The Upside of Down

The last two months have been – difficult, boring, uncertain…undoubtedly numerous other adjectives.  For me, the absence of in-person social connections has seemed the biggest loss.  I am not a huge extrovert so can only imagine how this is affecting those who are. Turns out, not having chance meetings with other dog walkers in Reservoir park, in-person Rotary breakfasts, sitting around an actual council table, having a coffee with a resident over an issue,  affected me much more than say – standing in line at the grocery store, or doing without hair “product”. Notwithstanding the things I miss, this period has presented an opportunity to imagine the world differently. 

Some things are big, I mean society big. The enormous failings of the current long-term care model. The revelation that we have so little production of essential products in our own country. Both reflect intentional decisions to reduce public expenditures and enhance the financial resources for those with resources to invest. Neither are bad on the surface, but we bought into them without fully anticipating consequences. If there is one thing this little virus has exposed its a penchant for making decisions relevant to the now. These are but two things all levels of government should move to the top of our near-future agendas, whether as provincial or federal government(s) that can change policies or as local government funneling local concerns up the ladder. 

While it is easy to feel less than significant in the face of the enormity of long-term care and production methods, this experience has also exposed opportunities of a more local level.

  1. Roads for bikes and walking: Wolfville Council, on an idea brought forward by fellow Councillor Brian, requested staff pull together thoughts on making our downtown area more pedestrian and cycling friendly. The absence of traffic and parking, people eager to get outside, and the imperative of social distancing, create a situation that just might help create a new normal. Somehow we have managed to make less use of our cars. Could this be the time and the opportunity to widen one side of Main to walking and cycling by removing parking on one side? Could we get used to this as a permanent situation?  Could we ignore our first responses and think about long term benefits? Could this virus help us kick our car habit? Will we look back on this moment and know it was the time and the opportunity that moved us to a more sustainable transportation model?
  2. Governance of Regional Services: I sit on the Kings Transit Board, representing Wolfville, but not really, because we have a governance model for our regional services that came about decades ago. Kings Transit, Annapolis Valley Waste Management, the Harvest Trail, the RCMP, the Valley Regional Economic Network – two boards composed of councillors, one committee and three advisory committees with a mix of council and residents, and one board composed of non-elected representatives. Each of these provides services to our region, all receive local taxpayer funding*, all have different forms of representation none of which are directly responsible to voters, none are directly managed by local governments. In my almost 8 years on Council I have seen councillors appointed to these boards cycle through on one and two-year terms, sometimes concurrent terms, but that is not guaranteed. While I (along with all of Wolfville Council) have long supported a review of the governance models associated with these services CoVid-19 has heightened my awareness of the complexity or awkwardness of the existing models.
  3. Technology: There can’t be many of us who haven’t “Zoomed” (is that a word?) at least once since February. I am not sure I had even heard the word Zoom in the context of technology before this. Now I have Zoomed many a Rotary breakfast, Board meetings, even Zoomed the Toonie Toss draw on Monday; Zoomed council, Zoomed church services. Shortly, I will watch a fashion show from Casa Bella one of our premier retailers in town. While I still enjoy and prefer the in-person experience, we have certainly learned that we can stay in touch in ways that would have seemed futuristic only a few short years ago. I wonder what this means for big decisions this and future Councils will make for our municipal building, our council chambers, our library, the way councillors stay in touch with constituents, our privacy, our social connection? It is not that technology has crept up on us, it is that its potential and, yes cautions, have been there but not realized.

Two big things, three smaller things, all things we can influence as residents, tax-payers, decision-makers. To influence things in the right direction we have to take the time to understand the science, the implications, the potential pitfalls. We have to consider whether the end result is worth the effort required. In a month or two, maybe less, maybe more, the current #staytheblazeshome experience will surely come to an end. What do we want our true new normal to be?

*The Town of Wolfville opted out of the Valley REN two years ago and consequently has not been a member of the Regional Economic Network since that time.

5 comments

  1. I was wondering the current opinion of the residents of the amalgamated towns. Do the residents regret the amalgamations and feel they have lost their identity? The few people I have asked don`t see any change—but is that the general attitude?

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    1. I would think that there are many people who feel that, although I am not aware of any specific studies (not that there aren’t any) that reflect those opinions. Also, let me be clear, my comments were not related to what we traditionally think of as amalgamation but rather the amalgamation of services that do literally span the region. I was never in agreement with the provincial study that indicated two-tier governments don’t work. There are numerous examples of well functioning two-tier governments (7 in Ontario, several in Alberta and BC). A study by the Fraser Institute found that “…tangible benefits for residents, such as lower taxes and reduced bureaucracies… never materialized.” Jim and I did quite a few post-amalgamation studies in Ontario in the early 2000s. We found (what others also found) that the closer a service was to the community the lower the chances of economies of scale. Recreation, my field, is a good case in point. Smaller communities tend to have limited built recreation services whereas larger communities much more. As municipalities increased in size there was suddenly the sense that they could afford a major facility, which of course took more staff and overall was more expensive. Personally, I would like to see a solid study of our area that fully explored, in today’s climate (the 2,000’s being two decades ago) those services that benefit from an integrated regional delivery and those that work best at the local level. What governance model does provide effective and cost-efficient service for broader services less integrated with the local populations and what services are best delivered at a local level, and how do those models best integrate.

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  2. Your comments for the need of a review of the governance models are interesting. In the past few years there have been changes in the communities of Bridgetown, Hantsport, Windsor, and Springhill. While I believe these structures are not appropriate for Kings County, it would be interesting to know whether it resulted in a decline in community attitudes. Has Wolfville asked the province to do such a review?

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    1. As mentioned the Province has required all municipalities in a region to request a review and we never had more than two – Kings and Wolfville.

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    2. Not sure that the Province is still doing reviews, but at the time they required all municipalities in a region to submit the “ask”. For a time Kentville was supportive of a review but then stepped back. For the most part, Berwick was never part of an ask. Kings and Wolfville I believe were always in favour of a review.

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