward 2 is not who has the best campaign but who can get the people out to vote.  Doreen Day Wapass ran a spirited campaign against Lorje last election but very little of her support came out to vote (or the alternative narrative is that she had very little support)

Ward 3: I spent a lot of time driving around Ward 3 Saturday and I have never seen a sign campaign like it.  There would be all sorts of Ann Iwanchuk campaign signs and then a bunch of Mike San Miguel signs in clusters.  Then a while further there will be all of these Iwanchuk campaign signs before another cluster of San Miguel signs.  I  returned on Sunday and Wendy and I actually took some notes on signs.  After looking at all of it, Iwanchuk is ahead. When you toss in the fact that she is an incumbent, I will put her out in front. 

Ward 4: Troy Davies is putting up a lot of lawn signs along 33rd but throughout the ward the sign war is being won by Sean Shaw.  A drive through a lot of Ward 4 Saturday showed that Shaw was holding a big lead in signs.

Ward 5: The big shift in the ward is that while city property seem to be supporting James Ford while actual households are still voting for Randy Donauer.  Ward 5 is always going to be a difficult place for a left wing candidate to win as there is no really provincial or federal NDP presence in the ward which means that each campaign will be starting from scratch.  

Ward 6:  I spent a lot of time in Ward 6 Saturday as ESPN Radio was quite compelling and I was killing time while waiting for Mark to finish football practice.  I managed to hit every neighbourhood in the ward.  Charlie Clark is handily winning the sign war in Ward 6 which has to be horrible news for Brandon Snowsell.  While I drove through on Saturday, Wendy and I were driving through the ward on Sunday and the Clark campaign had even more signs up.  Having talked to a lot of campaigns about this over the last couple of years, one of the reasons you announce early and start door knocking is to get sign locations.  People are not engaged in the political process in April and if you are going to be out there, you want to find people that will endorse you later.  When it gets to that magical start date, you a) toss up enough signs to show your strength and put up some later to look like you are building momentum or you b) toss them all us and basically try to take your opponent out of the race early.  A good example of this was the Eric Olauson campaign in 8 who gained enough sign locations (which are really endorsements) to establish himself as the front runner from the start of the campaign in Ward 8.  After all the door knocking, the robocalls, and giant billboard and you still find yourself losing the sign war; it’s very hard to see a path of victory moving forward for the Snowsell campaign.  As I took Wendy though the ward on Sunday, the Clark campaign had even more signs up which says not only is Clark ahead but he is the one with the momentum.  No sign(s) of the other two candidates that jumped in to the race.

Ward 6 is also an interesting campaign where you have Snowsell running on a platform while Clark is running on his approach to civic politics which is actually a lot more important when you think about the thousands of votes over four years a city councillor will make.  I have no idea what challenges city council will be facing  three years from now and in the end you are voting for the person you best think can handle that.

Finally, thinking politics while listening to ESPN Radio talking about college football is harder than you think.  At one point today I had Randy Donauer doing well in the Heisman Race while Tim Tebow was not doing well in Ward 4.  Best of luck to both Ward 6 candidates as they play Michigan and Alabama on the road next week.

Ward 7: Mairin Loewen has been hard at work and is beating Mike Bzowey in sign locations.  I keep hearing two things.  One that Loewen’s ground game is paying off for her and she is ahead but I also hear that because of Bzowey’s spending and the wildcard that is Stonegate that is much closer.  I think it is close but I Loewen works hard on constituency issues and is a thoughtful city councillor and effective campaigner.  I still have Loewen ahead in a close campaign.  

One odd part of the campaign is that after driving through most of Stonegate I never noticed a single lawn sign.  I assume it’s because of all of the construction and not because the neighbourhood has shunned all three candidates in the ward but still, it is kind of weird as the neighbourhood has made it’s feelings known before (they don’t like group homes for single mothers and their infants).   I don’t think it means anything either way other than it is just weird.

Ward 8: Some of Ainsley Robertson‘s supporters are saying to me that Sharon Wingate will draw enough support from Eric Olauson on the right for them to win up the middle. I agree it does happen as you saw that happen with several of Ralph Goodale’s elections but that only seems to make sense if there is a three way race and you still have to be stronger than the other two.  Three strong campaign’s lowers the number of votes to win but you still have to get to that number.  I still have Olauson out in front although Robertson does seem to be gaining in some sign locations and I think she is in second place.

Ward 9: Tiffany Paulsen has published her campaign platform and it has an interesting plank of free outdoor fitness classes for everyone in the city.  She hasn’t released how this would be paid for or how much it would cost but I like it and one of the reasons why we have these elections is to get new ideas.

