A Conversation with one of Voltaire’s Bastards

The easy answer is that decision making must be decoupled from administration: the former being organic and reflective, the latter linear and structured. . . The rational advocacy of efficiency more often than not produces inefficiency. It concentrates on how things are done and loses track of why. It measures specific costs without understanding real costs.
–John Ralston Saul,
Voltaire’s Bastards, pp. 626-7

 

The other day I returned a call from a fellow at the City of Edmonton’s Drainage Department and found myself in a bit of a Joseph Heller novel, all because I wanted to make a sensible suggestion.

Although Edmonton is a remarkably young city from a built point of view, my neighbourhood’s sanitary sewer system is about a million years old. My neighbourhood also has a substantial part of one of the world’s largest healthy stands of American Elms. Taken together, these two are a recioe for disastrously root-plugged sewer pipes and black sludge spilling onto basement floors.

As well as an ongoing program of replacing or relining these old pipes, the City sensibly has something called “The Root Maintenence Program”. When my house was built over twenty years ago, the builder sensibly put a new, modern sewer line to the property line, tying into the old system there. For as long as I can remember, every twelve to eighteen months a City crew has politely and sensibly come to my house and augered out the roots blocking the old City pipe, sometimes sending a herbicide down the pipe to put a bad taste into the mouth of Old Man Elm.

Last year the main line on our street was relined, leaving only the short million year old lateral between the main line and my property line open to night-soil-seeking tree roots. So, the City crew came again a week or so ago, finding lots of roots again, saving me from a stinking basement, and generally being sensible and polite.

The Root Maintenance Program is a common-sense stop-gap until the sewage system is upgraded — the cost of routinely removing the roots is almost certainly less than emergency overtime and damage claims that would be filed by sludge-flooded homeowners if City trees were allowed to spread with wild abandon through the sewer pipes of the metropolis.

Yes. A sensible stop-gap until the scheduled upgrades proceed.

The evening of the Friday after the crew politely and sensibly augered my main drain, I found a voice mail message from a man at Edmonton Drainage Services.

“The lateral line to your house is going to be relined in the next year or two so you’ve been removed from the Root Maintenance Program. If you have any questions, call me at, etc.”

Oh. In a year. Or two. Every eighteen months the sewer has been on the verge of backing up. If it’s left for two years . . .

The next Tuesday morning I called the number and identified myself.

“Yes, I remember,” the fellow interrupted, and he immediately started into a defensive speech about how there would be no charge . . .

I squeezed in with “No, I just want to make a modest and, I think, sensible suggestion: they’ve been coming to clean it out every twelve to eighteen months and now you say it may be two years before it’s relined. Wouldn’t it make sense to leave me on the Program? Then, if the relining is done in a year, take me off, and, if it’s done in two years, I’ll get one more visit from the crew and be assured of no back up.”

“If you have a back up just call and we’ll clean out the roots. No charge.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement. Wouldn’t it be sensible to have me on the program for one more visit?”

“I can’t put you on both lists at once. Once you’re on the relining list you have to be taken off the Root Maintenance list.”

“You can’t put me on both lists?”

“No.” I could sense a “No charge” about to float out.

“So,” I asked, sensibly, I thought, “policies and procedures take precedence over what makes sense?”

“Yes” the fellow replied, without any trace of regret, or irony, or anything other than “that’s a mildly interesting but obvious fact.”

I was speechless for a moment. This fellow was the sort of person John Ralston Saul described in Voltaire’s Bastards: the devotee of the System at the expense of any human consideration, a person who had bought into the idea that the assembly line is more important than the product of the assembly line, that the mission statement is bigger than the mission.

“So, rather than leave me on the list, I have to watch my drain and hope I don’t find sludge in my basement.”

“Call at the first sign of a blockage and we’ll come and clean it out.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement.”

“Free of charge.”

I shifted  gears and joined the game:

“So, it would make sense for me to just call next summer and say I’ve got a blockage when I don’t actually have one.”

“Yes, that would be a good idea.” No appearance of seeing the mild absurdity of it.

“So it would be a good idea to lie? Okay. I’ll call next summer.”

“If you have any further questions, feel free to call.”

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions.
Saul, op.cit., p. 630

I’ve told this story to pretty much everyone I know and it has been met with unanimous recognition of the absurdity of rules so slavishly followed that common sense is abandoned. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all Voltaire’s bastards. And yet, the routine maintenance of the physical system is being replaced by emergency maintenance, probable overtime expenses, potential damage claims against the City, all because the Management System says “I can’t have you on both lists at once.”

Saul was depressingly accurate in his description of the dystopia we have created. From the needs of people with disabilities to the fundamental infrastructure underpinning our technological society, I’ve noticed that maintenance of the Rules has come to take absolute precedence over the needs and desires if citizens, over efficiencies of labour and cost, and, at root of it all, over common sense — sensus communis. As individuals we are forced to play the game according to often absurd and arbitrary rules or risk wading through sludge on a winter morning.

It pains me, but I guess I’ll play the game, make a phone call next summer, and lie about some tree roots.

But, tonight I’ll have a slightly bitter laugh or two while watching Gilliam’s Brazil again. But this time I’ll watch it as a documentary.

And I’ll try to remind myself:

“We’re all in it together!”

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A Visit to the Neighbour Centre

A few weeks ago with homelessness on my mind I took a few minutes to drop in on the Neighbour Centre, another great Edmonton thing.  I’d been meaning for some time to visit this rare resource for “street people” on the south side of the River.  The visit was a fine and moving experience.

As one o’clock opening time approached about a dozen people gathered at the door, most laughing and smiling, all apparently familiar with each other.  I hung back, feeling myself to be an outsider here.

