Archive for December, 2006

representatives in democracy

December 29, 2006

I frequently hear people telling me that a city council should, in this representative democracy, represent the interests of the community. Councillors in White Rock are seemingly unwilling to trust and communicate openly with one another — makes me think that perhaps we really are a good reflection of the city. There are entrenched and polarized camps in the city who politely treat each other with cynicism. Sounds just like City Council to me.

it’s right in my world

December 28, 2006

If everyone could learn that what is right for me does not make it right for anyone else, the world would be a much happier place.
– Glasser, page 53 of Choice Theory

valuing mavens

I believe the culture of City Hall is changing. It is becoming more customer focused and open-minded. This has been a steady evolution over the past 3+ years, beginning with a small but pivotal change in staff. However, it seems some challenges persist.

One of the attitudes I hope to have purged from City Hall is that public consultation isn’t necessary because it’s always the same people who show up and we already know what they are going to say. The short-circuiting assumption here is that the only purpose of public consultation is to hear new information from people we wouldn’t expect.

But what about helping people understand the issues affecting their community? What about giving them an opportunity to hear about the options or challenges being considered by decision-makers?

Maybe it is usually all the same people who show up. And maybe they often say exactly what we would expect them to say. But giving them that opportunity maintains or strengthens relationships with people who are interested and care enough to show up.

These are people who want to understand. Giving them access to the experts developing plans and giving advice to City Council empowers them, helps them feel valued as members of their community. It also ensures they understand the issues at hand and have correct information to base their opinions upon.

This is important because these are types of people who will talk about what they’ve learned. They spread the information through the word-of-mouth network in the community. They also bring the questions and concerns they’ve heard in the community. This isn’t their elected or appointed responsibility, it’s just in their personality.

They are the mavens of our community. Their role is incredibly important, as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. The City’s communications must respect and address the unique interests of mavens. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

The problem we fear is that, by listening, mavens will expect us to follow their advice. It’s a funny reaction – as to say, if we listen to people, they will be disappointed if we don’t do what they say, so let’s just not listen. Attempting to avoid this expectation by isolating the City from citizens does far more damage than good.

I think we’ve been making great progress. I’m very proud of the changes Mr. Pollock and Mr. Richardson have brought to the City. But we still have work to do.

We need to ensure we don’t neglect our mavens, but City communications isn’t just about being available to mavens. The new standard practice is to tell people stuff then ask them to write down their response. It’s easy and safe – minimizes the potential for uncomfortable confrontation. This is a huge advance in City communications in that it allows people access to the experts developing plans and giving advice to City Council. But it is still an insular exercise.

We need to foster the kind of dialogue and cross-pollination that makes an idea stronger or build greater understanding of an issue. For this, we will need to move beyond the walls of City Hall and beyond the safety of a tightly structured questionnaire. Mavens will come to us – we should welcome them and be ready for them – but for everyone else, we need to reach out and go to them.

reality is in the eye of the beholder

December 27, 2006

One way all of us tend to define reality, or the real world, is to base it on what a lot of people say it is as long as they agree with us.
– Glasser, page 46 of Choice Theory

engaging community

It should be easy for people to learn about and share ideas about their community in their day-to-day life. It seems that people find out about city services by reading the newspaper, visiting City Hall or the website. The problem with these is that the newspaper often doesn’t follow-up on issues or provide a full account of the facts, people often aren’t motivated to visit City Hall until/unless they are frustrated, and websites don’t offer the kind of fluid conversation that sometimes helps things make sense. So I’m hoping we will find better ways to talk to each other. These are a few of my ideas:

• expand the Leisure Guide to become a City Guide city newspaper or magazine;

• install community bulletin boards so that people can read City notices and post notices in public places;

• open-agenda town hall meetings for people to ask questions and learn about things they want to know more about;

• televised department reports to give City managers a chance to talk about things that are working well or show progress on past issues;

• televised question and answer periods would allow people watching at home to hear the answers to question period inquiries, which are currently normally provided in writing;

• stronger communication links with local community and government agencies so the City can ensure its services are well-coordinated or cross-promoted.

egocentric paradox

December 21, 2006

They’ve got egos like hairdos. They’re different everyday, depending on how they slept the night before.
– Ani DiFranco

Ani was singing about musicians, but she might as well have been talking about politicians.

