Letters to the editor
Focus readers, September 2015
The continuing saga about the trials and tribulations of Saanich and its bureaucrats makes me wonder just how much of that sort of thing is going on in other districts, things that are escaping the public eye and ear. As an example, how many in camera meetings are used for things they were not intended for? How much is being hidden from the taxpayers? How much erroneous information is spread? And how many council members are afraid to speak up to the mayor or CAO? I am certain Saanich is not alone with its problems and would like to see Focus investigate other community councils and staff to see what’s going on.
P. D. Davidson
Officials at Saanich have elevated evading transparency to a high art. Back in January, CFAX’s Ian Jessop submitted a series of questions in an FOI to Saanich regarding Spector 360. The answer to every question came back as “no records found.”
I happened to be talking to one of the clerks at Saanich the day following Ian’s broadcast, and mentioned that he had been on the air complaining about the lack of information. Suddenly, Jessop started getting answers, as did several other people, including me. However, the information was highly redacted, often with outrageous charges attached.
A request for two councillors’ emails for the last 18 months recently came back with “no records found.” Another councillor’s emails were available, but at a cost of hundreds of dollars. Retrieval of electronic records should have no charges attached according BC’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commission.
It’s hard to believe that two councillors, Vic Derman and Leif Wergeland, neither sent nor received any emails in that time. I have a series of emails back and forth between those councillors and me for the period in question. If they claim they didn’t keep their emails then they have admitted that they broke the law. Freedom of Information (FOI) laws stipulate that it doesn’t matter whose computer or what email address you use, if it is for official business it is subject to FOI and records must be kept for seven years.
In her report on Saanich’s use of spyware, the Privacy Commissioner complained that Saanich officials demonstrated a near total ignorance of privacy legislation. After all the fuss since the spyware scandal, they still haven’t learned a thing. As taxpayers we are paying six-figure salaries to managers whose job it is to understand and implement privacy laws and they still aren’t doing it. Now they are looking to hire another manager, with another six-figure salary to look after privacy issues. This is not only incompetence, but what they are doing is illegal. And all the while, we have a group of incumbent councillors who are content to pass this “corporate decision” off as a “simple mistake.” When are the citizens of Saanich going to wake up and smell the coffee?
Focus provided an enormous public service by bringing David Siegal of Brock University to our attention in the article on Saanich in the July edition. In a 2011 presentation to the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators, he related the two sins a CAO must avoid: Clientelism (aka patronage) involving the triumph of political expediency over professional values (as in “If a resident wants something, let’s give it to her.”); and technocracy or the triumph of experts over representatives of the people (as in “I don’t care what the people want, this is the right answer.”).
Halfway between these unwanted polar opposites, Siegal’s desired qualities of a CAO include an orientation to problem solving, rather than compartmentalization, and mutual accommodation and respect, as in “Lets work together to figure out how to do this.”
In the Saanich CAO interviews, candidates with these desired qualities will be a must.
Another expert in such matters, Justin Menkes (Better Under Pressure), elaborates on three essential, rare attributes of a CEO. First, realistic optimism, or a recognition that organizations have both risks and failings, while remaining confident one can have a positive impact. Secondly, subservience to purpose: dedication to a noble cause, and winning one’s team’s commitment to this cause. Finally, he or she must be able to find order in chaos through a capacity to find clarity amongst the many variables in a tough issue while arriving at conclusions that matter.
The good news is these desired qualities and attributes can be learned. Elected representatives’ responsibility is to provide a high trust organization where this learning occurs. A possible dream?
As a resident citizen of Saanich, I have staggered through 12 years of municipal tax variations since 2003: 4.79 percent, 1.28, 0.92, 9.93, -10.3, 6.23, 12.3, -1.8, -2.1, 6.75, 3.5 and -6 percent respectively. Cumulatively, a total increase of 25.5 percent, with an annual average increase of 2.125 percent. In that time, my beloved municipality has crack-sealed a portion of our sidewalk and excavated a damaged asbestos cement sewer line adjacent to our property that had become clogged with root growth after nearly 40 years of service.
