Tag Archives: Saskatoon City Council

A couple of random late night thoughts on Saskatoon

While on the Prairie Lily cruise I over heard a couple of visiting business travellers who were stunned that Saskatoon would spend some much money on rehabilitating the University Bridge and then not get the graffiti that is all over the underneath of it at the same time.  Also they were stunned at what looks to be a smaller sign warning about the weir placed on a larger sign.  As one of them said, “It looks so bush league”.  I have to agree on them.

Then Wendy and I listened to the shock over the fact that the Traffic Bridge had just fallen apart.  “Who let’s a bridge fall apart?” as they listed off the cities they have lived in and tried to recollect a failed bridge in Canada outside of Montreal.  As someone else said, “Don’t cities just maintain them?”.

I realized that we have become so accustomed to such bad management in the City of Saskatoon that we think it is somewhat normal.  Part of me would wonder where we would be through the boom with a city council that could manage or lead together.

I also couldn’t help but notice that right across from the new mansion on Saskatchewan Crescent East was a tent for a homeless women on the westside of the river.  It looked like it had been there for a while.  Quite the contrasting views and a depressing visual reminder that Saskatoon’s homeless numbers keep growing and few care.

Darren Hill: “We’ve screwed this up completely”

No, it’s not Darren Hill’s re-election slogan, about Cosmo, the North Bridge, or about rising crime in Mayfair.

A Spadina Crescent home where author Farley Mowat once lived will not receive heritage designation, which could have brought the owner up to $84,400 in tax abatements to cover ongoing renovations.

Although the city had given the homeowner the green light to start his renovations a year ago and appeared poised to grant his application for heritage designation this spring, the provincial board that oversees heritage properties recommended last month that the application be denied. Council on Monday voted to accept that recommendation.

“We screwed this up completely,” said Coun. Darren Hill, who was alone in voting against the province’s recommendation.

“There’s no doubt that this was a comedy of errors from the start of that application process.”

Mayor Don Atchison disagreed.

“If the province wasn’t prepared to go that direction at all, I don’t know why we’d be going there either,” he told his colleagues before the vote.

So let me get this straight.  The City of Saskatoon told a homeowner to go ahead with renovations (that I assume they approved) and now that the province disagrees, the city walks away and leaves the homeowner with a $84,000 hole in his budget and no one on council cares.

I know this house in in Hill’s ward but it seems a little cold, even from a council that doesn’t often care about individual homeowners.

Contextless Saskatoon City Council Thoughts

1.  I have been asked many times lately if I am running for public office.  The answer is never.  Seriously, I am never running for office so stop asking.  I don’t take politicians seriously and I find myself laughing at many of their first world politician problems.  I could never do it.  Well I could but it would in the same way The Onion covers the world news.  Then again can you do a Ralph Klein and not drink?  I don’t think you can and I don’t drink.

2.  There will be a interesting races for Saskatoon City Council.  If Randy Donauer and Eric Olauson win, that will create vacancies in Ward 5 and 8.  If Charlie Clark runs for Mayor, that opens up Ward 6.  At one time I thought because of the transit lockout that Ann Iwanchuk might be vulnerable but that has come and gone and no one cared so her seat is safe.  Yes I hear rumours that this person is running or that person is running but during the last election I heard that I was a part of slate of candidates that Darren Hill was running.  If there was a slate, I wasn’t on it.

2a.  As for by-elections for Donauer’s seat (if he wins) whoever wins that would be kind of vulnerable because of a lack of time they would have to establish themselves.  I think as Mairin Loewen and Ann Iwanchuk showed, it also means that your campaign machine is still ready to go.  It could even be an advantage.  Although I doubt anyone who has to run back to back campaigns would think of it as an advantage.

3.  I was really uncomfortable seeing both Eric Olauson, Randy Donauer and Troy Davies bill the City of Saskatoon $700 each for the Mayor’s Cultural Gala. (the report is here)  Not only did they charge their tickets but also for their dates.  I know it’s not against the rules but since that is the case, something is wrong with the rules.  That is taxpayers money for what is largely an evening out.  It was also the eve of locking out the transit workers and causing a lot of hardship for a lot of people.  The optics of it are horrible and in Olauson and Donauer’s case, it really damages thei credibility as a fiscal hawk when he is lined up at the taxpayers trough.  Do as I say, not as I do.

