Category Archives: #yeg

Summoned to Jury Duty

A few weeks ago, I received my first ever jury duty notification. It really is a summons and it speaks with authority, with warnings of serious consequences if you fail to respond or show up on the designated day and time at Court Room 317.  Instructions and explanations were pretty good, but it was all rather cold. Who likes an invitation with an or-else clause?

I think serving on a jury is a civic responsibility, but with limits of course — people have lives to live after all —  but more about that in a bit.

I thought of mailing my notice back requesting an exemption because I am  so very busy and of course undeniably necessary (I’m smiling). But I didn’t. I wanted to see what happens when called to jury duty. I had a bit of this weird Perry Mason thing going on inside of me. I was curious and I did feel obliged to go.

I arrived at the Courthouse 8:20 a.m. on the appointed day. The official “start time” was 8:30 a.m. but we were encouraged to arrive early so we had time to go through security. Since I am always one to follow instructions, I did as I was told. I breezed through security as there was only a line of three people.

I took the elevator to the third floor and stepped out into a sea-snake of people that wrapped around the hallways and through the elevator corridor. I was directed to the end of the line, which frankly took longer to get to than I imagined it would. Most of us looked rather dazed or gazed, but who knows? Maybe I was the only one.

There was a very large gathering space on the floor. Our line wrapped around its pillars. Along one wall there were windows behind which were what appeared to be working spaces undergoing renovation. Behind one of the windows sat a young woman. She was just sitting there from what I could tell. There was the little half circle opening at the bottom of the window panel, large enough to slip an envelope or a cup of coffee through. Eventually, I was standing at her window and I caught her eye, smiled, and said, “I’ll have a hot dog and some fries, please.”

She smiled. We chuckled and then the line moved and so did I. That was the highlight of the day for me. Not sure about her.

jury-selection-1It’s a tad funny though. I am referencing the instructions which encouraged getting there a bit early to navigate security only, in reality, to be on time to stand in a very, very, very long line. We were in line to get our “number.” I was prospective juror number 98.

It took 40 minutes before the line of people ended up in one of two courtrooms. We sat there on wood benches or hard plastic office chairs, nearly shoulder to shoulder and waited for this jury duty thing to begin.

There were at the time, two women (court clerks?) sitting behind a dark wood barrier, and three, if not four, sheriffs. In the middle of the room was a television screen and, slow in the head as I am, it took me a while to realize we would be watching and listening on the television. The judge and the opposing counsels were in the other court room.

None of the staff said much about what was going to happen. A woman sitting on the opposite side of the room asked if someone could explain what was going to happen. We were told we would find out later. So we sat there. Bottled water was made available to us. There was a smattering of talking here and there, but mostly we just sat there and waited, our faces pointed at the court staff and sheriffs who basically were just sitting there waiting, too.

About 30 minutes later, out of the blue, we are told to all stand up, grab our belongings, and leave the court room and that after a few minutes we could come back inside. Quite a few of us looked around at one another, as if to make sure we had heard the same thing and weren’t delusional or unwitting characters in some Monty-Python-like satire on the judicial system.

Like true Canadians, we rose, gathered up our meagre belongings and made our way into the hallways and stood like restless yet polite statues until we heard the all clear signal and returned from whence we came. We were never told why this short-lived exodus was necessary. I still have no clue.

We settled back in and it was maybe 10 minutes later when the judge appeared on television. He was a man with silver-white hair, defined features, a friendly voice and as he spoke and later listened to jurors make their case for being exempted, I saw a kindness in him that for some odd reason surprised me. A kind judge? Really?

Oh the biases that flow through our veins only to be shattered by experience!

I liked him, and truth be told all of the court room staff and sheriffs were convivial and helpful once there was actually something to do. They horsed around a bit and shared some humorous exchanges with some of us. I still felt uncomfortable and impatient but I have no complaints about the staff or the judge. They all came off as good people.

The judge spent a good twenty minutes explaining what was going to happen over the course of the day. Short story is they needed 28 people of the 300 in the room to sit on two juries (each with 12 jurors and two alternates, for those doing the math) for two court cases, one that would last into March and another that was expected to go about a week to ten days.

(That’s when I gulped.)

rime-clipart-trial-by-jury-2Basically the clerk in the other room called out 15 to 20  numbers by rolling some kind of bin — I imagined something you might see in a bingo hall — and picking a number, then rolling again and picking a number, and so on and so on. If your number was called you were to go stand in front of the courtroom where the judge was presiding, turn your back to him and face the prosecution and defense teams, with at least 200 other prospects watching from the galley.

My number came up in the fifth round. Until my turn came I watched the judge on television talk to those asking to be exempted from jury duty. Most of it was an exchange of whispers, out of respect for privacy. With maybe one or two exceptions he granted the exemptions. I couldn’t make out what happened to those who didn’t request one, but something was going down. There were numerous muffled voices, all owned by lawyers, and I assumed decisions were being made about the acceptability of the person standing in front of them.

