Poe?

I get a lot of correspondence as an elected official. I try to read it all, and try to respond to most of it – almost all with the opening line “I’m sorry I am so late replying to this e-mail, I get a lot of correspondence as an elected official.”

There are those few letters that come in every once in a while to which I have no idea how to reply. Bravo? Thank you? Please let your care professional know you have access to the internet? I try hard to take every one seriously, but at times I feel like I’m being played. There is a name for the specific phenomenon I am talking about: the Poe.

Poe’s Law is an internet adage that says “Without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.”

This has been extended beyond its original intent as a characterization of religious extremism and has been applied to the wide variety of on-line crankiness. And once you recognize it (something that likely only happens to elected officials and local newspaper editors, I suspect), it changes how you view a letter like this, that we at New West Council received last week (personal info redacted out of common decency):

 We often get letters addressed to a wide reach of local and provincial elected types. The content here was, however, a curious mix: The Roman numeral date, the pejorative salutation, the way he spells “Apparatchik” correctly, but immediately uses “they’re” in place of “their”. We commonly hear…uh… unusual opinions that leave me questioning how they are even asking me to act on an issue, but in this case the ask is kind of benign if a little confused: Speak out against China doing something but let other countries do it (those other countries are allowed, as far as I know, but I digress…) So is this a slightly cranky guy venting his deeply felt convictions, or someone mocking Mayor West, and the rest of the recipients? I would have happily assumed the former, but see those two attachments to the e-mail? (ps: never open attachments to an e-mail unless your IT department has vetted them!). They are these two graphics:

OK, now I’m thinking he is having us on, so I Google the person who sent it. His name has many, many hits, mostly in the form of letters he has written to editors of local newspapers from Montreal to Spokane, often with the honorific “Rev.” added, to opine on everything from racism (he is against it), homophobia (also against), potential names of future NHL teams (interesting), pipelines (he is for them), Alberta Premiers (he is against them – past and present), and the viability of DC-Marvel crossovers. He even got a pro-Derrek Corrigan letter published a few years ago in the Burnaby Now.

So, seriously, I don’t know if the Reverend takes himself seriously, but he definitely has lots of time and opinions, and I’m not sure I have time to address them all, so I don’t think I’ll reply. But don’t let that dissuade you from writing me a letter, or asking me a question with that red ASK PAT button up there, I will try to get to it as soon as possible. If I think you are serious.

Ask Pat: Smoke and edibles.

DB asked—

The bylaw regarding Cannabis Regulations No. 8043, 2018 has a section saying retail shops cannot sell edible cannabis. I live in an apartment in New West that has a strict no smoking/vaping policy (which I am very happy about). Edible Cannabis is a work around for situations like mine – unless it will be legal to smoke on the streets (which I am assuming is not the case). I understand it has been adopted but, I still wanted to voice my opinion on it.

That was not strictly in the form of a question. But I’ll take a stab at it.

We are one day away from the legalization if cannabis in Canada, and all three levels of government have been scrambling to get a regulatory regime together. It is a challenge – this an unprecedented change in the regulation of a psychotropic drug. From a local government side, we needed to put together zoning and business bylaws to support the operation of the stores that coincide with the model that the province put together. We also have to think about the inevitable nuisance complaints we are going to receive around the legalization of what is, for all its alleged benefits or harms, a pretty stinky substance.

On edibles, our Bylaw is designed to parallel the federal regulations. There will be no legal edibles sold in Canada in 2018. I suspect this is related to a myriad of packaging and labeling concerns, and addressing the risk to children when sweets and drinks are made containing the psychoactive elements found in cannabis. There is some suggestion that they will address this in 2019, but until then, dried product intended for smoking is the only legal form of recreational cannabis.

Your point about Strata rules prohibiting the smoking of cannabis is definitely a concern. With the existing prohibitions around public smoking – no smoking in parks, in bus stops, 7.5m from the door to any public building, or inside any business or public building – you are right that there will be limited places where it is legal to smoke cannabis. Unlike alcohol, you will not be able to go to a business (like a pub or coffee shop) to smoke, but you will be able (as best I can tell) to smoke on the sidewalk or the street, as long as you are not within 7.5m of a door or air intake. Still, if you are restricted from smoking at home because of strata or rental rules, your opportunities are really limited. This creates a fundamental unfairness – this completely legal product will be inaccessible to some.

I honestly don’t know how to address this and remain compliant with the various laws at all three levels of government. If you have the skills, I suppose you could bake your own edibles using the dried product meant for smoking (I don’t think that would strictly be illegal, as long as you don’t sell the baked goods). Or you can wait until the federal government gets the edibles part figured out. The transition to this new regime is going to be challenging for several reasons.

