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Parties and Charities: The Tale of Two Tax Credits

“..lowering the charitable credit recognizes that people give for other reasons than tax rebates.” – Department of Finance Spokesperson, Metro News

It’s probably quite true that most donate to charity without expecting anything in return. The more sharp tongued of individuals might publicly ask if the same can be said of larger political contributions. Regardless, with Budget 2015, the tax credit for donations to political parties remains unchanged while that for charitable contributions over $200 drops to one of the lowest rates among provinces and territories. Falling from 21% to 12.5%, only Ontario (11.16% and Nunavut (11.50%) will have a lower rate.

My close-up charitable experience comes from volunteering with a food bank. To collect and distribute food across a city requires putting trucks on the road. So you can also factor in the rising gas tax as an increased price of doing business, and a driver of food bank demand as transportation costs raise the price of food. As I’ve mentioned before, food bank use is rising, in bad times and good.

How will the cut to the charitable tax credit impact food banks, and everyone who provides the services and supports that are used more and more as the economy sputters?

But D.D. Coutts, manager of communications for the Calgary Food Bank, said she believes many organizations, particularly those in the human services field, will be hurt by the move.

“We’re not concerned about people’s generosity because people were donating before there was any tax credit and are very generous to donate,” Coutts said. – Calgary Herald, Calgary charities worried about drop in donations after province cuts tax credits

The Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, Calgary Chamber and Volunteer Alberta would agree, having launched their “Now is Not the Time” campaign:

Budget 2015 asks Albertans to pay more in taxes and fees at a time when many will have reduced earnings. Less disposable income means less money available to donate to charity.

When the economy slows, all forms of revenue for charities are reduced. Alberta charities are already seeing reductions in corporate donations and government funding continues to stagnate. At the same time, many charities are called upon to respond to increased community needs.

The tax credit reduction follows on the heels of the elimination of the Community Spirit Donation Matching program, which was also designed to incent charitable giving.

http://www.nowisnotthetime.ca/

A petition has also been launched at http://www.albertans4giving.ca.

This leaves Alberta’s charities and non-profits to do what they’ve always done. Maintain minimal admin costs, provide services and supports that the government does not, and do more with less as demand for services increases.

Lend them a  hand by continuing to be generous with your donations, and throw a letter to your MLA in with that as well.

Election 2015: Voting Today on next Year’s Budget

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The problem with trying to be the first out the door with a budget analysis, is that things can change significantly in 24 hours. In the time it takes to hold a spring election you can still go without a detailed look at how a budget will play out – how provincial administration implements the budget, the real funding cuts or increases when you factor in a department’s deficit or surplus from the year before. The impact on individual programs, fees, contacts, etc, takes months to become clear.

For example, the Department of Human Services accumulated a $50 million deficit last year. The likely impact is that a 6% increase in funding for Persons with Disabilities is more likely to be a 1% increase in real dollars. This is certainly not enough to provide a promised pay increase for woefully underpaid disability workers, and most likely not enough to cover uptake in the system. But it’ll be months before the disability sector has a clear look at how this will affect contracts and front-line services.

Budget 2015/16 largely holds the line on spending, and there’ll be some blood letting in most places where you’ll find growth pressure. Not a lot, but it’ll be there. It’s not the worst that could be. Certainly not in a province that’s failed to accumulate savings despite forty years of selling in large quantities, the most valuable energy resource on the planet. That stripped billions from the treasury and potential savings to implement a flat tax, voted in on ideology and high resource revenues, rather than seemingly any kind of evidence-based fiscal plan for the decades ahead.

It’s the budget Premier Prentice, along with a Ten-Year Strategic ‘Plan’, will use to justify an early election.

The Premier’s Ten-Year Plan, is 30 pages (36 if you count the index and blanks) of not much content or specifics.

That nurses, doctors, and teachers will face a hard line in bargaining in the years ahead is not new. They endured this in the 90’s and will again. But we have no specifics and can hardly judge whether the Premier’s future collective bargaining tactics are worthy of a four-year mandate until we’ve actually seen specifics come out in a contract negotiation.

The lack of any real mention of corporate tax would seem to make it fairly certain, combined with the Premier’s statements to date, that corporate Alberta won’t see any additional tax increases on profits earned. So go ahead and judge the Premier on that one.

User fees will be rising. “We’re all in this together”, except I’ll refer you to the last paragraph.

The rest of the Ten Year Plan isn’t much more than you’d find reading government news releases. We know we’re over-dependant on energy resources. We’ve known that the hard way since Getty. We know the government has committed to building new schools. When they’ll be completed and when school boards will be able to staff them isn’t quite as known. You can go ahead and read the document here, it won’t take you long.

As for the Budget, it’s not this one that you should be voting on, but the next, as his government moves to cut $8.6 billion over three years.

Is there waste and overspending in gov? No doubt. If you’ve seen the AHS wage grids for upper management and executives, they’re enough to make you rethink your career choices if you’re not on the list.

But to essentially cut out something twice the size of the Department of Human Services over three years? Probably doable. But probably not without creating another massive infrastructure deficit, driving nurses, teachers and other professionals from the province and cutting deep into front-line services.

I don’t envy the Premier’s task, he’s been handed a mess and left to climb a mountain with little gear and old ropes. But it’s those around him who put him in this situation, his party that’s proven unable to manage the good times, save for the bad, and overcome infrastructure and economic deficits of their own creation.

When times are tough, people need help more than ever. They’ll find the price of food rising with a rising gas tax, and hopefully our food banks won’t be impacted much by a cut to the charitable tax credit. The political tax credit staying the same won’t do much for Fred and Martha. They’re more likely to drop a bad of food in the bin at Safeway than to renew their PC memberships.

The knife is coming to Alberta’s budget and public services. We’ll lose more blood than we pump in. Is this the surgical team that you want to trust for the next four years?  I’d like to ask Rachel Notley, Laurie Blakeman and Greg Clark for a second opinion.

Until the next boom floats us out to sea.

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The price of oil has fallen and it’s taken the sky down with it.

The price of oil has been falling and projected to fall for some time. It was projected when Jim Prentice was on the leadership campaign trail. It was projected while Prentice, Gordon Dirks and Stephen Mandel were on the byelection campaign trail. While promises were made for new schools and to complete the new schools promised by two previous Premiers. While sod was turned for photo-ops in fields that will remain empty for some time, and when Gordon Dirks was flexing the electoral muscle of his Ministry with promises of new school portables in his riding. While all four candidates to be government MLAs were sending empty chairs to candidate forums.

But now oil has hit bottom, at least for now, and $7 billion or so is gone from provincial revenues. The Premier’s plan thus far is to remove 5% from budget for the coming year, while withholding the 4% that would normally have gone to compensating for inflation, population growth and uptake in services.

An early election will be called, and voters will give a massive majority to the Prentice government.

The Wildrose will be led into battle by a leader who won’t be seeking re-election. The Liberals? There’s a very good chance David Swann will be in Legislature once the spring session resumes after the vote. Even if he’s only a caucus of one at that point. The Alberta Party? Calgary-Elbow has every reason to put an end to Gordon Dirks’ embarrassing tenure by electing AB Party Leader, Greg Clark. However, not everything needs a reason in politics (see MLA Genia Leskiw not needing any kind of articulate, sensible or coherent explanation for withdrawing $250,000 from the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate).

The Premier says that the opposition has a duty to be ready for an election.

Do they have a duty to be ready for a fixed election-date? Absolutely.

But with a year left on a his government’s mandate, an early election, without a dramatic plan to shift away from the poor fiscal management of Alberta’s PC government, is pure opportunism.

A dramatic shift being a clear and defined plan to finally remove Alberta from the resource roller-coaster and establish a course to stabilize government revenue. But there’s no sign yet that the Premier is coming to the table with a platform for a progressive tax system, royalty reform, heritage saving and so on. We may not even see a budget tabled before an election call.

