Category Archives: Editorial

City Pulls Rug Out From Under Homeless Support System

The City Of Grand Forks announced today (Aug 2, 2017) that it was issuing a “. . . notice of lease termination to Whispers of Hope Benevolence Society and Boundary Emergency and Transitional Housing Society

They want “the soup kitchen, emergency shelter and thrift store to cease operations by Friday August 4th, 2017 at 5pm and to vacate the building within thirty days“.

The bulk of the press release refers to problems such as vandalism, dozens of complaints from the public, worries about personal safety, safety of the community at risk due to campfires during this time of high fire risk, drug paraphernalia like needles laying around, public nuisance issues and expenses incurred in dealing with the problems and the temporary shelters set up by the homeless.

It makes reference to the Committee Of The Whole meeting of July 17 which you can see on this site.

The last words are “Council agreed to start a task force to investigate solutions to improve homelessness and mental health. The City is open to any course of action that will keep public spaces safe and available for everyone to use.

Okay, let’s examine this:

Is this the task force in action?
If that is the case then I have to ask: Just how does this improve things for the homeless and those with mental health issues?

I get that people are upset. I understand that people are afraid. But I wonder how does making the homeless more stressed out by removing their support system benefit the rest of us (let alone help them)?

A few years ago (2013) one of the homeless people tried to burn down city hall because, as I understand it, he was upset about things that city hall had no hand in or ability to fix. But city hall was the most visible and accessible organ of government to him so that’s what he went after. It wasn’t a rational decision but as far as I know this is a person with mental health issues so rational choices aren’t to be expected.

This person is still here and still homeless. And this action is directly attributable to City Hall.

So I have to ask: Has city council thought this through and taken stock of the vulnerability of the site and possible jeopardy they’ve put it in?

When a property burns down you usually see a security guard on site 24 hours a day for sometimes a month or more. Guarding a burnt out hulk that usually has nothing of value to steal. That costs money but the insurance companies foot the bill. Is the city posting any security at city hall now or are they going to wait until after it burns down?

Back in the early 1990s the City of Vancouver tried to stamp our the prostitution plaguing a certain part of the city. The actual result was a bit like trying to squash mercury – it spread out all over the place. Instead of going away from the area known for it other areas of the city began to see scantily clad women ‘hitchhiking’ at all times of day.

By removing support system that some of the homeless use I’m guessing that the city hopes they will go away and take up residence in some other city. IF the homeless make rational decisions and IF they weren’t from here to begin with then maybe that plan will work. Many people think that the homeless we have here have come from elsewhere because either they heard we were a soft touch or other towns have shipped them here. But according to the local RCMP many of them are people who are from here: they grew up here and they’ve ‘come home’ to their home town. Don’t believe me? Just listen to what the RCMP had to say about it when they talked to the Downtown Business Association earlier this year.

So if the city’s action doesn’t make them leave then what’s to become of the homeless? Is the City going to feed them? Are we going to see aggressive panhandling by desperate, hungry, mentally ill homeless people? I guess that’s one way of pushing them into another part of the system, the penal system, and getting them out of your hair.

I don’t claim to have answers to the problems of the homeless or those who have to live near them. But I wonder if the ‘task force’ will have to dig the city back out of a social justice hole it may have dug for itself before it can get around to making any headway.

The small potential issues I’ve described about are likely just the tip of the iceberg of social problems that the city has launched into our community. They need feedback from you, the public, to help them realize meaningful change and reject knee jerk reactionary responses. (though you may sense from this post my knee is jerking up a storm). At the bottom of the Press Release on the city website is contact information – use it please.




Evidence? OR Minutes?

After the last few council meetings a lot of people in town are either taking sides, kvetching or scratching their heads over the behavior that’s been alluded to (from in-camera meetings) and shown in public. And if you watch those meetings you’d be tempted to do the same.

I won’t bother trying to rehash old arguments or point a finger of blame. I won’t try to persuade you off your position as to who might be in the right (or wrong). I won’t apologize for anyone’s behaviors.

What I will try to point out is that what we see spilling over into the open public meetings is the residue of things that have happened out of our sight and hearing. So we’re not getting the whole picture. Which means if you’ve made up your mind and taken a side you’re doing so based on incomplete information.

Here’s what I see and think is going on – feel free to discount my opinions.

City Council is a group. It’s made up of individuals who don’t agree on things or see things the same way. From the start it was a divided group: some were from the previous council, some were new and some were itching to ‘fix’ what they saw as a mistake (or worse) of that previous council. (or course I’m referring to the Universal Water Meter program)

This created a tempestuous situation which hasn’t really subsided.

Group Dynamics is a well-studied field. Whole systems have been devised to try and understand how groups function (or not) and help them work out ways to get to functionality without members of the group feeling like they’ve had to give up their ideas and stances.

My late wife had a lot of experience being a group facilitator. She’d learned the True Colors (1, 2) and Personality Dimensions programs to the point of being a trainer.