3a.  I was also uncomfortable glancing at the 2013 expenses and seeing Troy Davies submit a bill for a Synergy 8 event, a charity he helped found.    It’s only $75 but it is an event his organization put together.  I am not saying it is against the rules (apparently it isn’t), I am just shocked we allow that kind of thing.  It is like council voted themselves a social fund and all them are using it.

4.  Speaking of fundraisers, apparently your city councillor doesn’t really want to support your cause as they billed a lot of fundraisers big and small to the city.  If they don’t want to go, why go and why charge the taxpayers for it?  How can this not be against the rules?  It looks like we are paying them to go to social events to be seen.  This is called campaigning.  Why is this allowed? Look at who wrote them.

5.  I am also a bit disgusted with taxpayers paying for councillor domain names and hosting.  I have long said that a system like darrenhill.saskatoon.ca or anniwanchuk.saskatoon.ca would work for councillor sites at a cost of nothing to the city.  Not only do we pay (a lot) for domain hosting and registration but then those same domains are used as election tools which are essentially promoted by taxpayer money during their time in office.   Again, not allowed in other many other cities but here we are, allowing it here.  Of course some the expenses are high because I think that some are being taken advantage of.  When I mean, some, that is us again.

6.  Take a look at Darren Hill’s travel expenses for 2014.  I love that he included a trip that did not cost taxpayers money.  Next year I want him to submit a line in there for a Slurpee that someone bought for him.  It actually makes some sense.  He travels for SUMA and to avoid the perception he is flying on our money, he reminds us that he flew on someone else’s money.  Still, I want to see a comped Slurpee in there.

7.  Even weirder in the expenses is that all councillors have to submit a line by line expense report while the mayor submits a lump sum?  Someone explain that to me.  Yes the majority of his expenses go to pay Richard Brown.  That is fine and I have no problems with that but why not be transparent with the rest of your expenses.  If you don’t have anything to hide, then why not make it available.  If you do have something to hide, why submit the expense.  It’s really weird that we have one standard for councillors and one for the mayor.    At executive committee, he was asked to provide a breakdown on his expenses, he said he would “consider it”.  Transparency in action folks.

7a. It reminds me of the issue around the Mayor publishing his schedule.  Other Mayors do it and it is both really interesting and really boring but it is done to show who is lobbying the mayor.  After saying he would not do this because his day-timer was bought with his own money (and totally missing the point), he did it once leading up to the last election and hasn’t done it since.

7b.  When I bring up transparency and accountability with councillors, they generally tell me that other councils are worse in some area.  I agree.  Look at Winnipeg.  It may be worse in all areas.  Yet what happened to aspiring to be the best at something or the most transparent?   Seriously why wouldn’t the Mayor want his expenses broken down or his schedule published?   Other politicians do it and somehow democracy survives.

8.  So on one extreme is Toronto where mayoral campaigns debate every hour or so (I kept expecting Chow, Ford, and Tory to show up at the Rook and Raven one night to debate) to the Saskatoon example of one debate.  I would love to see a middle ground (slanted heavily towards the Saskatoon model) of 3 to 5 debates on different issues.  I’d watch a debate on the future of downtown, poverty issues on the westside, urban planning, and transportation/transit.  I wonder if we can make that happen for this election.  I’d also love to see a debate over a beverage and wings.  Something casual where tough policy questions are asked and candidates are given time to answer.  I may be the only one who is there.  Well me and the city councillors because they can expense their meal, their parking, and their mileage….

9.  If Randy Donauer loses his federal election, I can’t see it hurting a re-election bid in Ward 5.  Darren Hill was destroyed when he ran federally and was re-elected handily in Ward 1.  I am told by all candidates that a local campaign is worth about 3% in terms of winning votes.  If you blow a close campaign, you blame yourself but at least you got close, you get blown out, chances are it’s the party leader or platform (or a really unpopular federal/provincial govt).

10.  Everyone asks me about if Pat Lorje can win again in Ward 2 which is odd since I live in Ward 1 (no one is voting for her in my ward I know that!)  Professor Dave McGrane called the leak thing “inside baseball” which means that it is really important to politicos and the media but not that important to voters.  My take is that it will enrage those that won’t vote for her.  I think the bigger danger for any long term incumbent is the population growth and change in the ward.  If enough new people come in, then for all intents and purposes, you lose the advantages of incumbency.

