Saturday, July 25, 2009

Too-efficient parking enforcement no way to lure people downtown

As a general rule, I try to avoid being self-serving in my column. I try not to use my public platform to write about issues that I’ve got a personal stake in.
But - and there’s always a but, isn’t there? - I do have one personal issue that drives me absolutely mad, to the point that on rare occasions I ignore all that stuff about separating the personal and the public and have a little rant anyway. The subject is parking tickets.
I’ve had a few in my day - probably 10 a year since I moved here in 1989. I generally pay up within the two-week discount period, primarily because I refuse to let the city take any more money from me.
Every one of the tickets has angered me. That’s neither here nor there as a public issue except if you consider that the City of Victoria has given me at least 200 easy opportunities to feel resentful toward it. I suspect the same goes for virtually anyone who gets a ticket, unless there really are people out there who chuckle good-naturedly at their knuckleheadedness at the sight of another ticket on their windshield.
I’ve had three tickets in the last week and a half. Anyone who spends even small amounts of time in the downtown on a regular basis can relate to the sinking feeling of dashing back to your car only to find a ticket fluttering under your wiper and a $20 instant fine waiting.
The first ticket was issued one minute after a 20-minute meter expired (the city has a grace period of five minutes, but wouldn’t you know, only on 90-minute meters). The other was issued five minutes after I’d distractedly walked away from an unfed meter and briefly poked my head inside a store with a good sale on.
The third was more garden-variety: a meeting simply went on longer than predicted. Running two blocks to feed the meter - which the city doesn’t allow anyway, of course - simply wasn’t an option.
I get the whole revenue/expenses thing. One of the city’s objectives is to offset costs through parking revenues, which generate more than $4 million a year for the city. I also get that if there weren’t rules and fines, people who work downtown might take up all the street space and shoppers wouldn’t be able to find parking.
But equally important objectives in the city’s 2007 parking strategy are to “support the economic vitality of downtown,” and “create incentives to position downtown as the destination of choice.” How does an overly efficient parking-ticket process fit in?
I expect the city will follow up this column with a letter directing me to one of the city’s five parkades, all of which have rates that match that of street meters with the bonus of a discount first hour. They might also recommend I get a parking card, which ensures I always have money for a meter.
I have, in fact, been motivated by rising fine prices to work much harder at using the parkades, and I love my parking card. But there are days when I think I’m going to take 90 minutes, but I take longer. There are days when I’m running late, lugging heavy things, or just unable to turn away from some beautiful open parking spot right out front. Why do I have to be fined $20 for that?
With no disrespect to hard-working city councillors, I’d take away their free parking privileges if it were up to me. Elected officials need to stay real if they want to keep their citizens happy, and that includes experiencing the frustration of parking tickets. Councillors, you need to become familiar with the feeling of being fined for spending too much time in the downtown.
If the problem really is downtown workers hogging meters, then let’s deal with that rather than continue to fine a completely different group of downtown users.
How about opening up the meters to accommodate longer parking? A bigger discount at the parkades, and a reasonable first-day fine rate? Not so long ago, people paid $7.50 if they dealt with their parking tickets promptly; how about a rate like that for those who pay up within a day or two?
Thank you, Downtown Victoria Business Association, for your two-hour-free Saturday coupons and your “meter fairies,” who use top-ups to quietly save people from tickets. I appreciate your attempts to mitigate the effects of an overly efficient parking system.
But it takes more than fairies to fix the inherent problems of a city constantly fining the very people that it’s ostensibly trying to lure into doing business downtown. There has to be a better way.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Consider yourself a journalist? Post your ethics code

No TC column this past week (CanWest cutbacks), but I thought I might fill the blank by posting my personal ethics code as a journalist.
I put it together last fall when I was teaching a journalism course at the University of Victoria. We got into a big discussion one day about ethical behaviour in journalism, and I went home and for the first time wrote down the personal code I followed as a journalist.
In these times of disintegrating mainstream media and anyone-is-a-journalist, I think it's going to be essential for readers/viewers to ask their favourite bloggers and writers to produce their own codes. If we're all going to be getting our news from wildly diverse sources, we'd be wise to understand what principles our news gatherers are using when collecting their information.
Anyone can call themselves a journalist, but there's no association that journalists have to belong to, or code that we have to swear to uphold. So the only thing that separates a conscientious journalist from an irresponsible, muck-raking fiction writer is the internal ethics code that the writer is guided by. Here's mine:

Jody’s personal ethics code:

- Through my own efforts or that of trusted sources, I have done my best to ensure that the information I’m presenting is factual.