As a city, we tried our best to put together a comprehensive set of regulations. We had a few workshops with Council and staff, and heard from the public and stakeholders in the industry. After some pretty challenging debates around what the limits should be, we settled on what will no doubt be an imperfect regime, but we will learn as we go along. We will be ready to accept applications for cannabis retailers as soon as legalization occurs on Wednesday, but as the process to get a store approved and operating may still take several months, don’t expect to be buying cannabis in New West until early in 2019.

Update: Time between the legalization of cannabis and the first e-mail complaint received by Mayor and Council abut having to smell the smoke in a public place: 16 hours.  

Bikes on the SFPR

Bike lanes are in the news a bit again, here in New West, and out in one of our higher-profile western suburbs. It got me thinking about good and bad cycling infrastructure, and I haven’t gone off on a rant on this blog for a while, so make a cup of tea, because I am going to launch off on the Worst Piece of Cycling Infrastructure Ever®, known around these parts as the South Fraser Perimeter Road (“SFPR” or Highway 17). As this will most surely be tl;dr, you can skip down to the important part here.

When some previous Minister of Transportation (Falcon? Lekstrom? meh, it doesn’t matter) was hyping the region’s biggest-at-the-time motordom project, loosely defined as “the Gateway”, they were quick to point out the benefits to cyclists. The SFPR was announced as part of the largest MoT investment in cycling infrastructure of all time. This hyperbole was supported by the entire ~40km length of this glorious new road having cycling lanes affixed.

At the time, a few skeptics suggested that the shoulders of a high-speed truck route through farms and industrial areas may not be the ideal place to ride a bike, and by the time the new highway was opened, the previously-promised cyclist benefits were being seriously downplayed (hence all the dead links in that 4-year-old post above). But a Bike Route it is, to this day. There is a sign every 500m telling you so:

One of these green signs is found every 500 m for 40 km of great cycling infrastructure like this.

A couple of years on, the disaster of this poorly-placed, terribly-designed, and wholly-disingenuous cycling investment is pretty clear to anyone brave enough to venture onto this designated cycling route. No point dancing around the point: for cyclists of all skill levels, the SFPR is so unfriendly and dangerous that those “Bike Route” signs represent a reckless disregard for public safety.

That is a strong statement, so before I committed to it, I headed out to the SFPR with my bike to experience the length of the route in its harrowing glory, just to build up the temper necessary to commit that charge to hypertext. I went into it nervous, spent the ride terrified, and left enraged. Mission accomplished.

Funny I never ran into any other cyclists on this sunny fall day.

For the majority of the SFPR, the “Bike Route” is a 2.5 metre wide paved shoulder adjacent to industrial traffic moving at highway speeds. Nowhere is there a barrier protecting the shoulder from intrusions by trucks, not even rumble strips to warn drivers who may vary from their lane. The traffic is mixed, but the route was ostensibly built for and dominated by large trucks. The speed limit is allegedly 80 km/h, but speeds vary incredibly, from closer to 60 km/h around intersections (trucks accelerate slowly, after all, creating great rage moments for commuters!) to well over 100 km/h in the more open stretches.

Seriously?

In places where there is a soft shoulder or a low jersey barrier, having 80 km/h truck traffic blow by 2 metres from your left shoulder is unsettling. Where you are between those trucks and a 4 metre-high sound barrier wall (marked by the occasional gouge from vehicle swipes) or a 10-m concrete buttress, it is nerve-rattling.

shudder…

The knowledge that a momentary lack of attention by one of those drivers, or an impromptu swerve or technical problem with your bike means certain death provides a certain… clarity of thought. That thought is not “sure am glad I wore my helmet!”

The rational move (other than to avoid the SFPR altogether, which I will get to later) is to squeeze as far over to the right and put as much space between your body and the trucks. The problem with this strategy is that the SFPR “Bike Routes” are dotted with particularly deep and treacherous rainwater catch basins, and the further you get from the traffic-swept white line, the thicker and more challenging the road shoulder debris becomes:

Rocks and a hard place.

The road debris on this route is not surprising for an industrial truck route, unless you are surprised by the raw number of rusty and broken bolts and other important-looking parts that are ejected from trucks. Debris encountered on my ride included rocks large and small, glass, plastic vehicle parts, kitty-littered oil slicks, random lumber, nails, tire carcasses, tie-downs and bungie cords, and the occasional dead animal. These only serve to heighten the chances of one of those life-limiting impromptu swerves or technical failures. Once you realize the “swept clear” parts of the bike lanes are only done so by vehicles crossing the line at speed that you start to wonder if the route is designed specifically to kill you.

I hope that speeding truck didn’t need those parts…

Or just designed to confuse you…

Seriously, what are they trying to do to us here?

To add another layer of frustration to this alleged “bike route” is its isolation. Choose the SFPR and you are stuck with the SFPR, because it largely fails to connect to an established regional network and actively prevents you from getting on or off the SFPR where these types of connections may be obvious.

