Category Archives: Editorial

A Historical Perspective

c;lick for larger picture

The other day I was listening to a Politician on the radio speak about a developing situation and what could be done to turn it around and fix it for the future. At one point he almost casually said “The regs say you have to use 6 of this but maybe we could reduce that to 3 – we’d have to look into it an consider all the factors but it’s something we’re looking at.”

In this day and age of big political winds of change trying to blow away both regulatory requirements and the documentation backing them in Washington I wonder just what will be left for review and reflection down the road as future decisions are made about ‘pesky regulatory requirements that hamper the ability of industry to function and prosper’.

That may be what is desired by industrialists and those they can buy but from a historical perspective, at least, it makes it difficult to trace the development and evolution of society and culture.

Back when Digital Cameras began to take off and replace Film someone opined that future archivists and historians looking back will see a dead zone beginning with the rise of the Digital Camera because most of the pictures taken with them never get printed so there’s no physical artifact to store away somewhere the way film photos have a film at least.

To some degree this is correct – how many people migrate their growing collection of digital media from drive to drive as time goes on? And those photos that were on that lost or damaged drive and only there – gone forever most likely.

This problem gives me pause for concern every now and then because this problem intersects with my life in a number of ways:
– I generate a lot of photos and videos – more than the average person by far.
– I’m involved in a number of history related efforts in the area I live in, most recently as President of the Boundary Historical Society but I also volunteer and work with the Boundary Museum and the Community Archives.
– currently I’m working with other members of the society in producing our 17th Report – a collection of pieces on the people, places and things that keep the history of the area ‘alive’,
– Every week I reproduce the two weekly newspapers from 106 years ago.
– And finally I am the semi-official reporter and recorder of city council meetings in my town.

And I put them all up on YouTube – thank you to Google for making that possible.

It is while wearing the hat of this last item that I write this opinion piece.

I’m not a politician. Not currently a member of any political party though I was in a youth wing of one of the popular parties in my youth. (then I grew up)

I do remember sitting in front of the TV as a child watching Sunday weekend roundup in Washington shows – can’t say why but they just held my attention. Might have been the oratory and passion, might have been the ideals. And as an adult I’ve found myself in a similar position due to a role I’ve had for the past 11 years; that of broadcaster of city council meetings.

I’m not a member of council or staff – more of their most loyal viewer in a sense. I’ve been at every council meeting since 2006 with only 2 or 3 exceptions.
And since 2011 a lot of those meetings have been recorded on the web.

Now here’s the historical thing about city council: there are official minutes, there are my recordings and there are news media recordings and reporting.

The official minutes do not record the minute details of discussion of things – generally it is a glossing at best with the essential details the only things recorded with fidelity and precision.

What the motion said and how the vote went at the minimum. Because of that brevity you have to look to the media for more detail about what took place.

The newspaper and radio reporters may bring their own audio recorders but they only share parts of what they get and usually a report on it – not the verbatim content. For that you have to go to my recordings.

Both the commercial entities and myself are ephemeral entities – we could ‘go away’ at any time and take all our files away with us. And that would mean the community, and any future historical researchers, would be the losers. It’s not the ending we would want and likely there would be a transfer of material if desired before dissolution. But events can transpire that foil our plans . . . so the archivists would be left with records kept by city hall.

This year City Council debated two changes to the way they do things that I’ve spoken against. (I can do that in the Committee Of The Whole meetings where the public can take part in the discussion and in the question period of the regular meetings).

The first had to do with a Code of Conduct. Essentially putting limits on how passionate or heated a discussion can get. Not germane to this article.

The second has to do with the Minutes and how they are recorded. Specifically the change is the remove the identification of who Moved and who Seconded a motion. So that the Motion and the voting results would be recorded but not those two items, Who.

There were several reasons cited in the proposal and they tend to sound reasonable . . . but from a Historian’s point of view it’s a lessening of the data preserved for the future.

Let’s say I’m trying to compile a history of the life of a prominent person who lived here and made contributions to the community over the years. During the time they spent on council I’d know what was before council, a distillation of the talking points and how the vote went.

Instead I see an example of how to say what happened in 250 words or less. The spirit and words and actions are mostly stripped away. The passion is baked out of it leaving the product of a body bereft of the attribution of who began and supported the topic to begin with.

Considering the rancorous history of this council in particular the contrast between life history before and after with the part in council might be stark. We show how X was passionate about all these things and their creation and execution but there’s this period where X is part of an entity that prefers to be seen as a neutral body with no individual parts. So almost nothing X said or did gets much mention in the official record. Except where X voted and some salient spoken points are noted. All the rest is dross. Not even fit to toss ‘cuz we didn’t deign to record it in the first place.

One of the points made in the proposal is it works against Grand Standing. Because we don’t want that in local politics . . .

Let’s address that, Grand Standing.

What is it? Why it is MAKING YOURSELF MORE NOTICEABLE THAN THE REST by standing out from the rest in some way. Taking an opposing stance and making a show out of it. Making a bold proposal and giving a big sales pitch to get it on the table (in the way that best ensures others will look like ogres if they speak against it).

It’s Politics. It gets in the way of getting things done. But it’s Politics. They are Politicians. At least some of them are . . . others are there because they really want to serve their community without the politics being a blockage. But it’s a Political arena, isn’t it?

Personally I think it gets in the way – but that’s me. At least we don’t have partisan politics in our city hall – yet. But I digress . . .

Without this information history becomes a little less clear to those who come later.
And understanding becomes harder.

  • Les Johnson (And this one is signed just to make a point about who said what, okay)

UPDATE:at the October 30th meeting council decided against adopting this change. So you will still be able to see who moved and who seconded motions in council.

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?