Archive for October, 2006


October 11, 2006

I have been asked by people in the past, “how do you sleep at night?” They are implying that I should feel guilty for not agreeing with them or forcing a decision against their will.

My answer is that I often don’t sleep well. The decisions I make often keep me up at night. But it’s not guilt. It’s worry and second-guessing about the decisions I’ve made. And the horrible feeling of having people angry or disappointed in me.

I’m always open to the reality that I don’t know everything and there will always be someone smarter with a better idea. So no matter what my judgment, no matter how much research or thinking I’ve done, I could be wrong – someone could present something I hadn’t considered before that changes everything. I have to keep an open mind, even if I’m confident I’ve made a good decision.

I care about people. That’s why I do what I do. I’m a councillor because I want to help make life better for my neighbours. And I’m human – I want other people to like me. So it’s stressful when I’ve let down or angered someone. It’s a gut wrenching feeling. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with them or not, or think they shouldn’t be upset, just knowing that someone doesn’t like me feels terrible.

I would sleep better at night if I absolved myself by following the direction of the people in the audience or a staff report. Then I could just dismiss any criticism by explaining that I was just following someone else’s advice – I was just doing what I was told to do. If that advice turned out to be faulty, it’s their fault, not mine. If the result of my decisions weren’t my responsibility, I could make decisions based solely on making people like me.

But I can’t do that. I believe the short-term results of my decisions need to be balanced against the long-term outcomes. And I think that means taking responsibility for my decisions which, to me, means making up my own mind and trusting my judgment – I need to truly believe that it is the right decision.

If I didn’t take responsibility for my decisions, I wouldn’t have to worry about making the right decision. If I could let someone else make the decision for me, I wouldn’t have to take responsibility for my decisions. But I don’t believe in pass-the-buck decision-making, so sometimes worrying about making the right decision, and taking responsibility for that decision, makes it hard to sleep at night.

conscience attack

I felt paralyzed by indecision at last night’s council meeting. I found myself in an impossible place between two types of democracy – direct or representative. The neighbourhood was unanimously opposed. I asked them to explain their fears, and they did so very well. But in my review of the application and the communications from the neighbours, I wasn’t opposed. I wasn’t necessarily in favour either – I could easily argue both sides. So how do I make a decision when there’s a group of people who think something will be bad for them, but I am confident that it won’t be?

If it were simply a question the applicant making money, that would have tipped my scale in opposition – all else being neutral, I would rather please the neighbours than allow someone to bend the rules to make some money – but in talking with some of the neighbours and walking the street, it seemed the subdivision might actually be better for them than the status quo. The house across the street would retain a view of the ocean and the rhythm of the houses would be more consistent with two houses than one.

I came to this conclusion because I’ve been learning about urban planning and design and seeing the impacts of applications I’ve had to vote on for four years now. I’ve learned a lot.

That’s why I’m elected – so that others in the community don’t have to do all that reading and testing of assumptions and ideas. I do that on their behalf. The challenge with that is sometimes the people I’m elected to represent won’t understand the decisions I make. Does that make the decisions wrong?

In direct democracy we trust the wisdom of the collective of whomever chooses to vote and allow them live with the results of their choosing. In representative democracy we trust a group of representatives to study the information and perspectives and objectively render a judgment, then replace them if we are not pleased with the results of their decisions.

So, faced with a group unanimously opposed to a project in their neighbourhood, do I vote against the proposal even though I don’t believe their fears would materialize? Or do I vote for the proposal because my conclusion is that it would benefit more people than the alternative? For the first, I would make a lot of people happy and they would probably vote for me in the next election. For the second, I would actually be implementing the vision expressed to me by the neighbours… but they wouldn’t see it that way and would probably not vote for me in the next election.

In the end, I chose the second… but only after I spoke to the first. And so I ended up with the worst of both options. Everybody walked out disappointed with me, and the project was defeated anyway. But worse still, my last minute change of mind created a confusion that is probably worse than anything else. Voters hate surprises. They also hate overt indecision.

I voted for the choice I believed, based on my experience, would be best for the neighbourhood. I chose to trust my judgment. Unfortunately my attack of conscience last night benefited no one and likely cost me several dozen supporters.

common (non)sense

October 9, 2006

Just because an approach is “common sense” does that make it right?

“Common sense” ranks high on my list of most hated words. It’s up there with “the public”. Like my reaction to disrespect, they trip triggers that turn off my ears and put me on defensive, even if I agree with what’s being said.

It takes deliberate effort for me to stay focused on listening to someone’s concerns rather than building arguments that disprove the common-ness or sensibility of their assumptions. I think I’m getting better, but I know I have to keep working on it.

