Council Wrapup: Extending Councillor Terms and Some Early Budget Items

Tonight's council meeting was a pretty low-key affair. Nothing contentious on the agenda -- at least, not among councillors.

The one item that did raise a few eyebrows among some prairie dog folk (last night, while we were waiting to see Collapse at the RPL) was Councillor Clipsham's motion that council contact the provincial Minister of Muncipal Affairs and inform him that Regina's council favors changing the Local Government Act so that urban councils will be elected to four-year terms instead of three.

The motion was seconded by Councillor Fougere and passed unanimously. There was no debate, rather, Councillors Clipsham, Fougere, Murray, Bryce and Browne spoke in favour of it.

The rationale on offer was that three years goes by pretty quickly, and because of the complexity and longer-term nature of the projects that a council shepherds through, an extra year will help them get things accomplished. Councillor Murray pointed to the two month gap around election time where things slow down dramatically. And Bryce suggested four year terms would be more cost effective. Browne noted that longer terms may improve the quality of candidates that come forward as when someone takes a position on council they may have to give something else up for only a one-term guarantee of extra employment -- the extra year may make council work more interesting for some potential councillors.

Councillor Browne then brought forward a follow-up motion (seconded by Clipsham) which was passed. It amended the original motion such that council will be asking that any change in term lengths will take effect as of the next election in 2012.

Personally, if council terms are extended, I'd be surprised if anyone in Regina will much care, let alone notice. (If you think I'm full of crap, there is a comment button at the bottom of this post.) But a couple things Councillor Browne brought up made me take notice. First, he pointed out that around elections a lot of general public consultation takes place and this is valuable. Cutting down on the frequency of this sort of consultation will be a loss to the system.

On the other hand, one of his reasons for supporting the motion was that the work of council matters and extending its term will help council get that work done and done well.

True. Maybe. But the thing is, I'm a total election junkie, and as old fashioned as it makes me sound, I think participating in elections -- often and with enthusiasm -- also matters. I recognize that upending the system to hold elections is inconvenient and disrupts the continuity of projects. But at the same time, a) that's why you hire competent city staff and b) governments aren't supposed to run efficiently. Comparing them to corporations is unfair (and ignores the fact that the idea corporations run efficiently is a complete myth). Trying to get everyone involved in governance is an inherently inefficient proposition. But we accept it because that's what's fair. And because tyranny sucks.

Still, we're not talking here about an unprecedented length of time to hold elected office. So maybe anyone getting their knickers in a knot over this is a little overreacty. And, judging by the hilariously low voter turnout numbers in our last municipal election (let alone, provincial and federal), it's clear I'm in a tiny minority as far as enjoying election time is concerned. So, I guess democracy is in effect speaking: Bring on the four year council terms!

Also on the council agenda was a collection of capital budget items that need approval now before the whole city budget is debated later this year. Discussion here focussed on money for the new Housing Incentives Policy, the relocation of the transit hub and the purchase of new buses.

I was left a little perplexed at one point with regard to the housing incentives money as Director of City Planning, Bob Bjerke, remarked that they didn't anticipate a big increase in the amount of uptake on our affordable housing encouragment scheme. Council, I think, was heartened by this as it meant city coffers wouldn't be overly taxed by housing. (Once again, it was repeated that housing is NOT part of the city's mandate. Ahhh. I never get tired of hearing that.)

B-b-b-but! Housing is in crisis! Both the province and the feds have essentially told us they're broke!. And! I thought the whole point of this policy was to encourage a big increase in the number of affordable housing starts in the city! Am I just confused on all this? (grumble grumble)

As for the transit hub relocation, that's being done to accommodate the WOW project. No longer will the stretch north of Victoria Park be our eastbound transit hub. Instead, I was surprised to discover, that will be moved to the stretch of 12th north of the central library and city hall. Apparently, the library board has been contacted on this and they are seeing about incorporating the new transit hub into their redesign.

And, as for the new bus purchases, seems these are NOT meant to replace the buses that we lost last week when 13 were removed from service after failing inspection. The two being bought with these funds are just part of the usual updating of the transit system. According to city staff, we can expect a report by the end of the week regarding the loss of those 13 buses. But staff did assure council that no service has been lost as a result of this situation.

Everything else on the agenda passed unanimously and with minimal discussion.

The meeting, by the way, was kicked off with a speech by the Mayor congratulating Councillor O'Donnell and the Olympic Host Committee for bringing the Torch to Regina.


Anonymous said...