There are two locations on either side of the Alex Fraser Bridge, where a perfectly safe, low-traffic road is separated from the SFPR (one by a tall sound barrier wall) in such a way that getting out of danger’s way is impossible. For lack of a connection here, crossing this 5 foot barrier requires a multi-kilometre detour.

That over there on the left is NOT a designated bike route.

This lack of connection to regional cycling infrastructure is most obvious at the three regionally-important bridges under which the SFPR passes. The quality of the cycling paths on those three bridges is (east-to-west) really good, terrible, and not too bad, but they are all nonetheless important links. Again, either no connection has been contemplated for the bike route, or actual multi-layer physical barriers have been installed to prevent an SFPR cyclist from getting to the bridge where connections would be natural.

You can’t get there from here.

To get on the Alex Fraser Bridge from the SFPR requires a 3-km detour through two hairy multi-lane intersections. The Pattullo requires 1.5km and riding right past a pedestrian overpass, which would make for a great connection if it wasn’t barriered from access from the bike lane. The connection to the great bike infrastructure on the Port Mann is so far that is it actually a shorter distance just to ride to the terrible cycling infrastructure on the Pattullo.

Multi-layer protection – keeping cyclists from entering or leaving the SFPR at the Pattullo.

So the SFPR fails at every aspect of effective cycling infrastructure: it lacks the most basic safety and comfort considerations, it lacks connections, it lacks any form of appeal. It is not surprising that during my ride of the entire 40km length of the SFPR, both ways (done over two sunny mid-week days early in the fall), I never saw a single other person on a bicycle on the entire route. However, every 500m there is one of those little green signs. Or something like this:

Share the Road!

So it is time for the cycling community to wake up and recognize we got played. Of course, this is the Ministry of Transportation’s standard playbook, so we could have seen it coming: This “bike route” is a safety pull-off area for trucks.

One of these signs improves safety.

We were sold “cycling benefits” of a Billion-plus-dollar piece of transportation infrastructure, and got something else: bike signs placed on paved shoulder really intended to keep trucks in the other two lanes moving if the occasional vehicle needs to pull over, or of someone just needs to park a trailer for a few hours. Aside from that, it is a gutter for gravel and trash and carcasses and truck parts to prevent them from accumulating where they may impede truck travel. This “Bike Route” is just a part of the truck route, nothing else.

This is why this shoulder exists, signage be damned.

(I need to super-emphasize this) The SFPR it was never meant to be a Bike Route. 


So what to do? I’d like first to call upon the new Minister of Transportation to take down those “Bike Route” signs.

It isn’t her fault, she didn’t create this mess, but she adopted it by getting elected, so it is on her to do the right thing. The MoTI must stop threatening the lives of cyclists. Removing the signs and anything else that may incite otherwise-unaware bicycle users from mistakenly entering this cycling abattoir. Put an end to the ruse that this is any place for bicycles.

I could ask her for many more things – investment in cycling infrastructure for Surrey and Delta to make up for the funding-securing lies told by her predecessors, a commitment to policy changes to prevent her staff from ever doing this kind of bait-and-switch again – but those are opportunities for the future, and will require budget and policy decisions and such. She is a busy person with a huge mandate and new to the job; there will be time for those niceties later. First we must undo this mistake made intentionally by the previous government.

In the short term, someone in Minister Trevena’s office needs to call up the road maintenance contractor that bought the rights to not clean the shoulders here, and ask them to send a crew out to remove those signs. It shouldn’t take more than a day, it won’t cost any money, and it’s the right thing to do.

Where the SFPR meets another truck freeway, cooler heads prevail.

Monday.

The most unusual Council Monday. Full of highs and lows.

It started out joyful with two great friends showing up to get married at City Hall (in a cyclist tradition going back at least to Moocher and Nancy in Breaking Away). They were married in the Mayor’s Office by my Council colleague who happens to be a Marriage Commissioner! I feel lucky to have met Jen and Simon through strange consequence of circumstances, and it was great to see their beaming faces on their special day. Good people.

A few hours later, all of Council was saddened to learn that a great friend and community leader in New Westminster had passed away from a pretty sudden illness. Bill will leave a big hole in our community, his contribution was huge. His career was saving lives, and his volunteer efforts were tireless. I feel lucky to have met him, shared many laughs, and to have taken his advice (although his attitude about maintaining a cleanly-shaved face was clearly a step too far for me). The only consolation this evening was in knowing that the community that he and Lynn spent so much of their time building is standing up to support Lynn at her time of sorrow.

Life is short, folks, but there is a lot of joy to be found in caring for others. And in the end, that’s all that matters.

…on Montreal

I wrote earlier about my spring trip back east, first to the FCM conference, then as a tourist for a few days in Ottawa. I don’t want this to turn into a Travel Blog (ugh, who needs another one of those?), but I do want to talk about the last leg of our trip, because Montreal blew my mind.

