Friday, September 26, 2008

Bad thinking all round in Battershill story
Sept. 26, 2008

What’s done is done, so there’s little point in getting too worked up over the many missteps in the Paul Battershill saga.
But boy, there was some flawed thinking going on there at a whole lot of levels. And what’s most disturbing is that if it weren’t for a Victoria businessman inadvertently bringing the messy business to light in the first place, we might never have heard a word about any of it.
If you haven’t yet read Times Colonist reporter Rob Shaw’s excellent piece this past Sunday on Battershill’s hard, fast fall from grace as Victoria’s police chief, add it to your must-read list.
It chronicles an alarming amount of seriously bad decision-making leading up to Battershill’s forced resignation last month - on the part of Battershill, Mayor Alan Lowe and Victoria’s civilian police board. That the story took almost a full year to come out also tells you how badly those at the centre of the tale didn’t want you to know any of it.
The short version of the saga is that Battershill got rid of five senior managers and a long-time executive assistant during his nine years as chief, paying each of them handsomely to go away. The severance agreements totalled more than $600,000, with at least some of them negotiated by a lawyer who Battershill was having an affair with.
That he chose to have an affair with someone the police department was paying to help him fire some of his managers - well, that’s a stellar example of wrong thinking all on its own. But as Shaw’s story noted, Battershill also chose to brag about the affair with Marli Rusen to his employees, in explicit detail. By the time Victoria businessman Gerald Hartwig started stirring up trouble for Battershill last October, the affair was common knowledge in the department.
Hartwig hadn’t gone looking for an affair. When he filed a Freedom of Information request for Battershill’s expense accounts last fall, he was merely looking for answers as to why the police department couldn’t afford more downtown foot patrols. But when the law firm that employed Battershill’s paramour suddenly got antsy over Hartwig’s request, events took an interesting turn.
Enter Mayor Alan Lowe. He found out about the situation over an Oct. 7 coffee with Hartwig. But instead of bringing the matter to the immediate attention of the Victoria police board at its meeting two days later, Lowe - who chairs the board - inexplicably decided he’d wait to tell directors at some future meeting when there were more of them in attendance.
The Battershill story broke in the media less than 24 hours later. The blindsided police board was left looking inept and ill-informed, a perception that I would have to say has only been strengthened by the events that have followed.
What we now know is that the police board simply wasn’t paying attention to the major personnel problems that were developing inside the police department under Battershill’s leadership. They weren’t questioning the decisions he was making - to the point that directors signed off on a $125,000 severance agreement for Battershill’s former executive assistant that only Lowe had actually read.
The board didn’t question the unusual clause in the agreement forbidding the assistant from talking to them. Other than Lowe, none of them even knew it was in there.
Then came the RCMP report on the Battershill case a few months later. In yet another lapse of judgment, Lowe refused to provide a copy of the report to members of the police board and instead chose to give them his own personal summary of events at an oral presentation. And they let him get away with it.
Neither Lowe nor the police board have done anything illegal, of course. Under the provisions of B.C.’s Police Act, all the power for disciplining a police chief rests exclusively with the mayor of the municipality in question.
I don’t know who thought that was a good idea. But even if that’s the law - and hopefully it won’t be for much longer - it’s still clear in the Battershill saga that the police board was asleep at the switch. Long after that embarrassing media leak brought about by Lowe’s decision to keep them in the dark a while longer, the police board was still on auto-cruise.
Battershill did much good for the city, which shouldn’t be overlooked just because things ended so scandalously. But what was bad about Paul Battershill was made much worse by the actions of Victoria’s mayor and police board, and we’re owed some answers before the next chief is hired.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Long-ago tax return proves a dollar really does buy less now