So why wait until spring of 2016 for the next election? What’s in a year?

A year for Jim Prentice to develop an actual, detailed platform. To show voters how “new management” handles the books on the downside of resource dependence. A year for two opposition parties to elect new leaders. Time for all parties to finish developing a set of policies, and a heck of a lot of time for candidates to hit the doors, and for those who don’t have the benefit of incumbency or well-timed Ministry announcements, to let voters know who they are.

Alberta is more than the petrochemicals we drill and frack out of the ground. Our Premier can do better than drawing the curtains closed, dimming the lights and taking to the podium time after time with tales of fiscal woe.

Yes Mr. Premier, we know we’re dependant on oil revenue. We know there’s a glut of it on the market, demand is down and prices along with it. So what’s the plan, besides bloodletting until fortunes improve?

What’s our place in the world outside of non-renewable resources? What’s the future for education and healthcare, agriculture and farming? What’s in store for our cities in a province where population growth is in urban areas? How can we grow our economy by feeding the world’s population? How can develop and export knowledge, technology and renewable energy?

Just as important, how do we engage citizens to get there? We have a government that treats ‘consultation’ like a silly word, or perhaps a dirty one. The Legislature is a difficult building to walk into, even if all you want is a tour. Budgets, policies and decisions are treated as things developed behind closed doors, then sold and marketed to you and I.

This election certainly won’t be based on any of those broad ideas. It won’t feature detailed policy or broad debate on our future. No, it’s about securing the next four years for those who are comfortably unchallenged. What do they intend to do with these years? I doubt most sitting government MLAs could begin to tell you, beyond ‘fiscal restraint’ for the year ahead. We won’t know until months after an election, what that will actually mean for front-line delivery in areas like health, education and human services.

Cutting 9% from spending isn’t a plan for the future or a beacon of light and strong leadership by Mr. Prentice. It’s the hand (gently?) guiding us to the rocks until the next boom floats us back out to sea (we won’t waste the next one, right?).

So when you pick up that sharp pencil at the polling place, have a debate with yourself. Do you want this government to be comfortable for the next four years, or can we challenge ourselves and those we elect to do better? Voting for a candidate that’s challenging the government may be the only way we find out.

Laws, Sausages and Huge Massive Loopholes

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The good news is that Alberta has a Conflicts of Interest Act (coming in a future blog, Alberta’s Whistleblower Act and how it’s also full of holes). The bad news is that the definition of “conflict of interest” is either so thin you could put it in a razor and shave with it, or a loop hole so large you could store school portables in it.

Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner, one of the Officers of the Legislature who found their budget cut in December, while clearing him of formal wrongdoing, released as scathing a report on the election tactics of Education Minister Gordon Dirks as Alberta’s conflict of interest legislation allows her.

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Download the full ruling

Not many punches pulled. Was the Minister’s announcement of portables for a school in his riding political opportunism? Sure. Would the commissioner have told him not to do it if he had bothered to seek her counsel? You bet. Will be legislation be changed to prevent this sort of thing in the future? Not a chance.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba both place restrictions on the use of Government resources as a campaign tool during general elections and by-elections. While the Premier was promising to “restore faith” with this fall’s Accountability Act, his government rejected proposed amendments which would have prevented government Ministers and MLAs from wielding government dollars and promises like someone waving an election sign at a busy intersection.

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Brian Mason in the Legislature on the evening of December 10th.

In fall of 2013, the Conflicts of Interest Act went before committee for review. The result was superficial, with recommendations such as changes to the definition of ‘private interest’, the ability to sanction members who don’t cooperate with the ethics commissioner and for the commissioner to instigate investigations on his/her own, being rejected.

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Read the full committee report

 

The NDP, in their minority report to the committee, addressed the issue of ‘private interest’, at that time in regards to the inquiry into lobbying efforts of the MLA for Edmonton-Manning:

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The Officers of the Legislature, who have had their budgets cut for the coming year, can find, highlight and point out poor behaviour by those in power and the abuse or mismanagement of resources. But they have little in the way of legislative tools to hold government to account and institute change. Only the voters can do that. So I’ll ask you, my fellow electors, when can we change the way things are done in this province? The more things don’t change, the more they stay same. And with a lessened opposition, difficult freedom of information legislature to use and navigate, and reduced funding to the legislative officers, the less we’re likely to even know about.

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Education Minister Gordon Dirks used office for political gain: ethics boss – Global News

A ‘market’ solution to our affordable housing crisis

Edmonton and Calgary are struggling with a lack of affordable housing, while Calgary’s shelters run at capacity with winter looming. Both cities are also grappling with the infrastructure and transportation costs of on-going urban sprawl and the servicing costs of new neighbourhoods.

Alberta’s big cities need affordable housing, and they need infill development that can attract families to the urban core. Both cities also have development industries that have grown and sustained themselves on the large margins of cheap suburban land and development.

The Premier has stated that he wants a market solution to Alberta’s affordable housing problem. The situation doesn’t need ideology, it needs concrete plans, of the sort that we didn’t see in this by-election. It needs housing starts; affordable homes and rental units, in places where a car isn’t a necessity to live. With some initial support, the non-profit sector could put the housing that Alberta’s cities need, on the market.

A few examples:

It’s called the Quint Development Corporation. Founded by residents with the support of government, it’s been building affordable housing in Saskatoon for almost twenty years.

It’s called the Central Neighbourhoods Development Corporation and was founded in 2007 to help revitalize inner-city Winnipeg neighbourhoods.

“A community development corporation (CDC) is a not-for-profit organization incorporated to provide programs, offer services and engage in other activities that promote and support community development. CDCs usually serve a geographic location such as a neighborhood or a town. They often focus on serving lower-income residents or struggling neighborhoods. They can be involved in a variety of activities including economic development, education, community organizing and real estate development. These organizations are often associated with the development of affordable housing.” – Wikipedia

I received my introduction to the concept of community development corporations while volunteering time to work on Edmonton’s Transit Oriented Development Guidelines for the EFCL. The city had brought in a consultant to speak to TOD, best practices, affordable housing, etc. The part that stood out to me was on affordable housing and how, in their experience, most affordable housing around transit/light-rail in the U.S. was being built by non-profit development corps.

For us community volunteers in attendance, the idea stuck, and we suggested it for inclusion into the final report for Mayor Mandel’s Community Sustainability Taskforce. Non-profit organizations that with some initial seed money, could take on a role building infill and affordable housing in some of Edmonton’s older neighbourhoods. The suggestion unfortunately wasn’t included in the Elevate Report, but it’s still being pursued.

With the development and housing issues that Edmonton and Calgary are currently facing, it’s an idea that we should begin discussing on a provincial scale.

Initiating non-profit redevelopment agencies in Alberta’s cities isn’t just a way to help boost housing stock and increase neighbourhood density. They’re an avenue for community development; giving residents a chance to help guide the built-form of their neighbourhoods and educating residents on the trials and costs of building in older communities.

Our older neighbourhoods also struggle with derelict properties, and there are few legislative tools for municipalities to take action on them. A derelict property sees its municipal taxes decrease, while becoming a blight on the community. A new cities charter may or may not give municipal councils tools such as tax levies to encourage redevelopment of a property. Having a community-owned developer who’s ready and willing to purchase and rebuild a problem property into an asset for the community, helps regardless.

Between Government and ‘the market’ there’s a way to help build affordable housing, transit-oriented development, and alternatives to urban sprawl. It’s worked in the U.S., and it’s worked in other provinces. Community league volunteers have been talking about it for years. It’s time for MLAs and Councillors to do the same.

The Misericordia – Spackle & Paint

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Last year’s flood at the Mis which closed one floor and spilled down into a few retail shops in the main lobby.

If the Legislature were in the same shape as west Edmonton’s Misericordia hospital, we’d probably have a new catalyst project for downtown, along with cranky government minister’s with leaky office ceilings. 45 years-old, built when West Edmonton Mall was still a field; the Mis was at the city’s edge, whereas its location now at 87th and 170th street, puts it in the heart of west Edmonton, easily accessible and along the Valley LRT line.

