Category Archives: Editorial

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.

 

Shocking Fake Dam Accusation

With the election of ‘The Donald’ to the highest post in the land down south we’ve had to learn to live in a Brand New World with odd new things. Things like Alternative Facts and Fake News.

Donald Trump, or those who speak for him, says things that conflict with the reality everyone else experiences. Then when the media report that whatever it was didn’t happen that way (or at all in some cases) The Donald doesn’t say Oops. No, he accuses them of reporting Fake News.

We expect Fake News from certain National News outlets in other countries like Russia for instance. We hear of Fake News appearing in the election campaigns of some European nations as well.

How about here in Grand Forks, B.C. ?

A year ago another Donald, a local named Donald Pharand, made a claim, by posing it as a question, that most found ludicrous: that the Premier of our province had directed the local government agent to meddle in local municipal politics.

He stated this as a question on a poster for a public meeting he organized. And repeated it again in another format, email, when he tried to drum up interest and attendance for that meeting. I’m told he CCed it to every MLA in the province in a move to ensure it didn’t get missed by anyone at the provincial level. He might have repeated it in the meeting – I don’t know because I didn’t attend. Whatever else he may have had in mind it appears that he’d like to destroy the career of our local government agent.

This was the second public event where he attacked City Hall, the second he had organized last year. The previous one was in support of Councilor Butler when the city was taking her to court. During that event he also alluded to shady dealings and other shenanigans in City Hall. (In the interests of full public disclosure he would tell you that I’m in a secret group, the COPP, that wants to somehow do something nefarious in the city. He knows I’m in it because he asked me if I was and I answered Yes. Since then this has been reported in the newspaper)

Before that he spent many days out in front of the Post Office with a petition asking the Province to take action against city hall.

And before that he held a public information meeting to scare people into rejecting the proposed water meters based on the wireless technology they employ.

Now he’s at it again.

At the Feb 14 city council meeting he posed another doozie of an idea.

He asked City Council if they were building a dam on the Granby River and then warned them that they were breaking a law if that was so because they were leading the taxpayers of town into a huge debt hole. (the video below will start at this point)

Why would Donald Pharand think this?

Well there’s a new Electrical Substation being worked on. The project will cost just over $5 million and the planning and design stage will cost over $500,000.

The city says the substation is to conform to flood plain requirements but I’m guessing Donald either didn’t hear that or doesn’t believe that. So he does some speculation on the why and remembers that the idea of rebuilding the dam on the Granby has been thrown into the rumour mill in some of the last campaigns for city council elections.

So I’m thinking his logic worked something like this:

There used to be a Dam on the Granby.
Some people have thrown the idea around at election time.
Dams can generate electricity.
The City of Grand Forks has its own Electrical Utility.
The City of Grand Forks is planning to spend more than Five Million dollars on an Electrical Substation.
OMG – the city is going to build a Dam on the Granby!!!

Except it’s not.

A project that large would require an awful lot of planning and design and work before anything happened. Stakeholders in the area would need to be notified and asked for their input. The province would need to be consulted. Maybe even the federal government.

And a dam would be much more expensive than $5 million and that would require public consultation because the city would have to finance anything that large and borrowing of those amounts requires public consultation.

Yet none of that has happened or even been hinted at as far as I know. And while I don’t work for the City of Grand Forks I have attended almost every public council meeting since 2006. And they have not, and are not, talking about a Dam on the Granby River.

And he, Donald, should know that – he claims to understand a lot about these types of projects and how government works.

So I ask: If you suggest some entity is intending to do something they aren’t and then accuse them of violating laws if they do isn’t that a Fake Accusation a fakeusation? Why would he do that?

In the same session where he said this he also asked the Mayor, and council, if they were aware of a ‘conversation between the Provincial Government and the Attorney General’s office’ regarding the petition signed by 1000 people regarding the way the city of Grand Forks is run. And the Mayor answered in the affirmative. And then said he couldn’t discuss it further.

I would suggest Donald’s purpose in bringing it up was to bring it to the public’s attention. So that he could drum up interest in the minds of the public in his next meeting; the one he held a short while later. Regarding City Hall.