11.  Personally I think Lorje is vulnerable to a Karl Rove strategy of running against a candidates strengths which is a strong base in Montgomery and Caswell  A campaign that was about the noise from South Circle Drive, failure to stop the wind turbine, the new apartments that Montgomery hated, the new location of the city yards, lack noise walls along tracks, 33rd Street widening, and crime in Caswell.  Instead of trying to get voters to come out in King George, you try to keep her voters from voting.  You saw it in Alberta.  A lot of Progressive Conservative voters stayed home and that hurt them in close races.  It’s a lot easier said that done but I’d expect a couple of candidates to run, especially one from the businesses on 20th Street.

12. I love the debate going on between Toronto Chief City Planner Jen Keesmat and Mayor John Tory.  Two different visions of the Gardiner Expressway (Keesmat is right) but they are able to co-exist.  This is what you get when you have a strong independent city planner.  Saskatoon’s has always been part of the City Hall administration which as the city grows, it may be beneficial for more independence rather then the “one voice” strategy that now exists in City Hall.

13. I don’t get the lawsuit for the South Circle Drive delays against Stantec construction.  It says that Stantec didn’t supervise the project closely enough and therefore it was delayed.  Umm, then who from the city was supervising Stantec and are they responsible?  Why wasn’t Stantec replaced (or penalized) when things started to go bad?  Of course there are some other lawsuits that are happening with other developers.  Do we not have the capacity in the city to even tender out and supervise the projects we need?  I’d love to hear the other sides from this.

13a.  When you don’t hire FTEs like councillors Olauson and Donauer hate, you have to hire outside companies like Stantec which not only cost much more money but also lack accountability.  You aren’t saving money by cutting FTEs you are costing the city more.

14. The city has a problem with 15% vacancy rate downtown (that doesn’t include the old police station).  Where is City Council on this.  A strong downtown is important to all us but I haven’t heard anything from City Admin, Council, or even SREDA.  Is there a plan being executed to help with it?  Do they disagree that it is a problem?  Is there even a plan to fix it?

15. I can’t get excited about the glut of hotels.  A couple of years ago Tourism Saskatoon was saying that the lack of hotels was a major problem for the city.  Now we have a glut which happens when you have a boom, developers from all over scramble to build, especially in areas like the airport business area.  Then there is a glut and that will remain until our population grows again and there is a shortage.  The good news?  Our hotel rates will finally be closer to Calgary’s rather than Manhattans.

Okay, those are just some random thoughts I have been thinking.  Let me know if you agree or disagree with them below.

Saskatoon City Council Meeting in Review

I haven’t done one of these in a long while but here are the highlights from today’s City Council meeting.

  • Both Pat Lorje and Zach Jeffries brought up the missing reports on the city council website.  Administration just kind of made up a reply and suggested they don’t have enough space to host all of them.  They are preparing a report on it and will present that to Council in April.  So yeah, administration was passive aggressive on the issue.
  • Now to be fair to administration, they scan stuff in the most inefficient way possible.  It is basically JPGs of paper reports converted to PDFs.  It means that the reports are often not searchable or indexed and are MASSIVE in size.  I am assuming that administration doesn’t have the space to host normal PDFs but it could be that they are handling these HULK sized PDFs. (“PDF Angry!  PDF SMASH!”).  Either way, disk space as an excuse is a weak one.
  • Eric Olauson brought up the issue of efficiencies for new businesses in getting set up in the city.  It’s a great point and Calgary has made some great progress.on streamlining processes in many areas of the city.  Administration seemed to shrug it off.  Hopefully Olauson keeps pushing for it.  I’ll just post this link to a Vox story that Olauson posted to Twitter last week.  I was hoping he would bring it up today.  It’s worth reading and would have made for an interesting debate considering Council voted to give Urban Systems a large contract to do what Houston did for free.  Of course the mandate for Urban Systems is larger than just transit.  In its mandate is all of active transportation (cycling, pedestrians, long boarding).  Some asked if there was much debate.  There wasn’t but with most of those kinds of things, the debate takes place once it comes back to Council.
  • Darren Hill asked the administration to take into account the impact city projects have on active transportation (walking, cycling, and long boarding).  I believe that if records were kept, Hill is Canada’s strongest long boarding advocate.
  • Olauson also brought up the issue that as a councillor gets complaints about an issue and it is kind of swept under the rug by admin who says, there is no issue.  As Olauson brought up, there is an issue because councillors keep hearing about it.
  • Clark brought this up twice but he called out the administration for using the term customer service in talking about citizens.  He essentially said that we are all in this together and City Hall needs to remember that.  It was a good thought.  Not that customer service is wrong but I am not a customer of City Hall but a resident of Saskatoon.  Clark later referenced that when he said that snow removal is an act of citizenship.
  • Ann Iwanchuk and Zach Jeffries both rose to talk about snow removal.  Both brought up the idea that we don’t want to punish people who are making a good effort or are on vacation.  I know what they are saying but isn’t that a responsibility of home ownership?  Shouldn’t you make arrangements or hire someone to shovel when you leave?  
  • I believe Pat Lorje was calling out City Centre Church for not shovelling their sidewalks.
  • Twitter feedback suggests that some neighbourhoods are way better at snow removal then others.  There seems to be some consensus that City Park is horrible at it.
  • There you go.  Short and almost sweet.  Councillors then retired upstairs where they had an executive meeting that was in-camera (closed door).