published Sept. 19, 2008

I’ve recently been reunited with my “hope chest” from a long-past marriage, and cracked open the lid this summer for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Tucked in between the baby clothes and the wedding memorabilia were four years of my ex-husband’s tax returns. I find those returns coming to mind a lot these days amid the torrent of grim news about the economic meltdown in the U.S.
For those too young to know, a hope chest is a relic from a time when teenage girls were given cedar chests for accumulating the household goods and treasures that they’d need to set up their house once they became somebody’s wife. After marriage, the wife was free to fill the chest with whatever she chose, which in my case turned out to be a random collection of keepsakes, photo albums, greeting cards, and my ex’s 1976-80 income tax returns.
We were a typical young Courtenay couple of our day. My ex worked at the Campbell River mill. I taught piano for a few hours a week, but was primarily a stay-at-home mom with two small children.
In 1980, I was 24 and he was 28, and we’d been married for six years. I never would have imagined at that time that we were leading lives of privilege, but by today’s standards I guess we were. We owned our own home, had two vehicles, took a vacation somewhere nice every year, and generally didn’t want for much.
Looking back on those years, I’ve long suspected that my ex and I - and all the young Island families we knew in those years with jobs in forestry and fishing - enjoyed a much more comfortable life than most young couples raising children these days can count on.
But economic analysis isn’t my forte, so I never got around to nailing my hunch down. I was also wary of the possibility of turning into one of those old coots prone to remembering the past in rosier terms than was actually the case.
Then I took a look at that 1980 tax return. My ex earned almost $28,000 that year, a sum that even three decades later is still what 20 per cent of Canadian families are living on.
The median income in Canada nowadays for a family like ours - one wage earner, kids still at home - is more than double what our household was getting by on in 1980. But prices have done a lot more than doubled over that same period.
A small example: I found an old diary among my hope-chest treasures that I’d used to track our gas costs on a road trip to Disneyland in the late 1970s.
Back then, gas was about 30 cents a litre. It’s almost five times that much now. But what’s even more telling in terms of purchasing power is how gas prices then and now compare as a percentage of household earnings.
If in 1980 you were earning $28,000 and filling up your tank twice a month, your gas costs for the year amounted to less than three days’ pay. For argument’s sake, let’s presume an equivalent modern-day income of $75,000. Filling up at the same twice-a-month rate now eats up eight days’ wages.
In terms of housing, the change is even more dramatic.
We bought a little cabin on the beach in Royston in 1974 for $10,000. We sold it two years later to buy an unfinished two-bedroom house on a much bigger property. By the time we’d borrowed the money to finish it off, we had a $20,000 mortgage and monthly payments of just over $140.
So for starters, the cost of the house was less than what my ex made in a year. Only the wealthiest home buyers can say that anymore. We spent roughly six per cent of our annual household income on mortgage payments. Fast-forward to modern times and a household income of $75,000, and that would translate to a mortgage payment of about $375 a month.
If only. The truth is you can’t even find a rooming-house bed for that price anymore. The average Canadian currently spends more than 20 per cent of their total income on mortgage payments or rent. In constant dollars, median earnings in fact fell more than 11 per cent in B.C. between 1980 and 2005.
Is this “progress,” then? Not by a long shot. And we’d best brace for worse to come, what with America’s impossibly wealthy capitalist kings now fleeing the scene of the disaster they’ve created in the mortgage and investment industries.
As always, the rich get richer. The rest of us just keep losing ground.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Put Langford 'vision' to work on homelessness
Sept. 12, 2008

Mayor Stew Young and his council have much to be proud of in the transformation of Langford over the years. They’ve helped create an attractive, well-serviced town out of a place that not so long ago was more likely to be the punch line of a bad trailer-trash joke.
Councillors, take a bow. Municipal staff, you too, because you’ve proven the worth of a fast and efficient civic bureaucracy that knows how to get things done.
But the greatest test of Langford’s visionary capability is still to come. As the City of Victoria can woefully attest, the gentrification of a community inevitably strips away its ability to hide its social problems. Once you’ve torn down the bad part of town, there’s no hiding anything anymore.
Can we anticipate that Langford will be ahead of the curve in dealing with those coming challenges, too? So far, the verdict is still very much out on that front.
On the one hand, Langford has established civic policy that has already led to the creation of 30 affordable new homes that are selling at half the market price. That’s a brilliant move.
On the other, the municipality appears to be walking into emerging street problems with the same tired strategies that have been tried to no avail in one Canadian city after another.
Those cities can attest through painful first experience that Langford’s attempts to crack down on urban “campers” and sue the family of some kid with a prolific graffiti record simply aren’t strategic actions in terms of preventing social decay.
We’ve got two decades of experience right here in B.C. as to what happens when you try to deal with social problems solely by getting tough. Short answer: You spend a lot of money to little effect, and your problems multiply exponentially in the meantime.
Leave the whole mess long enough, as has happened in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and you end up with a tragic wasteland where a lively downtown used to be. The situation isn’t quite so grim in downtown Victoria, but it’s still a pretty telling example of what can happen when a city gets things wrong around homelessness.
I would have thought a guy as clever as Stew Young would know that you can’t police social problems out of existence. Cities have been testing that strategy for well over two decades now. You only have to look at the significant rise in homelessness during that same period - at least tenfold in our region alone - for proof that the strategy doesn’t work.
The gentrification of a community is obviously a noble undertaking. Seedy crack shacks and a string of dilapidated rental properties aren’t anybody’s idea of pretty.
But with gentrification comes the razing of the last remnants of housing that poor people can still afford. Rough-looking streets of neglected duplexes and sagging houses give way to high-end condos and snazzy townhouses, with nary an impoverished renter in sight.
You can see where that practice inevitably leads, especially when nobody’s making any effort to replace the cheap and easy housing that’s being lost. Add in the damage done to the social-safety net by years of cuts and offloading at the provincial and federal level, and you’ve got the recipe for social mayhem.
What’s a municipality to do? First and foremost, see it coming and plan for it.
Countless U.S. cities have walked themselves into major street problems in decades past. Their well-documented failures stand as stark warning to modern-day communities hoping to avoid the same mistakes. OK, Langford is no New York City, but the determinants of homelessness are the same all over the world, and here’s simply no excuse for a community to stumble blindly into urban decay anymore.
I would have expected Langford to be watching and learning from Victoria as the mistakes piled up into an outright homeless crisis in the capital’s downtown. Stew Young needn’t look far afield for a reminder of what can happen when a city tries to deal with homelessness as an offence rather than a troubling social phenomenon.
Were I the undisputed king of Langford, I’d be working on having at least 10 permanently subsidized and supported units of housing built into every new development. I’d be trying to engage the town youth in something more fun than spray-painting other people’s property. I’d be out there with the same kind of innovation that Langford has shown on so many other fronts, building homes for the homeless without a minute wasted on chasing them from place to place.
Come on, Stew. You’re the man with the plan. Show us you know how to build a great community as well as a town.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Deli-meat sandwiches should be no-go for elderly patients
Sept. 5, 2008

