Council Chambers Online: Resident says “Meh, it’s not that hard”

New Westminster Mayor and Council

Monday night council meetings are a thing to behold! They are open to the public and while many citizens do attend, the process of a council meeting, which can be long and tedious, is often just a bit to late, or early (or dull) to attend in person.

Hey, the city gets that, and for several years the civic goings on of our wise and venerable Mayor & Council have been available on TV on the Shaw community channel. It makes for some … er … riveting viewing … but at least you can do so in the comfort of your own home and with a brewskie or two. In fact I know of a few folks so infused with civic pride that they have made these meetings a regular drinking game with friends! I don’t quite know how this works, a drink for every motion? Each time Councilor McEvoy mentions the poor and downtrodden? Each time a civic supplicant humbly offers up a set of ‘special’ T-shirts to M&C? Perhaps a swizzle each time the ever-smiling Councillor McIntosh flashes those pearly whites? I don’t know, but it sounds like a good time!

But what happens to those of us in our increasingly fragmented media landscape who do not have access to Shaw’s service? There was a time when the radio was the universal communicator and could reliably provide information about local proceedings, alien invasion etc., but today, many media compete to deliver the message. Many folks receive their cable service from a different provider or via satellite. Others don’t have cable or, like us, have no TV channels at all coming into our house. Increasingly, families are cutting their TV services and turning to the Internet for news, events and entertainment. Now no doubt, all of these groups are a minority, but it is a growing minority, an ever-widening slice of the pie.

What would council do to address these lost eyeballs? As related in a recent blog post by Record Reporter Theresa McManus our intrepid M&C directed staff to study the cost of streaming council meetings over the internet via video to the taxalicious cost of close to $25k per year and a one time $25k set up cost. A mind-boggling sum! Incredulity from the younger members of council filled the air as our august body of sober leaders absorbed the high cost implications of communicating data via a medium known for cheap or free broadcasting. (I can see it now, Cote and McEvoy rolling their eyes in unison as if they have just witnessed their grandfolks trying to change the TV channel with an iPod). Thankfully curiosity (or procrastination) prevailed, and our beloved M&C chose to look further into what the whippersnappers say is popular with those crazy kids today.

While there are special considerations governments must consider when choosing new technology, there are several popular free live video streaming services on the Internet, including Ustream, Justin.tv, and more. With a webcam or video camera and a tripod (we’ll even loan you ours), a laptop and an Internet connection, Council could test public response to streaming video at very little cost. If a more robust solution is needed, then they could consider spending a little more on a proprietary solution or invest some staff or contractor time to slice & dice the video into shorter, subject-specific segments that could be made available for watching & embedding via YouTube or another free video hosting service. Ustream and Justin.tv both also offer live chat integration with Facebook, so council could broadcast meetings and those watching could share real-time feedback via Facebook chat. How’s that for public participation?

Meanwhile, as if to say, “Look, it’s not rocket science people!”, local resident Matthew Laird ( Quayside board President and also on the board of NWEP & the Royal City Farmers Market, active on various committees, and a former provincial and civic candidate) has been industriously tweeting about how it can be done easily and has uploaded video from every council meeting since December. Says Matt:

I’m still getting my process down, determining what video format to post them in, getting my routine down to record and post them, etc.  I think I have a system in place now…I agree with Jonathan’s comment…it should easily be possible for less than $20,000.  Sounds like an excuse not to get the issue done.

Matthew Laird

Sure it is little grainy and may take 5-10 minutes to load but Laird’s work clearly demonstrates that with a minimum of effort and flexibility, streaming council meetings over the web can be done. What is more, they can be viewed at any time – not just on the broadcast date. For the referees in us who want to review the tapes before calling the penalty, these files can be stored and reviewed for reference should the need arise. As with Pitt Meadows and North Vancouver, the Royal City should also leap into the digital era and allow all residents to monitor council proceedings, and review them at will, via the Internet.