I have not visited Montreal in a couple of decades, and aside from the rampant bilingualism and historic buildings, the City had little in common with Ottawa. Montreal is so vibrant, it was so being lived in, that we almost didn’t want to leave.

We got around on the quick and efficient metro system. For $18, we got a three-day unlimited pass, and found the system easy to navigate, only occasionally crowded, clean (if a little well-worn in places), and friendly. Aside: It is notable, coming from a TransLink serviced area, that only 7 of the 40+ metro stations have elevators, and there is limited accessibility throughout the system. Perhaps a legacy of the age of the system, but it puts TransLink’s occasional accessibility issues into perspective when 90% of Metro is completely off limits to those who cannot navigate escalators and stairs.

Our other transportation source was Bixi, Montreal’s incredibly comprehensive bike share program. Bixi runs like the New York CitiBike, in that the tech and booking system is in a station kiosk, and bike must be returned to a station. This was never an issue on our two days of criss-crossing the City, as stations were ubiquitous. There were three stations within 1 block of our little hotel in the Village, and another two between us and the nearest Metro Station three blocks away. We paid $5 a day for unlimited 30-minute rides, occasionally checking a bike in and checking another out if our journey was longer that the maximum. The system operated flawlessly, and appeared to be very well used.

We thought Ottawa was a bike-friendly city, but Montreal takes it to an entirely different level. This is what it feels like when cycling is made equal to other modes in a City. Every journey we took, there was either a separated, protected bikeway, or a traffic calmed street bikeway, with the former more the rule than the exception. Light signals were designed with cyclists in mind, the network is connected and integrated with other modes. Overall, it just worked.

The result is obvious – we had, at times, Copenhagen-level bicycle traffic. There were a few of lycra-wearing Freds, but they were easily outnumbered by people in street clothes riding bikes of almost every shape and style, using the functional network to get around without much fuss. I would peg helmet usage in adults at about 30%, but with upright bikes and really well designed infrastructure, I don’t think I ever saw a conflict between a bike and another user. Quite the opposite, the few times we got a little turned-around with infrastructure, drivers seemed to treat us with an unfamiliar courtesy.

There are still people who think Vancouver is being too aggressive with bike lanes and normalizing cycling as a mode. There are people who think helmet laws are the best way to keep cyclists safe. My answer to them will now be Montreal. As a cycling advocate in the Lower Mainland for more than a decade, and someone now elected to make our City work better, I actually feel a little ashamed about how far ahead of us wintery, hilly, crowded, traffic-crazy Montreal is. Be assured: we are laggards; embarrassingly so.

The other part that made Montreal easy to love was the incredible animation of public spaces: Parklets, road “closures”, street art, festivals, patios, the whole damn scene. We walked a few blocks on a Wednesday night and stumbled upon a swing dance event in a public park, beer being sold, people hanging out and dancing, with what appeared to be very little fuss.

We soon discovered this was the rule, not the exception. For three days we travelled around on bikes finding streets closed and a stages set up, streets where traffic was being constrained by patio life, people playing or listening to music, stuff happening mid-week in May.

The streets of the Village, of the Plateau, of Mont Royal, of everywhere, were busy with retail and entertainment. Parklets, decks, restaurants, and a healthy-looking diversity of small street-level retail.

Travelling around on Bixi took us through the many residential neighbourhoods immediately adjacent to the main strips like St. Laurent, and I started to make the (obvious to my YIMBY friends) connection between the residential neighbourhoods and the street activity. and it comes down to this:

This type of 4- or 5-unit building, rental or condo, is ubiquitous in Montreal. There are many (and seemingly a growing number of) higher-rise condos in the centre of town, many areas on the fringes (a freeway-drive away from town) where relatively cheap single-family detached exist, but it is the medium-density, low-rise multi-unit apartment building that defines the livable neighbourhoods of Montreal.

I am sure there are other factors – cultural history, long winters, cosmopolitan population, laissez-faire laws, large student population – but I cannot help but connect this missing middle family-friendly density to the other features that make Montreal neighbourhoods so livable. The dependable dépanneur, the bike lanes, the lively streetfronts, the energy of the street: they all depend on a population density that supplies customers and neighbours, but doesn’t overwhelm space. This is the built form that so much of Greater Vancouver (including New Westminster) is scared of, even as our neighbourhoods struggle with being too expensive to live in, and too barren to support a vibrant community.

Seriously, we started to linger while walking past real estate offices to see what was on offer…

Music by the River

The City tried a bit of an experiment on Thursday Night. We permitted the Arts Council to offer a few hours of free music at the Pier Park, set up a few artisan booths, and (gasp) offer beer and wine for sale in an open-licence model that allows families to sit together and responsibly enjoy a drink without the hassles or unnecessary barriers of the traditional “Beer Garden” area.

Hanging out with three happy EDs who do so much to make New West the place to be!
Hanging out with three happy EDs who do so much to make New West the place to be!