    Is the Lorje Leak ‘Inside baseball’?

    I tend to agree with Prof. David McGrane on this.

    Charles Smith, an assistant political science professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s St. Thomas More College, said if Lorje is found to have broken the law she will have a "professional obligation" to resign. "I think she’d have to step down," Smith said. "I don’t see how she could stay on."

    Regardless of the outcome of the police investigation, the "whiff of scandal" now surrounding Lorje will "dog her over the next two years," make a re-election bid challenging and "make it very difficult for her to act and do the work she was elected to do," Smith added.

    After her colleagues sanctioned her Monday, Lorje told reporters she had "no intention of resigning."

    She apologized for the breach, but maintained she did not know she was breaking council’s code of conduct when she sent a document to "a trusted adviser" for "private, independent, confidential advice" in early June. Cline, who received the document, was an NDP MLA alongside Lorje from 1995 to 2003 and served in cabinet with her from 2001 to 2002. He owns a home on 11th Street East in Nutana, where riverbank slumping has been a problem since 2012.

    City solicitor Patricia Warwick said the leaked document contains legal advice, is subject to solicitorclient privilege and contains information that could be "injurious" to the city if it’s made public.

    Councillors Darren Hill and Tiffany Paulsen told reporters after Monday’s meeting they have heard from numerous constituents calling for Lorje’s resignation and they would step down from their posts were they in her position.

    David McGrane, a political science professor at the U of S, said he doesn’t see "any reason" for Lorje to resign. He said he suspects voters with short memories will have forgotten about the leak – which he described as "inside baseball" – by the time the next municipal election rolls around in October 2016.

    "As long as this doesn’t reproduce itself, it should really wash away within a short amount of time," he said.

    I’ll add in some disclosure to this.  Wendy and I are both friends with Pat Lorje, something that came up many times in the previous leak investigation that didn’t find anything.

    I agree with Charles Smith.  I think that anyone that is convicted of a crime who is in public office should resign.  There is more than adequate precedent for that and I think it is part of a functioning democracy.  If she is not charged or convicted, I also agree with David McGrane that this will not affect her electability.  People just don’t tune in enough to care that much at the two year point of a mandate.

    Also kudos to McGrane for using the phrase “inside baseball” in his interview with Andrea Hill. 

    Looking back at the Saskatoon Transit Strike

    I chose not to write anything about the lockout because as soon as it lifted, I got several versions of the in-camera discussions and to be honest, the stories shocked me.  Instead I put together some excellent posts, columns and articles from other people observing the lockout.  

    The first comes from October 10th and is by University of Saskatchewan law professor Keir Valance who said back then that the lockout was illegal.  He was right.

    More importantly, though, the lockout may well be illegal, and so may be the City’s unilateral changes to the pension plan. And the Union quickly brought an application before the Labour Relations Board, arguing exactly that.

    On Sept. 26, 2014, the Labour Relations Board issued an interim Order (LRB File No. 211-14). That Order didn’t end the lockout, but it did prevent the City from implementing any further unilateral changes to the pension plan. On October 14th, the City and the ATU are back in front of the Board to argue about the legality of the changes to the pension plan and to the legality of the lockout.

    The Law

    The language that potentially renders the City’s actions illegal is the same now, under the new
    Saskatchewan Employment Act (“SEA”), as it was under the now-repealed Trade Union Act. Section 6-62(1)(l)(i) of the SEA reads:

    6-62(1)It is an unfair labour practice for an employer, or any person acting on behalf of the employer, to do any of the following:

    (l) to declare or cause a lockout or to make or threaten any changes in wages, hours, conditions or tenure of employment, benefits or privileges while:
    (i) any application is pending before the Board…

    [“Pending” means that the hearing of the application has begun but the Board has not yet rendered a decision, so an Employer or Union could not, for instance, file a frivolous application just to prevent a lockout or strike.]