These systems help people understand that others do not see things as they do. That this doesn’t mean they are being intransigent or obstructive when they don’t agree – it just means they do not see things the same as you. That this difference doesn’t mean one is wrong and the other right – many things don’t have that clarity. A few days of engaging in well managed group workshops conducted by experienced facilitators makes a huge difference in a group’s abilities to function well (or at all).

Whenever she had to work with a group on a project that was going to take 4 weeks or more she’d spend the first week or so doing group dynamics. She did this because her experience showed her that it was helpful in getting the members of the group to understand each other, escape the trap of gut reactions leading to actions leading to group relationship problems. Problems that can become ossified making the group ineffective at best and toxic at worst.

Well no one did that with our council. That’s too bad for all of us. Really. Because it means that not only do big things become points of argument but small things become sources of friction as well.

In the last meeting one councilor complained that the unending clicking of the keys on the laptops of those on either side of her caused her to have to move her seat. Another pointed out that some members’ need to keep detailed notes causes them to have to have some things repeated because their note taking gets in the way of their paying close enough attention. And the council members who are the target of these comments appear to feel these might be tinged with personal animosity.

These are the kind of things that a good group facilitator would find and deal with so that two years on they aren’t still problems. They’re also the kind of things that won’t ever go away if not dealt with sufficiently.

In the last council meeting Councilor Tripp suggested that In-Camera meetings be recorded, by which she meant an audio recording. Other councilors asked why should we do that if minutes are being taken.

It’s clear to me that Tripp’s reasoning is that she doesn’t trust staff to do the job correctly every time and would like the audio recordings as evidence just in case there’s doubt or dispute.

I posed a question to her: If you are going to record meetings why not audio and video? You can hear her response in the meeting recording. I will flesh out my reasoning here.

Minutes are the recording of what went on that was germane to the topic being decided on. Who proposed what. What was said by whom. What was decided. Who voted which way.

What Minutes do not show is every incidental comment or sub-topic or process of clarification. They aren’t supposed to be verbatim recordings or everything.

Evidence is different from Minutes.

Sometimes in the public meeting we know something has gone on behind the scenes. It’s like there’s blood in the water but we can’t see who was doing the cutting, who was cut and why. We have no evidence. And if, as many want, an arbiter / finder of facts were to be brought in to find out if bullying is really going on we would want best evidence, wouldn’t we?

Simply recording the audio would be insufficient to show what is really happening. Very much of human interaction takes place non-verbally. Many of the things that tick people off aren’t heard.

The rolling of eyes, and gestures with hands (like flipping the bird, making the coocoo / crazy motion), sticking out of tongues, and all facial expressions would not appear in any audio-only recordings. The person tasked with deciding whether things are correctly being done or not starts with incomplete information and then has to try and decipher / understand the rest.

I suspect the audio-only recordings would end up being peppered with ‘let the record show that so-and-so expressed a derisive look at the comment’ and such things. Just to get these things on the record.

I would put forward the notion that IF recordings of in-camera meetings were to be done that they use a 360-video camera system that can see and hear everyone. Anything less is open to question and abuse.

What we see going on with council that we don’t like, the emotional side of things, is hanging around from meetings and interactions out of camera, and public, view. They came in with a fight and even if that fight is done they have carried a fight on to some degree or other since. It’s cost us a lot of money already and may in the future.

It’s like dealing with kids. I personally don’t care who was looking at who, bumping whose chair. Do you believe this one over that one about things that you didn’t see happen? Do you? Ask yourself why. Then ask yourself how many of your tax dollars do you want to go to lawyers to salve hurt feelings on council.

Some see the Mayor’s words and actions in the last meeting as a bit heavy handed. A member of the public had to leave the meeting because they spoke out of turn and refused to conform to the rules of the meeting. The Mayor warned a councilor when he felt her words strayed into areas of legality.

I would point out that the rules of the meeting prevent the public in the gallery from participating in the meeting until the assigned Questions from the public and media portion. To keep the meeting from being hijacked by angry members of the public is part of the Mayor’s job.

And I’d rather see the Mayor caution a council member before it gets to something we’ll have to pay lawyers to resolve. Some might think that a councilor should be able to say anything they want to but that is not the way it works. I’ve had enough of expensive legal wrangling and I’d hope others have as well. (of course if you don’t live or pay taxes in the city you might not have that compunction)

So I don’t really have a suggestion so much as a plea for council to get its act together and stop the bickering before it heads off on expensive jaunts to Victoria or court once again. I worry this is futile because it looks like there are some who just won’t give up the yen to punish some on council (and by proxy all of us taxpayers).

And for those who know my role as recorder / purveyor of council meetings and suspect I might have some commercial interest in bringing all this up let me be perfectly clear on this point: I receive NO MONEY from the City of Grand Forks for what I do. None. Nada. Zilch. I would not want to be in the position of recorder OR keeper of recordings of in-camera meetings Nor would I want to be involved in selling, installing or maintaining any systems to do this. I don’t want the job or the headaches and I certainly don’t need the suspicious people hanging more conspiracies around my neck.

