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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summer reading

It’s summer, so we have to forgive the London Free Press for publishing anything that comes its way. There has to be a story or two to keep the advertisements from crashing into each other. And what’s a news story without a quote to legitimate it?

"In my mind," by Dale Henderson

The story was legitimate enough. It seems that there is a growing unease with the determination of the mayor and his followers to continue with the zero mantra. City staff has been clear on the implications: a $25M shortfall for 2013 that would require significant service cuts—library reduction in hours and possible branch closures, reduced snow removal and street cleaning, fewer hours of operation for parks and other recreational facilities. Reduction in services also means reduction in staff, and while many of those who call for holding the line on taxes have little regard for the work done by civil servants, they are often the same people who want more jobs. That’s hard to provide when you’re laying people off.

But it is not only staff that is concerned about the continuing obsession with zero. A growing number of young adults is beginning to appreciate that the services to be cut are those that they value: public transportation, recreational facilities, investment in arts and culture. They’re the investments that attract youth and families to the city. And they provide jobs as well. And guess who will have to compensate for the reductions in investment in infrastructure?

These are the concerns raised by Western assistant professor and housing activist Abe Oudshoorn, among others. Yes, he agrees, we all like our taxes to be kept low, but we also like the services that make a city livable, and at some point, the trade off isn’t worth it.

It was left to Henderson to defend the mayor’s approach. He doesn’t believe cuts in service are needed; he thinks the city is awash in “oodles of money”. It just needs to change the way it does business.

“More than half of what we spend money on is not tendered,” he complained. Well, duh. Much of the spending is on the staff who deliver the services, Of those that are contracted out, the vast majority are tendered and go to the lowest bidder. Henderson votes on those tenders at every council meeting. But those outsourced contracts go up year after year. Not being part of the civic administration, they’re not subject to a freeze.

And you would think that Henderson, who touts himself as a businessman, would understand that. But no, he thinks that "staff just wants more staff."

Interesting that, coming from him. Wasn’t he the one who, a mere month or two after being elected, complained that the workload was too heavy and he needed more money and staff support? Didn’t he vote in favour of more money for councillors’ salaries and expense accounts? Didn’t he want and get more money for a website that has yet to materialize?

"In my mind, we're not getting value for our dollar right now," Henderson is quoted as saying. Well said, councillor.

(For more summer reading on the anti-tax freeze issue, see  http://zero2hero.org/)

"Let's take it to the people," by Steve Orser

Then today came the latest proposal from Stephen Orser, to mandate a plebiscite on a question if 10,000 Londoners petition to do so. Democratic fellow that he is, Orser wouldn’t limit the petition to electors; anyone over the age of 10 or 11 (the age of his daughter?) would be eligible. Questions to be included would be cessation of water fluoridation, expanded casinos in the Western Fair District and—wait for it—whether councillors should be “full-time”.

Orser plans to take his idea to Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee, formerly known as the committee of the whole, where it will undoubtedly get short shrift. Certainly, the online comments from Free Press readers were not very favourable to Orser or his idea. And while many of us welcome more public engagement, some of us don’t relish the thought of our elected representatives, chosen and paid to study the issues, communicate with the public, and make decisions in the best interests of the city, simply becoming survey-takers.

That opportunity already exists. Orser has a Facebook page, as he has previously demonstrated. Rather than posting, or allowing others to post, sexist material, why doesn’t he use it to explain issues and get feedback? Constituents can “like” him.

And why did he try to disparage the very thoughtful survey prepared and disseminated by Paul Hubert during the budget debate last winter?

There has been no shortage of public feedback on issues of importance to the voters, whether on fluoridation, on backyard chickens, or planning applications. The difficulty has been in getting councillors, including Orser, to listen to the debate and to weigh the arguments objectively. How much credence did he give the public on the matter of Reservoir Hill? Why did he reverse his position on bottled water?

There is clearly a role for plebiscites in municipal government but they should not be a substitute for thoughtful and responsible representation by our elected officials in a timely fashion.

There will be a referendum in 2014, not on whether a councillor will be full-time or part-time, but whether s/he will be a councillor at all. But then, if Orser has his way, we may not need any councillors. Just get a voter password and give a thumbs up or down. No need to pay the middleman.

Now, who thinks councillors should get a raise?


Oliver Hobson said...

"There is clearly a role for plebiscites in municipal government but they should not be a substitute for thoughtful and responsible representation by our elected officials in a timely fashion."

Whilst that's easy to agree with, arguably it's been consistently demonstrated that elected officials across all levels of government have been both thoughtless and irresponsible.

One could also argue that chronically low voter turnout has much to do with lack of trust across the board...and that public overtures that play 'trust us' don't cut it any more.

Unless the relationship between citizen and politician is fundamentally redefined...and not according to the whims of the political parties or individual politicians involved, there will continue to be an appearance of change, without any real change at all.

John said...

I don't think Orser caught the irony either when he was quoted today dismissing a public survey on gaming at the Western Fair. But if we're able to have a vote on his full-time obsession, maybe the inevitable rejection of the idea will make him fially shut up about it.

Solid Gold Entertainment Centre said...

There's nothing wrong with Cllrs. Henderson and Orser that a therapeutic massage couldn't fix.

Solid Gold Entertainment Centre said...

The sooner we implement Councillor Henderson and Orser's brain waves, the sooner we get that goofy urban beach at the Forks of the Thames.

Anonymous said...

During the last civic election campaign I do believe it was agreed upon by the majority of the electorate that 1. public servants are spending and being paid more money then is earned or deserved. 2. we the people, including the mayor and most of our counselors can't bare the thought of anymore hikes in taxes, rates, fees or levies.

We're not getting a very good bang for our buck.

So, is the dam damn fixed yet?

Not Butch McL said...

Since Henderson is a failed businessman, why should we listen to him? Real business people don't buy used convention centres


Orser gets more foolish by the minute. Doesn't he realize the cost of running plebisites? Thankfully, the province limits these so that we aren't like California with long ballots with votes on everything from marriage to who knows what. Full time idiot wants full time pay but he seems to forget that it is not a job with a hourly rate nor is it a salary nor is there an annual performance review!

Kathy Clee said...

A great blog frequently enhanced by some REALLY funny comments. The grasp of the results of the 2010 civic election by "Anonymous", above, is surpassed only by the amazing grasp of homophones. Thank you for making my morning!

Oliver Hobson said...

"Thankfully, the province limits these so that we aren't like California with long ballots with votes on everything from marriage to who knows what"

Civic engagement doesn't have to be so expensive these days and am always amazed at the contempt people seem to express for democratic civic engagement through decrying costs associated with it.

Is dictatorship somehow cheaper?

The Society of Graduate Students at Western vote regularly on line and have the backing of the University's security team.

While no set up can be guaranteed to be perfect (which includes the one we have), they seem to be light years ahead of anything the City is doing in terms of technology use.

Technology is no cure all though...access to real information and the fixing of broken attitudes would need to occur along with it...which would take time and consistent effort.