And whattya know? Hundreds of people showed up. Several of them politely stood in lines a little longer than expected to buy a glass of beer or wine and waited longer than expected for a hotdog or burger while most just enjoyed the sunny weather, the cool vibe, and their community. The music was electronic and new pop, but the crowd was a remarkably diverse mix of young and old. Many thanks to Stephen and his Arts Council crew for putting this on, to Alex at Superb Real Estate Group for pitching in some sponsorship, and to New West for once again showing up to prove we are ready to enjoy our public space.

Music by the River will happen every Thursday in July.

More on setting rules

A little expansion on my last past about the election, and my talking about it here.

I received a bit of social media feedback, mostly positive, but also including a bit of criticism from someone in the community I respect immensely about being too political or partisan on my blog. They like the council updates and community stuff, but didn’t want to have to sift through partisan attacks and negativity.

Frankly, I don’t know how to respond to that, except to say sorry.

I try to use this blog as a bit of a community service, to report out on things happening in the City, but I also try to make it clear this is my voice and my opinion. This is not official communications from the City or anyone else, nor is this an official duty of my City Councillor job. It is something I do because I like it, and because I think it helps me to a better job as a City Councillor.

Because of that, I am perhaps a little more selfish about it than I would be in most things. I think I have tapered off some of the more political stuff since I got elected, partly because of time commitments, partly because I need to be more aware of a wider audience, and that I have been trusted with a bit of a Bully Pulpit (in the Roosevelt sense of the word “bully”, although some would argue a fear of the more modern usage as well…)

That caution aside, I still feel the urge to shout from this pulpit at times. Often times. There are issues like the Massey Tunnel replacement, our failing ambulance service, fighting climate change and homelessness and the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, that are important to me, important to our City and the region. These conversations are inevitably political, and inevitably partisan. I cannot not talk about them, nor can I pretend I think they are being properly addressed by the current government in Victoria.

Arguably, by not talking about important issues like this, or taking a milquetoast approach to them, I am failing to show the kind of leadership and outspokenness that got me elected in the first place. Some of my regular readers (Hi Bart!) have even suggested I have stepped too far back form the edge since getting elected, that I am getting soft. I honestly have no idea where the middle ground is here, but I am reluctant to spend too much time searching for it, because life is always more fun out by the edge.

So if reading partisan political discussion here is not to your liking, I recommend you skip past those posts. You can always skim down to the more municipal events type posts.

However, I would respectfully also ask you to consider why reading an opinion you don’t agree with, especially from someone you otherwise enjoy reading, causes you discomfort. We need to keep our eyes and our ears open to the people on the other side of the partisan aisle, because sometimes, every so often, they have an idea worth hearing.

Ask Pat: Whistle cessation update.

I’ve been a little behind on my “Ask Pat” responses. There are a few questions on different aspects of the Whistle Cessation theme, so I’ll cover them all with my answer to this one:

J.S. asked—

RE: new westminster train whistle cessation

I do not understand this project. There is a law saying train has to sound its horn at every crossing. Is there a law require it to be so loud that the entire town can hear it? Instead of throwing money on all these cessation projects which seem to be going nowhere, can’t train horn simply be modified so it is less aloud like a car horn or even a bell? Canadian train travels slower than a car. And I believe the law meant for it to be heard at that intersection only.

Yes, that would make total sense, but the answer to your first question is a completely absurd “yes”.

Train horns are designed to call attention to a train approaching a lonely rural road on the Canadian Shield at 80km/h, and therefore blow at something exceeding 100db for a regulatory more-than-20-seconds-for-every-crossing. That might make sense on a snowy rural crossing 100 miles east of Thunder Bay, but in the middle of a busy urban area the volume of the horns is clearly absurd. Especially then the crossing already has gates, bells, flashing lights, and the train is rolling along at 20km/h with a gigantic diesel engine chugging away at the front of it.

But the Railway Safety Act has a tendency to err on the side of caution, probably for good historic reasons. So we are stuck with this absurdity.

I would normally say “call your MP”, except that I know your MP has been working on rail interface issues for years, and has been stonewalled by successive governments and the simple intractability of trying to get the rail industry to behave as a good neighbour in urban areas. There is a bunch of long history here, related to the railways that built the Nation thinking and such, which was at one time, when railways were part of the National Enterprise, compelling, but now seem so much hollower now that the rail companies are just another multinational corporation charged with the holy duty of returning shareholder value… but I digress.

The City is, as you may have heard, working on bringing “Whistle Cessation” to our level crossings. This requires a significant amount of safety engineering, most of it patently absurd, to provide redundant safety measures enough that the Act and the railway operators are satisfied that absent-minded pedestrians and drivers won’t physically be able to wander into the path of a train. The City needs to pay for these works, and the rail companies that own the crossings both have to approve them, then decide (after the work is done, natch) if it now constitutes adequate protection to no longer require every person in a 5km radius to be alerted of the trains’ presence.

