Friday, March 27, 2009

Doing More With Less....
It's tough to lose one's job.
Citizen Ellie knows something about that, having experienced redundancy twice during her working career. The abrupt closure of Ottawa TODAY (without severance pay when the owners ran back to their hidey-holes in Toronto)) and the lack of local media jobs at the time meant Citizen Ellie had to reinvent herself. An interest in industrial relations stood her well during the next 20-plus years of her working life -- until hospital amalgamation in 1998 brought the golden handshake and early retirement. So Citizen Ellie has some sympathy for the 44 managers who were laid off this week by the city.
Anyone who has had to deal with city hall since amalgamation knows all about bureaucratic runarounds. The folks at city hall were masters at this game. If you needed a zoning variation or a building permit you've experienced the frustration first hand. It took forever to get answers to even the simplest questions or action on a bylaw infraction. Those ordinary citizens who managed to navigate the maze are deserving of a special award. One of the local artists who benefits from taxpayers' largesse could be commissioned to create something suitable -- a large knife slicing through a giant ball of red tape might work.
These layoffs were accompanied by other restructuring -- some managers have been demoted, some have been offered transfers and some have been promoted. This shake-up represents a savings of $3.7 million annually and represents a 7% reducation in the city's administrative costs. It's the third phase of cuts since last fall -- a portion of the 230 jobs to be chopped over the next two years.
But can the taxpayers be sure that remaining city staff will increase their productivity levels ? That surely is the goal of this efficiency exercise.
"Doing more with less" must become the mantra at city hall, as it has been in the real world for the past 15 years -- since the recession of the early '90s.
One becomes even less confident productivity and efficiency goals will be reached when one considers the $644 million the city spent on outside contractors in 2008. More than $173 million of this amount was spent in the three-month period between Oct. 1 and Dec. 21, 2008. The "piece de resistance" was a fluffery containing reworked material about the transit plan. Preparing this booklet was apparently beyond the skills of those employed in the city's communications department.
Politicians love to be able to tell ratepayers they're streamlining the bureaucracy and saving buckets of dough by reducing staff numbers. But unless there's an extremely tight control on contracting out, the FTE/equivalent (full-time employee) might be off the books but the savings might be nowhere to be found.
Taxpayers are already questioning the amount the city spends on outside services and consultants. Why can't this work be done by city staff ?
It would appear that too much authority has been delegated to department heads -- they can hire consultants without having to justify the need, nor do they have to disclose it at budget time. Yikes ! This would never happen in the private sector !
What are our beloved councillors doing to get a handle on these costs ? What are they doing to rein in the multi-million dollar expenditure on consultants and outside services ? What are they doing to ensure productivity increases at city hall ? Taxpayers have had to tighten their belts.
Let's see some belt-tightening at the municipal level.
Mayor Larry should get city hall staff together every morning in City Hall Plaza and lead them in chanting "Doing More With Less ! Doing More With Less !" while they perform jumping jacks and other exercises to get the blood flowing. Take a lesson from Japanese management !
Everywhere A Sign....
This little goodie is hanging on the wall at the San Diego Zoo:
"Please do not annoy. torment, pester, plague, molest, worry, badger, persecute, irk, bullyrag, vex, disquiet, grate, beset, bother, tease, nettle, tantalize or ruffle the animals."
Substitute "taxpayers" for "animals" and you have a wonderful sign which could be hung in the council chamber -- as a little reminder for councillors to think before they spend.
And speaking of spending...
Councillor Diane Holmes (first elected in 1982) led the pack in expense account spending in 2008 -- leaving a paltry $41 of her $36,089 office budget unspent. The measly $41 will go back into the city budget. What a benefit for the taxpayers !
Her expenditures included $3,403 on receptions and luncheons. Inquiring minds want to know who got invitations to these receptions and luncheons, especially since Councillor Alex Cullen (first elected in 1991 and reportedly eyeing the mayor's chair) only spent $442 on lunches and receptions.
