Two conferences and a show

Windsor: Ontario Water Conference

I had the honour and the enjoyment of attending two municipal conferences last week. While no longer directly involved in politics, I am able to keep my finger in some of the political pies through my current work for an NGO. Plus, I like to remain informed and up-to-date about politics and governance, and am always looking for opportunities to increase my knowledge and understanding of pretty much any topic.

The first event was the Ontario Water Conference, in Windsor. While predominantly a technical and operations event for facility managers and operators, it also has a good political component where utility board members and politicians can learn about initiatives, developments and government updates.

I sat in on presentations over two days, learning about levels of service and risk models; improvement actions from frozen services; eco-fiscal challenges to building resilient communities; business case for a one-water approach; updates from the IESO, the MOE, MOECC, Drinking Water Advisory Council and Safe Drinking Water Branch of the MOECC. From climate change to electricity prices to algal blooms and utility board governance… I learned a lot.

The great majority of workshops were, however, technical, and well out of my depth of knowledge. It also has a large trade show where attendees can see the latest updates in water-related technologies and discuss their implementation with the vendors.

As the website tells it:

The Conference continues to be the premier drinking water event in Ontario, consistently attracting over 900 delegates from all areas of our industry: operators and owners, manufacturers and suppliers, consultants, academics and regulators. The Trade Show has more than 100 exhibitors representing the manufacturers and suppliers of products and services to the water industry. This is a great opportunity to network, and keep informed about technical, regulatory, and equipment development which affect the industry.

I would have assumed that any politician who sits on a water utility board or any public member of such board, who is dedicated to their role and cares about water would have at least made the effort to attend these sessions. After all, they are personally liable for the quality of our water and can be sued for not maintaining it.

I guess if you don’t read the Clean Water Act, this might not concern you. (Hint: it’s crucial reading for members of water utility boards like ours…)

However, there were not many politicians in sight, although I did encounter a few. While I recognized several water utility employees from Collingwood, none of its water utility board (which consists of five inexperienced, neophyte politicians) was present. You would think someone who knew nothing about the subject would be eager to learn about what they have the responsibility over, but perhaps I expect too much from them. Ignorance is bliss, they say.

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The Political Agnostic

party politicsWatching the American political debates, especially the increasingly vituperative and acerbic Republican debates, reminds me again why I am a political agnostic when it comes to party politics. I simply cannot believe that any single political entity, any party or person, has all the answers or can dig us out of whatever hole we’re currently in.

And America, with its rigid, two-party system, has seen its electoral options, choices and opportunities reduced to caricature status. On one side, a group of frighteningly racist, homophobic, xenophobic, gun-fanatic Christianists. On the other, a woman with no clear policies but a sense of entitlement.

And then there’s Bernie Saunders, who is the closest thing to an independent I’ve seen in years. He’s the best and brightest hope American politics has seen since JFK. And unlikely to be chosen as the Democratic candidate by a political system in which both parties are built on money, graft, corruption, corporate lobbying, and catering to the lowest common denominator.

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Proportional Representation in Canada

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Another Canadian election has gone by where the majority government is formed by a party winning only 40% of the popular vote. This has political watchers and pundits increasingly vocal about changing the electoral system. But most of them agree it needs changing.

So far, however, the Liberals are mum on how their campaign promise to reform our electoral system will be implemented. And while I have faith our new Prime Minister will be true to his word, since it will come from a committee effort, one can only wonder what sort of camel that horse will be.*

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in election reform and the institution of a better, more equitable and more democratic form of representation. With the passage of the voter control legislation by the Harper Conservatives – a law that represses voter participation in our democracy, rather than encouraging it – I became concerned that unless we change the system, we are doomed to continuing abuses in our less-than-representational governments.

However, I have yet to see proposed a system that, in my mind, works efficiently. Proportional voting has three distinct methods, and a couple more sub-methods, none of which strike me as entirely satisfactory. But all seem more fair than our current method in giving Canadians real representation. Fair Vote Canada notes the goal of proportional representation is…

…to balance the benefits of introducing some element of proportionality with the capacity to maintain accountable government, most notably as a direct link between elected politicians and their constituents.

Back in 2007, there was a referendum in Ontario for a mixed-member proportional system. It failed (36.9%) to garner the support, probably because the proposed system was simply too damned complicated. Selling a new voting method to the public is never going to be easy easy, but this one sank itself by being so hard to articulate. Plus the process of explaining (and selling) it was poorly organized. As Wikipedia notes:

A June Environics poll showed that 70% of those polled were not familiar with the proposal, including over 50% who knew nothing at all about the upcoming referendum… Citizens were expected to get the information they needed from various websites or from the press. Remarkably, although the Citizens’ Assembly had produced a shorter version of their report and a short leaflet further summarizing it, Elections Ontario distributed neither, to the surprise and disappointment of the Citizens’ Assembly.