The works in New West have been painfully slow. There were a few engineering challenges, including the need to order some special equipment that could only be provided by a supplier approved by a railway. The multiple steps of design, pre-approval, engineering drawings, waiting for clearance, approvals to work in the right of way, waiting for the rail company to do the bits only they are authorized to do, getting authorization to do the bits we are authorized to do… it was painful.

However, I am happy to announce that the City has officially notified all of the stakeholders who need to be informed* that the City will officially request that Whistle Cessation be brought into effect for the two Front Street crossings through a resolution at Council scheduled for February 6th, 2017.

There are also three level crossings in Sapperton, and I have no idea when whistle cessation will be brought to those. The engineering requirements as far as sight lines and approach angles for cars under the Skytrain pillars are such that it appears simply impossible to meet any existing regular whistle-free standard. We will try, and new road infrastructure along that corridor will be viewed through a lens of whistle cessation, but barring radical ideas, I’m not making any promises about when that will actually occur.

*The list of Stakeholders who were officially served letters informing them of the City’ intentions for the February 7th meeting included the four rail companies that regularly operate on that line, plus PLM Railcar Management Services (Canada) Ltd.; PROCOR Ltd.; General Electric Railcar Services Corporation; the Canadian Fertilizer Institute; the Canadian Chemical Producers Association; the United Transportation Union; the Transportation Communications International Union Systems Board; UNIFOR; Teamsters Canada Rail Conference; Travailleurs Unis Transport (1843); the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union; GATX Rail Canada; Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 279; International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and the Propane Gas Association of Canada Inc. Dear God I hope we haven’t missed anyone. It’s absurd.

Two down, two to go.

It’s been just a little more than two years since I became a City Councillor in New Westminster. In the spirit of consistency, I probably need to follow up on last year’s Year-in-the-Life post. So here are some thoughts about being a City Councillor at the half-way mark of my first term.

That New Councillor Smell has definitely worn off. Although this role involves constant learning, I feel I am up over the steep part of the curve and am more confident in my ideas about what does and does not work in the City. This is manifest in a (hopefully subtle) change from me asking myself “why are things this way?” to a more pointed asking others “Do things really need to be this way?”

I am also becoming more aware of the politics that affect my ability to do my job. Every decision you make in Council is a compromise between competing forces. Even the best possible decision is going to be perceived negatively by someone, for good reasons or bad, and no matter how open, pragmatic, or evidence-based your decision making is, criticism can come from any random, unanticipated direction.

I feel fortunate that our Council, despite our ability to disagree on many issues, is remarkably functional. I hear disaster stories from other Councils that refuse to work together or allow their grievances (petty or serious) to prevent them from doing their work. Some are played out in the media, some others I only hear about through the various grapevines. I have heard first-hand accounts of Councillors in other cities suffering from bullying and harassment within their Councils, and of serious enough threats from the public that police involvement was required. I feel fortunate that our City, as passionate and engaged as it is in civic matters, is largely free from these types of conflicts.

I still lose sleep on Sunday nights before Council meetings. I still struggle with some of the hard decisions and increasingly wear the less-than-ideal things that happen in the City. However, I still believe that government can be open, accountable, and effective, and that we can make (are making?) progress towards the City working better in ways people can see.

I am worried about the impact our aggressive capital replacement plan is having on our budget – but also worried about what happens if we let our capital program slide for too long. I fret a bit over our seemingly chronic inability to complete projects on time. I am trying to be vigilant in avoiding creating my own communication bubble where I am only hearing reinforcement of my own ideas (this is most prevalent in the OCP discussion – I think we are on a the right track, but need to keep an open mind for when the draft plan gets to Council in the New Year). I am trying to be mindful on the job and open to better ways to do it.

I was asked recently at a Christmassy social event: “What is your big goal for this Council thing?” I started talking about this blog, the outreach I have been working on, the City’s Community Engagement efforts, and my overall desire to open up the process of democratic decision making. My inquisitor kept trying to get over to tangibles: new buildings, bridges, parks, things you can attach a brass plaque to. It’s funny I couldn’t get there. We are making progress on several projects, the CGP replacement, library upgrades, a better functioning City Hall, the reformation of the waterfront, but I don’t see those as “my” successes or projects. These are things that large teams of people are working towards, and 70,000 taxpayers are paying for. Although I suppose my feeling of ownership will change if I see my name on a brass plaque…

Finally, I’m half way through the term and finally accepting that adjustments need to be made in my lifestyle. I have been burning a lot of candles, and have frankly lost track of which ends of which I have lit. I am going on vacation for a few weeks to recharge my batteries and pay some much-needed attention to my partner. For my return, I have some pretty drastic lifestyle adjustments planned in order to maintain my household, my relationships, and my sanity. I want to keep blogging (and even do more), I want to be more timely at returning communication I receive, and I have a few tangible projects around town and regionally I want to take a bit of ownership over. I have a long list of “we need to get together over coffee/beer and talk about that” dates I need to keep (you know who you are). This will take a change in programming. Stay tuned.