New posts on Fridays

Friday, March 20, 2009

Money For Nothing.....
As Citizen Ellie was preparing a cheque to cover her interim property tax, the words "scandal", "impeachment", "judicial inquiry" and "farting machine" flitted across her consciousness.
Yes indeed ! Right here in River City..... we've got scandal with a capital "S".
Think about the sponsorship scandal which eventually brought down the Liberal government. It resulted after Auditor-General Sheila Fraser discovered that $100 million of the $250 million federal government's sponsorship program had been inappropriately spent. Retain that $100 million figure in your little grey cells.
When the costs of cancelling the north-south light rail transit (LRT) project are finally tallied, they will far exceed $100 million. In terms of dollars, our "made in Ottawa by Ottawans" scandal will make the sponsorship scandal look like small beer. Can we impeach anyone ? Should we have a judicial inquiry ?
To date the city has spent $54,561,96.00 on the now non-existant (or ghost, if you prefer) LRT line. This money has gone to pay legal fees and other ancilliary costs resulting from the multi-million dollar breach of contract lawsuits being brought against the city by Siemans and St. Mary's Cement. Together these companies claim the city owes them $270 million. If these companies win their cases, Ottawa ratepayers could be on the hook for maybe more than $400 million. Do the math. Add $54,561,961.00 to $270,000,000.00 and you get $324,561,961.00 -- plus the costs of whatever experts are required for the litigation. That's more than the $100 million which brought down a government.
The sponsorship scandal costs were borne by taxpayers across Canada and some of the money has been recovered. The multi-million dollar projected cost of the LRT fiasco will be carried by a much smaller population base -- those of us who have the misfortune at this point in time of living in this country's most ineptly-governed municipality. Sooner or later the bill will come due. Double-digit property tax increases, anyone ? That giant sucking sound you will hear is your hard-earned money swirling down the LRT lawsuit drain .
Prior to the 2006 municipal election campaign, city council had approved a transit plan which included a dual-track electric light rail line from the University of Ottawa to Barrhaven -- the infamous north-south route. Estimated cost for this project was $1 billion and had it proceeded as planned, the trains would have been running by 2010. Costs were to be shared by the city, the province and the feds. Tenders were called and contracts were awarded. That's how Siemans and St. Mary's Cement got into the act and that's why they're suing the city for breach of contract.
Then along came the 2006 municipal election. Larry O'Brien, whose strength came from the right wing sector of the community, ran for mayor on a zero tax increase platform. His opponent, Alex Munter, came from the other side of the political spectrum. The election was close. Larry O'Brien ascended to the mayor's chair.
Mayor Larry could not have achieved his goal of zero tax increases unless he had help. If a big, expensive project came off the books, that might do the trick. Ottawans were still somewhat divided over the transit plan despite its approval by council. Enter John Baird, then Treasury Board President, keeper of the feds' purse-strings.
Minister Baird apparently had second thoughts about the viability of the north-south LRT project so he pulled the feds' share of the costs.
The new council's first order of business was to scrap the north-south LRT route. With no federal money forthcoming, the province then put its share on hold. It should be remembered that apart from the mayor and three newbies elected in 2006, the council which voted to shut down the LRT plan was pretty much the same group which approved it in the first place. Did anybody consider the legal implications ? Were they so naive as to think big companies such as Siemans and St. Mary's Cement would just say "bye-bye" and walk away ? At least one councillor, Christine Leadman, has been quoted as saying that if she had the opportunity to do it all over again, she wouldn't vote to cancel the project.
Back to the drawing board. A new transit plan (which is pretty much the same as the old plan) received council approval last November. The major difference is the cost -- this new plan includes a tunnel in the downtown core (conveniently forgetting this part of the city lies on a fault line). Costly ? You bet ! Just ask Bostonians about the cost overruns of their "big dig".
John Baird is now Transport Minister. He is enthusiastic about the new plan. "We are very supportive of the plan and we want to be a major funding partner," he now says.
Why did Minister Baird cancel federal funds for the first plan and does his
change of heart mean shovels will soon be in the ground ?