As it notes on the Fair Vote Canada site, there’s more than a change to to way we count votes in a proportional method:

PR Systems MUST have multi-member districts: One key feature of PR voting systems is that they use electoral districts that elect two or more MPs. PR-list and STV do this by combining current single member ridings into larger multi-member ridings. If five ridings are combined into one, then all voters in that new riding will help elect 5 MPs for that riding.

Recreating election districts for the whole nation is not an inexpensive proposition. Plus I expect it to be fraught with controversy as such changes in the past have been. However, I trust the pain will be worth the gain in strengthening our democracy.
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The high cost of affordability

Affordable housing is crucial to the economic and social vitality of every municipality. Without it, people cannot afford to live here, which means they will look for jobs in places they can afford. Young people, especially, will move to places they can afford better.

Collingwood is especially vulnerable to housing issues.* Given that the growth trend in our area is in low-paying (minimum wage), and part-time employment, finding affordable housing has become increasingly difficult for many people. Simcoe County itself estimates that a “single individual on Ontario Works would need to spend 108% of his/her monthly income to afford to live in the County.”

And as the Simcoe County housing strategy continues:

The Southern Georgian Bay area, while home to a thriving tourism industry, is also experiencing an aging population, high market rental rates, and a higher incidence of low income in private households.

Skyrocketing real estate costs contribute to the devaluation of a community. They push up taxes, living costs, rent, and utility bills. It takes a mature, wise and compassionate council to find ways to counter rising taxes and keep their community affordable. **

As the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing notes on its website,

Decent housing is more than shelter; it provides stability, security and dignity. It plays a key role in reducing poverty and building strong, inclusive communities.

But housing is a complex, challenging issue for municipalities and municipal politicians. Solutions are often very expensive; more than a small community can afford.

Councils have no direct control over real estate values (a problem compounded by the out-of-control Municipal Property Assessment Corp – MPAC – which raises property values across the province by computer formula, from its ivory tower offices, without conversations with local officials).

Municipalities also lack the legal muscle to demand private-sector development of lower-cost housing and much-needed rental properties like apartments (few young people can afford to buy homes, especially in a community that offers predominantly low wage job opportunities, so a supply of affordable rentals is critical).

On top of that, jurisdiction for affordable housing usually lies with a higher-tier government. In Collingwood’s case, it falls under the authority of Simcoe County. There are already 4,113 social housing units in Simcoe County, including approximately 3,035 rent-geared-to-income units. The County provides rent subsidies to 28 housing providers for 2,878 non-profit units, 60% rent-geared-to-income and 40% market rent. The county has already invested $3.4 million in maintaining its housing assets.

Before we go further, let’s dismiss some emotional – and inaccurate – impressions. Affordable housing doesn’t mean subsidized housing (although subsidized housing is also affordable). It represents a range of housing types. As the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) defines it, it’s an economic condition:

Affordable housing generally means a housing unit that can be owned or rented by a household with shelter costs that are less than 30 per cent of its gross income.

Last Tuesday, Simcoe County Council heard a presentation on the county’s long-term plan for affordable housing. Given its importance, it’s unfortunate neither of our own council reps were there to hear it.

I, however, had the fortune of being there for what proved an eye opener.
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Apps are making us criminals

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Uber protestAlmost every week you read in the news about another taxi driver protest against Uber and its drivers. Taxi drivers go on strike, some rage against Uber and attack the drivers or damage their cars.

Similar protests – albeit not yet as violent or large – have been made against Airbnb for its effects on local property values and changing social conditions like the loss of rental properties.

These are just two of the apps whose effect on our society and culture are challenging laws and policies. There are others now that attempt to clone the success of their competitors with similar service (like Lyft and Homeaway – but I’ll concentrate on these two as examples of what can and does happen).

And in the process making criminals of its users.

That’s right: using these apps, both as a service provider for the companies and a user of those services often breaks existing laws, such as zoning or licensing. Renting your home for short-term rentals through Airbnb, for example, is illegal in many Ontario municipalities – including Collingwood – because zoning bylaws prohibit short-term rentals in residential areas.

Municipalities worldwide are increasingly challenged by these and similar programs that function counter to municipal bylaws, policies and operations. And they eventually cost taxpayers money.

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It’s not a small deal. These can hurt our economy, kill jobs, and put people and property at risk. The corporations that operate them don’t give a shit. They’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank every time you use them.

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