Show Me the Plan Ahead

There’s something about talking policy that lies underneath the surface of election talk. 

You may have the singular best ideas out there, but if you cannot get people to row for you and draw your oars you will be dead in the water.  In modern sound-bite politics you can be entirely void of ideas and just toss the sound of change in the wind and sail on to victory.  I’m sure there’s a hundred metaphors out there that aren’t nautical and thereby more appropriate to a prairie town. 

Ultimately, the 2010 edition of Calgary city council is going to have some problems to deal with over the subsequent three years.  A few of the issues are going to need an immediate and firm response.  Examples are the budgetary shortfall which has to be dealt with immediately after they are elected.  Other examples will include snow plowing which we could be facing in as little as a week or as late as three months from now compliments of Calgary’s fickle climate.

Mid length issues are going to include problems like dealing with library hours, secondary suites, transit and parking issues.  The exact issues we’ve been struggling with for years that continue to remain problems specific to this city.

Then we have the long term issues that never seem to be seriously dealt with productively.  I’m talking about the Downtown Plan - wait, the Go Plan - hold it, the Plan It plan.  This includes city arenas, LRT development, even Enmax.

We know precisely what we have to do.  The incoming council is going to have to consolidate around the next mayor and promptly come up with a plan to deal with the budget.  They are not given a choice on this matter, cities aren’t allowed to run deficits.  Their hands are tied, they have to clean up the mess that was left to them from the prior, substandard council.  Our next mayor is going to have to snap into action and get 14 alderman (at least four of which will be entirely new) to work together to resolve some very contentious issues.  There isn’t any given “right answer”, and if anyone tries to pass one off as the silver platter, one size fits all solution it will be a telling indication that we will suffer an ideologue council once again.

My first point is that I believe the next mayor needs to have an articulated, clear plan laid out ahead of time so that we, the citizens, can choose the vision we most wish to see from our city.  Take yourself back three years:  Had someone run on the idea that we needed to impose a $3.00 fee at every C-Train station and BRT Park and Ride lot, would you have voted for them?  Should we have not had the opportunity to debate what effect that would have had on ridership?  Clearly our present council didn’t have that debate.  What about now when some of the very same people who brought us that fee are now saying it ought to be abolished?  This is a conversation that we really need to be having about all of these issues - right now, during the election.  At a time when we, the electorate, can shape the conversation to what we desire.  We may not get our way, but our voices ought to be heard. 

Alderman need to be hyper-aware of their areas.  They’re expected to be in touch to understand what affects their area of the city and their constituents.  They need to have a grasp that they are part of a bigger city and must plug into city wide solutions as required.  They need to be able to show they are in touch with their areas and understand the greater issues of Calgary.

The mayor is the person who must set the tone and vision of the city at large.  It is a role that has to work directly with the alderman to set right the localized issues, balance the city wide problems and do it all within a budget and service level requirements that we collectively find acceptable.

Do you feel comfortable looking at a 60 million dollar shortfall without knowing how we intend to solve it?  I’m not talking line by line budgeting, I’m referring to the budgetary processes we will abide by in the future.  I’m thinking of auditing processes that will completely disallow future council’s being unaware of cost overruns.  I think I’ve made the case that I’m not a financial wizard here.  I cannot hear talk of every contract over the past three years going over budget to wonder what is going on at city hall where we are supposed to have people who do understand these principles.

We deserve to have complete, fleshed out plans from our candidates.  They’re the people who are supposed to always be thinking about this.  I’m sorry, but if I read your plan and it sounds like something I could have written, I don’t think it’s substantial enough for you to lead me.  I’m not saying that my ideas aren’t good, I’m saying that I don’t have a firm enough grasp to be mayor.  I expect each and every candidate to step up and explain their ideas to me because they are running and one of them is getting the job.  Do I not say it every time?  Do better.  We deserve the very best from our mayor.

If my first point was that our mayor needed to have a plan, my second point is that they have to have the ability to act on their goals.  Clearly council is 15 diverse people, representing many different areas of Calgary with competing problems and desires.  They have to work together constructively and they are not going to have a lot of time until they start digging into a budget nightmare.  There is absolutely no room in the next city council for the bickering, tag teaming and indecisiveness we saw in the previous council.