I finally got my turn. I stood in the big court room facing the lawyers and the crowd and watched as others up there with me went before the judge or stood in front of the lawyers. The judge talked with people like I described earlier, but here’s the thing about the others who faced the lawyers.

All each person did was stand there. They were not asked one question. Then that prospective juror was dismissed because opposing counsels never once agreed. One would say yes, the other would say no. Their rationale? Who knows? But apparently a court of law is where it is common place to judge a book by its cover.

How does one select a jury of the defendant’s peers by looking at them for a few seconds? Earlier, the judge advised us not to take rejection personally, but come on. It can’t feel good to be denied one’s civic duty based solely on appearance. Besides, in other realms, wouldn’t that be illegal or at least frowned upon?

I was a bit shocked by it, to be honest, but 10 minutes later, after a successful appeal to the judge, I walked away, with a bit of a what-the-hell-just-happened look on my face, relieved to be taking the elevator back down to the real world I was accustomed to.

There was no way I could sit on a jury for ten days or into March. I explained why to the judge. He understood and set me free.

Here’s what I am wondering.

Why can’t going down to the courthouse for jury duty be more engaging, more convivial, less threatening, and more efficient? In this day and age of self-driving automobiles and flying objects 10 years-old fly in fields and around their neighbourhoods, there has to be a software program to replace rolling that bingo drum to pick numbers from. Flash-boom, there they are on the big screen. See your number, scoot over to the judge, and let’s get on with the doing some selecting and exempting. I bet that technology would shave two hours off the experience.

Maybe this is a wild idea or perhaps is sourced in my phobia of lines, but might it be possible to instruct half of us to show up at 8:30 and the other half be told to arrive at 9:00? Shorter lines for everyone and it would take no longer than the current process. In fact, do we really need to be there that early if things don’t begin until closer to 10 a.m.?

Now I don’t really understand how courts do what courts do or what demands and responsibilities staff face over the course of the work week. I imagine there is a ton of stuff to do, much of it exacting and taxing work, but at the very least, for what it it’s worth, the optics were not all that good. The judicial system came off as sluggish and backward. There were substantive periods of time when staff were basically doing little, if anything, other than being in the same room with us. It’s the kind of optics frustrated people share on Twitter and Facebook.

Yeh, I didn’t care much for the experience. But you know what? I hope I get another summons a few years down the road when I am no longer so busy and so damn important. I will shave, polish my shoes, put on my lucky green shirt and my comfy black slacks and go on down and stand straight before the lawyers, conjure up the best-ever pick me face and hope I look like the juror both sides want on their side.

I probably won’t like the process of getting there.

But I would like to sit on a jury. It’s important and despire my previous commentary, it would be an honor to do so.

 

THERE’S MORE TO DO TO IMPROVE AISH, ISN’T THERE?

I was at the gathering where Premier Notley and Minister Sabir announced legislation that would improve benefits to recipients of AISH. I support these improvements (read more). My math indicates a 6% increase to the AISH benefit. Some critics say it should have been higher, given the length of time since the last increase. Some say the government could have brought in these changes earlier.

Of course there are others who would choose to reduce AISH benefits while increasing the coffers of the wealthy through tax breaks.

Everybody’s got their opinion on how things should be if they were in charge. If only Premier Notley and her colleagues could accommodate all of us!

I see the changes as a positive development, an additional program reform that will help vulnerable Albertans. I wish the bump had been bigger, but the government has a budget to contend with. The indexing to the cost of living is an appropriate way to ensure that adjustments are made each year. That’s a big change for the better.

Most of us who work in the community change sector, in particular those who work to end poverty, homelessness, and the poor treatment of the marginalized are expressing support for the government’s actions. Some are celebrating it.  Sure, I will clink a glass or two to celebrate the changes, but let’s make sure we see this change as a strong beginning to a path forward toward further reform. We are not done yet, right?

I saw one suggestion via Twitter that folks on AISH should receive the equivalent to the minimum wage that the government requires employers to provide. At 35 hours a week that would amount to $27,300 per year. The increased AISH benefit translates to an annual income of $20,220. There is merit in this idea. If  one believes that an Albertan worker should be entitled to a minimum wage of $15 per hour, why are people on AISH deserving of less? On the other hand, $20,220 is above the poverty line (as of 2015) of $18,213.

The problem with poverty lines is that they are about subsistence in the present. They do not factor in the future of recipients of AISH as they grow older. They do not allow for emergencies in the many forms they manifest in people’s lives. They do not allow saving any money or having the means to do much more than survive.

Survival is not living. Survival is surviving.

AISH should promote more than survival.