These days the Mis is known for its “leaky pipes, broken elevators, and makeshift ICUs”. A flood in mid-2013 closed a floor and spilled down into the main lobby. Labs and the ICU are subject to rain delays and snow melt. Elevators are frequently down for maintenance, and patient amenities are older than a number of adult patients.

As Edmonton media have pointed out (as have NDP and Wildrose MLAs over this legislative session), the facility was due to be replaced in 2008, until those plans were scrapped.

Fred Horne misleading Albertans over aging Misericordia, NDP says – CBC News

“I think I’ve been very open with Albertans and Edmontonians, in question period and through the media, that we’re well aware of the issues at the Misericordia,” he said.

Questions on this during question period, like most, don’t receive much of an answer, or at least one that’s of any use to west-end residents. The same goes for quotes from a health minister who may know of the issues, but might perhaps want to spend an evening in the ICU during a rain storm.

Meanwhile nothing is certain beyond more money being spent to squeeze every last bit of life out of a building on life support. And of course the question I’ll have for candidates at the first Edm-Meadowlark election forum.

What will come First?

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A pothole in the parking lot that nearly ate my care last summer. Just posting it because parking isn’t cheap. The surrounding neighbourhood of West Meadowlark has had to look into a residential parking program due to parasitic parking.
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The view out over the STARS helipad, and a couple hospital visitors.
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The television in my dad’s room at the Misericordia last year. Like me, another product of the 80s.

 

Alison Redford – Escape plans, flight plans & work plans

The President of the Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview Progressive Conservative Association spoke to the Edmonton Journal on Friday, saying that his party hasn’t a chance if Alison Redford is still Premier come the next election. By coincidence, on same evening I happened to be having a beer with a long-time PC veteran and constituency exec. After handing him my phone so he could read it for himself, we had some back and forth which ended in me retweeting the article with the comment that I was sitting with CA exec who agreed with his colleague from Clareview, completely.

Within about a minute the direct messages from journalists started coming in, and a few, under the condition of anonymity, will end the weekend with some interesting quotes from a long-time Tory campaigner who’s had it up to here – about eyeball level – with his Premier.

I’ve held a PC membership twice. Not at all because I believe in the party or its management of the province. In full disclosure, I’ve voted Liberal, been an Alberta Party CA president, and have an appreciation for the NDP. I was a PC member once, to vote for Dave Hancock in his leadership run way back when, although I can’t at all remember why anymore. And once to attend a PC convention a few years back, to pester some cabinet ministers about a few community issues. My only memorable recollection from the event is getting a kick out of a guy in the lobby working two Blackberry’s at the same time.

So while I’m not a PC’er, I do know a few. And it’s provided me with an interesting view over the past month as the party suck and blew (in deference to Doug Griffiths), nearly imploding and exploding at the same time.

Some of my PC friends have referred to the actions of the Premier as “a betrayal”. I don’t see it that way. Maybe they saw something else in her, but from my seat just outside the season ticket section, I see her being herself. A political operator who cobbled together a winning coalition, that stopped being useful to her 25 minutes after the last election was called. Someone who’s more comfortable in board rooms than her office at the Legislature. A politician who certainly doesn’t make their own travel arrangements, or give them much thought, and certainly doesn’t pay much attention to those who do.

I listened to Doug Horner Friday morning give a talk in which he referred to the opposition continually focussing “on the small stuff”. Well of course they are, it’s the small stuff that resonates. A Premier spending more that many Albertans make in a year, to take a flight to attend a meeting that she could have rescheduled with a text message. That’s something that anyone can grasp. Throwing assistants and staff under the bus during sustained criticism? Pretty easy to call that out as anything but leadership. Eventually repaying $45,000 to squash an opposition talking point? A cheque made payable to “just shut the $#@! up already!”.

These are controversies easier to understand than say – why home-care has become an abysmal mess, or why the Province couldn’t be bothered to follow the recommendations of its own flood report, or when the consumer benefits of energy deregulation are eventually going to arrive.

It shouldn’t be at all surprising that the result of this weekend’s showdown between Alison Redford and her party’s Board, ended in an anti-climactic show of unity. There weren’t going to be more high profile floor crossings, or demands for her resignation, or even MLA’s plotting to defeat the budget and force an election. Nothing to rock the boat or upset the entitlement cart in the middle of the term.

Besides, there are no star leadership candidates in their wings (or at least ones that aren’t grounded with baggage), and why would PC’s be eager to put on a circus while standing in contrast to the calm, cool, collected and well-funded with large and small donations, Wildrose. The Wildrose who have gone from lakes of fire, to standing with union members and disabled Albertans on the steps of legislature. While the PC’s have endured rallies and smack-downs from judges, all while destroying the progressive coalition that pushed the Premier into front-row centre, and keeping the party in power for another term.

With the weekend over, and PC executive director Kelley Charlebois not being replaced by a close friend of the Premier, the party will carry on with big smiles behind their leader. The opposition will ask questions about public sector appointments, government flights, debt & healthcare, and we’ll see what lands on the frontpage. Upset grassroots troopers, who fundraise, donate, and run constituency associations, without the benefit of being invited to the good meetings like this weekend’s, will go back to largely thankless volunteer work.

The Premier, who’ll suddenly find more time on her schedule to take meetings with caucus members, will no doubt also take a bit more interest in those “small things” that garner attention. There may even be a bit more extra cash in the budget to be announced at quickly arranged press conferences. And the PC Party will go on, united behind its leader.

It may seem out of touch, backing a leader short on humility and sincerity with a 20% approval rating that’s only headed downward

But it’s what will happen. Until the next scandal that sticks. One doesn’t line-up behind a leader this embattled without an escape plan. In this case, call it a “work plan” for deniability, regicide, and proclaiming ‘change’ with a poker face in an election year.

Failing the Frail – Homecare reductions in Alberta

 Alberta Health Services cuts homecare services

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“…assessed by START (Short Term Assessment and Rehabilitation Treatment) to develop a treatment plan to improve her quality of life and allow her to continue living out in the community.”

Glenrose program keeps seniors active

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My headline for this blog post is, of course, recycled from when I wrote last year about the closure of the START program at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital. The program, highlighted so well in the above quoted article from 2006, was shuttered last year. My father, thanks in no small part to the advocacy of some diligent and committed home-care staff, was one the last patients to benefit from the impressive rehabilitative care offered by the program, and the efforts of staff, a number of whom had been with the program since its very beginnings.

Alas, with little consultation, and wave of approved soundbites in the face of criticism (namely from former patients contacting any local media who would listen), START was quietly closed. Assurances followed that opportunities would be there to treat patients in the community, and that the level of care would not suffer.

Over the past two years, over 5000 additional patients, being treated in their homes, in their communities, have been added to rosters of the Edmonton area’s various home-care providers.

No one asks to suffer from, to endure, and fight to overcome the effects of age, illness, injury, etc. And it’s hard enough finding obstacles and barriers everywhere, and everyday, where healthy individuals may see little more than some steps to climb, a distance to walk, or a curb to step upon. What’s desired is a level of care that enables them to maintain some quality of life, to avoid complications that can lead to setbacks, and hospitalization, and some help for families that struggle to provide and care for a loved one in need.

None of this can truly be appreciated unless it’s been seen or experienced up-close. Unless you’ve witnessed and/or cared for a loved one with medical difficulties, unless you’ve been a nurse, or a therapist, or one of the many talented individuals in the medical field or provide these supports to individuals in their homes, it can be so incredibly easy to under appreciate the issues at hand.

And it would seem that our decision-makers, elected or otherwise, exist detached from the everyday struggles of many Albertans. Perhaps it can be seen in a government that allows a compassionate care bill to die on the order paper. Or maybe in the statement of an AHS official who seems to believe that there’s little connection between a level of care, and the time health-care providers have available to spend with a patient.