Once I came to the realization that a dysfunctional city council was my single biggest election issue, everything else fell into place for me.  All of the big problems we’re facing now are due to a fractured council.  Indecisiveness led to the tunnel. Being asleep at the wheel led to our deficit.  Infighting led to hours of wasted time arguing over shutting down half of Memorial Drive on one Sunday of the year.  We didn’t elect fifteen morons three years ago.  How could we possibly have ended up with such a poor council and how can we imagine having a decent result after the next election without sweeping out the whole lot of them?  It’s Calgary, we don’t normally kick out our Aldermen, we can expect to see a whole lot of them back.  Something has to change, we deserve better.

The third point I have regarding policy is that of consistency.  Life is filled with compromises, we have to set our priorities and negotiate and compromise in order to achieve them.  But that plan itself needs to be consistent within itself.

Consistency means the goals in the platform cannot conflict with themselves.  They have to fit within budgetary restrictions.  They must coalesce into a greater plan that works towards a focused direction.  This has been seriously lacking in Calgary.

When we set an objective to have fewer people driving downtown on a daily basis, we need a complete plan involving transit, parking and road planning.  We can’t fix one problem while creating two more.  I’m extremely critical of short sighted planning that implements a $3.00 Park and Ride fee that had a severe impact upon transit ridership.  That wasn’t thought through, that wasn’t best for our city.

My final point about the mayor’s policy is that it needs to be - what are the right words here?  Original?  Honest?  True to one’s self?

I have two concerns about leadership making decisions about policy.  The first is rejecting great ideas because they didn’t come up with it - the “Not Invented Here” syndrome.  The other guy thought up something brilliant, but I have to differentiate myself from him so I have to oppose it.  If this doesn’t scream our previous city council, you probably didn’t follow the 8-7 split votes very often.  A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from.  Good policy stands for itself, no matter who brought it up.  Now, it’s quite possible that the good idea is not consistent with your overall plan and you may need to make compromises to retain your consistency.  However a great idea will stand on it’s own and be self-evident.

The inability to listen to others in council means other good ideas which are beneficial for the city at large are not being heard.  The inability to work with others in council means that even if the good ideas are put on the table, they are not acted upon decisively or effectively.  Fractious, schismed councils are filled with candidates not listening and are creating problems we don’t need to have.  The mayor must listen and work with council at large.

Conversely, if the mayor does not have original ideas, his or her plan cannot carry council through contingencies that arise or adapt as conditions change.  Our council cannot have a bunch of great ideas today for the election and then coast for the next three years.  This is where the candidate has to be intelligent, creative and inventive.  This is often what we obliquely refer to as “experience” - or lack of experience - when we’re reviewing our candidates before the election.  You can borrow some good ideas and act upon them even if they were generated elsewhere - but sooner or later you have to drive your own agenda.  If our mayor can not continue to plan over the next three years, we have to question just who is putting the plan in place.

Although I make no allusion to be unbiased I think this can be applied impartially to all the candidates.  This is the biased portion of the blog right here.  Only two candidates came close to passing my personal judgment.  Your job is to make up your own mind.

Look at each candidate’s platform.  Consider what impediments he or she may have in implementing their platform - including working with a divided council.  Think if their platform works against itself or works against major goals set by the city.  Then ask if each candidate has the ability to cope with the problems that are going to come up through the next three years of day to day life in Calgary.

I’m not going to be an echo chamber singing sweet praises of the guy I like.  McIver has some great ideas and plenty of experience on council, but has shown that he is fractious and has a poor track record of accomplishment.  Higgins has started fleshing out details and is extremely charismatic and hard working for this city, but I’m concerned with her ability to lay out long term policy.  Burrows has released exceptional policy ideas and has all the advantages of McIver without the baggage of the prior city council.  But Nenshi’s Better Ideas keep showing up on other candidate’s platforms because his policy remains supreme.

In the writing of this, I’m even more convinced that my guy is the right guy for Calgary.  Why is Naheed Nenshi willing to debate at each and every forum?  He has well thought policy.  At each debate he shows that he really believes in his ideas, that his ideas retain internal consistency and they are his own and he can adapt on the fly as circumstances change.

Something’s been bothering me the past couple of days while I’ve been hacking up a lung while sweating on the couch skimming through Twitter. 

If policy and Better Ideas are good enough for Nenshi, why isn’t it good enough for all of us supporters?  Let’s keep it to adult conversations.  Follow the leader and talk policy.  He’s going to win this election on the strength of Better Ideas, not through better tasting troll food.