"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

Friday, February 21, 2014

I'm actually a big supporter of the 'Citizen Budget'

Citizen Budget: Tri-City News left the impression I oppose it.
The time has come for me to turn the tables and "blame the news media." Sort of.
First, some background. You've all heard public figures complain about inaccurate and out-of-context reporting. It's a staple of political theatre.
And I must admit that, having spent more than three decades as a full-time journalist, I've been the target of some of those complaints--even, on rare occasions, justifiably.
But in my two-plus years as a Coquitlam City Councillor, I haven't had much reason to do any complaining myself. For the most part, the reporting of my activities on Council has been both fair and accurate, albeit never as thorough as I would like.
On this latter subject, now that I'm on the "inside," it often pains me to see how a complex subject, such as a neighbourhood plan or a new strategy of some sort, that council has spent several hours discussing and on which staff has clearly spent many dozens or even hundreds of hours working, is boiled down to eight-to-ten paragraphs by a reporter.
Nevertheless, when the boiling-down captures the essence of both the content of the report and the discussion around it, there's really not much to gripe about.
That said, I must now declare that the top story on the front page of the Feb. 21 issue of the Tri-City News has somewhat misrepresented my position on a bold, new public-opinion-gathering exercise that the City will likely adopt in the next round of budget consultations.
My colleagues and I on Council discussed the Citizen Budget initiative at the Feb. 19 meeting of the Finance Standing Committee. The initiative would allow interested citizens to express their opinions about such budget-related issues as revenue and expenses, and programs and personnel by way of an interactive, easy-to-understand website.
Now, those of you who have been following my political career to date will know that I have been a big supporter of new ways to engage citizens. In fact, it was my initiative that led to Coquitlam holding its first-ever E-Town Hall meeting.
Understandably, then, I'm a big supporter of the Citizen Budget initiative, and said so in my presentation at Committee. However, I also pointed out that the on-line opinion-gathering apparatus would be just one way that Councillors could and should gather information; others include our own research, face-to-face interactions with the community and the annual Ipsos Reid poll.
And on the subject of polls, I noted that, unlike the Ipsos Reid one, the on-line initiative would not be scientific, and so its results would have to be taken with a grain of salt.
Ultimately, though, I opined that the Citizen Budget initiative would be beneficial, not only for its ability to sample public opinion and obtain more budget feedback, but also for the very fact that it sends the message to all residents that the City really does care what they think.
After all that, however, Tri-City News lumped me in with "a few Coquitlam councillors [who] voiced concerns about the program's lack of controls," reporting that, "Coun. Terry O'Neill said while the Citizen Budget could capture the mood of Coquitlam's 139,000 residents, 'this has to be taken with a grain of salt' as the results aren't as scientific as those from the Ipsos Reid poll." (The story does not appear to be posted online yet.)
True enough, as far as it goes. But, of course, the problem is that story doesn't go nearly far enough, in that it leaves the impression I am opposed to the plan when, in fact, the exact opposite is true.
And there you have it. It's more of an exasperated quibble than an angry complaint. But, on a subject (voter and citizen engagement) on which I have devoted so much attention, it's important that the complete story be told.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The big push (and push-back) for subsidized daycare

This past Monday, council-in-committee received a presentation from Sharon Gregson, a former COPE/Vision Vancouver school board trustee and now spokesperson for the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, who called for Coquitlam to endorse a plan that would see the provincial government heavily subsidize all daycare in B.C. so that users would have to pay only $10 a day to put their preschool child in care. It would be free to those earning less than $40,000 a year.
The campaign already has scores of official supporters, but several aspects of the presentation didn't seem quite right, and so I questioned Ms. Gregson when she concluded. Chief among the issues that raised my eyebrows were these:
1. Her description of the childcare situation in B.C. as a "crisis." OK, I know that some folks have a difficult time getting good-quality childcare, but a "crisis"? Where's the evidence for such a loaded term? None was presented.
2. Her statement that the program would eventually cost $1.5 billion and that it would eventually establish a government-run daycare monopoly, staffed by highly paid unionized government workers. What could possibly go wrong? 
3. Her use, in a PowerPoint presentation, of supporting quotes from two business leaders. Upon my questioning, it became apparent that these quotes were made only in general support of an educated workforce, and not in support of a major government program to pay for daycare.
I also asked about the seemingly high number of jobs that she said would be taken up by women who were free to enter the workforce. I think the figure was something like 17,000. On this subject, Ms. Gregson had a persuasive answer. Indeed, in subsequent research, I discovered that many studies have found that, freed of childcare duties, women are able to find jobs in great numbers.
However, in doing that research, I also found evidence that one of the supposedly great benefits of putting more children into daycare--that they will be better prepared for school--wasn't being found in Quebec, the longstanding home of government-subsidized $7-a-day daycare. This Maclean's story of a few years ago reports on an academic study that found a reverse effect, in fact.
You know where I'm going with this, right? Bottom line: I have reservations about the program, and think Council should steer clear of any ill-considered endorsement.