- I believe the story I’m writing is in the greater public interest or meets the test of the public’s need to know, and is not merely voyeuristic, sensational or exploitive.

- I have done my best to present all sides of the issues, and have set aside my own personal views in order to provide a fair and balanced story that puts the issues at hand in context for the reader.

- I understand that people may be harmed in some way as a result of my story, but have considered those risks and believe that the greater public good in this case outweighs the risks of individual harm.

- I am familiar with Canada’s laws around libel, defamation and contempt of court, and have done my best to present a story that is not in conflict with those legal issues. Where a story still may be a concern on those fronts, I have notified my editor.

- While I have been very careful to avoid making mistakes of any kind - errors of fact, spelling, geography, timelines, etc - I recognize that mistakes are always a possibility. I take full responsibility for correcting those mistakes quickly, graciously and without malice.

- I identify all sources of information for my readers, and in the rare case when it’s not possible to identify a source, I tell the reader why anonymity is justified.

- I recognize that “facts,” perspectives and knowledge are ever-changing, and am always willing to take another look at an issue or change my mind.

- I do not lie or falsely represent myself to anyone I am seeking information from or interviewing.

- I am proud to put my name to the pieces I write and recognize that my personal reputation is on the line with every story that appears under my byline.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Don't let racist element blur the view on stupid boys fighting

Nobody needs an ugly video of a three-on-one street fight in Courtenay to remind them that racism is alive and well in our country and around the world. We humans always need an enemy, and physical appearance has long been an easy fallback for the purposes of defining “us” and “them.”
I feel sorry for the town of Courtenay, which in my experience is no more of a hotbed of racism than any other community. I grew up there and did see quite a bit of street-fighting in my teen years, however, most of it involving stupid young guys fighting for no particular reason.
When racial taunts were available to the boys of my generation, I expect they used them. Courtenay was a fairly white town in those days, though, so they generally needed a different excuse for singling someone out for a roughing up. But there was always some hurtful insult available if a guy needed to goad somebody into a fight.
I know we’d like to think we’ve changed as a society since then. But what I see most clearly in the sad video footage of Jay Phillips getting jumped on in Courtenay last week is just more proof that the legacy of stupid young guys lives on.
In this case, the three young men allegedly started the fight by grabbing the most obvious racial epithet to hurl at Phillips. But I hope we don’t get so lost in the race issue that we overlook the very unsocial fact of guys fighting each other in the street. Yes, racism is a terrible thing, but to see Phillips’ attackers conveniently packaged as “white supremacists” is to completely miss the point that the problem at the core of this incident is violence.
More than 8,400 people have already seen the video of the street fight uploaded to YouTube. More than 220 people have commented, almost all of them condemning Phillips’ attackers for racist and cowardly behaviour. Headlined “Black Man Fights Off White Supremacists,” the video is hard to miss. Courtenay will wear the shame for years to come.
The truth is, such fights go on among young men everywhere. To categorize this as a racial problem in Courtenay is to miss the point that stupid boys fighting is a problem that continues to elude us in every community. Even the vicious gang wars in Vancouver boil down to stupid boys fighting, albeit with much more sophisticated weaponry.
Ask Victoria Police how they spend their Saturday nights downtown. They’ll tell you all about the stupid boys fighting after the bar closes, hurling their share of racial slurs and insults to heat things up.
Were there to be a bright new future where nobody used racial slurs, those guys would just latch onto some other equally offensive name-calling for their fights. The whole point is to offend.
Of course, we’re not talking about all young men. Only a small minority are violent - affirmation that we’re doing many things right. But we’re still ending up with a persistent population of young men looking for a fight.
Anybody can find a fight if they’re looking for one. In the Courtenay case, the three young men were reportedly driving around in their now-infamous red truck and called out a racial epithet as they passed Phillips. When he swore back at them, they stopped their truck and swarmed him.
If I thought jail worked as a deterrent for unsocial behaviour, I’d have turned into a law and order type a long time ago. But prison time alone does little, and the macho atmosphere just amplifies angry-young-man syndrome. What really needs to happen with those three men and all the generations to come if the goal is to curb the anti-social behaviour of (some) young men?
If convicted of assault, I imagine the Courtenay guys will end up with a court order aimed at giving them an education about racial tolerance - volunteer hours at the multicultural centre or some such thing. Good idea. So is an anger-management course. The good news is that they’ll likely give up such foolishness in a few years no matter what, because street-fighting is by and large a young man’s game.
But what about the young men who never get caught on film? What of the generations of boys to come - the ones who need to see past the racism of the Phillips attack and into the senseless violence at its core? Yelling racial epithets is unacceptable, but beating people up is the bigger problem here.
Credit the new age of public videotaping for once again bringing an ugly human moment to our attention. Now what?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Wish I'd seized the moment to know my grandmother better