I didn’t attend his public meeting because I’m sure if there’s anything of substance it will end up becoming public knowledge at some point. But I suspect that most of what was gone into was  suspicions, guesses, fakeusations and whatever else passes for alternative facts in his universe.

What I am sure of is the Real Cost to the taxpayers of Grand Forks and B.C.

He’s continuing the fight with city hall over the universal water meter program. Apparently the Ombudsperson’s report was not enough for him – it didn’t have the desired effect of hurting city council.

So he continues trying to get anyone who will listen to help him in his fight with city hall. Voters, the CBC, Victoria.

What does this cost us?

Our city’s reputation for one thing. Those who aren’t aware of the specifics hear the bad things because media outlets don’t hype ‘nothing happening here’ the way they do ‘something stinks here’. Every time he brings it to the public’s attention once again it’s a black mark on the town.

Our tax dollars for another. Whenever he or anyone causes our town to engage legal assistance it costs us money. Lawyers are not cheap and cities don’t hire from the bottom of the barrel.

Every FOI request needs to be served and the first few hours of staff time we pay for. Unless it’s the Ombudsperson in which case we swallowed the whole cost. Convince the Province to investigate and we taxpayers pay for both ends of it.

And yet another cost is the friction it adds to the operations of the city. City administration gets distracted away from running the city. Council gets distracted and the faith of the citizens in their local government is damaged.

Recently our CAO has tendered his resignation. While the reasons for his decision remain private I can’t help but speculate on the effect that our Donald and his efforts have had on Mr. Allin’s decision making. We will now have to go through the whole hiring process all over again and an effective, experienced and knowledgeable member of our management team will be replaced with a question mark. At our expense once again.

A little voice whispers paranoia in one person’s ear and we all pay for it in many ways.

One last point: Even though Mr. Pharand does not live in the city or pay taxes to it he can still attack the city (administration) and use the residents, and agents of the province, to help him. And until he stops getting support there’s no sign he will stop.

Is News about Fake things Fake News?


History

(Although I am present at almost every city council meeting I am an outsider and haven’t verified all this with city staff so bear that in mind as you read this)

The city has its own Electrical Utility and almost all the residents are customers. It has no means of generating electricity to satisfy all those customers – it purchases electricity from Fortis. That arrives in the city at a substation and from there goes to the city’s switch yard equipment and system.

At some point Fortis informed the City of Grand Forks that Fortis’ plans for improving facilities would necessitate the lifting of their Electrical Substation to get it above the possible water levels in the flood plain. The City would need to plan ahead to accommodate this because equipment from the City’s Electrical Utility mates with Fortis equipment and therefore would need alteration. Lifting of some Switches at a minimum.

Then Fortis gave notice that this had moved from the planning stage to the implementation stage. So the City moved forward with their plan to make plans to elevate their Switches. It’s not a drop-dead simple thing to do; engineering is involved.

This caused the city to re-evaluate their own switch yard infrastructure. It was determined that just lifting the Switches would leave the city’s own switch yard at a level that would see it compromised in flooding while the Fortis portion wouldn’t be. But the costs of elevating the city’s portion of the substation complex would also be greater than just elevating some switches.

A Federal Grant appeared on the landscape and it was determined that if that was successfully applied for it could help cover some of the costs of a new Substation for the city.

So the city planners were faced with the choice of doing a complete substation now OR just doing the switches now and waiting until some future date to take on the rest of the project.

To do the substation now would entail one project with one set of plans and expenses versus a project to do part now and another project to do part later. And doing it later would be with attendant planning costs for a second project and likely increased costs because that’s the tendency of pricing in areas of civil engineering projects: costs go up over time.

The possibility of a Grant to help out with costs now helped persuade them to decide that doing it now would be better, meaning more fiscally responsible, than waiting.

So what was Just-Lifting-Some-Switches became Building-a-Substation.

It turns out that this also makes it possible to switch from a Distribution model to a Transmission model and that realizes cost improvements in the arrangement with Fortis, our City’s provider of Electricity.