Not so fast ! Enter provincial Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson. Minister Watson wants a full review of the plan -- affordability and ridership are his watchwords.
That's admirable. Looking out for Ottawa taxpayers. But is there more to his agenda? Rumor has it that Minister Watson may be considering his own run for the mayor's chair in 2010.
Don't hold your breath waiting for the LRT. Even if she lives to be 100, Citizen Ellie doesn't expect to see it in her lifetime.
Double-digit property tax increases to pay for the LRT lawsuit are another matter. They are coming. Start saving now !
Now That's A Protest !
Ottawa ratepayers are angry but not angry enough yet to mass in City Hall Plaza with pitchforks at the ready.
We're a pretty reserved bunch -- unlike our neighbors to the south who are discovering all kinds of new methods to express indignation at politicians and political decisions -- not to mention bankers, corporate executives and financial gurus..
According to an item heard last week on NPR (the U-S version of CBC radio, only NPR does it better), the council in an Ohio city had to cease deliberations and clear the chamber when an irate taxpayer switched on a farting machine.
Picturing a similar event during an Ottawa council session caused Citizen Ellie to break into hysterical laughter. When she recovered she googled "farting machine" to see what might turn up as she had never heard of such a device.
They're out there folks ! Some just make rude noises. Others emit unpleasant odors. The deluxe variety does both. A farting machine can be ordered for as little as $3.98 U-S, plus the usual postage and handling fee.
The angry Ohio ratepayer must have read the late Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" in which he describes some of his more spectacular sucesses as a community organizer. To learn more about the great Akron fart-in, you'll have to read Alinsky's book. Suffice to say it involved a bean supper and a large block of tickets to a black-tie concert.
New posts on Fridays

Friday, March 13, 2009

Too Much Of A Good Thing ?
There's been a veritable smorgasbord of goodies laid out at City Hall this week.
Once again OC Transpo's head honcho Alain Mercier demonstrated his excellent managerial skills -- the skills which no doubt earn him a six-figure salary -- when he tried to impose federal work and rest rules on OC Transpo drivers without the legislation having been amended to include Ottawa and environs.
Naturally this riled up union boss Andre Cornellier, who got the sabre out and began rattling. Some bus drivers, upon hearing the rattling, commenced a bit of work-to-rule. Brother Cornellier says the union isn't sanctioning any actions such as slowdowns -- after all, that would be illegal -- but he's pleased, as he told CBO Morning, that his members have decided on their own to show their displeasure over pending federal legislation which will impose set rest periods and limit the number of consecutive hours a driver can work. Goodbye golden overtime egg !
Transport Minister John Baird is to be commended for taking action on this issue. There are those who wonder why he didn't step up long before now.
Maybe Minister Baird was in the dark like the rest of us regarding scheduling practices at OC Transpo. Yes, we heard the rumors. But it took the strike to bring out the truth. Some drivers were choosing to work back-to-back shifts, especially on Sundays and statutory holidays -- working 22 hours without a rest period. Apparently there was one driver who worked 190 days in a row. Brother Corneillier can say what he wants about drivers doing this in order to have quality family time. Fact is, it's all about overtime.
The public sees this as a safety issue and the public wants action. Senior drivers get first pick of the available shifts and seniority comes with length on the job. This generally means the driver is older and there's loads of medical evidence out there to the effect that as we age, our reflexes aren't as sharp as they were when we were younger. One can only wonder how quickly a bus driver who is over 50 years of age and is at the end of a 22-hour shift would react to an emergency situation.
Citizen Ellie would prefer not to be riding on an OC Transpo bus where one of these drivers is at the wheel. Citizen Ellie would prefer not to be driving her car next to or in front of an OCTranspo bus on the Queensway or on any city thoroughfare where one of these drivers is at the wheel of the bus. Judging from letters to the editor of local newspapers and calls to radio phone-ins, a lot of Ottawans feel exactly the same way.
