COLUMN: Barb Gustafson — Dec. 11, 2013

Barb Gustafson
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Barb Gustafson

Since this council’s election in 2012, there have been some big changes at City Hall in terms of personnel. But has there been a change in attitude?

While the mayor claims there is no “hit list” of managers to be fired, one has to wonder. The director of economic development is gone. The chief planner left. The director of community services is gone. The city manager was sent off with a hefty severance package. Then the acting city manager -- the director of corporate services -- also left.

Not all of those departures were because council decided the manager should leave; in some cases, the manager decided to go. Either way, however, it says something about the atmosphere at City Hall when a year after a new council comes in, the majority of your top administration has left the building.

Change is not always bad, and some should be expected when a new mayor is elected. By electing someone new, the voters are essentially voting for change; however, we as voters also like continuity in having services delivered, and too much change in the management ranks threatens that. So with only the director of finance -- now acting city manager -- and the director of public works left standing, can we expect that? I hope so.

The reason given for all this upheaval and expense is that a new attitude is needed at City Hall. Mayor Greg Dionne has been quoted as saying there needs to be an emphasis on customer service that was missing in the past. It’s hard to argue against the concept of customer service. Of course, we want our city to serve us better. But just where is the customer service change focused?

Here are two recent council discussions/decisions to compare. In the first one, an economic development committee has been formed, handpicked by the mayor. It includes a select group of men who represent well-established businesses in Prince Albert, and a couple of council members. While the stated objective is regional economic development, there is no representation from the rural municipalities. There is no representation from small business, no labour force developers such as postsecondary education, no one from the social or environmental side. Just big business. Which customers do you think this committee will serve?

In the second example, council recently considered a move to monthly water bills. This idea has been around for years, kept on the table primarily by Councillor Lee Atkinson. Monthly water bills would allow people to budget more easily, since this bill would be timed similarly to other utilities, rather than being the odd one that comes every three months. With the massive increases we’ve seen tacked on to water charges in recent years, that bill is easily $300 when it arrives and if you are on a tight budget, that amount is not easy to pull together. As well, monthly bills might help curb excessive water usage, since it would help people be aware of the readings and catch a leaky toilet a month in, rather than three months in when the bill is suddenly approaching $1000.

When debated at council, the idea failed to get enough support to pass. It would cost the city money, said the management report, since there would be more bills to be mailed, more payments to be handled, and less income in late fees. The idea was defeated. Again, just who is being served?

Here’s a news flash for City Hall, which seems mired in the 20th Century: bills can be sent electronically. Payments can be made electronically. All the other utilities I deal with every month – not three months – find me and receive payment from me without mailing out paper or having me go to a counter with cash. It’s convenient, it’s simple. It’s customer service.

In both examples, a choice is being made and a “customer” is being served. In the case of the economic development committee, I suspect the “customer” is big business. Yes, we need big businesses, but good governance is about supporting new business ventures while ensuring other needs are considered, too. Good governance means looking out for all your “customers” or residents when decisions are made.

In the second case, the “customer” that is being served is internal. The unwillingness of City Hall departments to try something new is considered reason enough to not make a change that would improve customer service for thousands of residents. That’s a big problem, and it’s up to council to set the course that would change that attitude.

Come January, there will be a new city manager in place. According to the mayor, Prince Albert went through the expense of removing the past manager and finding Jim Toye to replace him all for the sake of improved customer service. Toye certainly has the opportunity to create a new team, and a new approach, at City Hall. Council has cleared the way for him by clearing out the management offices. Better customer service could be on the way.

My fear is that improvements won’t be better service for us everyday, taxpaying customers who just want our streets smooth and clean, our water safe and reasonably priced, our garbage collected when promised, and our safety ensured through police and fire services.

My fear is that customer service will be all about fast-tracking development permits or expropriating land from surrounding RMs without consultation, in the name of economic growth. This sense, unfortunately,  is based on years of watching what happens in local government.

I hope I’m wrong this time.

Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert, and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email: gustafsonba@gmail.com

Organizations: Prince Albert

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