    Unfortunately for the City, there was an Unfair Labour Practice (“ULP”) application pending before the Labour Relations Board when the lockout notice was issued. It appears the ULP was unrelated to the lockout – it related to discipline of a bus driver and was heard back in May – but the language in the SEA doesn’t say a “related” application, or anything of the sort. It says any application.

    In order for the lockout and the pension plan changes to be legal, the City has to convince the Labour Relations Board that when the SEA says “any application”, the statute really means “any related application”. That flies in the face of the plain wording of the legislation. However, in fairness to the City’s position, most of the time the ULPs in such situations are related either to the lockout itself, or to the collective bargaining process that was underway. The intention of s. 6-62(1)(l) is to ensure that employers don’t “raise the stakes” on a ULP by trying to place economic pressure on a Union that has decided to pursue its rights before the Board. It’s about protecting the integrity of the Board’s process, and not allowing the rule of law to be undermined by economic power.

    Still, the Board can’t simply decide what it thinks the law should be. It’s got to operate within the terms of the legislation that gives it its authority (the SEA). Without getting into the intricacies of statutory interpretation, the City would have to have some strong evidence that the Legislature somehow did not intend for the statute to mean what it says it means. That’s not impossible. But the Union has in its favour the fact that the Legislature could have changed the language of the statute when it implemented the SEA – but didn’t.

    Okay, so it got weird from the start.  I knew that law and when I probed members of council about it, they started telling me that the city didn’t like the law and it was ruining their strategy so the Board would have to overturn it.  When I brought up voices like Valance, they looked at me like I was mad.  Again, kind of weird.

    Oh yeah, there is also this sentence from Valance from that post

    Ironically, had the City waited two weeks, there would have been no question that the lockout had been properly issued – because the outstanding ULP was decided on October 3, 2014.

    Saskatoon City Council wasted over $1 million of “ratepayers” (you know those of us they are trying to protect) money because they could not wait two week?  Think about that for a while.  If they had waited two weeks, it would have been a legal lockout and they probably would have won.  

    So now the Mayor wants a judicial review on the ruling.  According to Valance, that stands little chance of succeeding.

    If the City pursues judicial review of the LRB decision, the question will be whether the LRB’s interpretation of the SEA was “reasonable”. In my view, it was (though I hasten to add we still don’t have the Board’s written reasons for why it ruled as it did). The Board has the jurisdiction, responsibility, and expertise to interpret its governing statute. It’s owed deference in its decision. And in my view, finding in the City’s favour would have flown in the face of the plain language of the legislation, and would have flown in the face of the fact that the Legislature has apparently – at least twice – refused to change the section in question.

    Whether ss. 6-62(1)(l) and 6-63(1)(b) are good or bad for labour relations is not the point. That’s for the Legislature to decide. And the Legislature has decided at least three times (in 1944 when it proclaimed The Trade Union Act, 1944; in 1993; and in 2013) that these sections were to stay. It should be up to the Legislature to change them.

    So let’s get Les MacPherson’s take on it as he arrived at many of the same conclusions as Valance and also the Labour Relations Board (and might as well toss this in there, the Government of Saskatchewan in 1944, 1993, and in 2013)

    I find myself mystified by this transit fiasco.

    I’m no lawyer, but, to me, at least, it seems crystal clear that the lockout was illegal in the first place. The labour act says there can be no strike or lockout with a pending grievance before the labour board. There was a pending grievance before the labour board, filed by the union in June. On the face of it, the lockout was illegal.

    City lawyers argued that the grievance was not relevant to negotiations. Except the act doesn’t say anything about relevance to negotiations. It says “any” grievance. The city, unwisely, was betting the board would read into well-established law what isn’t there. For that to happen would be almost freakishly rare.

    The city further argued that the grievance was not really pending because the board had not started formal hearings. Except the act doesn’t say anything about whether hearings have started. It just says there can be no strike or lockout if a grievance is pending. Again, the city gambled that the board would interpret the law to mean what it doesn’t say. Losing this bet will cost Saskatoon taxpayers into the seven figures in refunded wages for lockedout bus drivers, for refunds on transit passes and for legal costs. For the damage done to those who rely on transit to get to work, to get to the store, to get the kids to daycare, there is no accounting.