So where does the Dam on the Granby come in?

There used to be a Dam on the Granby. Years ago. But that has been gone for a while.

In the last few elections the idea has been thrown around but not in any real seriousness. Campaign talk by politicians looking for votes. The former Mayor, Brian Taylor, floated the idea during the last election.

Why would we want to switch from Distribution to Transmission if we aren’t building a Dam?

If we were to generate electricity and wanted to sell it to Fortis for use in their grid we’d have to be able to Transmit . . . and there are more ways to generate electricity than hydro-electric systems. One of the nicknames for this valley is ‘Sunshine Valley’. IF we were to follow communities like Kimberly and Nelson into a solar farm arrangement we would also want to be able to feed the larger grid with any excess that might be generated.

There you go, that’s it as far as I know and understand it.


Mentions of ‘substation’ in Council proceedings

These are all the places that the term ‘substation’ has appeared in public council meeting agendas since 2015. Not all may have to do with this specific project. Agenda Links point at the Agenda PDF documents on the city’s own web server. ‘The Meeting’ links point at videos of the meetings. Those with (YT) go to YouTube – the rest to articles on this site.

Nov 9, 2015 COTW
Monthly Highlight reports
Recloser controls for substation 30% complete
The meeting (YT)

Dec 14, 2015 COTW
Monthly Highlight reports
Recloser controls for substation 30% complete
The meeting (YT)

Jan 25, 2016 Reg Meeting
Monthly Highlight reports
Recloser controls for substation 30% complete
The meeting (YT)

Feb 15, 2016 COTW
Monthly Highlight reports
Recloser controls for substation 30% complete
The meeting (YT)

Mar 14, 2016 COTW
Monthly Highlight reports
Install new electronic controls at substation
Identify structures that need attention on replacement/repairs
The meeting

April 11, 2016 COTW
Monthly Highlight reports
Install new electronic controls at substation
Identify structures that need attention on replacement/repairs
The meeting

June 13, 2016 COTW Page 23
Engineering 1 EL Revenue Generation 1 $50,000 $50,000 substation
Transmission 2 EL Revenue Generation 2 $4,000,000 Voltage
The meeting

Sept 6, 2016 COTW
This is the meastiest information source for the substation project
Page 37 Req for Decision
Natural Resources Canada Energy Innovation Program: Clean Energy Innovation Grant
“Staff have identified a significant opportunity to utilize the EIP funding in support of the new electrical substation and grid improvements, with respect to design and engineering to facilitate connections to new renewable energy sources in the future, including micro-hydro, bio-energy, co-generation, and solar photovoltaic, as well as power storage”
Page 38 (same RFD)
The meeting

Sep 6, 2016 Reg Meeting
the same material as the COTW
The meeting

Oct 11, 2016 COTW
Page 73 – Monthly Highlight Reports
Electrical Substation Engineering
The meeting

Nov 7, 2016 COTW
Page 37 – CAPITAL EXPENDITURES
For the Three Quarters Ending September 30, 2016
“24 Electrical Substation Engineering 50,000 1,291 3% General Capital Reserve”
Page 51 Monthly Highlight Reports
Electrical Substation Engineering
The meeting

Dec 12, 2016 COTW
Page 89 – Monthly Highlight Reports
Electrical Substation Engineering
The meeting

Jan 16, 2017 Reg Meeting
Page 3 – Agenda Highlights
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM STAFF FOR DECISIONS
Item F – RFD – Mgr. of Op. – Construction of an Electrical Substation (est $5.6 million)
Page 62 – Spreadsheet
Page 63 – The RFD info packet
Page 67 – RFD “That the Grand Forks Electrical Utility build a substation and change from
a distribution voltage customer to a transmission voltage customer with the
construction of the City of Grand Forks’ own substation.”
The meeting

Jan 30, 2017 COTW
Page 16 – Monthly Highlight Reports
under Projects “Electrical Substation Engineering”
The meeting

Feb 14, 2017 COTW
Page 53 – Monthly Highlight Reports
under Projects “Electrical Substation Engineering”
The meeting