Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Yes, Nova Scotia, Change is Possible

Today I witnessed the possibilities of a municipal council.  Twelve year old Stella Bowles has been tirelessly advocating to fix the problem of straight pipes dumping raw sewage directly into the LaHave River.  It is an issue which politicians have successfully ignored since 1993.  It took a child to motivate the grown ups into action. Fortunately, the grown ups on this council did the right thing.  All but one councillor voted to apply for the Build Canada fund, which will divide the cost of this project equally between the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government.

I know that this event is being reported on by all local and probably national news outlets, but I find that the media and council minutes often miss some of the good stuff,  so, here's what I have to add to the story.

I have only ever attended Lunenburg Town Council meetings and it was good to see how things are done elsewhere.  Mayor Downe called the meeting to order with a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando. I have been impressed by small rural councils like Shelburne and Queens county that have hung their flags at half mast, in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.  An important reminder that small of size does not have to mean small of mind.
I had also never witnessed councillors dressed in business attire.  I have to admit that I liked it.  It signified respect for the duties at hand.   Every councillor had a microphone that worked and it really is so much easier to listen to a conversation when you can hear the conversation.

Mark Furey, the MLA for Lunenburg West and also a cabinet minister addressed council.  He was the only provincial politician present and as I have said many times, the man is a class act. I do, however,  wish that councils would figure out how to have those addressing council not have their backs to the audience.  It's unwelcoming, unengaging and easily fixable. I also wish there had been politicians from other municipalities present.  The Lahave River matters to all of Lunenburg county.

Alex Dumaresq, The deputy CAO gave a very long presentation that was beyond thorough.  I will note here that it was also refreshing to be able to see the presentation.  One councillor practically roasted Mr. Dumaresq with the praise of his good work and noted to Mayor Downe that Mr. Dumaresq does not have a contract and should be given one to ensure that he stays on till 2031.  Mayor Downe responded by saying that Mr. Dumaresq probably wishes right now that there was a straight pipe from his chair and that the deputy CAO can stay on as long as he wishes.

Then began the many, many, many, many statements from councillors.  It was good to hear from all of them, but there is beauty in brevity.  Once said is plenty. The one nay vote came from Councillor Ernst.  He had some interesting things to say. His objection that this solution does not include those who have existing, yet poorly functioning septic systems was shared by other councillors.  He made some comments regarding his concerns that there is no science explaining why the fecal bacterial levels are higher at Ship Yards landing and Day Spring.  When he had finished speaking, Mayor Downe respectfully stated that the science has been discussed before.  Councillor Ernst also spoke of his concern that the province does not have legislation which requires homes to have a functioning septic system when the property is sold.  There were other councillors that expressed frustration with a lack of provincial regulation.

All these questions were addressed by the deputy CAO and what was clear was that while this solution is not perfect, it's possible and that seems to be the way of progress.  Sometimes you just gotta compromise. We would like to imagine that change comes with a grand sweeping hand, but really it comes one tiny bylaw and grant application at a time and it's everybody's responsibility to just keep trying to make things better.

At the end of the  meeting, Mayor Downe addressed the children in the room.  (I made the boy put his book down) He told them that they have witnessed democracy in action and that the lesson to take home is that with persistent trying, patience and respect, change can happen.

I'd be lying if I said that my son volunteered to attend this meeting with me and two hours into it, I was getting some pretty dirty looks, but later he told me how he told our neighbours how Stella won. So glad that my son, and myself had the opportunity to be a part of democracy.

Here's a photo from the council chambers.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Oh Dear, Another Petition for Lunenburg Council - Please sign it.

Post script note:  Council reversed their decision and the flags will be hung.  The only stipulation is that the businesses pay for the expense of hanging the flags, but that's easy.  Thank you, Lunenburg Council, for listening to the community.

Please believe me when I tell you that no local business wants to start a petition to their municipal council.  As small business owners we work tirelessly to bring positive attention to our businesses and the towns where we choose to run them.  When in the midst of the tourist season you find such a petition circulating, you can be sure there is something very wrong.