I believe the vast majority of elected people got involved because they care about the people around them. They care about their communities and want to make them better places to live. They want to help people.

I hear that Jean Chrétien once replied, when asked what makes a successful politician, that it’s the one who wins. The problem is that some are trying so hard to appear effective and get credit — to win — that it ends up being more about the politician than the community.

As an elected person, to achieve a goal, it seems I have to do this bizarre dance of egos.

This past month, I had set up an opportunity for youth to share their thoughts and ideas with their representative to the OCP review process. But the councillor chairing the OCP task force has now commanded that I not get youth involved.

She doesn’t want any other councillors to be associated with the OCP review in any way, no matter how peripheral or indirect. Apparently I am “ruining the process” by encouraging school principals to get students to participate, and offering to host workshops on facilitating meetings and note-taking so that they can go out and meet with their peers just exactly like the adult groups will be doing. She was even upset that I sat in the audience to watch the task force meeting.

In attempting to discuss her concerns (the only reasons given were variations of “because I said so”) it became clear that she holds an intense feeling of ownership over the process. The worst part is that others seem willing to give up on what they agree is a good idea fully in keeping with Council’s intentions. Is one politician’s ego a great enough barrier that youth could be deprived of full and meaningful participation in setting the vision for their community?

I can’t think of a worse reason.

tobacco control in other local cities

December 15, 2006

Last week, a meeting was held with health advocates and officials from throughout the Lower Mainland and around the province. The following are notes I made during the meeting.

• The City of Vancouver might consider a patio ban this coming spring.

• Whistler is looking to outdoor smoking bans – currently at council briefing level. There is already no smoking permitted anywhere on the mountain.

• Abbotsford Parks & Rec Commission has recommended entrance bans for recreation facilities.

• A Capital Region District committee already working on smoke-free patios. They are reviewing the consultation process on the issue. There is worry that this review might be a delaying tactic. They are now looking for three public hearings in different areas rather than just the one originally planned.

• In Quesnel, there is an Interior/Kootney coalition of cities and health agencies working towards outdoor smoking bans. Quesnel has a health committee. Smoking issues were brought to council from that committee.

• Surrey is looking to create ‘family friendly’ zones at rec facilities. Smoking is one activity which would be deemed not-in-keeping with a family environment.

• Richmond Council has asked for a report on smoking free patios, entryways, and other outdoor areas.

• Fraser Health Authority is bringing forward a policy on smoking to their executive in late December.

• There is an Ottawa study which shows just as much smoke on patios as indoors – it does not dissipate as quickly or easily as commonly believed.

• There is interesting and possibly helpful advice on the “Social Marketing” website under the title “fostering sustainable behaviour”.

• Most provinces have ‘zero display’ rules for tobacco sales.

• Opposite the persistent myth, smoking rates are actually increasing among young adults in BC, not decreasing.

• Creating tobacco-free Sport Zones might be the most effective way to restrict smoking in parks.

• Preventing “infiltration of smoke into indoor spaces” might be the best approach for restricting smoking outside of public buildings.

• When indoor smoking was given a transition period in Vancouver, it served only as a delay tactic by the industry.

• Vancouver Coastal Health Authority drafted a report on smoke-free spaces for Vancouver. VCH has a contract with Vancouver to advise on bylaw changes for health.

Some of my comments were that, in order for any proposed outdoor smoking restrictions to be respected, there must be greater awareness on the nature of smoke outdoors. Since people already understand the health impacts and have become less tolerant of indoor smoke, there would likely already be support for efforts to prevent smoke from getting indoors.

Also, whenever there is talk of outdoor smoking, it seems to gravitate towards restaurant patios. But focusing on patios just makes enemies. Working on other areas would likely be more constructive and productive. Patios should be revisited in the future following success in other spaces.

good news missing

December 7, 2006

The Peace Arch News felt it fit to put White Rock’s budget on the front page of yesterday’s edition, but then only dedicated a few paragraphs to the subject. As you would expect from an attempt to boil down a city’s five year financial plan into such a short article, a lot of important information was missing.