    The city argued that the law as it is invites labour turmoil. Any looming strike or lockout, otherwise perfectly legitimate, could be thwarted by filing a bogus grievance. Maybe so, ruled the labour board, but the law is the law. There are many legislated restrictions on strikes and lockouts, the ruling explained. This is one of them.

    “It is not for this board to rewrite the Saskatchewan Employment Act in the fashion suggested by the city.” The city should not have to go to the labour board to be told the law is the law.

    By appealing this decision, the city now will be asking the Court of Queen’s Bench to rewrite the law. Why the court would be any more likely than the board to do so, no one has explained. The board is appointed by a Saskatchewan Party government, and not because it is labour-friendly.

    As for the labour turmoil predicted by city solicitor Patricia Warwick if the decision is allowed to stand, I wouldn’t bet on that, either. The prohibition on a strike or lockout when a grievance is pending is nothing new. It has been a part of Saskatchewan labour legislation since 1944, and has remained in place after multiple revisions and amendments in the decades since. The idea is to prevent undue pressure on the board while it adjudicates a grievance. Why a law in place for 70 years suddenly would cause labour turmoil is no more clear to me than it was to the labour board.

    He summarizes with this

    To me, it looks like council got lousy advice. On a case that might have gone either way, an expensive defeat is bearable. In this case, council was advised to gamble taxpayers’ money on a crazy long shot for something it could have had anyway, and legally, in two weeks. If I were the client here, I would be angry.

    What kind of shocks me in this whole thing is that the city has several solicitors to draw advice from.  They also have a lawyer on Council (Tiffany Paulsen) and someone who is a labour expert (Ann Iwanchuk) who also overlooked or ignored the act.  There are also some other councillors who bragged to me about their knowledge of the labour act and were 100% confident that this was a legal lockout.  How did the all get it wrong? 

    What goes on in that bunker where everyone gets it wrong and is utterly shocked when a ruling where all of these outside voices are saying you are going to lose goes against you?  

    There is a weird reality that council puts itself in sometimes.  Remember snow removal when council voted against residential snow clearing.  Then it snowed a bunch that winter and in an “emergency debate” on it, many of them played the victims and used phrases like “under siege” and seemed shocked that it snows in Saskatoon in the winter.  The city wasn’t under siege but as councillors they were.  It was all about them.  Then the mayor starts to lecture manager who do not have the funds to do snow removal to do a daily press conference because it must be a misunderstanding right?

    The same thing happened with the outrage over roads.  The city for over a decade (it started when Atch was elected) cut back on road repair and maintenance.  What happened?  The roads fell apart and again council acted as it they were victims of this. Now we have the same thing.  A hashtag, website, new pylons (no I am not talking about new politicians but actual pylons with “Building Better Roads” on them) and congratulatory radio ads about doing what other cities just do, maintain the roads.  I don’t get it but it is a weird group dynamic.  There are some intelligent members on council but for whatever reason the sum of the whole is far less then the total of the parts and the result is a very, very low functioning city council and we as a city suffer because of it.

    Going for a walk

    A couple of weeks ago a local politicians phoned me up and simply said, “You are stupid and naive”.  That intrigued me so I said, “go on”.  During the conversation I was told the city “actually works” and no one cared about the social issues I was talking about.  I was reminded that “people vote in their own self interests” and they don’t care for others.

    They are right.  Statistically I can prove to you that people don’t care about poverty issues.  People don’t care about battered women unless it is an NFL player hitting them.  People don’t care about the children being prostituted or the girls taken from reserves to work the streets.  People don’t care about global warming very much or at least not enough to change.  People don’t care about how we can built a better city.  They only care about their own commute.  The proof is in the hashtag #yxetraffic when there is an accident on Circle Drive.  You would think the world has ended because people are delayed a little bit.

    People do care about their taxes.  Personally I have long felt that I am under taxed for the services we get but despite having a really low property tax rate, people tell me all of the time how much tax they pay.  Apparently they don’t read about anyone else’s tax rates.  People care about how rough they have it.  I get letters from people who live in multi million dollar homes on Whiteswan Drive telling me how bad it is there because of the traffic noise.  When I minimized the road design of Saskatchewan Crescent, I got email from many people who live there about how hard it is to live on Saskatchewan Crescent.  I know, who thought the two worst streets to live on are Whiteswan Drive and Saskatchewan Crescent and where do I send a donation to make it better?  

