Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Amalgamation, Negativity, Municipal Elections and my Teeth

In today's Chronicle, someone is quoted as regretting that there's no anti-amalgamation group in town.

Well, me, I'm opposed to amalgamation. I think it's a spectacularly stupid idea for Waterloo, for lots of reasons:
  • Amalgamation has been shown to be expensive. Union contracts bump up to the highest level; there are virtually no cost savings; and so on.
  • Waterloo property taxes will go up if we merge.
  • I like our unique identity. Kitchener is a great place but is very different from Waterloo and vive la difference.
  • Waterloo has an internationally known name. We should be building our brand, not diluting it.
  • Merging with a city that's twice as big is tantamount to throwing away our self-determination.
  • We already merge almost all the services that can be merged. If there are more opportunities to merge services (the only one I can think of is the libraries), then we can do that without amalgamation.

Crazy as it sounds, the main reason why some prominent Waterlooians are for amalgamation is that they think the city is currently mismanaged, and will be better run if it's part of Kitchener. They point to our chronic underfunding of the arts and library as key issues. But Jeeze Louise guys, if you want better management then vote for candidates who are qualified to do the job. If you have issues you want to influence, speak up - especially now, during an election campaign.

Despite my emphatic opposition to amalgamation, I can't get active in my opposition. For one thing, amalgamation has become The Beast That Will Not Die. It's like, every couple of years I hear someone say, "It's baaaack..." I am suffering from amalgamation fatigue. But even more than that, I have been working to oppose the LRT for two years now, and I'm sick, sick, sick of being negative. Fighting FOR something is so much more fun.

So what am I not against? Well this may be bucking the trend of popular lunacy, but I'm for fluoride in my drinking water. I think the anti-fluoride contingent is fueled by junk science, while the benefits of fluoridation are verified. I'm horrified by what has happened to my dentist, Dr. Harry Hoediono, for standing up for sanity and saying the simple truth. (People in this town play dirty: besides trashing his character, someone on the anti-fluoride side has now brought Harry up on charges for conspiring to spend money or some such thing.)

So why am I not out dressed as a giant tooth, promoting the cause of fluoridated drinking water? If I had kids, maybe I'd stand with Harry and brave the attacks of the pro-cavities crowd. But I don't, so I'm sitting this one out.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Waterloo's Mayoral Candidates Kick Off Election 2010

Tonight's Waterloo mayoral debate could be summed up like this, from left to right:

Jan d'Ailly: I bring experience, leadership ability, and a proactive approach.
Barbara Halloran: I've done a super job.
Franklin Ramsoomair: Ummmm.
Dale Ross: Slash the budget!

Actually, Ramsoomair had some interesting things to say, but he was unable to articulate a vision for his mayoralty. In fact, his ability to articulate his ideas was a problem throughout.

Ross, on the other hand, articulated his vision all too well. He wants to cut spending. Really - that's it. When asked about specific issues, he repeatedly said he'd have to get someone to tell him what to do or form a committee. His plan is to put the city through ten years of extremely restricted spending in order to pay down our debt.

The questions were excellent. Neil Acheson was a great moderator - when he asked the audience to not applaud, it created a much better debate than most. One quibble: I was disappointed by all the answers about bylaw enforcement: they all focused on unmaintained lawns and noise complaints, without mentioning the vital accessibility issue of snow clearance.

Bottom line: This is a two horse race, between Halloran and d'Ailly. I approach elections like a hiring process, and look for qualifications, experience, intelligence and vision. To my mind, d'Ailly is the best choice. But I enjoyed listening to all four of them. d'Ailly and Halloran were both refreshingly candid, and d'Ailly in particular was very detailed and informative. Good job all around.

Upcoming debates:
  • Wednesday, Sept 22 - Waterloo Ward 1 candidates, Hauser Haus, WMRC
  • Tuesday, Sept 28 - Waterloo Ward 3 candidates, Community Room, McCormick Community Center
  • Wed, Sept 29 - Waterloo Ward 4 candidates, Room 207, RIM Park
  • Thurs, Sept 30 - Waterloo Ward 5 candidates, Room 208, RIM Park
  • Tues, Oct 5 - Waterloo Ward 6 candidates, Hauser Haus, WMRC
  • Wed, Oct 6 - Waterloo Ward 7 candidates (uptown), Hauser Haus, WMRC
  • Thus, Oct 7 - Regional Council candidates, Adult Rec Center
  • Tues, Oct 19 - Public school board candidates, TBD
  • Wed, Oct 20 - Regional Chair candidates, TBD
  • Thurs, Oct 21 - Waterloo mayoral candidates (Round 2), Hauser Haus, WMRC

More info on the upcoming debates:

Update: The Waterloo Regional Record is also hosting its own debates. For a list of times and places, see here.

