"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jumping the gun. Insulting council

Last Friday, Newgen Real Estate Development Inc. of Burnaby took out a half-page advertisement (reproduced above) in the Coquitlam Now promoting its new, four-storey office and commercial building at 837 Lougheed Highway, at the corner of Blue Mountain Street.
It's a handsome building, located at an important intersection--a place that had been crying out for just this sort of building for years.
Newgen's ad called the building "Coquitlam's newest commercial landmark," and urged interested readers to "Register Today!" to "Invest in your own strata office or retail property." Pre-sales begin March 10.
So far so good. But there was only one problem, and a rather significant one at that.
At the time of the ad's appearance, Coquitlam Council had not approved the rezoning that would allow construction of the building. In fact, Council had given only first reading to the bylaw. Still to come was a public hearing, second and third readings, and then fourth and final reading.
That public hearing, followed by second and third readings, was scheduled for last night. And so, following an uneventful public hearing, I began consideration of second and third readings of the bylaw with a pointed speech, revealing the existence of the ad, and then informing my colleagues on Council and, moreover, all of Coquitlam, that I considered the ad to be premature and, moreover, to be an insult to Council and the people of Coquitlam.
I take my responsibilities seriously, and I work hard to abide by the processes that we must legally follow. Our society is, of course, built on the rule of law, which is something we must all respect.
I don't know Newgen's motives in placing the ad. Maybe the company assumed that, after giving the bylaw first reading, Council would automatically push the rezoning through. Maybe the company simply made a mistake in timing (the excuse offered by the Beedie group last year when an ad promoting its new Austin Heights tower appeared prematurely).
If the early placement was based on a presumption that first reading was tantamount to passage, I think it is important to send Newgen and other developers a message: first reading is only one step in an important process that has several subsequent steps, not the least of which is the public hearing. Assuming automatic passage based on a preliminary vote is wrongheaded and, in essence, an affront to the role of Council and the public.
I am thankful that each and every one of my Council colleagues agreed with me, and I also appreciate the fact that both the manager of planning and the Mayor said they would communicate with Newgen, informing it of our displeasure.
Thus satisfied, I was pleased to add my vote to the unanimous vote in favour of the rezoning bylaw needed to accommodate this fine building.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

You start with the facts

A long-time council-watcher (who is often very critical of council actions) sent me a lengthy note the other day congratulating me for my outspoken commentary at last Monday's council meeting. Besides thanking her, I didn't quite know what to say, but thought she'd appreciate this, which I'll share with you now:

I am so pleased that you appreciate my fact-based approach to issues, one that often has me at odds with many of my colleagues. My years as a reporter taught me the value of gathering facts. My years as an opinion writer trained me in analysis. My years as an editor taught me how to stand my ground. And my experience as a father taught me the value of humour!

Seven Myths of Local Government

One of the presenters at the Local Government Leadership Academy (aka "boot camp for council rookies") that I attended earlier this week in Richmond told us about what he considers to be the Seven Myths under which newly elected Local Government politicians labour. They are humorous and insightful, so I thought I'd share them:
1. Your election was a certainty.
2. You have to fit in to be effective.
3. You are effective if you are busy.
4. You need to lay low for the first year.
5. Your administration was loyal to the last council and therefore can't be trusted.
6. If change is needed, everybody will be on board.
7. This role is more important than anything else you might do.
I must say, I wasn't burdened by misconceptions 1-4, and I think my actions to date speak to that. I have found through experience that 5 isn't the case, I never believed 6, and 7 might tempt me, but Mary keeps me grounded.
Nevertheless, good insights and advice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

'A manifestation of collective panic'