The issue of scheduling which will go before the arbitrator in the bus dispute is about who controls the scheduling of bus drivers. Safety of passengers and of those who share the streets with OCTranspo buses is not a matter for arbitration. Citizen Ellie, like many Ottawans, is left to wonder why our municipal political masters, some 20 years ago, decided it would be a good thing to have Ottawa and environs exempted from federal safety guidelines. Who benefitted ?
Another question: who is paying for the expensive anti-God ads which will soon be decorating the city's buses ? The Freethought Association of Canada must be flush with dough to be able to afford these campaigns in a number of Canadian cities. Hope OC Transpo gets the money up front -- preferably in cold, hard cash. Would hate to see the taxpayers left holding the bag on this one.
And apparently we haven't heard the last of the Lansdowne Park international design competition.
If city council rejects the Lansdowne Live proposal which would renovate Frank Clair Stadium and bring a mix of commercial and residential to the site, the international design competition could be on again. Just means more shilly-shallying and delay. And why does it have to be international ? Are local designers, architects and planners incompetent ?
Nobody Here But Us Chickens...
Now here's something city council can really get its collective teeth into.
Imagine this: trendy Vancouverites can now keep chickens in their backyards. They've joined the ranks of folks living in cities from New York to Vancouver where backyard chickens have become the animal of choice for urban dwellers seeking simple, sustainable living habits. Can the Glebe be far behind ?
When can we expect Councillor Clive Doucet to bring forward a motion to amend the necessary city by-laws to allow backyard chicken coops ? Apparently Seattle is now allowing its residents to keep miniature goats in their backyards. And in Portland, Ore. "coop tours" are now as popular as house and garden tours -- people can survey the neighborhood hens and check out the latest in chicken gear including designer coops and hen houses.
According to those in the know, retrieving an egg from a hen's roost is fast becoming the activity of choice for those urbanites wanting a closer connection to their food sources. While Citizen Ellie is an urban gal, she knows a thing or two about chickens. There are two kinds: egg-layers and meat birds. If it's egg-layers you want, a rooster is an absolute necessity. Your neighbors may not be too thrilled at being awakened at dawn. If it's meat birds, you'll need to acquire a small hatchet, a good chopping block, a container large enough to hold the boiling water in which you immerse your bird (after its encounter with the small hatchet and chopping block) in order to loosen the feathers, a strong hand for the plucking and a strong stomach for the gutting. Don't chop the legs off until after the bird has had its boiling water bath.
New Posts on Fridays

Friday, March 6, 2009

Report Worthy Of Consideration
The report of the Mayor's Task Force on Governance, released yesterday, should not be given short shrift as it would appear to be being given by some councillors. This report was prepared by a blue-ribbon panel, including former Carleton University President Richard Van Loon and University of Ottawa governance expert David Zussman. They looked at how the city's being run from the perspective of outsiders with no axe to grind -- other than wanting something other than the current circus at city hall. As for those councillors who think everything is hunky-dory, there are none so blind as those who will not see !
It's easy to blame Mayor Larry O'Brien for the dithering, lack of decision-making, childish behaviour and name calling which seems to permeate the council chamber. But it started long before he was elected.
Larry O'Brien became a convenient target on the day he announced he was running for mayor. A self-made millionaire businessman from the private sector -- he was anathema to the city's unionized employees, to the special interest groups who've had an easy ride picking taxpayers' pockets, and to the inside-the-greenbelt chardonnay socialists on council. Didn't matter that the majority of voters wanted a change -- and they didn't want Alex Munter, the councillors' preferred candidate. It's too bad the majority of voters didn't kick out half the council at the same time. Don't know who coined the term "Leisure Suit Larry" but it soon made its way into the lexicon of the reporters who regularly cover city hall. He might as well have worn a bullseye on his back.
The city of Ottawa isn't some rinky-dink little operation. It has 15,000 employees, 14,000 of whom are unionized, covered by 13 separate collective agreements (figures taken from 2007 auditor-general's report). Its operating budget runs into the billions of dollars. The city of Ottawa is big business. And the taxpayers have a right to expect the city will be run like a business.