“”We are not reducing the level of care for any of our clients. We will be reducing the amount of time spent with them in some instances,” Williamson said.”

 

“I’m sorry Mrs. Johnson, we’re reducing your daily exercise program by 15 minutes, the program that allows you to stay mobile and active”.

“I’m sorry Mr. Jones, we don’t have time to treat all your diabetic sores today, we’ll do the rest tomorrow, or Monday”.

 

The day-to-day life of a homecare worker isn’t just time spent with the patient. Time seems much shorter when a worker new to a patient and unfamiliar with them and their care must deal with the situation. Time which is well used to do more than run through a prescriptive routine, but which can be used to fully assess a patient’s state and condition. Time which is also consumed by travel and the transportation of supplies and equipment.

AHS is once-again acting upon a decision made behind closed doors, without any consultation whatsoever with those affected the most, failing those whose care they have been tasked with.

I challenge AHS to do better. I challenge everyone from senior management to the Minister of Health to set foot in our communities, in our neighbourhoods – to book our community halls and events centres and discuss this issue and many more, face-to-face with everyday Albertans. Listen to those who receive home care, those who provide it to the highest of standards, those who strive to provide the highest level of care to their patients, and those who support and care-for a relative or a spouse in need. It’s called public consultation, it’s called stakeholder involvement, and it shouldn’t take digging by a political party or the media to break an issue out into the open. Transparency, consultation, and open decision should, as a principle, be the standard of this government, and in particular the department with which we entrust our health, our lives, and that of those we care about.

Show Your Work – On the Alberta Legislature, open legislation and debate

As you may have gathered..and as I may have mentioned one or two times, I’m a fan of municipal government. I respect greatly, its importance in our day-to-day lives. I value its accessibility to residents, whether it’s an interested citizen or a community group looking to be engaged in policy, and in operation of their city, town, hamlet, summer village, etc. And I appreciate the ability of my councillor, and the small group of decision-makers next to them, to engage in debate and discussion in an intimate setting that allows my representative, and everyone’s representatives to ask numerous questions, to engage one-on-one and have an indepth say. An advantage of a smaller group that also isn’t encumbered by party lines.

Being a good politico I do of course closely follow provincial politics. Their federal cousins however, I tend to consider far out of reach of the average citizen; operating from a place where the concept of “all politics is local” tends to take a back-seat, not so much to national discussion, but party ambition and the ability to fall back upon party name rather than a personal connection with constituents come election time. Yes of course, provincial politics could well be accused of having the same flaws. But 80+ MLAs doesn’t quite match the bustle of 300+ MPs or the sound volume of national campaigns.

Anyways, where am I going with this? Debate, the development of legislation, the consideration of amendments, and consultation with the public throughout.

It’s budget time for municipalities. Aside from a few in camera sessions, the process is open for all to drop into Council chambers and view the proceedings. You can/could attend a public hearing, watch civic departments and agencies make their budget requests, see the Mayor lay into the province and feds over municipal funding and next week, see Councillors debate various motions before arriving at a final product. It’s a far cry from the traditionally behind the scenes provincial budget process with an often rhetorical public discussion.

Not that budgets or even municipal funding were a prime topic for MLA’s yesterday. This past evening I tuned into the proceedings in the Leg, and kept the live stream going mostly out of curiosity as to whether any opposition amendments to the topic at hand, the elections accountability act, would actually pass. I believe the final tally was 2 accepted amendments out of 100+ proposed.

I suppose if you swing heavily to the government side, the process doesn’t particularly bother you. But to this observer, there’s something aggravating about watching, what seemed to be some quality proposals, falling under the wheels of a party bus. Isn’t it supposed to be province first, not party first? Opposition MLA’s are generally strong when it comes to articulating their proposals (I say this regardless of whether or not I agree with their politics). But it’s from the chorus of “NOs” which shot down so many of these amendments, that I’d like to hear some articulation of their viewpoint. The reason for their vote.

Perhaps I’m missing something here and have just spent too much time listening to Councillors speak to their reasons for voting yay or nay, one by one, prior to a vote. Maybe I’m just irked by the differences in accessibility by the general public to the policy development process between provincial and municipal politics. Or maybe I’m just plain annoyed that my elected provincial representative can propose an amendment – good, bad, or in between – and see it shot down by dozens of members on the other side, seemingly along party lines with limited explanation justifying their votes.

With the tools of the 21st century, and with a laptop, a smartphone, and/or an iPad sitting in front of almost every MLA and member of the public, there’s a better way to do this; it’s in the development of legislation and amendments using the open source model. A model that inherently creates public consultation and transparency by starting with a blank page and drafting public policy with many eyes upon it.

 

OpenLegislation – It’s a tool developed for the New York State Senate and Assembly

OpenLegislation is a web service that delivers legislative information from the New York State Senate and Assembly to the public in near-real time.

The platform allows bills and their various versions to be published as they’re drafted and as the legislative process moves on. It shows, in an easily accessible manner, how various members voted and even provides the public with the ability to comment and engage in discussion along the way.

The size and bustle of the Legislature may not allow for that intimate debate that can take place in municipal Council chambers. This is however the era of Twitter, of Facebook, of blogs and online forums. There is absolutely no shortage of tools for provincial politicians to post their thoughts on policy, to elaborate on how they vote and make decisions – or for the government to only reveal a bill when it’s reached what they consider to be a final, or near final product. The only hindrance is laziness, a lack of desire for transparency and the failure of the public to provide any political hit for being aloof and disconnected.

Yes, the government does have some public surveys and consultation processes. And sure, many members of the Provincial Assembly and many politicians in fact do utilize social media. But a public meeting with no follow-up, a survey whose results are only revealed through an MLA/minister and social media broadcasts – “Proud to be…”, “Great day at…” “Thrilled to be…” – aren’t engagement. They add little or nothing to the public debate, and as a citizen, I’m not particularly interested in giving up an evening to attend a public meeting, the feedback from which I’ll never have any insights into how it’s actually considered. Nor am I interested in a politician’s events schedule and how productive and great their day was. Although, if they wanted to announce what interest groups they’ve met with and who’s set up meetings to lobby them, that wouldn’t be a bad thing ;).

Yes, we live in a representative democracy. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf. But it shouldn’t mean that we aren’t provided a window into the process, from the drafting of policy to its passing, or the ability to open that window and engage in discussion. It shouldn’t mean that we don’t closely follow the progress of our representatives through the term – asking to see why they’ve voted as they have – what their thoughts are on proposals and ideas from all corners of the assembly. When the process is dominated by party politics, much of which takes place outside the view of the general public or with media at a party AGM crammed into a little room – in failing to do so, we probably deserve what poor policy and debate comes down the pipe as a result.

On info, data & access to

I was thinking today about a Freedom of Information request I filed a couple weeks back. Dropped $5 bucks in an envelope along with the form and sent it off to Ottawa. I’ve filed a handful of these requests in my time, but never at the Federal level.

It’s a request that could have been avoided entirely, saving me the price of five small coffees at McDonalds this week, had my MP and/or the crown corporation in question, engaged my community in a public consultation process prior to making an impactful decision- or even if response letters had been returned. Better yet, the info I’m seeking could have been made available through an embrace of the open data movement. Falling within the vein of financial and operating data that could routinely be released to public, both for informative purposes, and as a open & public performance measure.

But with less public data, and more unanswered correspondence than I’d like – I’m out five bucks and left sitting here tapping out a blog entry and wondering if a reply from the government is going to come before Christmas.

In thinking about this blog post, my train of thought went east, then veered north, so we’re going to cover two different paths to the public disclosure of government info.

First, OpenData:

 

– Provide a single-source for information and data catalogs. Don’t bury and scatter this information across government departments and obscure websites. Edmonton’s opendata catalog is great example. A single well-maintained and well-publicized entry point for individuals, businesses, organizations, etc.

