The case of the missing question mark, or How it’s important to remember no one on Council is ‘evil’

By DJ Kelly April 22, 2010

We all make mistakes. They happen. But we need to be man enough to admit them when we do.

One of the things that I value most about having a blog that is followed by as many people as this one is the number of comments or emails or tweets that I get about it telling me how the writer agrees with me, or how they disagree but see my point. It’s important to have both sides of this equation to maintain perspective, balance and a foot firmly planted in reality. (Never believe your own hype.) I try my best to break down the hyperbole – and sometimes hypocrisy – that often comes with our political landscape. To do this all one really has to do is take a step back, peel back the layers, and rationally examine the situation step-by-step. Almost always you will find Occam’s razor holds true.

Last week I wrote a blog post called ‘Council playing politics with the Pumphouse’. I received a lot of positive feedback about the post – more than usual – and so thought I must have hit the nail on the head. It was a few days later that I got an email from a friend who noticed my post was unusually pointed and didn’t have the same sort of level-headedness I usually try to apply to an issue. It was the lone dissenter. None-the-less I decided to take him up on his suggestion to go back to the Administration report and re-read it. Mistake number one: I didn’t read it to begin with. I inferred – albeit mostly correctly – from other people heavily involved what was in it. The nuances of the report however do paint a slightly different picture of what probably happened in the Committee meeting.

The most important thing I saw in the report is that despite my understanding that the Province pulling their funding not being the impetuous for the Pumphouse returning to Council for another $2 million, the largest paragraph in the entire report focused on this aspect. Upon reading that I can only think to myself, no wonder a couple of the aldermen had a lot of questions about this. If it’s given a great amount of weight in the report, it’s fair to think it’s going to get a great amount of attention during questioning.

The second thing that I noticed was that the report was anything but clear. You can probably sense my confusion in my original blog post about whether this ask was another $2 million or just the top up to the total $4 million that was previously approved. I can only imagine the aldermen were stuggling with the same issue. The report does not make this clear. Here is the very first sentence of the report:

Under CPS2006-45, 2006 September 18, Council approved the facility expansion project, in principle, based on the evaluation completed by the Calgary Arts Development Authority (CADA) on behalf of The City of the Calgary, subject to the conditions outlined in Attachment 4 and to submit a Request for Expenditure for the Pumphouse capital project to the Infrastructure Coordinating Committee totalling $2 million, to determine project and financing priority, in accordance with the approved 2007-08 Multi-Year Capital Budget process and since the Pumphouse Theatre is a heritage building, direct Administration to investigate other potential sources of funding.

Note that’s not the first paragraph; that’s the first SENTENCE.

Even in areas where the Pumphouse project has a clear advantage, the report doesn’t do a great job of outlining things. For example, every Administration report comes with a triple bottom line assessment. In this report the “Social” assessment is only twelve words: “The project will increase artistic incubator and rehearsal space capacity in Calgary.” That’s it? The Pumphouse is a catalyst for an entire industry’s basic training; every theatre artist has worked there as they started out! The Pumphouse has a waiting list for users twice as big as they have capacity to house. And the social impact of this vital cultural icon is summed up in twelve words? Again, no wonder the questioning skipped over this line of inquiry all together.

One other area that surprises me is the “Risks” section which says, “Pumphouse will be required to submit its project business plan… for Administration’s full due diligence review…” If I were an alderman the first question I’d have is: what are we waiting for? Why is the business plan not included as an attachment now? With a statement like this, I can certainly see how the committee would not want to approve anything until they had seen the business plan.

As a matter of fact the entire project description and funding breakdown is only one page long. When it is juxtaposed against the previous page saying Administration (not even Council, at that) will see a business plan later, this page looks woefully short for $2 million. There simply is not as much detail as there could have been – which opens the door for more questions. For example, it lists “Government of Canada” as a contributor. Aldermen had every right to be wary of how strong the fed’s commitment might be if the Province pulled out so easily. It’s the lack of detail here that is the issue. I’m told the Province pulled out easily because it was a one off commitment from a department. The GoC commitment isn’t going anywhere, because that money is being allocated through a granting program. One is a well-defined funding system, the other carries as much weight as a handshake from an MLA.

If the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, I should never have bought into the hype that Council is playing politics with this proposal. At the very least the title of my last post should have had a question mark on the end: “Council playing politics with the Pumphouse?”

So the question is what does this change in the content of my first post? The answer is ‘not much’. Everything I said still holds water, I just have a much better understanding as to why the recommendations “got a rough ride”.

I still hope as many supporters of the Pumphouse expansion project come out to the Council Meeting on Monday. The only difference is they do not need to be their to show their defiance at the evils of aldermen who are out of touch with the basics of their job, instead they should simply be there to illustrate how important the Pumphouse is to them.

Hopefully the crowd won’t make the same mistake I did.

And hopefully Administration, the Pumphouse Theatres, and Calgary Arts Development have been hard at work getting all the questions asked at committee answered so Council has all the information they need to approve the $2 million on Monday.