My mother didn’t give me much choice about attending family reunions when I was younger, and there were times in years past when I wasn’t too happy about that. I love my family, but long summer treks to Saskatchewan weren’t necessarily my idea of a good time.
But somewhere along the line, I got hooked. I can’t remember the exact reunion when it all clicked in, but I recall looking around at my many cousins as we made merry and thinking how incredible it was that we barely knew each other, had grown up thousands of miles away, and yet all had stories in common of our quirky grandmother.
That connection is very much on my mind this week, because the aunts and the uncles and the cousins are all in town at this very moment for a family reunion in Victoria. Chances are I’m swapping Grandma Chow stories with some of them even as you’re reading this.
Mary Feica was a Romanian teenager who married Chinese immigrant Charles Chow in 1910 in Moose Jaw, Sask. They’d met when my grandmother got a job working at the restaurant my grandfather managed.
The circumstances of that marriage alone, at a time when few things could have been more scandalous, have made for many happy hours of chatty speculation for me and my cousins. But there’s much more than that to the life of Mary and Charles Chow and their nine very interesting children, so we’re never short of things to talk about.
I have no memory of my grandfather, as he died the year I was born. But Grandma Chow lived until 1979 and was a regular visitor to our house during my childhood. She was a traveller without a home base in the years when I have the clearest memories of her, moving from one relative’s house to another for extended periods.
Oh, the things I wish I’d asked her during the times when she stayed with us. She was a woman who lived against the tenets of her time on a number of fronts, and if she was here before me now I’d have a million questions for her about what that was like. (Every now and then, the cousins get to talking about how we’ll write a book about our grandparents.)
But wouldn’t you know, I wasn’t interested in Grandma Chow’s stories in the years when she was visiting. I was a kid, and then a self-absorbed teenager, and then off on my own adventures. My memories of her are only of an elderly woman with a heavy accent and thick eyeglasses, humming tuneless melodies as she moved around our kitchen making something strange to eat.
Such a lost opportunity. I’m thankful that one of my cousins is trying to fill in some of the gaps in our family knowledge by interviewing the three surviving Chow children - my mother Helen, her sister Joan, and baby brother Eddie. But I wish I’d had the foresight to be more curious with Grandma Chow herself when I had the chance, as I’m sadly certain that she would have been happy to have been asked.
It’s not so much the geography of her life that interests me - lived here or there, worked at this job or that. I’d like to know those details too, of course, but what I really want to know is what it was like to be her.
Nine children, a language barrier with her own husband, the death of a young son, years of poverty during the Depression - Mary, how did you endure it? She made choices throughout her life that would have brought tremendous judgment down on her at the time(sorry - you’ll have to wait for the book for more details), and yet she just kept putting one foot ahead of the other and carrying on.
I see her legacy in all of us Chow cousins. There’s no shortage of skeletons in the closet when it comes to our family, but we’re a tough-minded, passionate, independent bunch who know how to carry on. I’m proud to be the descendent of a strong, resilient woman who lived a life in full.
The good thing about regular family reunions is that the people who attend eventually develop their own shared history just from being at all those reunions. Grandma Chow remains a favourite subject, but now we’ve got our own tangled lives and crazy stories from previous reunions to add to the mix.
A big thanks to my Auntie Joan and cousins Tracy and Toni for making this weekend’s reunion happen. Chow family, party on.

Epilogue on July 7: Family reunion was a blast! Next reunion: Summer of 2012 in Three Hills, Alta.