– Make the process for requesting data easy and within view of the public. Take an application like IdeaScale, which allows anyone to submit and rank thoughts/ideas, and put it to use for this. Let folks openly submit requests for government datasets, let us see what others have requested, and throw our support behind them. And like the data catalog itself, do it through a central, and easy to find portal.

– If it’s FOIPed as a matter of public interest, make it public. A few years back my Community League successfully got our hands on internal documentation and process info from the selection of a route for the West LRT expansion. The entire request was a few thousand pages, some of it good for mild curiosity if nothing more. But the documentation and internal analysis from the project team was interesting and highly informative. We can and did post some of it to our website, but its reach and availability to an increased audience would have benefited greatly from the city itself, placing the documents online.

 

Government is of course steered by politics, and in politics there’s always going to be those to whom the public disclosure of information, will either be a non-priority, an annoyance, or a curse. Politicians aren’t going to be lining up to put their briefing notes online. There’s always going to be a need to actually drop a cheque in an envelope along with a form asking for the disclosure of X, Y, and Z (oh, how it would be nice to be able to do this online as well).

There are also, always going to be nuisance requests. And there are ways that those who choose to file these, can be left to their own devices in what I’m going to propose. The value of freedom of information is shown constantly in those requests which bring valuable information to light – that which informs, and that which holds those in power, responsible for their actions and decisions. These requests are not always made by a media organization with the funds to pursue information, paying those extra fees that are often charged for xeroxing and a staffer’s time, (my Community League was quoted several thousand for our request), or the platform to widely release what’s revealed.

You’ve probably heard of Kickstarter, the “funding platform for creative projects”. I’d like to suggest something similar targeted towards government prosperity. Maybe it’s put together by media groups, the child of like-minded organizations, or some form of social enterprise.

I’m not going draft any potential non-profit or corporate bylaws for it here, but here is the Coles Notes version of how I’d envision its operation. Anyone – Individual, biz, etc lays out the information they’re seeking. For low-income individuals, this is the chance to have the cost of initial filing fees covered. For others, if they’ve filed a request and have been quoted additional fees to have it fulfilled, this is where our funding platform kicks in. With interested donors covering the fee request with the agreement that the information received will be published online, through the platform.

So if there are folks out there in the media or in the non-profit sector looking for a long-term transparency project, please consider this idea open to all.

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Study ranks Canada’s freedom-of-information laws dead last

Alberta gets a ‘D’ in freedom of information audit

State of Democracy

EDMONTON—In findings that should disturb every politician across the country, a series of new national surveys suggest record numbers of Canadians are fed up with the state of our democracy.

Worse for elected leaders, more and more Canadians believe that politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, don’t listen to them, don’t care about the issues that really concern them and aren’t willing to act to preserve and improve our democratic institutions and traditions.

Only 17 per cent of Canadians trust Parliament and only 10 per cent trust political parties.

Read the rest @ TheStar.ca

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I can’t find myself disagreeing with the results of any of the referenced studies. Anyway, I’ve hacked out some thoughts..bit of a rant on the subject of engagement, good governance and political involvement.

 

“Neuman told the delegates that growing numbers of Canadians are disillusioned with elected officials and have now turned to supporting grassroots citizen actions, such as the last fall’s Occupy Movement, the B.C. referendum on the HST and this summer’s Quebec student protests, as a way to make their voices heard.”

 

It’s pretty simple at the end of the day:

No un-returned phone calls.

No unanswered letters.

No letters advising you “to be cautious as to how you approach future communications as your comments could be upsetting to some individuals. This could delay the decision on a new school”.

No party whips, and party leaders, and party agendas to wade through.

And no bureaucratic and political hills to climb and barriers to entry, that have been built up to the point of inaccessibility for the average person.

 

These are things that don’t exist in any successful and inclusive grassroots & community movement. And for the average person who wants to be an engaged citizen, who wants to be involved and have say – these require the strength in numbers of grassroots organization to overcome.

It’s why I joined a community league. To advocate on behalf of my community with like-minded individuals, in way we could never, ever, do on our own. It’s the reason Edmonton’s community league movement was built, to provide citizens with the ability to positively affect the growth of a city in which the voice of the individual was increasingly being drowned out.

As for other levels of government….

In the provincial legislature, my community is represented by an MLA who was thrown out of government caucus for bluntly laying out the state and management of health care in Alberta. Party came first, and a decision was made behind closed doors. against our constituency, our MLA, without any consultation. And yet their smiles were warm and friendly when they came to ask for our support in 2012.

Federally, my riding is represented by an MP who is chronically disengaged, and often unreachable. What accessibility to government and policy can there be for an individual or small-group when even a simple discussion can’t be had, or an inquiry answered?

Of course Canadians feel disengaged, unheard and detached from government. Time during the day is short, our lives are hectic, and we have little tolerance for spending precious free time talking to a wall or wading through rhetoric.

But if we want something more than a depressingly low voter turnout, policy developed in a vacuum, and partisan sniping, then folks need to find the time and fortitude to go out and demand it. It’s the only way we’re going to cultivate future leaders with the will and desire to make their time in government as demanding one them and their colleagues as possible, by initiating engagement, transparency and citizen participation from the top-down.

Busing Them In

A press release from the Alberta Liberal Party caught my attention this afternoon:

Fewer schools to be built in Calgary – that’s not what Ms. Redford promised, says Hehr

It’s not campaign promises or criticism of government spending policies which stirred my attention, it was this;

The Calgary Board of Education recently announced that it is cutting the number of new schools it is expecting to receive to 20 from 24 in its 10 year plan.  At the same time it is increasing its projections of student growth in Calgary’s suburbs, students that will need to be bussed to inner city schools because of an acute shortage of classrooms in Calgary’s outlying areas.

The emphasis is mine, it’s borne from years as a community advocate and as a resident of a mature/inner-city community.  One that’s working to revitalize and save it’s neighborhood schools.  I posted the following response to the announcement on Facebook.  Whether or not you’re a resident of a mature community or a suburban one, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, and this topic.

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There is another angle with which to view this. That being the perspective of inner-city communities who are struggling to revitalize, to attract young families, and to maintain their community schools and transform them into “community hubs”. When an inner-city school is put on the chopping block, for the community’s children, bus rides, whether to another part of the city or a more suburban school become a fact of life, and this seldom seems to be a consideration in the final decision. If we’re concerned about the sustainability of our cities, then perhaps some suburban funding commitments should be re-evaluated.

As a resident of a mature community which has seen a school closure, I see neighborhood children now riding the bus out of the community when their parents who grew up here, once walked to school. Why should bus rides continue to grow in a one-way direction to the out-skirts of the city? Why is the prospect of busing some students to existing infrastructure within the city, treated with such disdain? New neighborhoods eventually become older neighborhoods in need of revitalization and reinvestment. Continually expanding outward isn’t a solution, looking inward and taking advantage of what we already have is. If a few inner-city schools find new life educating suburban students, if this provides an incentive to consider living and raising a family within an older community, if this encourages reinvestment in older infrastructure, and all it costs is a longer bus ride, I’ve no problem with that.

FOIPed

Alberta to make more data public

“We are looking at the best practices from around the world to help us achieve this goal. This will mean that Albertans will be able to access government more than ever before in an interactive and user-friendly manner.”

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In an interview Tuesday, Bhullar was short on specifics. The government has not established a working committee, set deadlines or started consultations, he said, but there is commitment to transparency.

 

Criticism of Alberta’s FOIP rules and access to information is nothing new, nor is it exactly undeserved.

New report says Alberta’s FOIP laws worst in country

Proposed amendments to Alberta’s access law slammed

From reviews of Alberta’s access to information laws, there seems to be nowhere to go but up.  And if the Gov truly is interested in becoming a leader in providing citizens with access to their government, then it’s the citizens of Alberta whom it should be turning to for guidance and direction on this.