The Devil in the Minutiae of Minute Details

It was with mixed emotions that I watched councilor Butler make good use of the video recordings of council meetings I make available to the public.

Last council meeting she came with a list of corrections to the Minutes of previous meetings. Clearly she had watched and listened to them because she referred to specific times in the video content. Watch and listen below

Kudos to councilor Butler for using the tools at her disposal to ensure recorded minutes reflect what really happened. I’ll confess I’m feeling a bit happy to see my efforts being put to good use.

What makes me unhappy is what she found and what it says about City staff’s reliability: faulty record keeping of public meetings of record.

We have to be able to trust those we employ to do their jobs. If they do not things could happen we’d rather not have happen. And the results could range from minor to expensive.

At the start of this council’s term it was fairly evident that councilor Butler’s opinion of the idea of trusting professionals to do their jobs and take care of the city’s interests was not as high as other councilors. And even though she’s been less than successful in getting the rest of council to dig down into the details it hasn’t deterred her from doing that herself. She’s apparently put in the work to plow through documents and try to understand and familiarize herself with the information packages that come along with requests for decision. And it appears that her rocky ride has caused her to get schooled up on procedure and rules of order to the point that she often comes up with quick responses to questions like what can or can’t be done or what order things are to follow. Even though we don’t see eye to eye on things I do commend her for knuckling down and growing into the position she holds.

To say I’m a bit chagrined that my work can be used to lend support to the idea that trusting staff is not good enough . . . well that’s bit of an understatement. And the fact that in order to comment on it I’m also having to commend a councilor I don’t get along with – that leaves a bad taste in my mouth (no, it isn’t crow).

But it is what it is.

Mistakes can happen for a number of reasons. Staff aren’t perfect – they are human and their abilities can be affected by many things.

I would hope that the reason gets determined and, if needed, something done. I don’t need to see heads rolling down the steps at city hall but I would like to think they will try and ensure mistakes and omissions like this don’t happen again and again. Because we should be able to trust that staff do their jobs correctly shouldn’t we?

Deja Poo

Council is having flashbacks! – Wait – Maybe that’s me having flashbacks!

Just last council I experienced:

  • official announcement of Diane Heinrich to be temporary CAO because Doug Allin has left
  • Councilors alluding to a toxic environment behind the scenes in their official Reports and statements in session
  • Staff making mistakes – things begin left out – with official city documentation.
  • Cannabis dispensaries and police make presentations before council

But two years ago, back in the first months of their first term, we had

  • an acting CAO (same person as now) because the previous CAO (same one) had been let go
  • councilors complaining about a toxic environment behind the scenes
  • staff morale paralyzing forward progress and leading to mistakes (which we found out about a year later courtesy of CBC’s Chris Walker)
  • a Cannabis dispensary (same one as now) and the police making a presentation before council

Back then there were two members of council on one side of a divide with the rest of council on the other. One of the two crossed over to the other side, one of the five resigned. The new member finds herself in the party of two on one side of some sort of divide.

Did I mention that people are still bringing up water meters in question period, there’s still no safe, legal place to buy your pot and one of the five may end up giving up her seat?

So I have to ask: Is this Grand Forks City Council or Groundhog Day City Council?

The only real changes are where you would expect some continuity: the new staff faces that are replacing the old staff faces, the ones that have left.

A government has a corporate machine behind it that takes care of the day to day business of the physical entity that is the City. The staff are an asset to the community and over time the community invests in these assets through training and skills upgrading. We hope that good staff stay on and give continuity to the smooth operating of the city. Staff hold positions because of their ability to perform, their merit.

The elected government provides guidance, oversight and stewardship as representatives of the citizens and tax payers in the city. Every election cycle it’s possible for the whole government to change completely because different people won the election. Now there’s no guarantees these elected people  know anything about government of how cities operate. The only thing we know for sure is that they won a popularity contest.

Once they’re elected they have the same chance as anyone to make it or break it in the performance of their roles. And though they don’t have any real power over the operating of the city machine, they do have the power to poison the atmosphere and depress morale.

Since this council began we’ve lost most of our top tier staff.

We know that there are things going on behind the scenes, behind closed doors. It would be obvious to even a complete stranger sitting in on some of the meetings. But council is loath to publicly make accusations or recount anecdotes to explain what is happening. (with rules and prohibitions on their behaviour and speech it’s no wonder) So we get these vaguely worded reports and statements that allude and intimate without delivering the goods.

How long can this go on?When is the next election?

And between the local government and the federal government we won’t be able to resort to pot to numb our fears until then. Because even though the city has the legal power to regulate dispensaries via licensing it’s waiting for a report from Staff on what the options and pitfalls are. And from previous experience I can tell you that when the City is understaffed, under stress and going through transitional changes it doesn’t operate at peak efficiency.