Update: Rogers TV schedule of debates on TV on Karen Scian's blog

Update: You can watch videos of debates on the Record's Vote 2010 site.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Boom! Boom! Boom!

Uptown Waterloo is booming.

Just at the corner of King and William, there are two new buildings going up. In the pie-shaped lot where Quiznos used to be, a financial services company is putting up an office building:

Across the street, the region's most expensive and luxurious condo building has been announced at 150 King:

Over at Erb Street there's the Barrelyards, nearly 13 acres in size. The details keep changing, but when it was officially announced in 2007 it was slated to have two hotels, two 25-storey condo towers, four rental apartment towers, 230,000 SF of office space, townhouses, and ten mixed retail/residential low rise buildings.

Next to the Barrelyards is the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics, which is getting a mammoth and very exciting-looking addition:

Across the street from the Perimeter Institute is the Balsillie School of International Affairs, a complex of buildings:

And kitty-corner to the Balsillie School is the new Knox Presbyterian Church:

Then there's the 21-storey condo/townhouse complex at 144 Park, the new condo at Bridgeport and Peppler, and a proposal for a high-rise condo at 31 Alexandra. That's just what's already in the pipe. A commercial realtor told me recently that within five years he expects that King Street north of Erb will be a canyon of large new buildings. Projections of Caroline between Erb and William show all those parking lots replaced with buildings.

Minor note: None of this development has anything to do with LRT plans. Most was already in the works before the LRT proposal, and all of it is a direct result of the high rental rates in Uptown - brought about by the redeveloped Waterloo Square, new streetscape, programming in the Public Square, and general momentum of success in Uptown.


Friday, September 17, 2010

The Embarrassing Past of a Kettle and Pot

The ever-astute Elizabeth May has a theory. She thinks Harper is going to call an election this fall, even though he's down in the polls. She believes that Harper is focused on voter turnout rather than ratings, and that his strategy has been to reduce voter participation outside his base.
In the 2008 election campaign, she maintained, Mr. Harper purposely drove down voter participation in several ways. He called a snap election, he had the minimum numbers of days for a campaign, he had election day right after the long Thanksgiving weekend, he had changes in the Elections Act that meant people couldn’t vote without additional ID, and his attack ads had increased cynicism toward politics. The result was that every party’s total vote number went down, except the Green Party’s. The Liberals’ dropped the most and Mr. Harper was able to increase his minority.

. . .

Everybody thinks Mr. Harper’s right-wing manoeuvring, like his move on the census, has been disastrous, Ms. May said. "I bet he doesn’t think so. For his base, which is essentially the tea party of Canada, these are good messages."

May predicts that Harper's got a bunch of devastating attack ads to use against Michael Ignatieff, and that he'll unveil them during the campaign. They will include footage of Ignatieff before becoming Liberal party leader.
An example, she said, is some incredible statements the Liberal Leader made on torture when he appeared once on the Charlie Rose show. "The Conservatives must have a video archive of him saying things that Harper believes will make him unelectable." The Prime Minister is saving them for the campaign because "he wants the shock value."

This tactic could work if Harper gets the timing right and prevents Ignatieff from having time to respond or recover. In the 2006 election a fake scandal invented by the NDP sewered Paul Martin; Martin was bouncing back from it, but he didn't have time before the election to recover enough, and it wasn't until months after the election that the scandal was fully debunked.

Or is it possible? Harper himself has recovered from revelations of his saying far worse things than Igantieff ever said. Harper, after all, denounced Canada as a "Northern welfare state in the worst sense of the term." In that speech he also spat on universal health care, women’s rights, the unemployed, francophone Canadians and all Canadian political parties, including his own.


Saturday, September 04, 2010

Culture of Layoffs

Another story about another company laying off a percentage of their workforce. This time all we're told is that 81 employees were laid off, representing 5% of the workforce, and that the company "ended production of some unprofitable products".