Yes citizens can hold MLA’s and government accountable on this subject, but at the end of the day, or the election, it’s obviously not been access to information that’s been at the front of voters minds during the past several elections.  It certainly hasn’t dominated debates or lead to the defeat of Ministers responsible for the administration of the FOIP act.  And frankly, there’s probably little in the way of a political hit to be had should the government continue on sticking to some of the most restrictive FOIP rules in the country, standing in the way of information seekers.

However, if this is a legitimate endeavor to lead the country and even North America in allowing citizens access to government information, then the folks who fill working committees, steering committees, advisory groups, etc, in this endeavour, are the folks who have tried & failed and banged their heads against the wall of information regulations over the past decade.  Who better than citizens who volunteer their time to try and hold government to account, who  better than citizens-at-large and advocates of transparency to help guide this process?  Yes, we live in a representative democracy, and yes we elect people to run and serve and be the stewards of government.  And in terms of transparency, our government has a track record that’s difficult to defend, and I’d argue a lack of objectivity that could well obstruct this process and cause it to fail to deliver any real reforms.  This is about the citizens of Alberta, and their right to transparency, access and information.  And it’s through the direction of citizens that this process and potential reforms should flow.

Be Nice

Is it worth it, or even appropriate as a candidate or campaign worker to call upon the door of a home bearing an opponents sign? As a candidate once upon a time, I generally took it as a cue to move on to the next home, even though I don’t subscribe to any theory that the votes under one roof should be unified or that spouses and adult children should block vote, as it were.

In an even more contradictory sense, I’ve tipped my hat to the political process and those who put their names forward, by encouraging neighbors to attend local events held by candidates I won’t be voting for, or by offering up the corner of my yard for a sign, even though the best spots on my corner lot will be going to someone else.

Don’t look at me strangely. Politics is about ideas, respect and at times even bipartisanship, or at least it darn well should be, despite the ease at which some turn to hostility or harmful discourse. Unless you’ve been a candidate or put the sweat, and at times, tears into a campaign as a volunteer, the physical grind on your shoes, knees, and your endurance can’t truly be appreciated. That’s not meant to be an arrogant comment, just an honest one borne from my own eye-opening experiences.

Spiritually, as a candidate, you put your soul on the table; this is my experience, these are my thoughts, my ideas, my vision, and as such are they worthy of your consideration? Human nature having a flare for the negative, it’s all too often that the slammed doors, snide and rude comments, and even rattling experiences at the doors are remembered ahead of the kind words, good debates, and offers of encouragement and support.

It’s easy to be nice and take the high road. It may seem to some like a walk up-hill would be required for this, but it’s not. It’s easy to shake a candidate’s hand, accept the brochure, have a good, if brief, discussion and move on, regardless of what you think about them personally, or their party.

On the other hand it takes some effort to be an ass. To slam a door, flip the bird, drop an insult, or even shove and chase an Education Minister off your porch. If we truly and honestly want better debate, better discourse, and better public policy as a result, then we all need to lead by example, it’s surprisingly easy to do, and somewhat more productive in the long-run than “well, I showed him”.

Fixed…like Jello to the wall

“They understand the issues that are coming. They don’t believe any political party should have even if it is a theoretical upper hand in managing the political agenda and then picking the date accordingly,”

Morinville’s mayor…will remain as Morinville’s mayor, a Strathcona County Councillor will almost certainly replace Ed Stelmach in the Legislature, and a whole bunch of other folks are either going to start the week in a really good mood, or a really foul one, following a torrent of PC Constituency Association nomination meetings.

While we don’t have the benefit of a fixed election date that tells us anything more than which of the four season we can expect to vote in, like the Mel Gibson movie with the ‘so-so’ ending, the Signs are here.  The folks who set the tensile strength of our ‘flexible election date‘, with just a few more nominations, will have stretched themselves across almost all 87 constituencies.  When will the snap happen and the writ drop?  Good question, and here’s mine.  Why, after the above promises from the Premier’s leadership campaign, are us outside observers, who don’t hold our meetings and get-togethers in Government House, still using rumor, innuendo, and best guesses as an election sun dial?  A ‘fixed’ date is impartial and bipartisan, it doesn’t care who’s ready for it, or who’s having a rough week in the news cycle.  Flexible, however, is still very much a ‘two-tiered’ system, mired in uncertainty.  If for example, you’ve gotta pick a window of time to take a leave of absence from your day job to campaign full-time, uncertainty is the last thing you need.  Even more so if facing off against an incumbent.

Park It

Going to the hospital sucks.  Being in the hospital sucks.  No, I’m not telling you anything groundbreaking here, but having been to and around hospitals many times over the past decade for family members, and having gone through the UofA ER myself this past fall, I just wanted to say it.  Getting in to see family, to see a doctor, to deliver something from home, to ask questions, and/or to make some attempt to calm nerves, these are the priorities upon arriving, and once you get in the building of course.Once you’re on hospital grounds you should be in a place where care and compassion come first – where site design and operating procedures maximize to the extent possible the conveniences and minimize the distractions on patients, doctors, families and caregivers.This week, Rajendra Kale MD, Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, published an editor slamming parking costs and policies in Canadian hospitals:

Parking fees are a barrier to health care and add avoidable
stress to patients who have enough to deal with. They can and
sometimes do interfere with a clinical consultation, reducing
the quality of the interaction and therefore of care.

Dr. Kale also quotes from a 2008 press release from the Government of Scotland, announcing the termination of parking fees by their National Health Service:

“It’s simply not fair to expect patients or visitors to have to pay when they come to hospital, when they may be suffering personal anxiety, stress or grief. Put bluntly, a car parking charge is often the last thing people need.

The editorial can be downloaded in-full here: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/early/2011/11/28/cmaj.111846

The Edmonton Journal, quotes Health Minister Fred Horne in response:

“I can certainly sympathize with the plight of people, and when you’re looking after someone who is ill, perhaps a family member, it can be just one more thing that you have to deal with,”
Hospital parking fees here to stay, province says – @EdmontonJournal.com
http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Hospital+parking+fees+here+stay+province+says/5785543/story.html

The larger issue here is, I believe a need for an independent Patient Advocate who can provide an ego and personal agenda free objective outside look at the system, with the resources to lobby and press for adequate changes to address patient needs, concerns and access limitations.

On this issue, the response of the Alberta Government is that $55 million of $60 million in collected parking fees is used to maintain AHS’s parking structures, and cover maintenance and staffing costs..  Perhaps something for the Auditor General to look at in the near future.  I can’t argue the government’s $ amounts with the information available, or the validity and value of parking lot construction, maintenance agreements and so forth, and I’m not really sure if I want to spend several months fighting through with FOIP request on this.  So instead I’ll talk about the 21st century, and how while we may not have flying cars and cities on the moon, we can surely do better than a parking system that leaves patients alone in the car while the friend or family member bringing them to the ER runs off to pay for parking, or where time better spent concentrating on treatment or asking questions of physicians, or anything that focuses on the patient and their care, takes a backseat to staring at the clock and wondering how much time is left on the metre.  Even while typing this I can already hear the sounds of someone, somewhere in downtown Edmonton, typing up a memo featuring some depressing cost estimates for a smart parking system.  So how about this, I’ll park, go see my relative who’s undergoing treatment, you grab my plate # when I drive in, and when I drive out, and bill me later when I’m not sick with worry, and far from being in a mood to watch the clock.