The first problem is that the headline declares a $118 tax jump. But that is the average for a single detached house. Those make up only half of the homes in White Rock. The other half are condos, for which the average tax increase is $55. The headline is alarmist and misleading to at least half the taxpayers in White Rock.

Councillor Peddemors is quoted as saying that another RCMP dispatcher is required to “ensure we’re self-sufficient.” The article threatens that without the additional staff, “White Rock would have to use Surrey’s dispatchers.”

This is true, but the article gives no mention of the motivation for maintaining this independence. Unlike Surrey, White Rock has a philosophy of “no call too small”. In order for that to continue, White Rock must have an independent dispatch. It’s not about guarding our line in the sand. It’s about maintaining the higher standard of service our taxpayers expect.

The article also, as a by-product of expedience, gives the wrong impression on fuel costs. It says that the city will spend “$28,000 more on fuel for its fleet of vehicles.” While there is an increase in the budget for fuel, it isn’t in anticipation of increased spending on fuel. It simply reflects what was spent last year. The dramatic jump in gas prices last year caused fuel spending to go over budget. Knowing that gas prices aren’t going down, City staff have budgeted for the same amount that was spent last year.

It’s interesting that the article glossed over the fact that the City will become debt-free this year. For all the moaning and abuse directed at the City and Council about taxation and questions of fiscal restraint, the reality is that White Rock is doing exceptionally well. Come April, the City will have no long-term debt, we are already ahead of most other local cities in catching up on road and sewer maintenance, and our taxes are dropping from the top of the regional list toward the middle. That all sounds like good news to me, though you won’t read it in The Peace Arch News.

principles v. rules

December 6, 2006

People like to talk about thinking outside the box. But sometimes we need to think about the box itself.

What happens when something doesn’t break the rules… but you just know it isn’t right? Or the other way around, what if it breaks the rules, but yet you know it’s right?

I’m thinking the difference is context.

The rules can’t possibly anticipate all the possible options or things that could happen. Principles tell you how to measure the options. Rules ask whether something fits inside the box. Principles help you figure out if it belongs in that particular box.

The latest examples of this are the Victoria/Vidal and Johnston/Thrift proposals.

The proponents of the Victoria project insist that their project fits inside the box, but it seems obvious to everyone but them that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the neighbourhood. Most dramatic is that the facade of the building is 5 storeys whereas nothing around it is more than 3. Yet, it fits within the zoning bylaw.

Some might say that this is a sign that the zoning bylaw needs to be changed. But that might only create different problems on other lots. The zone applies to a large area with a wide range of circumstances. It might be impossible to draft a bylaw that would fit each one.

The proponents of the Thrift project admit it doesn’t fit inside the box. They are asking Council to judge the proposal based on selected principles. But the principle they’re trying to ignore is that their property is supposed to be a transition from the tallest buildings in the city to the shortest.

In supporting the proposal, I believe Council is also ignoring the context of this particular property. They are assuming that what is good for the block between Bryant and Johnston should be good for Johnston to George. But they have much different contexts – different principles apply.

These two proposals illustrate a conundrum. Some would argue that the Thrift proposal proves that the City should have strict rules because it is too easy to become confused by or manipulate the inherent flexibility of principles. However, others will say the Victoria proposal proves that leaving ambiguous principles aside to rely only on firm rules might force the City to allow something that doesn’t fit with the surrounding neighbourhood.

I believe City Council needs to give more consideration to the principles within our OCP and planning documents than the rules in our zoning bylaws. It’s harder to live by principles – sometimes it can be confusing to figure out the best choice, and it requires more time and care think things through – but they allow flexibility for creativity and force consideration of context.

The question is, does our council have the capacity to weigh out the unique circumstances of each property – to measure each individual box against its surroundings – and the guts to make sure developers honour our established principles – to design buildings appropriate to the uniqueness of each property?

And, do our citizens have the capacity to understand and trust the concept of context if it results in rules being applied differently to different sites – that each property represents a unique box to think within?