I wonder what would happen if companies were expected to report more information about layoffs - and by "expected" I mean by law where possible, and by convention and community standards otherwise. And if they don't provide the info, newspapers should investigate and get the goods.

The information I'm looking for has to do with the negative side of layoffs. How long, on average, had these people worked there? What percentage got a good performance ranking in their last review? What sort of severance did the company provide? What was the total direct cost to the company of the layoffs (severance, out-placement, travel and consulting fees required by the move)?

If all these details were provided, would the market automatically react as strongly to reward companies that lay off a big chunk of their workforce?

I once worked for a publicly-owned company whose management was committed to avoiding a take-over. Every time the stock price fell they laid off employees to bring it back up. There were so many layoffs that they didn't use the terminations to get rid of low performers: terminations were totally a function of what someone was working on, and the best and the brightest regularly got cut. This culture of continuous layoffs created a totally dysfunctional company with a decidedly subpar product, but it also kept it successful.

That kind of success is a market distortion. Unproductive - even antiproductive - behavior is rewarded. It's a systemic failure.


BRT not a Viable Plan "B"

Now that we know how much the federal government is willing to contribute, it’s clear that the Region of Waterloo can’t afford the proposed LRT. The combined provincial/federal contributions leaves $235M to the Region and that is too much for us to carry. LRT is dead.

Well, not really. Now there's talk of going to the Region's Plan B, Bus Rapid Transit, or shortening the LRT route.

In the BRT plan, curbs are inserted in the middle of our streets so that buses can run in dedicated lanes. The BRT has many of the disadvantages of LRT:

  • It costs hundreds of millions to build.
  • It puts a disproportionate amount of our resources on one route.
  • It prevents cars from turning left except at designated intersections.
  • It disrupts car and bike use of the street.
  • It disrupts other use of the street, including parades and festivals.
  • The route is very difficult to alter.
  • It is inconvenient for transit users because the stops are so infrequent.
  • It creates an accessibility issue for seniors with walkers, parents with baby strollers, and the like.

The iXpress, which runs high tech buses on the same route as BRT, is no slower than BRT and costs one or two percent of BRT. (The iXpress route, including marketing, cost $9M. Of that, the buses cost $4M.) There is simply no reason to spend over $500M creating curbs in the middle of our streets.

In fact, it boggles the mind how the Region could propose creating a single bus route that costs $550M. In Toronto, dedicated bus lanes have nothing more than some diamond shapes painted on the pavement.

Building a shorter LRT route sounds like it might be equally crazy, but I haven't seen a proposal yet so I can't be sure. When I was in Istanbul in the early 90s I thought their two-station subway system was quite useful, so I'll withhold judgment - but with reservations.

I dearly wish that LRT were dead, for one simple reason: we're about to embark on a municipal election season, and it would be great if we could seriously discuss how to improve transit, rather than fight over this ridiculous, over-priced, destructive plan.

We could discuss initiatives such as the following:
  • Running multiple iXpress routes.
  • Forming a fleet of minibuses that run on little-used routes.
  • Creating an on-demand transit system for the elderly and poor families.
  • Implementing marketing programs such as cheap family passes on weekends.
  • Running more buses to festivals, events, the Aud, and so on.
  • Creating a free shuttle.
  • Reducing fares.
  • And on and on...

We could take a step back and look at other issues around transit:
  • Transforming our sprawl into a livable city.
  • Making sure our transit system is adequate for the needs of people who have to take transit.
  • Identifying people who don't take transit but would like to, and finding how we could get them to use it.

We’re the community that got designated the world’s most intelligent. Why have we spent two years chasing the old failed trend of rapid transit? It all comes down to the way LRT was pushed on us. There were fake public consultations (I say they were fake because I went to them) and there was never any real needs assessment: someone at the top of the Region conceived this notion and forced it through the system. Here's an example: about 18 months ago a city hall committee I'm on met with rapid transit planners. At that time my committee included a former mayor, former city councillor, and former regional councillor, and we had spent a lot of time researching and discussing the issue. Over a couple of hours we discussed our concerns with the regional employees, and they didn't take a single note. They didn't even bother to get out a pen or notepad. They hedged most of our questions. It is really no wonder why we ended up with an LRT plan that would have killed uptown Waterloo, been an enormous white elephant and drained funding from the rest of the transit budget. It was a vanity project.