Four year terms might get people more interested in elections, actually - having them a little less frequently will hopefully make them feel like bigger events. I know it's only one year of difference, but really, with the civic election happening every three years, it feels like you blink and there's another civic election. Also, elections cost money - maybe having them less frequently will loosen the purse strings a little bit.
On relocating the 12th ave transit hub to city hall / library - I think it'll be good. Especially if the library figures out a way to configure itself in such a way that it gives people an indoor place to wait for the bus / kill time at the library reading books while waiting for the bus to come .... you know those little monitors they have in the transit centre on 11th ave so you can see the busses coming? It would be cool if you could have those in the library (in appropriate, non-detractive places, that is) and bus schedules posted indoors there or something. You get a coffee shop in there too and I think you have magic - the library would be a really exciting place.

Anonymous said...

One little problem if they switch to 4 year terms. You will be out of step with the school boards elections, unless you want all your trustees to be four years as well.

Paul Dechene said...

Yeah, I'm of two minds on the 4-year terms. But I don't know if having them less frequently will improve voter turnout. Let's face it, for 65 per cent of Reginans, municipal elections aren't happening at all.

Paul Dechene said...

As for the transit hub, I agree, done well this could be great for the library and great for Regina transit. I hope the library will embrace its position as somewhere for people to warmup while waiting for the bus. Cornwall Centre hasn't and I think that's part of why 11th where the buses stop is such a sketchy location. But if everyone involved in this hub relocation says "We want to make transit a marvelous experience for everyone involved" then we could get that. If the stakeholders are dragged kicking and screaming to this, though, it'll be a disaster.

Anonymous said...

I only take one issue with what you wrote, okay, it's not the only issue I have but that's another story.

My question for you Paul, is why should we expect municipal government or government in general to be inefficient? I think we give politicians and bureaucrats an out if we accept the inefficiences that characterize government. Expecially at the city level, why shouldn't we be treated like customersw and expect a timely return of a phone call or answer to my problem?

Paul Dechene said...

I object to this characterization of people as "customers" or as "consumers" of government services. Me? I'm a citizen. It's not a cool word these days, I know, but I like it. It implies a sharing of responsibility between people and the governments they elect. Governments have to do their job of protecting people and keeping the infrastructure functioning. Citizens have to facilitate that by electing competent people and, you know, paying their taxes. (I like taxes, by the way. Again: Not a cool thing to say. But I do.) There's more to it, but that's a start.

As for governments and this chimera of "efficiency": Governments can't be efficient in any conventional way because they have to do things like conform to tendering processes that ensure that tax money isn't used in corrupt ways. That's costly and inefficient. It'd be easier and cheaper for politicians to just hire out work to pals and family -- like corporations do -- but they can't do that. That's an obstacle to efficiency that we impose on government to make it operate more fairly.

Similarly, governments have to conduct most of their business out in open forums and they have to incorporate public input into their decision-making. That doesn't contribute to a government's bottom line but it makes them inclusive and, again, fair. Corporations don't have to do any of that unless they're compelled to (by governments).

Meanwhile, to top it all off, the kind of work that we expect governments to manage is inherently difficult to conduct on a, say, for-profit basis. That's especially true of municipal projects. Take roads, for example. There was a time at the dawn of the auto age when the idea of having car companies pay for and maintain roads was considered. (Same as how the train companies had to maintain and build their network of tracks.) Corporations shucked that job off onto local governments. Why? Because they knew how bloody impossible it would be to build a continent-wide road network in a cost-efficient manner.

So, no, I don't expect government to function in an efficient manner. In fact, I'm grateful that it doesn't. Do I appreciate a prompt response to my phonecalls to government? Yes. And so far, I have to report that the city of Regina has done, on balance, a pretty good job of responding to my queries and concerns. And I can give you a long list of corporations who have failed utterly to respond to my concerns.

Moreover, as I said before, the ideas that corporations are more efficient and better at running things than governments are a fantasies. And, the idea that efficiency is a desirable goal unto itself is, I'd assert, a crock. I'd rather governments and corporations be fair, responsible, sustainable and careful than efficient any day. This tyranny of efficiency that's been inflicted on us since the 80s and 90s will doom our civilization.

SWhitworth said...

I think you guys are arguing semantics. Basic words like "efficiency" have become packed with propoganda and it screws up basic conversation.

I think Anonymous' point is that it's offensive and destructive to chirp about how inefficient governments are. I think Paul's point is that a narrow definition of "efficient"--making a profit--is a stupid way to look at government.

Basically, I think you both probably agree.

But good conversation.

(Also, Paul: I do not believe that public tendering processes are ultimately inefficient just because they do not automatically go for the lowest bid. [And neither do you!] There are undoubtedly measurable benefits from competency and safety.)

Paul Dechene said...

Way to be a wet blanket, Steve. Of course we're arguing semantics. All the best arguments are over semantics.