Until then, we’ll call this a Christmas break. I hope you enjoy your Holidays in whatever form that enjoyment takes, and your 2017 is filled with he things that make you happy. Blogging will resume in January, inshallah.

What do you do?

I’ve been at the City Councillor thing for a year and a half now, long enough that I have to stop referring to myself as “the new guy”. At some point, I have to stop blaming / giving credit to the previous Council for everything going wrong / right in the City. I suspect (hope?) the steep part of the learning curve is now behind me, and I start directing more of my learning towards the problems I want to see solved, the opportunities ahead. It is also long enough that I should be able to answer the simple question “What do you do?”

I have tried, over the last 18 months, to report out on this blog some of the mechanics of City Council, as it was my goal when running to open up the process a bit, and try to do a better job explaining the sometimes-incomprehensible decisions Council (and the City) make. Recognizing many in the City will disagree with any given decision made by Council, I wanted to at least provide enough information so that they know what they are disagreeing with, and not rely on the few very vocal boo-birds in town who assume a decision is bad only because this Council makes it.

However, this post isn’t about that, it is more about the actual day-to-day duties of a person you pay $40,000 a year (plus Vehicle Allowance!) to represent you, whether you voted for them or not. So here is my summary of the job.

*This is a good time for one of my disclaimers about how everything I write here is my opinion and my viewpoint, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the ideas or opinions of any other members of Council, who are, believe it or not, individual people with their own ideas and biases. Like the rest of this Blog, this is not the “official position” of the City or any entity other than myself.*

Council Meetings:
Council meeting days happen about every two weeks on average. In the spring and fall we meet more often, and we more time off in the summer and around Christmas. The schedule is flexible around work load and stat holiday schedules, but we have about 26-30 meetings a year.

Council meeting days are comprised of a Closed Meeting and an Open Meeting, only the latter of which you see on TV. About 10 times a year (the last meeting of most months), the Open Meeting is coupled with a Public Hearing. We also, at times, have Committee/Taskforce meetings (more on that below) and Council Workshops on these Mondays.

A long Council Monday can be 12 or more hours, with breaks for lunch and dinner. The portion you see on TV is only the Open Meeting and Public Hearing part. On any given meeting day I am at City hall at 9:00am, and typically wander home sometime between 9:00 and midnight.

Council Prep:
We cannot show up at Council Meetings unprepared to discuss the business of the day. Our schedule on Monday is typically pretty stuffed, and we cannot hope to learn enough about the issues on which we will be discussing during that time. On the Friday before the meeting we are delivered (electronically in my case) our “Council Package”. This contains the staff-prepared reports and background info we need to put discussions in context. The Package varies in length, but is typically about 1,000 pages when Closed and Open agenda items are combined.

My practice is to get take a glance at the Package for maybe an hour after I get home from work on Friday or first thing Saturday morning. This allows me to get an idea of what is on the agenda, to determine if it is a 700-page or a 2,000-page week, and to do a first pass over the topics being discussed. From that I can plan out my weekend to assure I have enough time put aside to review at the detail needed, and do any other research I might want to do in order to understand the issue. That is usually when I decide if I have time to do a bike ride on Sunday or attend a Saturday function.

Typically (and this varies quite a bit), I spend about 8 hours on Sunday reviewing the package and taking my notes. My notes form the backbone of the Blog I will eventually write about the week’s Council meeting, but more importantly they create a framework around which I organize my thoughts on the agenda items. This is an old trick from studying during my University years, but I find that if I write a summary of a topic I am trying to learn, it forces me to learn enough to summarize the important points, and to understand what questions I need to have answered yet. Often, you don’t know what you don’t know until you try to write it down.

I print those notes out, so you can see me at Council using my computer screen (where the agenda and reports that make up the Package are) and written notes, along with the extra papers that we receive on Council Day, typically supporting reports that weren’t available Friday, presentation materials, or other relevant documents. My desk is a mess.

Committees and Taskforces:
Like the rest of my colleagues, I serve on several Committees and Taskforces for Council. These each meet anywhere from once a month to once every second month. Most meetings are in the later afternoon, mid-week, after I get off my regular job, and meetings typically last about two hours. With my being on three taskforces and four committees, this adds up to an average of about one meeting a week during the busy months, but not many in the summer (except occasional exceptional meetings, like the Transportation Taskforce last week, and the ACTBiPed next week).

In these meetings, Council members, staff, and stakeholders work through issues, ideas, programs, or proposals, and (hopefully) provide guidance to Council to make better decisions. Prep for these meetings varies greatly, but rarely takes more than an hour. Follow-up on some of the issues that arise at these meetings, and some of the extraordinary meetings, tours or other activities involved with the work these committees are doing takes quite a bit more time.