    Politicians tell me all of the time of the people that they fear the backlash from.  It’s not those that are struggling.  They don’t donate and they don’t vote.  It’s those who complain about their taxes, who think the city is spending their money in the wrong places, that only care about the pothole on their street.  It is why the communications that the City of Saskatoon ran as soon as the lockout started mentioned keeping a promise to taxpayers (a promise I can’t find anywhere) and putting the blame on the ATU.  Who runs ads attacking the group of people you are supposed to be negotiating with? 

    The special city council meeting that was called to vote on the pension changes had a great Q & A with Murray Totland where each councillor lobbed softball question after softball question at him to help build political cover.  What never came up?  What the city was going to do to help people who rely on transit.  

    This is a city council that spent hours a couple of years ago debating what kind of fence that the city should build.  Should it be wood, brick, chain link, cement block, a combination of materials?  Seriously, they went around and around over the most minuscule of things.  Yet when a couple of thousand of people were left out in the cold with no transit, there was no discussion at all?

    I agree with labour action.  Lockouts and strikes are part of the process.  At the same time this lockout is different.  There are some hard working people that are being negatively affected.

    • A guy I know who pulled himself off the streets lost his job because of not being able to get to work because he lived on the westside yet had a job in the far north side of the city.
    • A waitress I talked to lived on the westside, attends University of Saskatchewan and works downtown.  It’s almost impossible to get to class, work, and home in the same day.  When I went back to talk to her about it, she broke down in tears from just trying to spend an additional three hours a day walking and not being able to get home between class and work.
    • A couple that has been married for 62 years in our neighbourhood was separated last year when Alan had to be placed in a care home because of his dementia.  He doesn’t eat when his wife isn’t there so she takes Saskatoon transit from Mayfair to his care home everyday to help make sure he is okay.  Now she can’t see him and he isn’t eating.  As she said, “I talk to him on the phone but it’s not the same.  I’m so lonely without him”

    And where are city councillors?  Well they are refuting a story from the Huffington Post on property taxes but are silent on a transit lockout that is hurting all sorts of people.  I have some on council that I consider friends but as I have told them, they are failing the city as politicians and as human beings.

    A couple of people I have talked to have told me that they are leaving Confederation area at 6:30 a.m. to get to work or class on time.  Next Wednesday I am leaving the Confederation Bus terminal at 6:30 a.m. and am walking to the University.  It is 6.1 kms.  Google Maps tells me it is a 90 minute walk.

    To keep me company on the walk, I invited City Councillors along with me.  I thought we could talk about some poverty issues and maybe even a little about the lockout.  So far two have gotten back to me on the record. (out of town)

    We will be walking through parts of Wards 6, 4, 3, 2 and 1.  

    I am not sure why I am doing this except to work through the incredible disappointment I have with all of city council.  It’s not just disappointment with them as politicians (I feel that after every single city council meeting ever) but rather with them as the leaders of the city.  Of my city.  They are hurting people that I spent almost every waking moment for a decade trying to help and none of them even want to acknowledge that they exist.  Maybe by walking with me we can get some sort of understanding of the challenges they face just getting to work or class.

    You can come with me if you want.  We can talk minimum wage increases, Saskatoon Transit, and what it is life to work hard and be ignored.  You will see first hand that I can’t type on a phone and walk at the same time.  

    I’m not leading a protest.  I’m just trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with a city that hurts that many people and doesn’t think twice about it.  If you have any ideas why, let me know.  Or join me on Wednesday at the Confed Bus Terminal at 6:30 a.m.  I’ll be the guy that looks like me.  Bring your own coffee.

    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.

    So Toronto is going deeper into debt (and so is Saskatoon)

    Does this sound at all like Saskatoon?  It was Toronto under Mel Lastman who felt he needed to freeze taxes.

    Perks noted that Lastman froze property taxes during his first three years in office. During that time, the Toronto Transit Commission was rebuilding 18-year-old buses instead of buying new ones, and the backlog in road repairs was growing.

    “We had a mountain of backlog. We were in a profound crisis. Between provincial downloading and Mel Lastman’s tax freeze, we had a giant hole. Now we’re catching up.”

    This week’s flooding demonstrates the need for sturdy infrastructure, said Di Giorgio, who on Tuesday was visiting homeowners hit with flooded basements.

    “When you talk to people, they’re very irate, and you can’t blame them. They’re really upset that this kind of thing would happen and they blame the city for not having proper infrastructure.”

    Borrowing allows the city to do more capital projects each year, rather than put them off to future years, he said.

