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with Grant Hamilton

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  • My model campaign platform

    Friday, Aug. 22, 2014 at 3:33 PM

    With less than two months to go until the municipal election, I'm starting to get frustrated about the lack of clear platforms or policies from any of the candidates.

    Many of them are really good at identifying the issues that Brandon faces — high taxation, downtown development, flooding — but I don't think I've seen any candidate at all offer a single idea on what they would actually DO about those issues.

    Except, of course, that they would "address" them. After "consulting with constituents," of course.

    It wasn't always this way. Last go-round, challenger Shari Decter Hirst released a huge number of specific campaign promises on her campaign blog, from keeping the Sportsplex open to holding "Coffee with the Mayor" meetings, to bidding for the Canada Games in 2017.

    This year? Crickets.

    Of course, after four years of her mayorship, we all have a pretty good idea of what Decter Hirst's priorities are, as well as what her abilities are to get things done on council and in the city.

    But I'd still like to see where she sees the next four years taking Brandon.

    And what about the main challenger this time around? Rick Chrest is by all accounts a nice guy, and he's got plenty of council experience, but what are his priorities? I can't go back on his years as council like I can with Decter Hirst — the city faces new and different challenges now than it did back in the '90s. Things like a pair of mega floods and Maple Leaf have dramatically changed this city.

    On his website, Chrest has identified a number of issues, but despite the many hundreds of words written about "economic development," "air service" and "taxation," the actual ways that he intends to address those issues are pretty thin.

    I give third mayoral candidate Mark Kovatch a brief pass on this, since he just entered the race yesterday, but he should be on notice that we're all watching.

    Candidates for city council fare no better — they are really good at finding issues, and pledging that they'll address them, but there's almost no concrete suggestions on what they would actually DO about those issues.

    If a normal campaign has a "platform" made out of "planks," so far in the Brandon municipal election, every candidate is basically showing us paper and pencil, promising that they see the need for a platform and have the tools needed to plan one.

    Worse yet are the candidates who are pledging to spend the next few weeks door-knocking and listening to constituent concerns.

    Um, I'm sorry — don't you have any ideas of your own? I'd like to hear them, please, and then I'll judge whether I think you'll be good to represent me. Door knocking to get ideas at this late stage of the game is a lazy gambit that makes you sound like you've been uninterested in politics until now and that you haven't got anything worth saying of your own.

    That makes you a poor bet for a representative, in my books.

    But, if you must know what I think — and since I desperately want some IDEAS in this darn race — I hereby present a model campaign platform, with suggested positions on issues that face this city:

    1. Time for this city to grow up

    Brandon has cracked the 50,000 mark, and we're growing fast. We have unique needs due to our high immigrant population and it's time to negotiate a new City Charter with the provincial government to address that.

    My top suggestion would be to create full-time city councillor positions, but to reduce the number of wards to five (north, south, east, west and central). I'd also like to see the runner-up candidate for mayor be awarded an "at-large" councillor position, meaning we'd have a seven-member council, including the mayor, down from our current 11.

    Full-time councillors would be expected to be more active on committees and in city governance overall. Council meetings should be held weekly, and councillors should be expected to provide written reports on their weekly activities.

    City council votes should also be recorded. Every one.

    I'd also like to see this new City Charter give Brandon more autonomy in setting tax rates and other policies, from building inspections to borrowing.

    We should also take over the management of provincial highways that happen to run through the city — including portions of First Street and Victoria Avenue, as well as all of 18th Street. The province can pay us to take care of them, thanks, but it should be up to the city to determine when they get plowed and paved.

    2. So long, school board

    The Brandon School Division gets to collect taxes through the city, meaning that the city gets blamed for their tax hikes. That may have made sense a hundred years ago, when the city was much bigger than the school division.

    But their budget now is $80 million a year. That's actually higher than the city's. So they can go ahead and collect their own taxes — and the associated taxpayer rage, thanks.

    (I'm taking a page from Winnipeg mayoral contender Robert Ouellette here, who suggested the same thing. It's a great idea, let's do it here.)