Ward 10: This is the only campaign that has it’s own iPhone app and a paperless candidate in Mark Horseman.  Zach Jeffries is using a more traditional campaign to knock off incumbent Bev Dubois.  Dubois is going big with billboards, bus bench ads, radio ads and today, a pancake breakfast.  Three different approaches to a tough race.  While this is Bev Dubois’s sixth campaign (she lost previously to Don Atchison and then Tiffany Paulsen before winning the next three), both Mark Horseman and Zach Jeffries have experience running campaigns in the riding.  Horseman ran in the last election while Jeffries was part of the campaign team trying to beat Dubois back in 2003.  While my survey of Ward 10 wasn’t as extensive as my trips through Ward 3 and Ward 6, it is worth noting that Dubois seems to be losing the sign war to Jeffries and maybe even Horseman.  May she should have released an Android or Blackberry app?

Mayoral Campaign: Tom Wolf criticized Don Atchison for essentially being the incumbent mayor during the campaign and like most of council, the Mayor had some problems with the language around the Code of Conduct.  I agree with the Mayor, err, Don Atchison on this one and probably think it was a campaign mistake.  Wolf came out with his second phase of his campaign platform which focused on communities.  The other major news during the mayoral campaign is the excellent political campaign that the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan has run with several announcements during the campaign which has blunted some of the criticism that some candidates have made about the spending.  Both candidates have some lawn signs up around the city but I have Atchison out in front.

The interesting part of the mayoral campaign will be the mayor’s debate which is going to be televised for what I think will be the first time.

Useless Fact of the Week: Candidates are very, very passionate about lawn sign stakes.  Some use one stake, some use two and there is a divide between those that use 2×2 stakes (Hill and Jeffries among others) and those that use 1×2 stakes.  I also found out that NDP leadership candidate Cam Broten has a “stake guy” who makes stakes out of recycled wood.  It also sounds out that on several campaigns, the election allows them to clean out sheds because the stakes are all being used.  So by taking a lawn sign not only are you making your voice heard, you are helping out someone’s domestic situation.  That and if your fence goes missing during a provincial campaign, it could be Broten.

Number of the week: 288.  As in 288 followers that Tom Wolf has on Twitter.  Tom is doing a good job with social media but with only 288 followers, his campaign is not catching on as it needs to if he wants to beat Don Atchison (who has 810)

Statistically Insignificant Argument of the Week: I have heard from a couple of campaigns that “my opponent got the sign but I got the vote”.  I know that does happen but it’s a statistically insignificant amount.  It goes both ways and lawn sign strength is a pretty good sign of voter intentions.  The exceptions are rental housing where a landlord may authorize the lawn signs but of course the residents have their own idea on how they will vote. 

Does residency matter in municipal ward elections?

I used to believe that location mattered in civic elections, I believed that one should live in the ward that they represent.  I noticed last week that Mike San Miguel had a “sticker” on this website that asked Ward 3 residents to vote in a councillor that lived in their ward.  I assume Mike does and I wonder if that matters.  

I live in Ward 1 and so does my councillor, Darren Hill.  He calls City Park home while I call Mayfair home.  Now Darren does a really, really good job of representing Mayfair’s interests.  I wonder if we take up a disproportionate amount of his time in fact yet there isn’t a lot in common between Mayfair and City Park (I have lived in them both).  

If you look at Ward 2, what does Montgomery and let’s say Pleasant Hill have for common issues.   Both are distinctive neighbourhoods who have different issues.  

In Ward 4 you have Westmount and Hampton Village.  The list can go on and on.  In some ways Caswell, City Park, and Nutana are all similar but in three different wards.

You could say that the westside and the eastside have common issues but then you have Ward 1 and to a lesser extent War 6 that cross the river.  Even if you define Idylwyld Drive as the east/west dividing line, you still have Ward 1 which at the end of the day it means that living in your ward means very little in your ability to represent it.  Very few issues that get debated at council are ward specific; the exceptions are the Montgomery wind farm and infill or the Broadway 360 plans.  Most of city council decisions that are local respect the wishes of the local community and city administration.

Our wards are so diverse that it living in a ward don’t mean nearly as much as listening to a ward.  If a councillor can do that from outside the ward, they will be elected.  If they can’t?  Well history is full of councillors who have been defeated by opponents inside or out of the ward.  It’s just not a real issue.

YXE Votes Roundup

I thought I would post some weekly thoughts on all of the civic elections which is guaranteed to upset all campaigns.  If I say they are winning, they complain I am setting the execrations to high, if I say they are losing, I am being unfair.  In the end I am not sure I care because if they win, they will eventually upset at something I write so here goes.

Ward 1 : The Ward 1 race is heating up with more and more Robin Bellamy signs appearing on both sides of the river.  Whatever he is doing to talk to voters, it is working.  I still have Darren Hill ahead but the lead seems to be shrinking up against a well oiled Bellamy campaign.