So I’ve done my due diligence this week and read through several dozen news items, reports and public-health warnings about the listeriosis outbreak that’s killing Canadians. I’m afraid I have to fall back on that old cliché about being left with more questions than answers, particularly around why old, sick people are still being fed deli meats.
Like most of the bacteria that cause food poisoning, listeria monocytogenes is found everywhere: In our soil and water; in almost 40 species of mammals (including humans); in fish; crustaceans; ticks; sewage waste; sickrooms. Healthy farm animals and humans alike can harbour it quite comfortably with no symptoms.
For a healthy adult under age 50, a bout of listeriosis is unpleasant but generally manageable. Still, the overall fatality rate is 20 to 30 per cent. And for those whose health issues put them at greater risk, the fatality rate is 40 per cent or more.
Pregnant women and their fetuses have a 20-fold higher risk of developing listeriosis. Almost all of the victims in Canada’s only other major listeria outbreak 27 years ago were unborn and newborn babies. Fatality rates are extremely high for fetuses infected in the womb.
People with AIDS are 300 times more at risk of infection. Anyone with suppressed immune systems - whether from chemotherapy, chronic illness, alcoholism or old age - is at significantly higher risk.
The health recommendations for those high-risk groups have been clear for years: Those who are elderly, seriously ill or pregnant should avoid eating foods known to carry the risk of listeria contamination - particularly soft, unpasteurized cheeses and “non-dry” deli meats (sliced ham, roast beef, chicken and turkey, for instance, as opposed to dried meats like salami and pepperoni).
Personal details aren’t available yet on the 13 deaths so far in this latest outbreak, or on another 25 confirmed cases of illness. But it’s known that most of the fatalities so far involved elderly patients at hospitals and seniors’ care facilities.
They died from eating infected sandwich meats from a single Toronto meat-processing plant, which produces some of Canada’s most popular brands. What has yet to be ascertained is whether anyone in authority gave even a second thought to the wisdom of serving frail seniors food that isn’t recommended for them.
I get that we consume untold tonnes of deli meat in Canada every year without incident - $1.2 billion worth, in fact. I get that most people will spend a lifetime eating deli meats and never get listeriosis. Coleslaw was the culprit in the 1981 listeriosis outbreak in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick that killed 18 people, so it’s not like it’s all about sandwich meats anyway.
But my research this week nonetheless turned up U.S. health warnings dating back 16 years that advised people in high-risk groups to avoid soft cheeses and deli meats that hadn’t been dried. Health Canada made a similar recommendation in 2005. BC Children’s and Women’s Hospital quit serving deli meats to its patients last year.
But the deli-meat sandwiches clearly never stopped coming in facilities serving old, sick people.
How does contamination happen? In the 1981 outbreak, the problem turned out to be a farm that used contaminated sheep manure on its cabbage patch. A small outbreak on Vancouver Island six years ago was traced to problems with decontamination measures at a Parksville plant making soft cheese with unpasteurized milk.
For the latest outbreak, we know the contamination occurred at the Maple Leaf plant in Toronto, but are still waiting for the rest of the story. It will likely involve the waste of one animal or another, as that’s the primary way listeria is spread.
Health professionals are not of one mind around dealing with listeriosis. Canada records some 13 million cases of food poisoning of one kind or another every year, and the incidence of listeriosis remains blessedly rare. A nationwide ban of listeria-prone foods in all hospitals and care homes has perhaps seemed unnecessarily extreme.
But the world is changing. The sheer coast-to-coast, shelf-emptying scope of a modern-day food recall is proof of that, and the latest incident yet another telling example of the downside of a consolidated, mechanized, multi-national food industry that’s about as far from the farm gate as you can get.
Miraculously, most foods we eat will continue to be safe even so. Most of us will neither fall ill nor die from listeriosis. But if all it takes to save a few more lives is to switch the sandwich fixings in our care facilities, surely we can take that one small step.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

