Neil Powell Voices reflections on running for City Council in New Westminster

Voice New Westminster President Neil Powell (photo submitted)
Voice New Westminster President Neil Powell (photo submitted)

This is a guest post by Neil Powell, written in response to a call I put out to several politically active members in the community to share advice about running for New Westminster City Council. Neil is the current president and founding member of Voice New Westminster, which I would describe as an electors’ group that acts as the “unofficial opposition” to the District & Labour Council candidates (and aspires to turn the tables on the DLC of course!). Neil is also an active member of the McBride Sapperton  Residents’ Association. His is the first in a series of posts leading up to the next municipal election in November 2011. Those of you who are considering throwing your names in the ring may gain some insight from Neil’s experience. Watch for a follow-up post with information on the mechanics of how to run for city council, among other things. – Briana.

Making the decision to run for municipal office, be it council, school board or mayor, is not an easy decision to make.

Running a campaign, and being elected to municipal office, certainly cannot be considered a wise financial decision. It costs a fair amount of money and lots of time to run a campaign and the amount of time that those elected give to the community would certainly not equate to a very high hourly wage.

Our elected municipal officials give many hours of their time to do a job that is often not recognized or valued by the public. This is time that is taken away from family relationships. It is often also challenging for a person to juggle a career and their involvement in municipal politics. One has to balance a career and elected office as you can’t survive in this city on a councillor or school trustee’s financial remuneration. These were some of the things I, along with my family, had to consider before we made the decision that I would run for council in 2008.

Before we as a family made the decision that I would run in 2008 I also had a few good long conversations with a few elected friends, both in New Westminster and elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, who have spent some time in municipal politics. I asked them about the number of hours required per week for community meetings and how long a councillor would expect to spend at City hall on Mondays. I also asked if they thought it would be possible to balance council and family responsibilities. One of the big challenges to doing so is reading through the many reports that council are presented with prior to meetings. In order for council members to be able to make informed and wise decisions they need to familiarize themselves with a large amount of background reading material and staff reports.

The ability to make sense of such a large amount of often complex material is one of the qualities I believe one needs in order to be a good councillor. I also believe it is important to know the history of issues and to be familiar with the many issues within our city and the myriad of regional pressures we face.

In the past running a campaign in New Westminster was a little different than many other Lower Mainland municipalities in that New Westminster did not have municipal elector’s groups or slates. That is, there were no officially recognized or blatant elector’s groups. When Voice New Westminster formed the organization identified and exposed the DLC wizard behind the curtain of politics in New Westminster. Anyone who was the slightest bit politically astute had already noticed though that there was an unofficial District Labour Council (DLC) slate. The DLC funded the campaigns, often the lion’s share, of most of our successfully elected councillors and school trustees. That is not to mention the behind the scenes support they give in operating phone banks, etc.

Since its inception Voice New Westminster has valued transparency and we believe that begins with disclosing the true nature of your campaign and the agenda of your financial backers. When one looks at the diversity of Voice campaign contributions it is clear to see that our support has been wide and varied and that we have the interests of all of our community in mind.

Voice New Westminster gave the electorate another viable option. Certain councillors and trustees who had been working hard in this political climate saw the value of working as a group with other community minded individuals and chose to run as part of the Voice New Westminster team. The Voice council and trustee team recognized the importance of organizing resources so that candidates weren’t working independently to cover all of the election tasks on their own. Being able to support one another along the campaign trail is yet another advantage of being part of a slate. As the 2008 municipal election results clearly show, to be successful in New Westminster municipal politics today, one has to be part of a slate.

Voice candidates are not ideologically bound to certain ideas. We want what is best for our city and neghbourhoods and what will make us a truly “livable” city. The DLC demand things like “no contracting out” and looks out for the interests of the city and school district’s employee groups whereas Voice looks for and supports candidates that can look out for the community’s interests, including those who work for the city and school district.

Voice doesn’t direct the voting of its elected members, we entrust them to approach all questions with an open and unencumbered mind and commit to transparent, accountable public processes. Voice does not expect that everyone will always agree on issues, but we do expect that a positive way forward will be found and a consensus achieved that is broadly supported by the New Westminster public.

After spending so much personal time and finances on running a campaign what is truly discouraging is voter apathy. It is alarming, and even surprising, that given the fact that for most people their most regular interaction with government is municipal government that only 25% of eligible voters did  actually take the little amount of personal time required to vote. Perhaps apathy has been created by the traditional lack of forthrightness among candidates in the city who claim to be “independent” and the long list of candidates the voters have had to whittle through.

It is my hope that given Voice New Westminster’s open and new way of doing municipal politics in New Westminster that more people will take an interest in being part of our upcoming election and get involved in a candidate’s campaign. Most of all though I really hope that people use our democracy and VOTE.

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.

Parking Ticket Woe

Well, I got a parking ticket. I ranted about snow removal not too long ago and someone in the comments suggested that the city would be sure to give me a parking ticket but God forbid they actually enforce the snow removal bylaws.

Anonymous commenter, you are a prophet. Please tell me the winning lotto numbers.  

Don’t get me wrong, I was parked illegally and I’m not going to argue that fact now that I realize what the bylaw is. But I’m pleading ignorance here. I was parked on a side street off 12th, in a spot I pulled into as someone was pulling out. It was the last space before the corner, and there were no signs to indicate one way or the other if I could park there. Also, the curb was not painted. The street / curb is slightly cut away, and I (wrongly) assumed that parking was permitted within 6 metres of the stop sign because of that cutaway. It’s that way in different areas of the city, so I extrapolated. For example, in front of the video store I patronize, I can park similarly although hindsight tells me there is a sign there, so I suppose that’s different.