Finally the front door of the little storefront across 104 Street from Strathcona High School opened, but it wasn’t quite time to go in.  I watched as a mysterious lottery took place. A number, but not all of the gathered, called out to have their names put into a hat.  Four names were drawn and then the doors opened and all filed inside, I at the end of the line.

Unlike many inner city “missions” the world over, the Neighbour Centre doesn’t require that a meal be purchased with a bowed head or an open ear for a prayer or a sermon.  The proceedings began with what seemed a completely voluntary opportunity for individuals to publicly reflect positively on themselves.  Staff, volunteers, and Neighbours all took a moment to either pass or to tell the group what they thought of themselves when they were at their best, a pretty positive exercise.

After this brief self-affirmation, the purpose of the mysterious lottery became clear: four of the Neighbours appeared in yellow safety vests, “The Neighbour Centre” printed on the backs, equipped for their afternoon cleaning litter from the sidewalks of Old Strathcona.  For their work, they would be paid an hourly wage in cash. The fact that a lottery must be held for these jobs puts the lie to the idea that the “homeless” are not willing to work.

The Neighbours now disperssed through the building, some to the back to the showers, some straight to the fresh food in the “kitchen”.  The Neighbour Centre does not have a full kitchen, making to with microwaves and rice cookers and a healthy offering of fresh fruit and vegetables.

As I chatted and learned about some of the philosophy of the Centre, I saw neighbours offer to wash up the dishes. There is little distinction here; everyone pitches in. The Neighbour Centre’s focus is on helping Neighbours become actual neighbours, to help them empower themselves to better their own circumstances. It’s a hackneyed pharse, but the Neighbour Centre doesn’t offer hand outs. It offers hands up.

One particularly exciting program the Neighbour Centre organizes is the Thursday night Dinner Club at the Strathcona Baptist Church.  On these evenings about twenty Neighbours — staff, volunteers, and those who might be called “clients” by other agencies — get together to prepare and share their dinner, side by side. This is not a charity providing “services”, rather, here are neighbours serving each other and building a true community, nurturing individual growth.

Recently the Neighbour Centre has amalgamated with another great Edmonton thing, the Mustard Seed.  This will hopefully bring administrative efficiencies while not undermining either organization’s philosophy or strenghths.  Together with Youth Empowerment and Support Services (YESS), the Neighbour Centre is a rare bright light for our most disadvantaged neighbours on the south side of Edmonton. Each of us needs to try to be such a light for our neighbours. All of our neighbours.

 

Until the fine future day the Neighbour Centre is no longer needed, I hope all shoppers on Whyte Avenue, when they pass a worker in one of those yellow safety vests, will share a smile and a “Thank you, neighbour!” and maybe a conversation and some laughter.  As I did a few days ago with this fellow:

I’ve got a bone to pick with Edmonton’s Weed Inspectors

I have a bunch of very nice neighbours. One in particular is devoted to her yard and her flower beds, which she keeps in immaculate condition. Without knowing the term, she practices Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which is pretty much the accepted set of practices for the management of weeds and insect pests in Alberta. It is what the Province expects to be understood and practiced by successful applicants for a Pesticide Application Certificate (of which I am a[n expired] holder). Basically, IPM strives to keep pests (and weeds) below a certain, manageable threshold, as eradication is virtually impossible even with massive use of chemical pesticides (many seeds hang around for years or even decades in the soil before germinating).

Lately my neighbour has been coming to me with plants she finds in her yard asking me what they are, which is flattering to me, but she’s at her wit’s end! A City of Edmonton weed inspector has been, to use a harsh word, harassing her about the state of her yard. Like every yard in Strathcona, her yard has some creeping bellflower, which, unlike most homeowners in Strathcona, my neighbour pulls out obsessively. She’s been cited by this weed inspector for rampant perennial sow thistle. She has none in her yard and the weed inspector later admitted that he “just wrote that on the citation” although he knew there was none in her yard.

Today I inspected her yard quite closely and found absolutely no uncontrolled noxious weed infestations. And yet my neighbour has had three letters from this weed inspector.

To add insult to the infliction of unnecessary anxiety, at least six front yards on my neighbour’s block have been unmowed all summer and are absolutely overrun with uncontrolled perennial sow thistle and/or Canada thistle and/or creeping bell flower with no apparent repercussions for the owners of those properties.

What is going on here? Does this weed inspector have a vendetta against my neighbour? Do the inspectors only come out of their offices if there is a complaint? If the latter, does some other anonymous neighbour have some sort of sick vendetta against my neighbour with the immaculate garden? Even if the inspector is only responding to vexatious complaints, do inspectors not have the training to recognize frivolous complaints and the authority to summarily dismiss such complaints? And do they not have the authority to act on seriously and objectively out of control noxious weed beds when such are right before their eyes?

I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I get any sort of answer. In the meantime, I’ll happily continue to advise my neighbour with the immaculate yard – and all my neighbours — about noxious weed identification and Integrated Pest Management.

I wish City of Edmonton weed inspectors would do the same.

P.S.

And we should discuss the several weeks this summer when the uncontrolled pigweed and other noxious weeds on the City-owned medians on Whyte Avenue between 96th Street and 99th Street grew so tall that it became a traffic hazard, completely blocking visibility for motorists making left turns onto Whyte Avenue from either Strathcona or Ritchie. Where were the weed inspectors when uncontrolled noxious weeds on City land endangered the lives of citizens?

Update, September 6, 2016: This morning, the first business day afyer I posted the above, I was contacted by a City of Edmonton representative (by Twitter direct messaging) asking for my neighbour’s location, saying they wanted to look into this further. 

Time will tell.