In this case, the specific issue is these beautiful flags running across Lincoln st. in Lunenburg.  This was an initiative of Dots and Loops , Jenny Jib  and Down Home Living.   They got council's approval to hang these flags last summer.  Not only did they add a festive feeling to the town, they also drew people to this less traveled section of Lincoln st. This year council voted to disallow the hanging of these flags.  Councillors Barclay, McGee, Zwicker and Mayor Bailley opposed them.  Councillors Mosher and Croft were in favour of the flags.  Councillor Hayden was absent.  The reason given by administration to the businesses was that they could not spare the manpower to hang them and they could not allow the businesses to hang them themselves due to liability issues. Any thinking person understands that this is not the truthful reason.  If council has money to create a brochure explaining to residents how to cross at cross walks, then they can certainly afford the cost of hanging these flags.

The community is very upset and I understand from a "story" perspective the whole issue is quite comical.  It's just your typical small town drama.  The thing is, there is a much deeper, underlying issue and that is why people feel so incensed.  It is about small businesses feeling unsupported by their local government.  It is about small businesses feeling unappreciated for all the extra work they do to grow a town and community.  It is about a small business owner feeling like there is a lack of open and honest communication with government.  It is about those in charge of making the rules being absolutely clueless as to how challenging it is for small businesses in rural Nova Scotia.  A business owner has to feel quite dispirited to get to the point of starting a petition.

Council should have unanimously voted to allow the flags to be hung.  The discussion should have lasted two minutes and sounded something this,  'We, as councillors should all make the effort to thank Melanie from Dots and Loops for taking this initiative to beautify our town.  Let's also remember to thank her for all the other events she has planned and for her volunteer work with the Board of Trade. Let's thank her for choosing Lunenburg as the place to open such a beautiful shop.  Let's thank her for staying open late and for drawing so many people to Lunenburg.   Let's ask her if there is any other way we can support her and the neighbouring businesses in drawing more people to this section of Lincoln st. Without the efforts of people like her we would have empty store fronts and a town devoid of character.'  If Lunenburg council supports small business then this would have been the only dialogue.
Please sign the petition.  Click HERE

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hey, Lunenburg County, Bring those kids to Council on Tuesday

This Tuesday, June 14th, at 9:00 a.m.  I will be bringing my son to The Municipality of the District of Lunenburg  (MODL) Council meeting and I'm hoping other parents might do the same. Council will be voting on  a very important decision that affects our children's future and I think it would be a good idea for them to see some young faces in the room.

Twelve Year Old Stella Bowles learned that her beautiful Lahave River is terribly contaminated with poop.   A report written in 1993, estimates that 600 homes along the Lahave river are flushing their toilets directly into the river by way of straight pipes.  The river is so contaminated that you should not even touch the water.   Although other advocacy groups like The Bluenose Coastal Action Foudation have been working for years to bring awareness to this issue, it took a child to finally bring this problem out into the open.

 Council will be voting on whether to apply for The Build Canada Fund.  If the grant is approved (and with the international attention that Stella has brought to this issue, I imagine it would be) one third of funding would be secured provincially, one third of funding federally and one third municipally to cover the costs of installing septic systems where there are now straight pipes.  Home owners would only need to pay for the municipal portion of the costs.  MODL staff wrote a very comprehensive and informative staff report that really explains this issue perfectly.  You can read it by clicking HERE. You can also learn more by watching Stella on CTV.  Click HERE

Stella was Dustin's classmate, so I have had the honour of knowing her since she was four years old.  She is that rare child that looks for the kid on the playground who isn't having fun and sits down next to them to see if she can help.  Clearly, it is this gift of compassion that has fueled her tireless advocacy over the last year. Another kid like Stella won't come around again soon.  She has created the momentum to take that first important step to fix a huge problem.  If council votes not to apply for this funding, then we may be ignoring this issue for decades.  But, hopefully, council will understand that they have been given the opportunity to effect meaningful change.  Let's remind MODL council who will be affected by the outcome of their vote.  Bring those kids to council, this Tuesday, 9:00 am. 210 Aberdeen Rd. in Bridgewater. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Diversity 101 (HInt-This is Not What it Looks Like)

Small town councils talk a lot about honesty, openness, integrity and diversity.  I'll try not to address the first three words and only discuss the last one.  How do you find diversity in an all white town?  It's challenging, but it can be done.

Let's begin with women.   We hear a whole lot about women in politics these days.  We do need more women in politics and the reason has nothing to do with a gentler way of doing business.  That is gag worthy rhetoric.  Spend a day on a school playground and you will learn all about sugar and spice and all things nice.  What women have to offer is simply a different perspective.  They look at the world from their needs. And if the deer whistle I got for Mother's Day is any indication, men are not experts on the needs of women.