In any event, I was ticketed less than 10 minutes after I started shopping. About 15 minutes after I parked, the clerk mentioned sadly that someone was getting towed. I asked for a description of the vehicle and I felt my throat drop into my stomach when she described the vehicle  I was driving. It so happens that I had borrowed my mother in law’s car that day.How awful would that have been to not only have a car you are operating towed, but for that car to be your mother in law? I ran outside and the tow operator was kind enough to stop what he was doing as he hadn’t yet hooked the car up, and if I had a loaf of homemade banana bread to reward him with, I would have.  In my world, baking is currency.

I’ll pay the $50. Even though I’m on mat leave and have no funds in the mad money jar for things like this after my recent splurge, I’ll pay it. I feel morally obligated to do so. I realize that the city operates on revenue generated by things like parking tickets and dog licenses and I like my community and want to be a part of its sustainability and growth. I also don’t want my mother in law’s car marked as a naughty non-payer.

But that doesn’t mean I am not furious that no less than three residents in a one block radius of my house were permitted to IGNORE THEIR SNOWY SIDEWALKS for close to an entire month, and instead let them turn to sheets of extremely dangerous ice. It doesn’t mean I’m not frustrated that I think I am the only person in my neighbourhood who cleans up after my dog if the crap landmines are any indication. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get annoyed when someone’s off leash dog comes bounding up to me as their owner shouts “It’s okay, he’s friendly!” as if that makes it okay to have their dog off leash. It’s hard to blame residents – no one thinks they are doing anything wrong because there is no city presence to tell them otherwise. Its like the Broken Window Theory that tells us that clean and tidt begets clean and tidy. It’s about consistency and being fair across the board, not having one department running with an iron fist and the rest being given no budgets for enforcement. 

Anyway, I called the city’s parking bylaw office yesterday, for two reasons. One, I wanted to pay over the phone with my credit card, and two, I wanted to know what I have to do to request that they install a sign or paint the curb or something to indicate that parking is not permitted in that spot. I shop at that merchant a lot, and I know I am not the only one who has gotten ticketed and almost towed from there. It’s 100% unlikely I will make the same mistake again, but I’m sure that someone else will be ticketed and towed. I had to leave a message on their voice mail and my message went something like this:  “Hi, My name is Jen. I got a parking ticket this past weekend and had a question about it, so if someone could return my call to 604 XXX XXXX, I’d greatly appreciate it, thank you.”

Polite. Concise. Informative. I’m good at leaving messages. 

Here’s something that will likely shock absolutely no one: my call has yet (two full days later) to be returned. Perhaps if the message I had left was “I want to pay my ticket” I’d get action. But I’m doubly annoyed that now its apparently up to me to chase after the parking services office to pay a ticket.

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Bee in my Bonnet

 

Hi! I’m Jen. Briana has invited me to be an occasional contributor for Tenth to the Fraser, and leave it to me to introduce myself by posting a slightly rant-errific type of post. This is re-posted from my personal blog at www.arbolog.com.

I have a bee in my bonnet about an item that only really comes to light about 2 weeks a year. Kale and I walk every day, sometimes twice a day. I usually use the carrier, because I like having my hands free. Once in a while I will use the stroller. Because it snows so infrequently here on the West Coast, I have a feeling that people feel like they have no obligations to remove the snow on the sidewalks in front of their property. In fact, I have a feeling that not all of them even own a snowshovel. 


New Westminster is rather hilly, one might say, and the neighbourhood I live in is right at the crest of the big hill and as a result, when we go out walking every day, we walk up or down a hill no matter which direction we walk in. The city is pretty good about plowing and salting the roads – as one of the oldest settlements in BC and one that is so proudly independant, I would suspect that they actually harbour a rather large fleet of winter snow removing trucks. 

But these days, being so… pedestrian, I hardly care about the roads other than Ross getting home safely. 
People: aside from moralling being obligated to foster a sense of a caring community and actually being concerned with whether or not your neighbour takes a tumble on the walk in front of your house, you are also legally obligated to do so.

Not to get all harrumph-y here but… ahem
506. A person being the owner or occupier of real property shall remove snow, ice and rubbish from any sidewalk and foot path bordering that person’s real property and from the roof and other part of a structure adjacent to or abutting on any portion of the street, not later than 10:00 a.m. of the day
after the snow, ice or rubbish is deposited thereon.

Certain neighbours of mine spend a great deal of time decorating their house for Christmas. But you think they bother to get out there and shovel the walk in front of their house? NO. So what happens? Well, the snow gets tramped down by those of us who have to or choose to walk on by.  Then it melts a little, because it’s so sunny and gorgeous out. And then at night it freezes into a sheet of glass. Never mind the fact that I’m carrying a baby and if I slip and fall I’ll likely hurt Kale, what about the seniors? I tried using the stroller but I had to give up – pushing it through the slush was even more dangerous than carrying Kale. 

I hate to get all “I’m calling the bylaw people!” but seriously, what options do I have? I considered knocking on their door and asking, but what happens if they freak out about the confrontation? People tend to get a little nutty when they realize that a) they are totally in the wrong, and b) someone is calling them on it, so do I really want to go and knock on my neighbour’s door and get sworn, yelled, or worse, swung at? Not really. 

So seriously. Be a good neighbour. Avoid getting sued. Shovel and salt your sidewalk. Those of us out walking say “Thank you”.