The point I’m getting at here is that in my 12 years, within an area of 16 blocks, I have seen one house fire, a half dozen minor vandalisms (mostly eggings, a toilet papering and the great pumpkin smash of ’07), recurring pothole filling and diligent waste removal. With a total price tag nearing $33,000 and a number of debacles that expose the fact that my municipality is, at best, run by a collective of largely self-serving, oblivious bureaucrats and seemingly endless vacationers and at worst, by a conniving tribe of self-important, petty, misinformed and colluding thugs, I have cause for concern. When faced with such a business relationship in the “real world” I am inclined to: (1) reexamine the context of our business arrangement through some thoughtful dialogue and (2) cease payment. Having got nowhere with (1) I can only beg upon my fellow citizens to contemplate (2).
Recycling beats panhandling
I support Gene Miller’s proposal to expand the list of items sold with a deposit/refund. The existing cans and bottles deposit/refund system works well, providing income for scavengers while reducing litter. Miller suggested adding packaging, cardboard and plastic bags. Let’s not forget cigarette butts.
Cigarette butts are a major litter problem. Butts foul sidewalks, streets and beaches; butts are a hazard to marine life. Smokers who responsibly and routinely throw papers and cans in trash containers continue to drop their cigarette butts right on the sidewalk. We have not clearly convinced smokers that butts are litter.
Charging a one cent deposit per cigarette would allow scavengers to collect refunds while cleaning our streets. Butts are light, noiseless and easy to transport in bags; refund payments could be made by weight.
The Topaz Park fiasco
Tents. Victoria. What the heck? This all started (well, forever ago but for the purposes of story telling) when I was getting harassed for just peacefully, and conscientiously, sleeping under trees in Beacon Hill Park. It hit its climax in the winter of 2003, with my inspiration to get put in front of a judge to have them either presume my innocence in my ability to sleep in public or kill me.
That was the beginning of the “occupation of St Ann’s Academy.” Many many adventures, arrests, extended-fastings-in-jail later, the “right to sleep” was recognized by the Supreme Court of BC: Tents in public became a legal reality. And my life ceased to be my own…I would not have been able to endure the constant barrage of tactics in the eight months it took to get put in front of a judge (50ish arrests) without knowing evil wasn’t real.
All this and still it was never about tents in the first place. I just wanted to be left alone to do my monk thing. Now the monk thing seems to have evolved into a political evangelist thing. I feel like I’m married to this town via a shotgun wedding.
We’ll see what the heck happens. I know patience is the mother of grace, so I guess I’ll continue saying it a lot in my head. Alright, you’re all angels. Patience be with you.
David Arthur Johnston
Gene Miller answers a reader
Referring to amalgamation advocates in my June column, I wrote:
“Amalgamation, in their view, makes an open-and-shut case for greater efficiency and savings. It seems logical. The success of this argument has a lot to do with what financial columnist Paul Krugman calls ‘the power of misleading analogies between governments and households’; that is, mis-applying private financial reasoning and practices to the public economy, as if 13 mayors was like discovering 13 plumbing snakes hanging in your basement.”
Stan Bartlett, a reader (and, as it turns out, a member of the Capital Regional District Business and Residential Taxpayers Association), finds fault with my view that 13 municipalities plus the Capital Regional District is just as cost-efficient as one amalgamated municipality would be (see “Letters”, July/August 2015).
He writes that my column is “hardly evidence-based opinion” and then goes on to deliver a set of subjective impressions about local political efficiencies, amounting to: “There’s 13 plumbing snakes hanging in my basement.”
Let me re-state a point from the column: Any review of professional literature about municipal or regional amalgamation elsewhere makes it apparent that the hope for big efficiency gains and big savings from the amalgamation of our very tightly run 13 municipalities will amount to almost nothing.
“Oh, but the Blue Bridge cost overruns!”
And amalgamated cities don’t have capital project cost overruns?
“Oh, wastewater treatment: $783,000,000!”
And in an amalgamated city that requirement and its costs go away?
“Oh, numerous police and fire services!”
And in an amalgamated city we would dump half the cops and close several fire halls?
Study after study confirms two points: Except in cases where municipal management has been a shambles (big surprise: all US, no Canadian), amalgamation did not—that word again, NOT—deliver imagined or anticipated or hoped-for benefits; and second, inter-municipal co-operation has, in all Canadian cases, worked as effectively as political amalgamation to deliver social benefits and operating cost efficiencies.
Oh, and guess what: Business and residential property taxes go up in amalgamated cities, too.
Bartlett claims I’m “arguing to maintain dysfunctional tribalism.” No, Mr Bartlett, it’s highly functional localism, seen otherwise only by harumphers with too many snakes in their basement.