Three Years or Four

Alberta government plans to give municipal politicians longer terms in office – Global News Story

 

I’ll begin this with a bit of disclosure, I’ve run for City Council and may consider doing so again one day.  That said, my first reaction to the news of Council terms potentially being extended to four years could best be described as discomfort.  Municipal governance is part of our daily lives, we interact with it constantly whether we’re enjoying a civic rec center or just crossing the street.  As a community volunteer and advocate, it’s certainly the level of government dealt with the most in regards to what happens close to home – fire rescue services/policing, neighborhood revitalization, amenities, planning & development and other local policy.  Unlike provincial or federal politics, there is no forcing of elections, nor is there an opposition to serve as a check & balance for government, or to advocate for those persons and issues which have been overlooked or neglected.  Locally, the body of decision making is condensed. The advantage for residents, organizations, civic advocates, etc, is in having a Councillor, free from the restraints of party politics with a far greater ability to influence their level of government than a sole MLA.  The downside is the ability of a poorly performing official, simmering grudges/predjudices or hard stances on specific issues to become a crippling blockage for individuals or organizations trying to affect change. The longer the period of time between election cycles, the harder it is to hold civic decision makers accountable, or at the very least see them taking part in debates with challengers on their records, new ideas, initiatives, and etc.

A number of the arguments in favor of extending the council term have revolved around the time periods for orienting new Councillors to their roles, and preparing for elections at the end of their terms.  For the former, I beleive there is a greater onus on voters to inform themselves as to the experience level of candidates in dealing with City Council and Administration.   There is the merit to the argument of Council’s affectiveness in the lead up too elections, as decision items can become delayed, up to several months before an election, and time is needed to bring new Councillors up to speed on on-going items.  Three years however, I would consider to be a suitable amount of time to move one’s legislative agenda towards fruition, and again, there should be a greater onus on prospective candidates to spend the months leading up to election, informing themselfes of on-going projects and City/Council initiatives, leaving them able to discuss these issues with voters, and jumping into Council consideration and debate if elected.

Regardless of what happens in the spring legislative session, I do hope to see debate, research, and public consultation on this issue as there are many aspects to it worthy of consideration.  For more info, this a interesting discussion paper on the issue from the Government of British Columbia.

Heritage Days

Sunrise Beach, Alberta
Sunrise Beach is situated an hour northwest of Edmonton, and a place where I spent no insignificant amount of time.  The Summer Village of Sunrise Beach sits on the west side of Sandy Lake, with the Summer Village of Sandy Beach (pictured off in the distance) on the east side.

A recreational location within a short distance of the capital region, the Summer Villages saw their fortunes decline with the water level as the lake became eutrophic, its underground springs overcome with mud and sediment, the waterbody riddled with noxious weeds, and eventually too shallow, and the shoreline too soft to launch even a paddle boat.  In there is a lesson of neglect and ignorance, as efforts to prevent the lake’s decline went either unfunded, left perennially in limbo without governmental support (dredging and weed cutting being the primary victims),  or simply misdirected all together.

The lake in its prime had a life all its own, from early homesteads and subdivisions to provide homes for soldiers returning from WWII, the formation of the Summer Villages, Regattas, Heritage Days, float planes, and fishing off of the causeway.  While there are two Alberta Heritage grain cars out there somewhere bearing the names Sunrise Beach and Sandy Beach, the heritage of this place is largely private, sitting in individual’s photo albums or community newspapers without modern digital records.  Council records from major decisions to major (and sometimes entertaining) arguments sitting in the closets of former Councillors, waiting inevitably to be thrown out as residents leave the area.  Perhaps most importantly, at least on the larger scale, the lessons in lake (mis)management which I dare say would serve future government ministers and public servants well, are likely to go unrecorded in any detail, or in any public record.

This is why the October 31st Edmonton Journal article on the Hamlet of Hairy Hill caught my eye.  Hairy Hill’s decline has links to causes all its own, but is not so unique on a grand scale, as Alberta’s, and Canada’s population is shifting towards more urban centres. While the Journal took the time to speak with long-term residents and provide us with a window into its history, as we lose older generations of Albertans and rural residents, first to population migration and then to time, a great deal of the past and heritage of Alberta’s smaller municipalities is on the verge of never being recorded in depth, or in detail.  It’s not oil or coal, but it is valuable, and something I think we should seriously consider mining, treasuring and banking for future generations, in a larger heritage endeavor, while we can.

I’ll hold the ball, and you come running up and kick it.

*First impressions on the news that the new Royal Alberta Museum had joined the Edmonton Expo as a grass stain on Edmonton’s arse after being yanked away at the kick-off (or thereabouts).  At the very least, the analogy of children playing ‘government’ seems pretty accurate*

Wednesday, Edmonton –  City Council approves a downtown arena deal which includes a funding request to the higher powers for $100 million plus a little extra for a ‘community rink’ if they’d be so kind.

Wednesday, Edmonton/Ottawa – The Royal Alberta ‘off again, on again’ Museum is off again after the higher powers break out into an incomprehensible ‘he did it’ ‘no he did it’ shouting match following the announcement of the project’s cancellation/postponement/not gonna happen at least anytime soon…ness.

 

 The 2005 Announcement

2005 Alberta’s centennial federal funding announcement 

The April, 2011, revival announcement

Some April coverage of the announcement from the Edmonton Journal (The Edmonton Commons)

“That’s what we get from Ottawa to commemorate our history and our role in Confederation. A plaque.”

“One envelope has $30 million in it. The other envelope has had $92 million in it.”

“They could fund the project on their own. Fair enough. Carry on,” he said.”

” Fingers were pointed, blame was levelled”

Rona Ambrose Talks about RAM Money

They didn’t think that maybe they should get that in writing?

A night at the museum

“There is a good deal of finger pointing going on…”

 

The Mayor blames Rona Ambrose (for the 2nd time in this calendar year), Rona blames the Province, the Province blames the Feds, Laurie Hawn blames the province, meanwhile science and history in downtown Edmonton are set back seemingly further than hockey and the true story, like with the Expo, is far more likely to come from the pages of a Freedom of Information request than from the mouth of anyone in the triangle of blame.

 

 

 

 

Failing the Frail: The Shuttering of the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital’s START Program

Short Term Assessment, Rehabilitation and Treatment

The START Medical Day Hospital provides a comprehensive geriatric assessment and group-delivered rehabilitation within the framework of an eight-week program to seniors.  The START Medicine Day Program (Short Term Assessment, Rehabilitation and Treatment) was established to meet the needs of the frail elderly experiencing increased functional loss due to acute changes as a result of multiple and complex medical conditions.

This summer the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital’s Short Term Assessment, Rehabilitation and Treatment program will complete treatment on the last group of Edmonton seniors to have benefited from this now 30 year-old program.  Since being relocated to the Glenrose, cutbacks have reduced the number of patients who have been able to seek treatment.

The program, however, has never stopped providing hope to the individuals and families living with and coping with chronic medical conditions and disabilities.  I’ve seen first hand, treatment at the Glenrose free a loved one in my immediate family, from the confinement of a lift-chair and a state of near immobility.

Between the soundbytes and accusations, are the day-to-day lives of frontline staff and those in need of, or in the care of, health services in Alberta.  The most painful path an individual may take to become a prisoner isn’t to commit a crime, it’s to be inflicted with a chronic illness or disability and be unable to seek treatment.

With the closing of the START program, our seniors and those struggling with illness and disability are being separated from the treatment options which have been provided by its dedicated staff, staff who in the face of previous budget cuts have been forced to provide treatment and conduct exercises in whatever space was available to them, including busy hallways.

My family and I are providing this testimonial in the hope that the Alberta Government and Alberta Health Services will allow this program and its staff to continue to treat frail Albertan’s in need of help.

One Step Back on SPR

In May of 2009, the Government of Alberta announced $6.6 million in funding for two Capital Region Housing Corporation developments.  The development slated for the Jasper Place area, sits in the community of Britannia-Youngstown, on the Stony Plain Road commercial strip, and within the boundaries of the Jasper Place Revitalization Strategy.  When developed with input from community residents, and approved by Edmonton City Council in 2009, the JPRS called for future development of Stony Plain Road to be mixed-use, with street-oriented retail and multi-unit residential above.  The development here does include ground floor retail facing Stony Plain Road, with 20 studio/bachelor affordable housing units in the floors above.

