Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Town of Peace River Parks & Trails Public Consultation

The Peace River Community Services Department invites community input into the proposed Parks and Trails Development Plan. Read over the plan, then share your thoughts on trails, parks and playgrounds with the public input form and at two drop-in opportunities:

Thursday, February 10 between 4:30 and 7:00 p.m. at the Kinsmen Arena

Saturday, February 12 between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. at Riverdrive Mall

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Peace River Public Transportation: Mixed Messages

The Support the Bus meeting on Monday night was an exciting show of community mobilization. Erin Steele has an informative overview ("Community rallies around bus issue") in this week's Record-Gazette, so I'll keep my comments to what I observed and what I've been thinking about since Monday night.

Beyond the courage it took for many of the people to get up and speak to a crowd of this size (bravo for them!), a number of things stood out for me: 

Cohesion: This is not yet a cohesive Council and might never be. There was no coherent message that told me these policy-makers had truly considered the pros and cons of this decision. Each person who spoke seemed to have a bit of the picture, but no one presented a full one. And the concerns I had back in October (Builder or Divider?) still hold true based on what I saw on Monday and in previous Council meetings.  

Mixed Messages: Mayor Mann started out his comments by saying that Council hadn't cancelled the bus service, but rather it was that the current contract wasn't working. I doubt this nuanced distinction was very comforting for the people in the audience who had just bared their vulnerabilities by describing how not having a bus would affect them. The comment raised the question in my mind as to whether Council or Town staff are negotiating with another provider? If so, let's hear about it, in the spirit of the "transparency" that we hear Mayor Mann wants to see (such as with the airport negotiations) and so people can stop worrying about April 1.

However, despite the Mayor's comment, others appear to support the decision to give notice on the contract solely from a financial perspective, saying that the service is too expensive for the number of people who ride it. Councillor Lafontaine said it "stood out like a sore thumb" when Council first reviewed the budget. If that's the case, why summarily cancel without going back to administration for other ideas, suggestions for creating efficiencies, etc.? The arena also stands out like a sore thumb when you look at what it costs, but it's unlikely that Council would decide to shut it down without checking first with staff and user groups. This seemingly hasty decision was done around the same time Council was busy getting rid of its highly competent CAO. She might have provided valuable guidance about how best to address the issue in a way that would not result in widespread public backlash.

But back to the question--which is it? Is it just a case of a contract that isn't working and that could perhaps be fixed so people will still have transportation on April 1, or it is a big ticket service that Council (or some of Council) isn't prepared to continue to support?

Where's the plan?  The decision to cancel the bus service (sorry, cancel the contract) appears to have been done with no plan in place and none developed since. If there IS a plan, it is not being communicated to those most interested—the riders, employers whose employees rely on the service and various service providers. And there was scant indication on Monday that Council cared much about what impact their decision will have on regular riders. Empathy and solutions were in short supply.

This decision was made quietly in December without any communication until mid-January. We heard the suggestion on Monday that a committee could be set up to secure funding and run the service. If Council thought that was a good idea, perhaps it could have directed Community Services to set up a consultation with stakeholders early in January. I find it discouraging to have this tossed back to volunteers in such a cavalier manner and with so little time left to plan.

Where is the professional guidance? Why is Council making this kind of decision apparently all on its own? Where was the involvement of the Town's professional staff? Has the Director of Community Services been completely sidelined in all of this? If she wasn't she invited by Council to speak to the issue on Monday, then why not?

Mayor Mann's comment that this council has experience in business and budgets and that it will “go through the budget line-by-line” showed an astonishing lack of understanding about the role of Council. In my world, this is called micro-management. Do the Mayor and councillors want to both govern and manage? That’s never a good mix.

The Town has qualified, professional staff whose job it is to plan and bring forward ideas and budgets for Council to consider and to take Council's ideas and figure out how to implement them. A municipality is a complex set of businesses from museums to recreation to water and sewer. Councillors are amateurs and they are part-time and ought not to be meddling in the day-to-day management of the corporate body. Their knowledge and expertise is far more suitably applied, with the help of staff, to high level thinking about future direction and priorities, reflected in the policies they set, not wasting their time and that of staff going though a budget line-by-line.

Who does the Town exist to serve? One councillor apparently said that "the taxpayers wouldn't like it" if the bus service was retained. Hmmm, does the municipality exist only to serve taxpayers? (And don't renters pay taxes indirectly?)

Mayor Mann referred several times throughout the evening to the "core business" of the Town. I agree that roads, sewer and water are important, but I'll remind him that people don't tend to move to a community or decide to set up a business because the place has great roads. The quality of life available to residents--those with money and those without--is a major factor in relocation. And good quality of life for all requires some spending as well as leadership from the municipality to build a diverse community that "fosters rich cultural, social, educational, and economic opportunities for ALL" and where "we take pride in our safe, healthy and environmentally friendly community where we live, play and work cooperatively with our neighbours" (Peace River Vision Statement, 2009).

Surely this Council doesn't intend to convey the message that Peace River really doesn't care about people who are not taxpayers! Unfortunately, this decision and the lack of follow-up to help those who rely on the service does tend to send out this message.

I hope I'm wrong, but I got the sense that Council has no intention to revisit this decision. Yet nothing much was offered to the concerned residents in attendance or those who signed the petition except platitudes about how hard it is to make choices and old ideas that toss the matter back to the community to solve (and with not enough time to do anything).

Is this what being fiscally conservative means--just cut and damn the consequences? It was a highly unsatisfying response from a group of smart men who ought to be able to do better than that. And I didn't once hear the Mayor ask his favourite question: "How can we help YOU?"