    3. Open up the data

    There has been lots of smoke but very little heat from the city when it comes to open data. It's hard to believe that a few years ago, Brandon was ahead of Winnipeg on this file; we're way behind now.

    What data does get posted is often manipulated and spun within an inch of its life, stripped of all meaning and impossible to use in a new or innovative way.

    Right now, "open data" is an extra that city staff do when they have time. They take, say, the mosquito trap counts, and after they are done assessing them, they make an extra effort to make them public.

    That's backwards. Simple data like that should be posted online as it comes in. When city staff need to assess the numbers, for example to decide whether to fog, they should go to the same website you and I go to, and pull the numbers from there.

    The same goes for every other piece of city data, from the location of stop signs to the daily level of chlorine in the water. It's all on computers, make it public by default.

    The Open Data Handbook is a great place to start.

    4. Densify development

    Many of Brandon's problems, from potholes to transit, can be traced directly back to the fact that we have too few people in too wide an area. It means the city's burdens have to be shared among fewer shoulders.

    Brandon recently unveiled plans to sprawl further southwest and to the north, but there are plenty of vacant lots and low-rise developments that could be filled first.

    Developers have shown they're willing to build condos and mid-rise apartments — but they're doing it in new subdivisions along south Ninth Street. They should be encourged to do it downtown and in existing neighbourhoods, too.

    The first bylaw I'd pass as a councillor would be a mandate that all new commercial development include two floors of residential above. Imagine if every strip mall in town had apartments above it? Those stores would have locked-in shoppers nearby and we'd have no more issues with housing.

    5. Put the Chamber in its place

    The Chamber of Commerce is a lobby group. It's a well-funded and successful lobby group with a broad membership base, but it's just a lobby group. It's insane that important city events like an annual State of the City address are done for a paying membership as a fundraiser for this lobby group. Put an end to that practice.

    People will still want to see a State of the City address, so hold your own luncheon. Or why not make the rounds — one year make a speech for the Chamber, the next have it for the Arts Council lunch, and then the year after that at the Friendship Centre.

    6. Hold up on salaries — especially protective services

    My back-of-the-envelope calculations show that, over the past five years, nearly 75¢ in every new tax dollar went to protective services. The largest budget line there is salaries.

    Beat cops and firefighters regularly make more than $100,000 — an unaffordable extravagence in this low-cost city.

    While police sometimes do dangerous, difficult work, many of their calls are for drunks, shoplifters and teenage pot dealers. This is a safe city, and policing compensation should reflect that it's easier here than elsewhere.

    So-called "firefighters" spend many of their days in the backs of ambulances, taking elderly patients to and from their hospital appointments. There were only 17 structure fires in all of last year. That's just one every three weeks. Meanwhile, they did 3,700 ambulance calls — more than 10 a day.

    Of course, council has backed itself into a corner with the mathematically unsustainable "comparator cities" model for setting salaries. Job No. 1 should be to remove that clause. No. 2 wlll be to let inflation catch up to the inflated pay packets.

    7. Focus on non-car transportation

    Brandon's bike paths are great, but they're decaying. We embarassingly bobbled the installation of a "share the road" lane along Lorne Avenue last year.

    Meanwhile, other cities are racing to install separated bike lanes and other bike infrastructure. Not only does that get cyclists off of city streets, making them safer, it also gets people on their bikes instead of behind the wheel — it's a win-win for drivers, too.

    In 2002, Brandon had a plan to create a network of cycle paths through the city. We've barely done any of it; and it's all very low-cost, certainly better than a "road to nowhere" on the north hill.

    Aside from more bike paths, stat, I'd rev up the city's transit network. It, too, is low cost compared to many other things, but it's tragically underused. Time to move from a hub-and-spoke model (which is impossible for casual users to learn) and switch to a grid model (which matches our street layout).

    Finally, I'd tweak the city's planning bylaws to take parking minimums for all new development and make them parking maximums. Current parking lots should also be taxed at a high enough rate that would encourage their development, especially in areas like Pacific Avenue.

    8. Downtown matters

    It's almost a cliché that Brandon's downtown needs to be revitalized, but it's true. Without a strong, dense central core, we're not a city, we're just a suburb.