Ward 2 : Challenger Owen Fortosky doesn’t have a campaign website up yet which tells me that he isn’t campaigning that hard.  Pat Lorje seems to be caught off guard but she has been everywhere in Ward 2 and has one of the highest profiles on council.  She also was an avid advocate for Montgomery’s interests last year and since they (and Caswell) are going to be the high turnout neighbourhoods, I have her winning handily.  While Fortosky was the previous councillor before Lorje and that makes this race somewhat more interesting, Rick Steernberg was the old Ward 3 councillor before Maurice Nealt won the seat in 2003.  When he decided to run in 2011 the previous name recognition didn’t help him and he finished fourth behind Ann Iwanchuk, Mike San Miguel, and Derek Rope.  It will be interesting to see if Fortosky’s name recognition produces a different result this time.

Ward 3 : A close race with Ann Iwanchuk trying to hold off Mike San Miguel‘s campaign.  Mike San Miguel has not only built an impressive campaign team and name for himself but he has done it two short years.  Impressive whether he wins or loses.  I have this race within 500 votes.  It is also the campaign that has a bit of an edge to it with Mike San Miguel’s website saying on the front page, “Elect a candidate that lives in your ward!” which is a shot at Iwanchuk that lives right next door in Ward 4.

Ward 4 : If lawn signs are any indication, Sean Shaw is winning this race handily.  The only time I have seen a more dominant sign campaign was in 1983 in Calgary during Lougheed’s last campaign.  Troy Davies is trying to compensate with one really big mobile billboard that he is driving through the ward, a strategy I am not sure is going to work.

Ward 5 : If Randy Donauer doesn’t win with 80% of the vote, I will be really, really surprised.  Donauer is well liked in Ward 5 by supporters, independents, and even some ideological opponents.  When you are doing well with your opponents, things are going pretty well.  If I was going to run against Donauer, I would run on a campaign of hiring him back to run the city website as he has by far the best city councillor/ward website on council.  It’s more useful than the city website.

Ward 6 : I wonder if Charlie Clark took Brandon Snowsell’s campaign too lightly.  Snowsell’s campaign has been on the ground since March and has been rumoured to have raised a pile of cash.  They say the only way to beat a popular incumbent is to outwork them and Snowsell has done that.  If you can outwork and outspent, you are onto something.  My only thought is the robocalls may hurt Snowsell in that ward which would be kind of ironic.

Ward 7 :  Word on the street is that Mike Bzowey is delivering pizza to people.  I’ll be honest, if given enough pizza, I’ll vote for anyone.   That being said, I don’t think there is enough pizza to be delivered to overcome Mairin Loewen‘s campaign which has been at it for several months now.  Like I just said, you have to outwork an incumbent and I am not sure Bzowey is doing that.

Ward 8 : While Sharon Wingate is running hard, Eric Olauson has been door knocking since early spring and looks to have built up a sizeable lead.   I have Olauson winning a four way race with around 50% of the vote right now.  While Ainsley Robertson declared early, she looks to being out campaigned and door knocked by Olauson.  Of course what makes this race so interesting is that Wingate is going after Olauson’s vote which means that you could see a vote split as the race goes on.  With four motivated candidates, it has the potential to be the most interesting race in the city.

Ward 9 : As I told a friend who had been approached to run in Ward 9, “it’s not a ward, it’s an urban utopia where there are no issues”.  Not only that but it won’t be fun for to be destroyed by an articulate Tiffany Paulsen in the council forums and probably outspent.  Good luck to Dennis Nowoselsky who is about to electoral road kill in Ward 9.

Ward 10 : Both Mark Horseman and Zach Jeffries are running hard in Ward 10 but Bev Dubois has won with some massive pluralities in the past.  According to all three campaigns, they have a total of 164% of the vote and things are going great.

The Mayor’s Race:

I have been pretty uninspired so far.  You have two candidates who are talking about issues that they are not strong in and both sounding awkward while doing it.  That being said I keep hearing that there is a lot of frustration with the mayor inside Circle Drive, a voting block that Lenore Swystun won last time and got a total of 38% of the vote with spending very little money.  If Tom Wolf can spent close to what the Don Atchison is expected to spend, then we have a race but I think Wolf started too late.

So here is my survey of the Saskatoon electoral map. 

  • Ward 1: In play with Hill ahead
  • Ward 2: Lorje
  • Ward 3: In play and too close to call
  • Ward 4: Shaw who may also win Ward 3 and Ward 2 if his signs are any indication.
  • Ward 5: Donauer
  • Ward 6: In play but Clark leading
  • Ward 7: Loewen
  • Ward 8: Olauson
  • Ward 9: Paulsen
  • Ward 10: In play but with Dubois out ahead

I’ll post something each Monday leading up to election day.