By Mike Archer. One of the dangers of writing about politics in the ‘pit bull on a short chain’ style I often adopt when covering Abbotsford politics, is that a certain portion of our readership will dismiss me as ‘over the top’ or easy to ignore because I speak so openly about the incompetence of those we are told to trust by big flyer delivery companies.
People sometimes assume I’m either exaggerating or exorcising some deeply held animosity towards those in the power structure in Abbotsford when I treat public officials with such obvious derision and contempt.
Nothing could be further from the truth. People who know me will tell you I’m a really nice guy … and I know of at least two or three people who know me.
It hasn’t occurred to some of my critics that my tone may actually come from a very real and deep seated anger at those who abuse the trust placed in them by their friends and neighbours and blissfully accept public pay cheques while maintaining the pretense that they know what they are doing.
Abbotsford Today doesn’t rely on nor do we seek any cosy relationships with those in Abbotsford’s power structure. We simply tell our readers what we’ve heard; what we think about it, and let them discuss their community in an open, honest, unfettered fashion.
It just seems so … I don’t know … obvious. I don’t know why the old media never thought of it but, hey, they have their agenda, we have ours.
To my point – What if some of the people entrusted with spending our tax dollars and managing our city actually are as incompetent as I so often seem to imply? What if some of those who have managed to convince their friends and neighbours that they know what they’re doing actually don’t?
There are more and more members of the community – those who do know how to read a balance sheet, manage a business or have a basic understanding of compound interest – who are beginning to ask some serious questions about the abilities of some of those who sit around the council table and make or defend some pretty awe-inspiringly dumb decisions.
The more one actually delves into the serious issues facing the community and seeks to understand how we have come to be in such a bad financial situation, the more one is likely to walk away shaking one’s head at the deep lack of understanding some of those around the council table have of basic economics.
I was enjoying a beer with one of the three people who know me last week when two of her friends came over to say hello. It was an interesting encounter because I got to listen to two relatively well off citizens of Abbotsford who pay attention to local politics discuss the issues I write about every week.
After we were introduced they were initially on their guard lest I turn out to be the media vulture of which everyday people are afraid. Gradually, as they discovered I didn’t bite and seemed genuinely interested in what they had to say, a familiar pattern in the conversation began to emerge.
Now, it should be said, I was doing very little of the talking in this four-way conversation. Mostly my friend was telling her friends what she had learned about the people who run the City of Abbotsford – senior staff and politicians – ever since she had to deal with her City as a business owner and a concerned taxpayer instead of the normal, relatively passive relationship most people have with their local government through the newspapers they receive whether they want them or not.
It should also be said, none of her conclusions about the City of Abbotsford and those running it have been in any way influenced by my writing, my views or my thinking. Until she ran into the City of Abbotsford on her own, she was one of those who tended to dismiss much of what I have to say as slightly exaggerated.
“These people … ” she said, referring to our local politicians, “ … haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.”
She went on to describe the difference between the taxes she pays for a spacious house in Abbotsford when compared to the taxes her daughter pays on her condo in Vancouver and complained that they were significantly higher for her house in Abbotsford.
“When I brought this up with a member of council I was told by, ‘That’s impossible. That’s not the way taxes work.’”
“I’ve had to deal with these people on a one-on-one basis now, instead of reading about them in the paper, and I’m telling you … some of them haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. It is enough to scare the shit out of you.”
Bear in mind, this isn’t me talking … remember – the pit bull on a short leash – this is my friend speaking of the change she has gone through since having to actually do business with our city leaders and have a meaningful discussion with them.
Then I went through a learning experience.“How much do you pay in taxes?” she asked. Her friends were both embarrassed by the question because, it turned out, neither of them had a clue.
“To be honest it comes out of the bank every month as part of my mortgage payment. I just read every year in the newspaper that the average tax increase represents less than a hundred bucks on the average blah, blah, blah and, since they tell me how small it is, I shrug my shoulders,” she explained.
“But that’s how they get away with it,” said my friend.
“I used to let them rob me that way … by quietly taking the money out of my bank account every month … now I pay my taxes once a year so I know exactly how much they are costing me,” she fumed.
“I had no idea …” her friend said rather sheepishly, and then said she would start paying closer attention to local politics.
” Did you know they had doubled your water rates from 2010 to 2012?” my friend asked.
“I didn’t read that in the paper. I thought we were running out of water. You know Hank has stopped watering the lawn so much because of what they charge come to think of it,” she said.
“I didn’t mean to rant,” said my friend and I decided to rescue her.
“What I’ve found, over 25 years of covering politics and public affairs,” I said, “… is that, until people run into their government in a real-life circumstance they don’t quite understand the passion of those who are so incensed with the way we are represented.”
Most people have very little to do with their local government other than to read whatever their newspaper tells them and maybe seeing either their mayor or a councillor at a public event of some sort.
On that basis, they seem human, normal and anything but evil or incompetent and, truthfully, as individual human beings they are anything but evil.
Where things begin to unravel is when you realize that these are just regular people. Teachers, bankers, realtors, salespeople, part-time, full-time or even phony environmentalists … the list goes on. The fact is – they are, for the most part, completely unqualified to either understand or deal with the multi-million dollar decisions they are regularly expected to make.
So what do they do?
They rely on senior bureaucrats, who are paid sometimes close to ten times what they get paid, to tell them what to think.
It’s an OK formula as long as the highly-paid senior bureaucrats know what they’re doing but … well you can figure out the rest when you take a look at what has happened to the City of Abbotsford.
What was most educational and enlightening to me was the sad realization that, unless you have been personally screwed by someone in office or have personal experience watching City Hall make ludicrous decisions despite your clear and concise understanding of how wrong they are, you aren’t likely to care much about municipal politics.
You likely believe that, despite the fact that there are all sorts of examples of ineptitude and gross incompetence at City Hall … come on … the lights wouldn’t come on and the water wouldn’t come out of the tap if these people were as incompetent as all that …
Well ya, as long as economic growth just continues to happen and we keep being able to borrow money to cover our ass and hide our mistakes.
It’s the universal belief which allows us all to sleep at night. If it comforts you to believe that the people in charge at the City of Abbotsford know what they’re doing then I will not deliberately interrupt your well-deserved sleep. I will not, however, stop telling you how poorly you are being served by the majority of those who are accepting your money as pay for performing a job about which they know nothing and for which they are completely unqualified.
Now that my friend has seen behind the curtain, she has trouble sleeping at night. It’s what happens to those who actually have to deal with those with whom we entrust our tax dollars.
What if the people we put in charge don’t actually know what they’re doing? What if Abbotsford is not in a position to survive a significant economic downturn without taxes, water rates and service fees going through the roof – yes, even higher than they are now?
I respect your need for a good night’s sleep but I would feel guilty if, for the sake of your sleep or our relationship, I didn’t tell you what was really going on.
If one more thinking person joins the rank of the sleepless and starts questioning what is being done with the highest taxes, the highest water rates and the lowest service levels in the Lower Mainland maybe more people will start clamouring to have something done about it.