    Downtown is what makes Brandon distinct from any other cookie-cutter burg, and we need to invest in it. For decades, we've tried to make downtown "successful" by copying what worked in the suburbs — more traffic, more parking, single-storey commericial.

    But that's like using your nail clippers to cut your hair. Successful downtowns focus on people — wide sidewalks, narrow streets, loads of residential above first-floor retail.

    Along with encouraging the above, I would reverse the one-way traffic on Ninth Street, and tear out the wrong-sided angle parking. But I'd go two big steps further in making Rosser and Princess avenues two-way traffic as well.

    9. Revive the riverbank

    After being hammered by two huge floods in 2011 and 2014, it's fair to ask if we need to reassess our level of commitment to the Assiniboine River.

    I think it's clearer than ever that development along the flood plain shouldn't be allowed. That leaves either fallow fields (ugly) or recreational development that's designed to drain quickly and be easy to clean.

    Guess what gets my vote? Time to double-down on our riverbank development. Embrace the flooding by creating things that adapt, and ensure that there's something to do — skating and skiing come to mind — in the winter as well.

    Oh, and why was it so easy to open up Grand Valley Road as soon as the water went down, when the walking paths buried under dikes in 2011 are still buried under dikes?

    We need to get people back using the riverbank parks within days or weeks of the flood receding, not take years.

    To be clear, I am not running for city council, and do not intend to run for city council. So if you're running, please steal my ideas.

    PS. I typed this up on Friday, with no notes. If I can do this off the top of my head, every candidate should be able to do something similar.

    Ideas, please.

    Not issues that you've identified. Not feel-good platitudes about "leadership" or "representation."




  • Great turnout for Greenspace Plan meeting

    Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 at 9:45 PM

    I was incredibly amazed at the full house turnout for Brandon's Greenspace Master Plan community consultation on Wednesday night.

    The old plan is several years expired, and wasn't fully followed anyway. It's wildly out of date, and Brandon is badly falling behind the curve when it comes to things like bike lanes and pedestrian bridges.

    Related Items

    I felt it was important that as many people as possible have their voices heard.

    Although I had a family engagement for much of the evening, I saw several tweets (1, 2, 3, 4) declaring it a success, and I made sure to get there for the tail end of it.

    And I do mean the tail end — when I arrived, it was just Mayor Shari Decter Hirst and a couple of other stragglers, while a Keystone Centre employee cleaned up the room.

    Decter Hirst told me that there were so many people, they had had to bring in extra tables.

    Luckily, there was a pen and a blank questionnaire on the table, and I was quickly able to fill in my opinions; the mayor said she'd make sure it gets to the right people.

    It's weird bordering on worrisome that in 2014, an evening community gathering with photocopied questionnaires and draw-on maps is still considered the most effective way to get community feedback.

    No one's heard of the Internet? 

    I'd also like to point out that, these days, people who use the city's recreational greenspace also use smartphone apps to track their bike rides or runs using GPS. There's a really interesting company, Strava, that takes all those GPS pings, and has made a global map of where the most popular routes are.

    Here's Brandon's:

    A few things stand out to me — in particular the apparent need for paths on southbound First Street North as well as Rosser and Princess avenues downtown. Twenty-Sixth Street, too, gets a lot of traffic yet there's no path on most of it. The mountain bike paths on the North Hill get insane levels of activity. I had no idea.

    This is data, not anecdote, so even though the sample size is limited to people who use the Strava app (as opposed to, say, Nike+ or RunKeeper or MapMyRun), it is in some ways more valuable than public surveys.

    People in surveys tend to tell an "aspirational" version of the truth. They exaggerate the things that they want to do more of, and minimize the things that they want to do less of. It's a well-known problem to any social scientist.

    That all said, I'm extremely pleased at the great turnout to the Greenspace Master Plan consultation. It's just the first step — collating the responses will take a few weeks, apparently, and then the consultants will come back to the community for some refinement.

    I'm looking forward to participating more in those meetings as well. I hope the consultants take the time to open things up to online feedback, as well.

    I would hate for family commitments in the evenings to make it impossible for people with families — heavy users of greenspace, which includes parks, paths and pools — to have their needs heard in the consults.