By all accounts, my speech last night in opposition to the Cosmetic Pesticide bylaw went over very well. Many of my fellow councillors told me they were impressed by my marshaling of facts and the vigour of my presentation, and I heard similar comments from most of the bureaucrats in attendance. The mayor told me later that he can’t wait to post the video of the presentation on his site.
The only problem is, I didn’t change a single mind, and the bylaw sailed through.
I began the presentation by reminding everyone that Health Canada had conducted a major review of cosmetic pesticides, and had approved them. In Victoria, the provincial government was in the process of studying the issue too. Meantime, I had been repeatedly challenged by environmentalists to study the issue. I did so, and the more I looked into it, the more I realized that something didn't add up – that the drive to eliminate cosmetic pesticides was being driven by something called the precautionary principle.
Here’s the definition: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” — The Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, January, 1998.
I noted that this has three key elements: 1. If something raises a threat of harm to health or environment; 2. Precautionary measures must be taken; 3. Even if cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
My interpretation: So even a mere threat of harm automatically ignites the need for action, even if there’s no scientific basis for it. But operating under this principle, we’d have to take old wives tales, myths, and urban legends as legitimate causes for action. Remember what mother used to say: “Don’t make a face, because if the wind changes you’ll be stuck with it….” If you’re a true believer in the precautionary principle, you’d better heed that advice, and not dismiss it as the unfounded rubbish that it is.
I continued: With this in mind, we can better understand what author Benjamin Kerstein meant when he wrote three years ago in his book, The Age of Catastrophic Thinking: “The precautionary principle is not so much a legal or scientific principle, but rather a manifestation of collective panic.”
Then for my clincher: But when there is some sound scientific evidence of cause and effect, there is a case for the precautionary principle. In fact, according to an article published in REASON magazine in March 2009, the precautionary principle, particularly as it can be applied to human health and well-being, actually argues against enacting pesticide prohibitions.
How’s that? Well, according to Dr. James D. Lu (medical health officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health Unit) in a Feb. 19, 2009 letter to Richmond, B.C. Municipal Council: “The aesthetics of urban landscapes has public health value. Appealing and well-kept neighbourhoods increase the public’s sense of safety and increase outdoor activities in neighbourhoods... A comprehensive Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach offers a better alternative to cosmetic pesticide ban bylaws. IPM strikes a balance between prudence, public policy, and private choice.”
This would speak to allowing cosmetic pesticides to be used in gardens, an especially useful exemption given the alarms being raised over the Coquitlam ban’s catastrophic effect on the city's prized Rose Garden.
And consider this, too: Since Ontario banned the use of cosmetic pesticides on April 22, 2009, there have been many media reports of an increase in allergic reactions, due to the greatly increased presence of weed pollen. Again, the Precautionary Principle weighs in favour of the use of pesticides to avoid or lessen ill effects to humans.
I concluded: Starting two years ago, environmentalists began challenging me to educate myself on the cosmetic pesticide issue. Well I have. And for the reasons above, I can now state firmly and unequivocally that I am opposed to the bylaw.

UPDATE: This morning, the folks at the BC and Yukon branch of the Canadian Cancer Society sent all councillors an email congratulating us for giving first readings to the bylaw to ban cosmetic pesticides, but urging us to extend the ban to sports fields as well.
I am pleased that the bylaw exempted sports fields, and would, of course, vigorously oppose any move to broaden the ban. The following statement, which appears on the website of the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, explains why:
“On sports turf, safety considerations also influence treatment decisions because bare areas or large weedy patches can increase the slipping hazard.” — IPM Manual for Landscape Pests in British Columbia, B.C. Ministry of the Environment website:
The REASON article points out that proper weed control on turf helps prevent slipping injuries by eliminating broad-leaved weeds. On the other hand, proper weed control on turf does not result in injuries. Therefore, the Precautionary Principle dictates that, with the choice between treating and not treating, the decision for proper weed control must be made—and therefore turf pesticides should not be prohibited. But I guess the crusading cancer fighters just don't care about that.