VIHA's problems go much deeper than communications department
Aug. 29, 2008

It’s a poor workman who blames his tools, so let’s hope the Vancouver Island Health Authority rethinks its decision to lay the blame for bad communications on its long-suffering public relations staff.
That VIHA pays $1 million a year to communicate badly is certainly a problem. But if the health authority genuinely believes the root cause of that is due to the communication department not doing its job - well, that goes a long way to explaining why these kind of problems continue to dog VIHA.
I’ve been an observer of the local health scene for many years, having started my work at the Times Colonist in 1989 as the paper’s health reporter. I’ve never lost interest in the subject, or the ongoing communication problems that have plagued whatever entity was running regional health services at a particular point in time.
When I arrived here, the Greater Victoria Hospital Society was running things, under the tightly controlled direction of a former deputy health minister from Saskatchewan, Ken Fyke. Then came Capital Health (subsequently renamed Capital Health Region) to swallow GVHS and other community-based health services in the region, and finally VIHA to engulf everything health-related on the Island.
The GVHS was born from conflict, as local hospitals and their medical staff didn’t go willingly into a top-down amalgamation of regional hospital services. Lots of leaks and brown envelopes from disgruntled hospital staff came my way in those years, evidence of much mistrust in the system.
Is that bad beginning partly to blame for the “communication problems” that have stuck like burrs to every version of the health authority ever since? Tough to say, but I do know that bad communication by the local health authority dates back at least 19 years, and that no overhaul of the communications department is going to touch it.
What I know of health-authority communications staff from my dealings with them over the years is that they’re by and large skilled, professional people doing their best in trying circumstance.
I suspect the current batch know all about good communications. I bet there are times when they’re watching in quiet horror as VIHA walks head-on into yet another populist community uprising led by whatever vulnerable, underdog group is losing services. (Frail seniors, people with severe mental illness, children with disabilities, the sickest addicts - oh, it’s quite a list.)
But what’s a department to do if the bosses have a completely different take on what it means to communicate effectively? With a few notable exceptions (the Victoria Health Project, for instance), the standard communications strategy employed by local health authorities over the years boils down to this: “We dictate, you accept.” I’d like to meet the communications department that could do a bang-up job with a message like that.
A story by Cindy Harnett in this week’s TC gave me new insight into why VIHA so often misses the mark in its communications. In an interview about the pending audit of the communications department, VIHA president Howard Waldner described the closure of Cowichan Lodge as a “good news” story that went bad only because the issue was hijacked by special interest groups and political agendas.
Wow. Does he really believe that? Anyone with their head even partially out of the rabbit hole would have seen that one coming, especially when the lodge’s aging residents were initially given just two months’ notice instead of the one year required under B.C. law.
In VIHA’s defence, there’s no way to come out looking like the good guy when you’re the one ordering old, sick Grandpa to pack up for another move just when he’d finally settled in. But the health authority has a knack for making bad news just a little bit worse as a “communications event” - first by never telling communities what’s up until it’s too late, and then by being completely unprepared for the negative fallout.
There are better ways to do it. The first option, and the one I’d root for: Mitigate disaster from the outset by genuinely consulting with people before making major changes that will affect their lives forever. Adjust plans accordingly.
Option two: At least have the common sense to understand that autocratic, secretive decision-making is a recipe for communications problems. Have a plan for dealing with the backlash that goes beyond blaming special interest groups for raining on your parade. Thin-skinned, defensive responses that deflect blame elsewhere are just so yesterday.
As for your communications department, let ‘em live. You know what they say about shooting the messenger.