  • Behind the scenes of that ice-melting video

    Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    An experiment on the hottest day of the year divided Brandon Sun readers between those who thought we were hilarious, and those who thought we had lost our news-sense marbles.

    With temperatures officially recorded at the airport of just over 30ºC, but thermometers in the city registering more like 34ºC, I went out and bought a four-kilogram block of ice. I set it up in a Brandon Sun car in our parking lot see how fast it would melt, using my phone to take video of the ice-block's slow demise.

    My phone melted first. So I took it home with me after work, set it up in my yard, and used my (cooled-down) phone to livestream the melting block of ice to anyone who cared to watch.

    But let me back up a little bit.

    It's not an original idea. In fact, I entirely ripped off 9NEWS KUSA in Denver who did the exact same thing earlier this summer. I even stole their idea to include a thermometer in the shot, and I copied how they set it up with a drip tray and buckets.

    Maybe next summer I'll arrange to have a 300-pound block of ice delivered, like this news station in Washington, D.C. did last year.

    Livestreaming a melting block of ice seemed like a quirky thing to do, while also being a very low-stakes way to test apps and processes for livestreaming that could come in handy for other live broadcasts in the future.

    Plus, let's be honest, it was hot and I didn't want to sit in the office any longer than I had to.

    Setting the whole thing up was tougher than I thought. I'd been waiting for a day with temperatures of 30ºC or higher and bright sunny skies. Yesterday was the first opportunity, and of course it had to be a super busy morning. But when the afternoon rolled around, I rolled out.

    I had the thermometer (long story) and I had an iPhone on which I'd installed both the Livestream app and the UStream app. Turned out that UStream lets you embed videos without paying, so I went with them.

    I scrounged a bucket from around the Brandon Sun offices, and cut a slice out of a cardboard box to jury-rig an iPhone stand. I even went home to get an extension cord so I could plug the phone in and avoid draining the battery.

    The hardest part turned out to be finding a block of ice. Most places only sell cubes these days, but I eventually tracked them down at the Safeway at the Shoppers Mall. It was about $3.50 and it turns out that the four-kilogram block of ice fit perfectly into my little personal-sized hard-sided cooler. I mean it slid in snugly, like it was designed for it.

    Getting back to the Sun, I set things up in the car, with the ice an a foil tray that I poked holes in, so that the meltwater would drain into the bucket below. Then I snaked the power cord out the window, pointing my phone at the ice. It was HOT. The thermometer spiked to 49ºC inside the car with the windows rolled up.

    Once I was satisfied, I went back to my desk to write up a quick story and post the stream. This was about 3:30 p.m.

    But … the stream was blank. Back to the car I trotted, where my phone was displaying a message "Too hot to use." Uh-oh.

    I quickly put the ice back in the cooler (it was wet, but hadn't really melted any) and pondered a back-up plan. I decided to head home, where I knew there was wifi, a sunny spot in the yard, power, and more importantly, I could keep an eye on it all evening long with a cool drink in my hand.

    By 5 p.m., after a few snafus, the livestream was rolling again. It was harder on my wifi than I had thought, and at first it kept crapping out on me. It was better when I reduced it to standard definition instead of super high-def (who wants to watch ice melt at 1080p?) and killed the mike.

    Then, it was time to just sit back and watch the accolades roll in.

    Or not.

    People seemed evenly split between how dumb it was, how boring it was, or how brilliant it was.

    We were told that the Brandon Sun had "won the Internet" with the live streaming. Also that the place was falling apart.

    One comment on our site said that we were going downhill. Comments on Facebook were mainly about how boring it seemed.

    Eventually, as the sun set and the ice lingered, I began to worry that the ice would outlast the livestreaming. Temperatures dropped by 10 degrees as soon as the sun went behind the trees, although it stayed fairly warm.

    Finally, I had to pull the plus on the livestream and go to bed, I think around 12:30 a.m. There was still a substantial amount of ice left — but it was all gone by the morning.

    All in all, it was a lot of fun to try something different, and I learned a few things that may come in handy in the future, and at least a few people clicked on the livestream.

    See you next hot day, block of ice!


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