To say that something is common sense is to dismiss ideas or perspectives that might disagree with your conclusion. It can be used to intimidate, as if to say that if a minority disagrees with the majority, the minority is obviously wrong. It also ignores the possibility that new things can be learned. The assumption is that there is nothing more that could be said, discovered or understood that would change the perceived majority’s view.

Implying that someone whose ideas do not conform with the majority must therefore be wrong, serves to humiliate them into accepting something different. Maybe their idea isn’t correct, but the simple fact that the majority doesn’t see things the same way isn’t what makes them incorrect. What if one person sees something before anyone else? What if they got a new idea that no one had considered before?

I look for quality of ideas, not quantity of believers. So-called common sense has severe limitations. Much of what I’ve been told is common sense over the years, on thinking it through, I find is either not common or not sensible.

My discomfort with “the public” is rooted in the same observations. It is too often used to make broad sweeping judgments about society or our community. Just speaking those words creates an us-versus-them confrontation. Of course, sometimes it’s completely within context to refer to a large population as a single entity, but that seems rare in my experience.

Just as with “common sense”, “the public” is too often used by those attempting to pressure someone into accepting their way of seeing something by intimidating or humiliating them rather than trusting the strengths of the ideas offered.

Clean Air Calabasas

October 7, 2006

The City Council of Calabasas unanimously adopted an ordinance that declares the whole city non-smoking. Instead of listing places that are non-smoking, it lists places where smoking is allowed. The intention is to protect people from secondhand smoke.

The ordinance is very bold and innovative. It recognizes tobacco smoke as a toxic air pollutant and declares exposing someone to smoke a “public nuisance”. Smoking in open places is allowed only when there are no people close by that are not smoking. Smoking is not allowed on sidewalks. There are specific rules about where people are allowed to smoke in public. And, there are hefty fines for cigarette butt litter.

Calabasas is a suburb of Los Angeles, beside Malibu and Santa Monica.

steps to being smoke-free by 2010

These are the steps I think the City should take to becoming a smoke-free city.

2006 • patios declared smoke-free, signage at city entrances and key locations stating that White Rock will be a smoke-free city by 2010

2007 • smoking areas designated

2008 • all public places declared smoke-free – no smoking permitted anywhere in the city except in designated smoking areas

2009 • enforcement begins – up to this point the smoke-free spaces and designated smoking areas will have been recommendations

2010 • tobacco products required to be hidden from minors

tax exemptions

Property taxation is how we all pitch in to help pay for services that everyone who visits here, lives here and works here, uses and benefits from. Each property contributes towards the costs of running the city, providing those services.

It is important to make principled decisions. It helps to stay rational and not simply react emotionally to an issue without fully thinking it through and looking out for any possible unintended consequences. It also ensures decisions are consistent and everyone gets treated fairly. I believe the City should follow these principles whenever considering a grant or tax exemption.

1. Must be a registered charity
Being a registered charity is a high standard and requires a much greater degree of accountability than an unregistered group or registered non-profit society. That certification from senior levels of government is an important safeguard for White Rock taxpayers subsidizing community service organizations.

2. Must provide free services to White Rock residents
White Rock residents must receive a direct benefit. The services offered must be provided to residents of White Rock free of charge. There should be no subsidy of any business regardless of whether the profits benefit a charity or not. That would not be fair to others in the community, especially competing businesses.

3. Must own the property
The benefit of the tax subsidy must be to the benefit of the charity only. Lease or rental from a third party landowner must not be subsidized and market rates must not become distorted by property tax subsidies.

4. Property be used as the location for delivery of services
The intention is to support the delivery of services, not to subsidize businesses. Real estate investment is a business. If the land is not being used to deliver services, then it is a business investment. In the interest of fairness, no business should receive government subsidies.


October 5, 2006

This past weekend I read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It deals with intuition – how it works, when to trust it, and how to influence it. As an elected person, I found it very interesting to apply his ideas to the problem of disconnect between so-called “common sense” and the decisions elected people make. As it bubbles in my head, I’m sure I’ll write more entries on this. In the meantime, Gladwell’s blog has a posting that describes the difference between the insider and outsider’s perspective better than I could.

inside out

"If you want to change the way you act, change the way you think."

Ken Jones told me this when I was explaining that I sometimes realize that I don’t like the way I’m reacting to things – that I disagree with myself. I look within for assumptions that lead to the judgments or biases causing me to behave in a way I don’t like, or pulling me towards a conclusion or belief that clashes with my principles. I talked for a few minutes, but he said it better in a few words.