What concerns me is that AISH is not really a disability pension that the recipient can count on. Let me provide an example. It’s a real one, not made up. Names have been changed.

John and Mary are married. Mary has a teenage son from a previous marriage and together they have a three year old. Mary is on AISH. Well, actually she is and she isn’t. John has been a low income earner until recently. Each month Mary’s benefit was adjusted (i.e. clawed back) based on John’s monthly income, which varied month to month.

Recently John got a better job that pays reasonably well. His income is still far below the Alberta average, but he is making enough to trigger AISH reducing Mary’s AISH benefit to zero. If one does the math for this family, it is in effect no farther ahead than then when John earned lower wages. I am not suggesting AISH should never be adjusted downward based on family income, but I do wonder if it is appropriate to wipe  it out.

Wiping out the benefit says to Mary, you no longer deserve your own income. You no longer have status with AISH decision-makers and should be happy now being totally dependent on your spouse. And for John who is trying to make a better life for his family, the message is your wife is now your burden. Your extra wages should not benefit your family; they should reduce the cost of Mary on the government.

I have a problem with that.

Doesn’t the claw back marginalize Mary? And John? And their children?

If Mary earned the minimum wage, an employer would not reduce it because John is making more money than he once was.

To be honest, I am not sure how this should work, but how it works now seems wrong to me. AISH recipients are people, not just recipients. Having their income reduced to zero impacts the dignity of people like Mary who want to feel like they are able to contribute to their family’s economic life and future.

Perhaps there are further reforms to consider. Perhaps there is a “middle way” to adjust AISH benefits downward as family income increases. Perhaps there should be a core benefit that never can be eliminated or that should only be eliminated if the family’s income is on par with the average wage of Albertans. Or something like that.

What do you think?

A BIG fail of our Media

Today I attended the announcement by the Alberta Government that it would be raising the AISH benefit by near $100 per month and indexing it to the cost of living from here on out. Premiere Notley spoke. Minister Sabir spoke. A gentleman on AISH spoke. Michael Phair, Co-Chair of End Poverty Edmonton spoke. You can read about these changes HERE.

This announcement, while long over due, is a positive step forward toward treating 250,000 Albertans with due respect. Along with other programs brought in by the government to attack poverty, the announcements today represent one more effort to turn away from marginalizing vulnerable Albertans.

There was a large contingent of media present in the room and via teleconference. One might think that when the media show up to such an announcement they are coming to report on what is being announced. When the floor opened up to questioning, the media decided to hijack the proceedings and grill the Premiere about disgruntled MLA Robyn Huff who was booted from caucus. She has indicated that she felt bullied by the Premier and others, although from what I can tell offered no real evidence of bully-ism.

That said, my point is not to weigh in on that situation but to point out how at least four representatives of the media ignored this important announcement about improved income security benefits to 250,000 vulnerable Albertans and, instead,  decided marginalized people like AISH recipients were not worth their time and energy as reporters. Rather, they opted to  assail the Premier with a suprise attack on her character and the character of the government.

Apparently one disgruntled MLA was far more important and newsworthy than the positive impacts the government’s actions will have for a quarter of a million people. Perhaps improving conditions for those living in poverty, for those living with disabilities that disallow them to work are good news stories not worth discussing with the Premier, especially if a reporter might get a feather in her or his cap for somehow getting the Premier to look bad as the leader of our province.

If there was any bullying occurring in the room, it was by the media. It was despicable and a clear statement by the media to 250,000 Albertans that “you do not matter.” It was a shameful act of marginalization.

I was so angry that afterward I went on a rant with the media people who behaved so poorly. They couldn’t even look me in the eye.  I was so angry, I failed to identify who these reporters were, but they know who they are. I can only hope their superiors investigate and make it clear such bad treatment of vulnerable Albertans is not what their media outlet cares to be known for.

Albertans deserve better.

Automobile-Centric Development and Parking Requirements

Cross posted – also available at http://www.edmontoncdc.org
Please consider following that blog if you want to keep up to date on my work at the Edmonton Community Development Company.

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Strong Towns is an American movement that a colleague turned me on to the other day,  and it is not only a provocative movement, it offers an array of new thinking about the rules that cities and towns have when it comes to development, whether housing and business development or the inclusion of city services in an area like a recreational centre.

One thing that really caught my eye was the case made by Strong Towns to abolish parking requirements for new development. Continue reading Automobile-Centric Development and Parking Requirements

Why are we here?

Such a simple question, four small words that get at the core of our community change work.

It’s not a question confined to a step in a visioning or planning process. It’s place is within us, no matter where we are going or if we are standing still.

It’s not just a question about purpose or vision. It is also inquiry into who we are and how coming together around something that matters to all of us might change us. After all, change of any size is made by people; the changes they make only occur because of the changes within themselves. Continue reading Why are we here?