Photo from littlemountainhomeopathy.wordpress.com/

Yes, I support the new Coquitlam budget

On Monday night, seven of my council colleagues and I voted in favour of a new budget for the City of Coquitlam. Only one councilor, the perpetually opposed Lou Sekora, voted against it. The budget wasn’t perfect but, all in all, I am satisfied that it is responsible in two important ways: it relieves some of the ever-upward pressure on taxpayers, and it provides for all the important services that our residents need, including new firefighters and police officers.
During the run-up to the election last fall, my main campaign pledge was to cut back on the high rate of property-tax increases. A look at some of the figures over the past five years shows the problem: In 2007, the average tax rate increase was 5.42%; 2008, 5.175; 2009, 7.11%, 2010, 4.96%, 2011, 3.18%.
On Monday, we passed a budget calling for an average tax rate increase of just 3.16%. I would have liked to have seen the figure under 3% and, indeed, worked hard to achieve that figure during our closed-door budget deliberations, but I’m just one voice on council and I couldn’t always persuade the majority of my colleagues to see things my way.
You might also remember that, in late September of last year, I signed the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’s Taxpayer Pledge. Here’s how the three-point pledge reads, with my analysis following each section.
1) Property Tax Fairness – by committing to reduce the gap between what commercial property and residential property owners pay, you would be committing to help create conditions that enable small businesses in your community to thrive.
PROMISE KEPT: While council has been working slowly to lessen the gap, by implementing a 0.75% tax shift annually for the past several years, the pressure from the CFIB and pledgers such as me clearly got through, and council increased the shift this year to 1.0% percent. The result will be that, while the average tax rate increase will be 3.16%, it will be 2.56% for commercial properties, and 3.56% for residential properties. Worth noting is that the business-tax rate reduction will bring the rate to 4.66 times that of the residential rate, as opposed to 4.85 times larger last year. It’s still one of the highest rates in the region, but the actual tax bite is in the middle of the pack because of assessment differentials.
2) Reasonable Spending – by committing to keep operating spending increases reasonable, i.e., at or below the level of population growth and inflation or the rate of growth in disposable income, you are giving yourself the fiscal room to reduce taxes and fees, not increase them.
PROMISE KEPT. Here’s the calculation. The Consumer Price Index for last year registered a 1.9% increase, while Coquitlam’s population grew by 2.1%. Add those two figures together, and you get 4%, which would be the maximum allowed increase in operational spending. So, what is Coquitlam’s operating spending increase for 2012? There are two ways of looking at it. First, if you add up all operational spending, even including spending for which the city is receiving grants or transfers from other levels of government, our spending will increase 3.92%. Second, if you look at only operational spending that is directly supported by the taxes we raise ourselves, our increase will be 2.92%. Either way, we’ve bettered the target.
3) Transparency, Openness and Accountability – by supporting in principle, the creation of a Municipal Auditor General for BC, you are building on and enhancing your already existing systems of financial reporting, and standing to benefit from the best practices identified through performance audits.
PROMISE KEPT. I supported the Local Government Auditor General from the outset, and am pleased that the provincial government has now enacted legislation to bring this position to life.
I am pleased that we have a budget that allowed me to meet the CFIB pledge. But there’s work to be done. For starters, I’d like to see the average annual residential property-tax increase to be more in line with the average or median rise in household income. With this in mind, it appears the 2012 tax increase is about one percentage point too high.
And there’s one more word of caution here, and that’s the unknown impact of the upcoming contract talks with the city’s 1,400-plus CUPE workers. I ended my budget speech last night with a request to CUPE to restrain their contract demands. They’re coming out of a contract that saw CUPE members enjoying very large annual increases (in the 4% range) for several years. CUPE salaries are now considerably higher than those paid to comparable workers in the private sector. Personally, I’d favour a “net zero” contract over three years. This would be prudent and positive.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A risk in being productive?

It’s a risky world we live in. Around the globe, people face natural disasters, civil war, terrorism, the threat of government default, corruption and crime. But, according to the new “Enterprise Risk Management Plan” unveiled at council last night, the biggest risk that Coquitlam faces is a demand for increased productivity at City Hall.
At least that’s how I now interpret the meaning of the top “Key Strategic Risk” identified in a report presented to us on Monday. The exact wording of the risk is as follows: “Increasing public focus on municipal finances and spending results in additional pressure to achieve expected service levels with fewer resources.”
My first take on this surprisingly benign risk (what, no floods, earthquakes or tsunamis!) was to interpret it as meaning that there is a risk the electorate could become so unreasonable that, in demanding ever-lower taxes while also insisting on constant or rising levels of service, the city would become ungovernable. Take a look at Greece and you’ll get an example of what I was imagining.
And, indeed, when I spoke with City managers, they explained that they had identified this particular risk last fall, a time when the headlines were full of news about allegations of government overspending—news driven by reports from groups such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
To City Hall management, then, these groups (and, by extension, the politicians who championed their causes, such as me?) represented a threat to the status quo and, therefore, a significant risk. The report listed the possible impacts: erosion of public confidence in governments; erosion of the reputation of municipal councils; increased staff time and resources to investigate, analyze and respond to spending inquiries; and “sustainability of tax increases which impacts revenues and consequently expenditure budgets.”
But how much of a threat does this really constitute? The more I thought about it, the more I concluded that the “threat” actually boiled down to a public demand for increased productivity—getting more services out of existing revenue. And is this really so unreasonable?
All well-managed private companies are forced to look for such efficiencies on a regular basis. But governments too often take the easy way out, avoiding making the hard choices about finding ways to increase productivity and, instead, choosing the “easy” way by increasing taxes. Interestingly, the report identifies several “mitigation strategies” designed to answer the risk, but none of them specifically suggests that the City actually commit itself to increasing productivity.
Wonder why? Well, insofar as increased productivity can be accomplished by bringing down civic workers’ salaries so they are more in line with those paid in the private sector (thus allowing the City to hire more workers for the same overall payroll), any concerted effort to meet the public demand for the City to get a better bang out of the taxpayer buck is sure to generate considerable resistance from the labour organization that represents city workers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Perhaps, then, the real risk implicit in the public’s demand for more productivity is of a protracted contract battle between the City and CUPE.
But this only becomes a risk if the City is determined to act on the public’s demands rather than defend itself against them.
I recognize that many city workers are talented, dedicated and hardworking—and, therefore, quite productive. All I am suggesting is that they would be even more “productive” if there were more of them at no extra cost to the taxpayer.
Photo from innovativesignage.com