As the development has reached completion, its first retail tenant has moved in:

In an area already well saturated with adult-oriented businesses such as cash/pay-day-loan stores, pawn shops, adult video & etc, this is the first retail tenant of a tax-payer funded affordable housing development, within an area undergoing tax-payer funded “revitalization” efforts.

I’ve had the great opportunity over the last few weeks to discuss neighborhood revitalization and mature neighborhood sustainability with some of the city’s foremost experts on the subject.  I’ve heard great disussions on the negative effects a concentration of adult-oriented businesses (pawn shops, pay-day-loans, etc) can have on a community.  How they’re often found concentrated in areas of distress, and the best description I’ve heard, “outposts of distress”, ‘a poisonous combination of taking from a community without generating any reinvestment’.

Addressing the issue was a defined component of the Jasper Place Revitalization:

Declining and relocating businesses have left a retail vacuum which has been filled with an over-concentration of pawn shows, adult bookstores, massage establishments, and cheque cashing establishments in three core, centre block

Goal 3: Building our community

Short Term Actions

Custom commercial overlay on all pawnshops and adult shops until a new zoning plan for Stony Plain Road business corridor is complete including density, design and zoning standards

 

As someone who has volunteered on the JPR steering committee, I’ve seen the situation as multi-fold;  Grandfathering protects the concentration that exists now, establishing a commercial overlay against a pay-day-loans operation is difficult as they currently fall under the broadly defined Professional, Financial and Office Support Services in Edmonton’s zoning bylaw, and no action has been taken at a legislative local level, except for the following motion from October 29th, 2008:

 

Text Amendment to the Zoning Bylaw with a Stony Plain Road Commercial Overlay

Moved K. Leibovici – L. Sloan:

That Administration prepare a text amendment to the Zoning Bylaw with a Stony Plain Road Commercial Overlay containing the following:

  • Prior to issuing a new development permit for bars, nightclubs, neighbourhood pubs, adult entertainment shops, pawn shops, cash stores, massage shops, or for an increase in occupancy load of bars, nightclubs, and neighbourhood pubs, the applicant shall:
  1. Contact affected parties including the president of the adjacent community league(s), and Stony Plain Road Business Revitalization Zone.
  2. Outline details of application to affected parties and solicit comments.
  3. Document opinions and concerns expressed by affected parties.
  4. Submit the documentation as part of the development permit application.
  5. Apply for a DC2 provision for bars, nightclubs, adult entertainment shops, pawn shops, cash stores, massage shops, neighbourhood pubs, within the Stony Plain Road Business Revitalization Zone area.
Planning & Dev.Council Public Hearing

Due: To Be Determined

 

G. Heaton, Deputy City Manager’s Office, answered Council’s questions.

Carried

For the Motion: S. Mandel; B. Anderson, T. Caterina, E. Gibbons, R. Hayter, B. Henderson, D. Iveson, K. Krushell,
K. Leibovici, L. Sloan, D. Thiele.

Absent: J. Batty, A. Sohi.


A lot of time, sweat, and effort from business owners and volunteers has gone into local revitalization.  There are property owners along SPR, who out of concern and support for these local efforts, have taken it in the pocket, turning down offers to rent space when they felt doing so would hinder revitalization.  Obviously not all in the area are willing to do the same, but in the abscence of any legislative tools to address a concentration of predatory/adult-oriented businesses, it’s going to fall to landlords to make the right choices for the Stony Plain Road commercial strip and surrouding communities.  When the landlord and development in question is funded by millions in taxpayer dollars, I absolutely expect nothing less.  CRHC has advertised this as a development that will “help enrich the community of Britannia-Youngstown”.  For the revitalizating community surrounding it, and the future tenants in need of stable, affordable housing, this choice of retail tenant fails both.

 

Some more light reading:

Does Fringe Banking Exacerbate Neighborhood Crime Rates? Social Disorganization and the Ecology of Payday Lending

August 23rd Update – It’s been several months since I first contacted the CRHC asking for a response from them on this issue, I still have not received a reply.

Thoughts on Opportunity

I joined the Alberta Party this month, a first step in helping to establish a presence for the party in my backyard, Edm-Meadowlark.  In my search for a political home, It’s also the third provincial party I’ve held a membership in.

I’ve never voted for a PC candidate, although Raj Sherman would have been the first had he not been forced to pay a price for honesty, for laying out in detail what every patient and family member who’s suffered through the mismanaged state of our public health system already knows.  Health Care is the topic of the hour, a literal life and death concern for thousands of Albertans, patients and families, and the latest highlighted chapter in a saga which has included such things as access to information, energy royalties, land-owner rights, high-voltage/high-price transmission lines, long-term savings, enough debatable policy choices to seemingly keep a caucus of opposition MLA’s and their staff busy occupied for an entire term and in the spotlight through the next election.  Instead the opposition continues to struggle to deliver a coherent, stable public message, or impact public policy, meanwhile a single Doctor, sitting as an independent in the legislature, has seemingly done more to highlight, analyze, and explain the health care debate over the last several months, than the government and three opposition parties combined have done in the last several years.

As a center-left Albertan, I’ve parked my vote in three elections.  Twice on one party, and most recently on the couch alongside 60% of my fellow eligible voters.  I’ve voted under the cloud of an almost predestined spot in Alberta’s opposition, I’ve done so expecting that while my values and beliefs wouldn’t be mirrored in Alberta’s governance, the members of the opposition would watch, analyze, lobby, and collaborate with their colleagues on each side of the Legislature to ensure Albertans receive the best in public policy. I expect the opposition to be the watch dog, the public/community and devils advocate, and that the resources afforded to them will be used for more than policy development, and rallying on the steps of the leg, but to tell us all the who, what, where, when and why of our governments actions in more than media sound-bites.  I’ve apparently expected too much.  The recent vote by our government against providing digital access to the members Public Disclosure Statements, in frustration, was a tipping point for me. Sound-bites are talk, useful in question period and a media but scrum, but ultimately cheap and easy.  Criticizing the government for a lack of transparency was easy, instead using the resources available to a party, collecting and self publishing Disclosure Statements which are publicly accessible, if not readily available, for all elected members of the legislature would have been leadership, transparency, and a public service all in one.

It’s time for change.  If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, the case study is an ongoing “battle” for a percent of a percent of eligible voters who cast a ballot.  It’s sound-bites, and ‘tactics’ that have continually failed to engage Albertans in the issues which directly affect them, that fail to provide either transparency or a meaningful opportunity for public involvement, meanwhile cooperation between parties seemingly lies somewhere in the space between political sniping, no-way-in-hell, and the hole in the hull of David Swann’s term as Liberal Leader.

As an Albertan, I want more.  From my party I want more than memories of past victories shielding the lessons to be learned from past defeats, the wants and whims of established donors hindering new initiatives, and fleeting political opportunism. From my province, I want my MLA, regardless of his/her party and place in the Leg to have a voice and a meaningful vote on public policy and legislation.  I want transparency that doesn’t involve a battle through FOIP legislation.  I want my representative to vote with his heart and head, not under the glare of the party whip.  I want cooperation and change to be cause of honest debate, not backstabbing dissension.

It’s easy to attack a party in it’s infancy, it’s also easy to recognize that the AP is opportunity, certainly a formational one that my generation has never had.  Regardless of where it’s future takes it, I’m thankful for the opportunity for my province and the efforts of those who have brought it this far.

I’m not a Liberal supporter in Blue & Gold clothing.  There’s no checklist of items to put my support behind a Liberal or NDP banner.  I’ve voted for the best option available to me in a broken, bickering, Alberta Government.  With a moderate, active voice for change, free to advocate, collaborate, and learn from the past without rose-colored glasses, free to reach out and be inclusive to all Albertans without a divisive past or ideology, finally at the table, I’m excited to see a future that doesn’t mirror a broken past on the horizon.