On a related subject, our City Clerk forwarded my colleagues and me an on-line comment left by one of Ms. Gregson's supporters. Below is the text of that comment and my response. I have omitted the name of the correspondent to protect her privacy.
I attended the council-in-committee meeting on Monday, February 3, 2014 at which Sharon Gregson appeared before the council with a presentation on the $10-a-day child care initiative. Her informative presentation was followed by a fairly intense questioning by council members. I was taken aback and not a little disappointed that Ms. Gregson was not asked what, to me, should have been the first question - how would this initiative benefit the citizens of Coquitlam? 
I hope that the mayor and council will give this initiative the attention it deserves and vote to lend their endorsement to this proposal. 
My response:
Our City staff forwarded your online comments to members of Council, and I would like to take the opportunity to respond.
First, thanks very much for taking the time not only to write your note, but also—and more importantly—to attend council in committee in the first place. I assume that you were one of the women in the audience to whom Ms. Gregson referred during her presentation.
Let me start by acknowledging that I am one of the councillors who asked questions—and tough ones at that—during Ms. Gregson’s presentation. This does not mean, however, that I do not recognize the importance of the public-policy proposal Ms. Gregson was advancing. Rather, I think it reflects that very importance, in that I feel that before council makes any decision to join the many other municipalities that are now calling for the $10-a-day plan, we must ensure that all the arguments that support it are solid ones, that the facts and figures should be reliable, and that the quotes being used to support the initiatives must be authentic.
Furthermore, I am well aware of many government initiatives being launched with great fanfare, high expectations and a huge budget, only to end up producing unanticipated negative consequences. For example, a Maclean’s story of July 11, 2011,  “Is subsidized daycare bad for kids?” reports on the findings of three researchers who found that, contrary to the claims (and hopes!) that Quebec’s $7-a-day daycare would better prepare preschool children for school, “the effects of the program are found to be negative for five-year-olds and less convincingly negative for four-year-olds.”
The economic case for installation of a heavily subsidized daycare system seems to have some merit, especially in the area of allowing parents to enter the workforce. Nevertheless,  it is my duty as a City Councillor to be as certain as I can be when making decisions that will impact taxpayers throughout the province.
Ultimately, we all want what’s best for our children, whether it involves the sort of income redistribution that the $10-a-day plan calls for (that is, money being taken from taxpayers and given by government to government-subsidized daycares, which in turn allows more parents to enter the workforce and become taxpayers themselves), or whether it  simply means finding a way to keep more money in the hands of parents so that they can make the best decisions for themselves.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Council's pipeline-input decision

Coquitlam Council voted unanimously last night to apply to the National Energy Board for formal Intervenor status at the NEB’s upcoming hearings in to Trans Mountain Pipeline ULC’s application to twin its pipeline through B.C. (and Coquitlam) to a terminal in Burnaby. I reluctantly supported the motion—reluctantly, because I thought the far more realistic and responsible position for the City to take was to apply for formal Commenter status.
However, when my amendment to this effect was defeated 5-3 (with only Mayor Richard Stewart and Councillor Brent Asmundson supporting me), I decided that having Internevor status was better than having no formal input at all, and therefore supported the original motion.
By now, most informed citizens will know plenty about the TMP project (also known as the Kinder-Morgan pipeline), so I won’t go over all the details. Here’s a link that provides much of the background. And here's a Coquitlam-specific link. 
Importantly, the line will not parallel the existing pipeline, which cuts through the heart of southwest Coquitlam, but will trace a new route along the southern edge of the city, near Highway 1.
The issue facing the City was whether we should work behind the scenes to resolve any safety and routing issues with TMP, should it win approval to build the pipeline, or apply to the NEB to have formal input into the approval process as a Commenter or Intervenor.
The City of Coquitlam’s General Manager of Strategic Initiatives, Maurice Gravelle, said in a January 30 memo to Mayor and Council that, “it is important the city apply to either submit a letter of comment or to be an Intervenor.” This statement helped me reach the decision that, yes, the City should have a formal place at the hearing table.
However,  Mr. Gravelle also reported that there would be negligible costs to researching and writing a letter of Comment, while the costs for assuming Intervenor status would be between $50,000 and $100,000. He also said, “It is anticipated that any concerns the City may have with the proposed Project will be addressed by Trans Mountain prior to the hearing.”
My research into the subject determined that being an Intervenor gave the person or organization the following rights and responsibilities: The opportunity to present written evidence; the right to question others on their written evidence; the right to cross-examine other witnesses at the oral portion of the hearing; the right to give final argument; the responsibility to attend at least on opening days, and days of direct relevance; and the right to receive all documents.
A Commenter has the ability to write a Letter of comment which: comments on how the City would be impacted positively or negatively by the project; comments or makes suggestions for conditions that should be placed on any approval; and declares any information that explains or supports our comments.
Given all this background (not the least of which was the statement by Mr. Gravelle that he anticipated that all Coquitlam-specific issues would be worked out prior to the start of the NEB hearings) and given the fact that only a select number are chosen to be a formal Intervenor, I concluded that the City’s best chance to be selected would be as a formal Commenter.  But, as I stated above, the majority of Council did not agree.
My fear is that, if we are granted Intervenor status (and that’s a big “if”), the City may end up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to duplicate what other levels of government, such as Metro Vancouver and the Provincial government, will already be doing.
Coquitlam’s input should be limited to site-specific, technical issues that directly impact the City. I suspect that some ardent environmental activists (of whom there were many in the audience on Monday night) will want to use any Coquitlam involvement as a springboard for broader arguments against the carbon economy, pipelines and the Alberta oil sands. If so, I will oppose them.