Age - A thirty year old and a sixty year old also have different needs from a municipality.  The thirty year old might be starting a family and thinking about affordability of housing, schools and playgrounds and a sixty year old might be thinking of retirement, quiet neighbourhoods and bingo.

Income - A decision that might seem inconsequential for someone who is financially secure, might be devastating to a low income person.  Think of a library closure.  If you can't afford to buy a book, have no internet access and can't pay for after school activities or day camp your relationship to your local library will differ from someone who can easily afford all these goods and services.

Your Occupation - Blue collar workers, white collar workers, people in service industries and artists all have very different experiences. Someone working from home and someone who needs to commute everyday will be considering different issues.

All this  leads me to Municipal government.  The fact that our councils pretty much look like the above photo is bad, but the fact that the committees that are appointed by council also look like this, is really, really bad.
Lunenburg's Planning Advisory Committee (PAC) was down a person or two and a young mother who is also a home based business owner filled out an application to serve on this committee.  The PAC is super important.  The members help decide what our town looks like, what we value, what can go where and  how we want our town to grow.  They help create the policy of the town.   These decisions should be made by a diverse group of citizens.  Seeing as how  the PAC  was made up of older white men, with mostly old Lunenburg names, council  should have jumped at the opportunity to bring this woman/mother/homebased business owner and newer resident on board.  That would have been an honest attempt at cultivating diversity.  But surprise, surprise, they brought in two older white men who represent the financial elite of Lunenburg. No offense to older white men.  In fact, some of my best friends are older white men.

The fact that there is little to no diversity on council might have been out of council's control, but who gets appointed to these committees is entirely in their control and they took the opportunity to throw away a wonderful opportunity.  How about if councils put their money where their mouths are.  They could create a policy that committees need to represent the diverse values in town.  Each committee should be equally represented by gender, age, income, occupation and race, if we get so lucky. If councils want to talk about the importance of diversity, then they need to lead by example.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Amalgamation - Government needs to expand with the community.

What community looked like fifty years ago is not what community looks like today.  A couple of years back a customer told me how she grew up in Lunenburg and her father never forgave her for moving away.  I asked her where she went and she replied, Chester.  I laughed, but she didn’t.  That’s because I didn’t grow up in Nova Scotia. I never got to witness a time when being from The Town of Lunenburg or being from Blue Rocks was as different as being from Montreal or Toronto. I love these stories and embrace the history of this place that I now call home, but our history is not our present day reality.  Municipal government needs to respect our history, but reflect the community of today.  
Off the top of my head, I can think of six Lunenburg business owners that live within biking distance to town, but cannot vote in town.  There is nobody shaping our community more than our small business owners.  When people invest time, money and love into a community, they should be allowed to have a say in the community’s direction.
Visit Lunenburg’s incredible Farmers Market and you will see what today’s community actually looks like.  Every week people flock to Lunenburg from our entire county, not just to buy fruits and vegetables, but to grab a coffee and a pastry and catch up with friends.
On my son’s twenty minute ride to the French school, he travels through three municipal units. The Blue Nose Academy now has students from outside the boundaries of the town.  All the children of Lunenburg and Mahone Bay will eventually attend high school in Bridgewater.   Our community has expanded. Whether the issue is affordable housing, climate change, population decline, small business, or straight pipes, we are all invested in our neighbouring communities and we will do a better job of confronting these challenges as a single unit.
There are many people dead set against amalgamation.  I have heard arguments that amalgamation has often proven to not save money. Comparing amalgamation in HRM or in Ontario to the amalgamation of five tiny units into one small unit is to compare apples and oranges.  We would not be creating a huge, inefficient bureaucracy.  I think everyone already agrees that sharing services is a good idea.  I hope it is also obvious that five CAOs, five deputy CAOs and 30 councillors for 47,000 people is not what efficient government looks like. But mostly, what I hope will become clear is that the boundaries of our Municipal Governments no longer reflect our community and I think the true reason why many are dead set against amalgamation is because they are holding on to a vision of community that no longer exists.  They are holding on to a time when Lunenburg and Blue Rocks and First Peninsula were truly separate.  That former version of community was beautiful, but our present day reality is pretty awesome, too.  Our municipal government should be reflective of today’s community, not the community of fifty years ago.