Tell the City Where to Stick its Taxes

New Westminster infrastructure, social services and public amenities all need attention. The question is how to fund it. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd
New Westminster infrastructure, social services and public amenities all need attention. The question is how to fund it. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Raise taxes or cut services? Fund policing or parks? Transportation or recreation? There are some pretty tough decisions to be made in the next city budget, and no matter what council decides I’m sure it will be controversial. When council decides how to balance the 2010 budget, their decision will be influenced in part by feedback received via the citizen survey that is now available to complete online.

The City of New Westminster has created a PDF overview explaining what the budget covers and what the big issues are, and within the PDF is a link to the survey where you can rank the city services that are most important to you. Some of the questions I found difficult to answer, which is (I think) the point. In an ideal world, we’d see lower taxes and more services, and no need for user-pay schemes. Realistically, given the economic and demographic pressures New Westminster is facing, we’ll likely have to either agree to take on more debt, raise taxes and/or increase user-pay fees in order to maintain (let alone improve) city services.

Here are some of the issues I found particularly thorny, and where I ended up upon some reflection:

Raise taxes or cut services

I have been pretty happy with the services we get from the city, and while property tax time was no walk in the park, I can’t support cutting services in order to save an extra $50 or $100 a year on my bill. We’d just end up spending the extra money on cheap red wine, read-it-once paperback novels and yet more toys for the kids. I don’t love the idea of paying more tax, but once again, I have to admit that the social good that could be accomplished with a small increase is likely worth it.

User fees to defray costs

On the face of it, there is some appeal to the idea. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this could make certain city services, like parks & rec programs, unaffordable for the residents who most need it. For someone at our income level, the choice may be to work out at Canada Games Pool’s fitness facility or to join a private gym. For many other New West residents, it may be a stretch to cover even the subsidized user fees.

Casino revenue to fund ongoing services, or only for capital improvements

Currently, casino revenue is treated like a windfall. It is unpredictable, and therefore city policy has been to use it for one-time purchases or upgrades, rather than to fund services. While it was tempting to lean on this revenue to ‘solve’ the problem of funding, in the end I decided that the city’s current policy is wise. I’m not comfortable with the risk of depending on gambling money to cover delivery of core services.

Debt to fund necessary infrastructure upgrades

We live in an older city, and many of our parks, playgrounds, roads, etc. are due to be upgraded or replaced. I actually answered no to this, because the debt servicing costs add so much to the price of these improvements, but I think if I could go back and modify my response I would. I still wouldn’t be enthusiastic about the idea, but I think there are some improvements that would merit borrowing money to fund. I would support it for urgently needed upgrades, and for improvements that could support economic development in the city that would potentially fund more projects in future years.

Parking fees

I’m a pedestrian and transit user by first choice, and generally opposed to anything that encourages people to drive more often than necessary, so my initial reaction was that this was a good idea to raise funds. But I’m also a small business booster, and sad as it is, paying $1 for parking is enough to turn some customers off shopping at a Columbia St. boutique when they can go park at Metrotown and shop the big-box stores for free. I still think this is worth looking at, but I think the city has to be careful about how much to charge and carefully consider how it might impact our many small businesses. There was also a question about adding parking fees at civic facilities. I came out opposed to this, however in reality I think it depends which buildings and how much is charged. My concern is for the lowest income residents, and the potential detriment to the community if people start avoiding civic facilities such as libraries, rec centres and parks out of pique at the new fees.

These are just some of the dilemmas posed in the survey and accompanying PDF on city spending. The survey takes only 15 minutes or so to fill out, but it sure does get you thinking about some of the big issues facing our town.

Puchmayr battling liver cancer

New Westminster MLA Chuck Puchmayr has announced he is battling liver cancer, and will not be a candidate in the next provincial election

Puchmayr says it’s become clear in the past few days that he’s going to have to dedicate all of this energy to this battle.

He says it’s been an honour to serve the people of New Westminster as their MLA and city councillor for nine years prior to that.

Source: New Westminster NDP MLA not running in next election | News1130