Community Events: There are various types of community events, some you have to attend, like the Civic Dinner where we thank committee volunteers, some you attend to show support to organizations or people doing good work in the City, some you attend just because they are fun.

This is a challenge for any Councillor’s schedule. We get a lot of invitations, and cannot hope to attend everything. I try to be careful about stretching myself too thin, and end up missing a lot of events I really want to get to. I try to respond to every invitation and send a decline if I cannot make it, but scheduling is an ongoing challenge, as is managing my work and Council calendars while still finding some time to remind @MsNWimby that I exist. The job does not come with a social coordinator, and every calendar app I can find for my phone is worse than every other one. I’m still working on this part…

Constituent Services:
This is a big, but pretty loosely defined group of activities, and each Councillor can make their own decision about how they manage this, and how much time it takes. This is another part of the job that “expands to fill the space available to it”.

Sometimes, a person complains to you about potholes on their street, or the noise from their neighbor’s wind chimes. Sometimes they call you to ask for help with a business license issue, or to complain about a development in their neighbourhood. Sometimes people complain about unfair enforcement of a Bylaw, while others complain about lack of Bylaw enforcement. Some people just want to be heard and the problem acknowledged, some want you to fix things for them.

I try to take an approach to this based on a few principles. I am not there to help people get out of Bylaw requirements, to get their stuff pushed to the front of a line, or to help them get around a process that exists. I am really conscious that procedures and policy exist in government, and that we have professional staff working on directives from Council as translated through their management – they should not have to deal with an individual Councillor coming and telling them how to do their jobs. That said, if a resident or business owner feels that the process is unfair, or that they have received treatment form the City that is not in keeping with City policy or good customer service, I am happy to talk with management at the City and (this is important) get both sides of the story and figure out what went wrong.

It is a delicate balance. Sometimes my job is to help explain to a resident or business owner why things are so bureaucratic and irritating, and why the Bylaw is written or enforced the way it is. Sometimes staff do mess up, or processes are developed that don’t really work when put into practice, and someone needs to facilitate a better outcome for everyone. I don’t see my job as advocating for either party in a conflict like this, but as a mediator trying to figure out an outcome that works best for the City and the Residents. And occasionally the approach required is to work with the Mayor and Council at the executive level to fix a process or a system that is not working for the residents and businesses in the City. Deciding which of the three is the right course when hearing from a complainant is a tough job, and something I am still learning about and developing my skills at.

Communications:
I receive dozens of e-mails a day and a few phone calls a week from residents or businesses in town. I try to respond to all of them. I fail.

When I first got elected, I dreamed I would answer them all promptly and personally, but reality has set in. Some (like the every-couple-of-day missives from the hateful racists at Immigration Watch) go directly to delete. Some I am just cc’d to, and am not the best person to answer, so I usually wait to see if a more appropriate person responds before chiming in. Some raise interesting and complex questions that I need to put a bit of thinking too before I respond. Some scroll off the first page, and I get back to them a week or two later and feel bad about not having responded right away. Some, I just don’t seem to have the time to keep track of.

So if you wrote me an e-mail, and I was slow to respond, please don’t take it personally, and don’t feel bad sending me a reminder e-mail. I will get back to you eventually. Unless your comments are full of hateful racism or other abusive language, in which case I’m likely to just ignore you and hope you go away. In that case, I guess, you can take it personally.

This other stuff:
Writing this Blog is, to me, a really important part of how I do this job. It takes a lot of time, and is almost always done after 10:00 on weekday nights. Summarizing a Council Report can take a couple of hours, depending on how many items on the week’s agenda require extended explanation. I find free time to write pieces like this wherever I can (in this case, I am sitting at one of the little desks on the Queen of Alberni crossing the Strait of Georgia while @MsNWimby enjoys the blue sky on the sun deck).

Tracking the local and regional media (including the social media) is also an important part of the job whose hours simply cannot be counted. Keeping track of the goings in the City, of the trends in the region, of Provincial and Federal politics as it relates to our City, is vital if we hope to make good decisions for the City. This includes a fair amount of general interest research, following great local sources like Price Tags, or global sources like StrongTowns along with reading great urban and economics leaders from Janette Sadik-Khan to Umair Haque.

Nothing in New West is new, we don’t have completely unique challenges, but the same challenges as other Cities and regions have had. Learning what from their successes and failures is the best way to train myself to make better decisions.

I have been at this for 18 months, and parts of it are getting easier. I am now better able to judge the amount of my Saturday and Sunday I need to spend reading my Package, more of the “background” in my Package is familiar to me, requiring less review. I have a better idea who in City Hall to call and get a question answered. The trade-off is the expanded time I spend doing that last part – the constant learning to empower myself to make better decisions and dream bigger about the future of the City.

Now if I can only get ahead of my e-mails and get my scheduling figured out…