Larry O'Brien was the first mayoral candidate to come from Ottawa's private sector in a long, long time. He was viewed with suspicion right from the outset. After all, he might start asking questions. He might demand more accountability, cost effectiveness and efficiency -- the watchwords of business sucess in the private sector. Naturally his views would clash with those of many of the councillors -- most of whom, prior to their election, worked for the feds, for NGOs, in the quasi-public sector or as community activists. Some have law degrees. A lot of experience in spending other people's money. Little or no experience (just a handful, including the mayor)) meeting a payroll.
The blue-ribbon task force on governance calls for a new structure at city hall -- the creation of an executive committee. And treating the mayor like a CEO with a CEO's powers.
Those of us who've been around this city for a long time fondly remember when city council had that sort of structure. In those days, there was a mayor, a four-person board of control, and ward aldermen (or councillors, today's non-sexist term). The mayor and board of control members were elected city-wide. Councillors were elected within their respective wards. The city was well-run. Things got done. Taxes were kept in check. People were happy.
The problems we have today stem directly from the fact that apart from the mayor, no other council member takes a city-wide view. It's all NIMBY.
Here's what the outsider sees:
Council needs to make a decision on.... (choose your poison-- LRT, bridge to Quebec, new stadium, etc.)
Council can't make a decision without studying the situation to death.
Council hires a consulting firm to develop a plan.
Several members of council don't like the consultant's plan -- if the LRT, bridge, stadium or whatever lands in their ward, they might just lose their seat in the next election.
Council hires another bunch of consultants in the hope that a differerent plan might work. It doesn't. Another group of councillors objects.
Council goes back to discussing how to keep pigeons out of the city hall tower.
And so it goes. No one has the cojones to bell the cat..
Take the Congress Centre for example. Everyone knew it was too small and the city was losing out on convention business as a result. Ten years of consulting, studying, to and fro, back and forth -- finally shovel in the ground. It would have been more cost-effective and efficient if the plan had been acted upon 10 years ago. Construction and labor costs would have been considerably less and the city might have made some money from big conventions during the intervening period.
Take mass transit. Councillor Alex Cullen (first elected in 1991, now a putative mayoral candidate) says we have a world class transit system in Ottawa. Third world, maybe. Obviously he hasn't ridden the buses in Barcelona. Name one other city where the LRT plan to the west end would have it run along a scenic parkway where there are no passengers, instead of along a major thoroughfare such as Carling Avenue where there are thousands of potential passengers at at the government buildings, the Ottawa Hospital's Civic Campus, the Royal Ottawa Hospital and all the shopping malls between Bronson and Pinecrest. At least Councillors Clive Doucet (first elected in 1997) and Christine Leadman (first elected in 2006) got this one right. If a decision on mass transit had been taken 10 years ago, costs of construction would be considerably less that they will be whenever -- sometime in the future -- shovels go into the ground. And more people might use the LRT if it took them to places they actually want to go.
This is how property taxpayers are being screwed. Buckets of money spent on consultants' reports which come to naught. Escalating construction costs each year the project is delayed. Councillors who can't think outside their ward boundaries let alone think outside the box. Councillors more concerned with protecting their own little fiefdoms rather than taking risks and supporting what's good for the city as a whole.
Monies lost through OC Transpo fare box cheating and improperly calibrated parking meters are small change when compared to how major project costs (materials and labor) escalate when projects are delayed and delayed and delayed because council needs more time for studies and consultants -- or prefers to waste time on petty issues such as newspaper boxes on city streets, standardizing benches in city parks, banning bottled water in city buildings, ridding the city hall cafeteria of trans fats etc.
Is this council ready for the expanded powers recently conferred on municipalities by the province ? Not by a long shot. Not when Zombie culture prevails and disfunction rules the day. If you don't know where you're going, every road takes you there. This council desperately needs a GPS -- or at the very least, a map !
New posts on Fridays