    “To do things quicker, you have to go more into debt. I do think it’s okay to grow your debt a little bit at a time each year, because you do have to replace infrastructure.”

    This is what Toronto’s debt is being spent on.

    In 2011, on Ford’s insistence, the city froze property taxes. The next year he limited the increase to 2.5 per cent, in line with inflation.

    About half of the borrowing was to pay for transit infrastructure, such as replacing worn-out vehicles. Other big-ticket infrastructure spending went to areas such as roads, parks and housing.

    That is what happens when you put off infrastructure and transit spending.  Eventually it catches up to you and it’s exactly what we are doing here in Saskatoon and it will take a couple of terms to catch up which will mean more debt.

    Holding the line on taxes is always popular but those costs don’t go away.  In Saskatoon it is our roads where we used to pay for but not longer do.  Doubt me?  Check out the 2012 Roads Report which gives funding options to city council.  It includes this line.

    Although funding for paved roadways has, in general, increased over the past decade, from 2003 to 2008 the annual roadway budget only increased by 0.5% per year, while  the cost of treatments increased by 15.2% per year. This erosion of purchasing power, combined with the general ageing of the network, has resulted in a degradation of the roadway network since 2002.

    The result? Check out this 2012 article in The StarPhoenix by David Hutton

    Mike Gutek, the city’s infrastructure services manager, said old crumbling roads such as Koyl are a “victim of priority.” The road rates as “very poor” under the city’s ranking of which roads require resurfacing.

    Roads are ranked based on condition and traffic volume. The city has 650,000 square feet of roads that are considered in “very poor” condition, but can treat 15,000 square feet per year under the current budget, Gutek said. Ten per cent of local roads in Saskatoon are rated as “very poor” and in danger of failing, according to the city’s latest assessment.

    “(Koyl) has not failed. It’s in horrible shape, the asphalt is very old and it doesn’t drive that well,” Gutek said. “It’s really our worst condition (of road), but it hasn’t failed yet (and turned to gravel).”

    Saskatoon has fallen way behind in road maintenance and repair as costs for fuel, asphalt and labour have skyrocketed.

    Since 2003, the road repair budget has grown 31 per cent while the cost of fixing roads has jumped 216 per cent. But council declined last year to add a phased-in property tax increase over eight years to bring the annual roads budget up to the point where the city isn’t falling further behind annually. Instead, one-time funding was added for a number of individual projects.

    City administration estimates $18.5 million per year is needed to maintain the current state of the roadway network. In 2012, roughly $9.5 million will be spent on roadway rehabilitation, including the discretionary funds.

    Koyl is not in the city’s five-year road rebuilding plans and likely wouldn’t be fixed until the annual funding amount surpasses $18.5 million, city staff say.

    Where does the money go?

    The infrastructure department is tackling as priorities high-traffic roads that have completely failed or on the brink of turning to gravel, Gutek said. 

    Council likes to pick on Mike Gutek but when they give him a fraction of what he needs each year, what are city staff supposed to do?  Year after year city council says that they hear that roads are our number one concern and instead hold the line on taxes and don’t add any more new money into roads.

    So when does Saskatoon start to dig ourselves out this infrastructure hole that City Council has dug us into and how long will it take?  How much debt will we have to take on to pay for these years where council made a negative infrastructure investment.  As we have seen here and in Toronto, unpaid infrastructure bills come due with interest.

    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

    Diminishing anger over snow removal

    The anger over snow removal has dissipated somewhat.  Hilary may have the answer.

    We only have a handful of letters from people about snow removal. I speak from experience, you can only stay angry for so long. Then you need to conserve energy in order to leave your house.

    If you aren’t reading Hilary’s blog on Saskatoon politics, you are doing the internet all wrong.

    Why Charlie Clark is running for Re-Election in Ward 6

     

    Here  is a short video why Councillor Charlie Clark is running for re-election in Ward 6.  I have worked with Clarlie on a couple of issues and have talked with him a fair bit over the last couple of years and I am amazed at the passion and depth of knowledge that he brings to issues.  I don’t always agree with him on issues but there has never been a time when I have heard him take a stance that was well thought out, nuanced, and contextualized.  A couple of times I have chided that passion only to have him make it clear to me why what he is passionate about matters in Saskatoon.  It’s this big picture thinking that Charlie brings to council week in and week out.  If I was in Ward 6, I’d vote for him.

    Note: Not sure who did the design work on his website but it raises the bar for design in the current election.  Nice work.