The Uber Meeting

How one reporter survived Regina’s last-ever six-hour council meeting

City Hall | by Paul Dechene

In the lead up to the Jan. 28 council meeting, I joked there was a non-zero possibility that I’d die of old age before it was over. The agenda was a monster, coming in at 913 pages —  most of it taken up by community submissions.

There were 19 delegations scheduled to speak about proposed ride-sharing rules alone. Then there were another six delegations scheduled to speak on the proposed heritage designation for the Cook Residence, five more on the sale of city land to the YWCA, three for the new Recreation Master Plan, one for the report on city pools, one arguing in support of rules to deal with parking in front yards, one to speak on a proposed daycare and one to speak on proposed city funding for the NHL’s Heritage Classic game (which will be played in Mosaic Stadium on Oct. 26).It’s not common to have so many “comment-worthy” (read: controversial) items before city council all at once. And it added up to what could have been a real endurance test. In anticipation, I’d brought cold rations for a week, a sleeping bag and pictures of my family (so I wouldn’t forget what they looked like).

But after the meeting was called to order, Mayor Michael Fougere announced it would be adjourned promptly at 11 pm and only the reports on ride sharing and the Cook Residence would be considered that night. The remainder of the agenda would be covered at an extra meeting on Jan. 30 which, fortunately for my sanity and Prairie Dog’s page count, took it past press deadline.

Later, just as the clock struck 10:30, council voted unanimously in favour of a motion from Councillor Bob Hawkins that will limit the duration of future council meetings to four-and-a-half hours.[1]

“We kind of fizzle out after a certain point and things that are important don’t get as vigorous a debate that I think they should have,” observed Councillor Sharron Bryce. “I don’t think we do our best work at this time of night.”

Speak for yourself, councillor! I am a city hall-writing machine! My live-tweeting technique is unstoppable![2] As proof: here’s a vital and clear-headed report written in the wee hours of the morning after your puny, truncated meeting… [3]

A Wild And Crazy Ride-Share

You want Uber and/or Lyft? You’re getting Uber and/or Lyft. Possibly as early as March. That’s because council passed their Vehicles For Hire Regulatory Framework, the set of rules governing how ride-sharing platforms will function in the Queen City.

This comes in the wake of provincial rules requiring ride-share companies to get municipal licenses to operate, and follow regulations laid down by Saskatchewan Government Insurance.

The SGI rules require ride-share drivers to get Class 5 licenses, a criminal record check and display their company’s decals on their car.

On the municipal side, ride-share companies will be required to purchase a license from the city and pay a $0.20 per-trip fee, $0.07 of which will go to support accessible transportation options in Regina.

City administration notes that their fee structure is consistent with those in other cities.

Companies will also be expected to use all the online technology we’ve all come to associate with ride-sharing. So, there will be online dispatching through an app, sharing of information between client and driver and GPS tracking of the car. Unlike taxis, ride-sharing drivers will not be able to pick up people hailing them from the roadside, and payment will have to be handled through the app.

According to one online poll conducted by the City of Regina, 87 per cent of respondents felt ride-sharing would be beneficial for the city and would likely use the service.

At the council meeting, however, delegations were pretty evenly split between those looking forward to the new service and those raising the alarm.

John Hopkins, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, argued there are not enough transportation options in the city and that those who have used the service have found it to be convenient and affordable.

“I would argue that technology has improved our culture and our quality of life. We need to embrace technology like ride-sharing,” said Hopkins.

Several delegations pointed to statistics showing how ride-sharing has led to decreases in impaired driving in cities where it has been introduced.

Ride-sharing opponents, meanwhile, raised safety concerns and objected to how the ride-sharing bylaws will put taxi companies at a disadvantage in the ride-for-hire industry.

Among the safety concerns were the fact that drivers would not be required to get, in addition to their criminal record check, a vulnerable sector check that would flag if a potential driver has had a pardon for a sexual offence.

Several delegations also wanted to see a requirement for in-car cameras identical to the ones currently mandated to be in city taxis.

Regina’s in-car camera requirement came into effect in 2015. The cameras record encrypted video throughout a driver’s shift that can only be shared with law enforcement.

A motion by Councillor Andrew Stevens to require such cameras in ride-share cars and a motion by Councillor Lori Bresciani to require vulnerable sector checks were both defeated.

Representatives of the taxi industry raised concerns about how the much more lax rules passed for ride-share companies will make it difficult for them to compete.

“The mayor talked at length about a level playing field and there was some discussion tonight about opening the taxi bylaw because we’re really hamstrung,” said Sandy Archibald, manager of Regina Cabs.

Archibald noted, for instance, how ride-share companies will not have to charge a minimum fare while taxis are required by the city to charge a minimum $4.00 drop fee. Also, everything about taxis is regulated from the age of the vehicles to the size of their decals, while ride-share vehicles are comparatively restriction free.

Archibald expressed hope that the taxi bylaw would be opened up and regulations on her industry relaxed.

“Administration indicated that they weren’t looking at opening the taxi bylaw any time soon,” she said. “So we’re not quite sure what that means.”

Heritage Home Rescued

The Cook Residence looked a goner. The Tudor-revival home at 3160 Albert Street was purchased in Nov. 2018 by local property developer, Carmen Lien, who requested to have the building removed from the Heritage Holding List thus allowing him to tear down all or a portion of the house and redevelop the lot.

Regina Planning Commission, however, balked at letting such an attractive old building be demolished and recommended city council exercise its authority to declare historically significant buildings as heritage properties.

In defending his desire to demolish the Cook Residence, Lien argued that the building needed significant structural work and a full restoration would not be financially feasible. He said he did not want to do a mere patch job on the house.

“At the end of the day, I feel that this home could do better for that prominent corner. It’s in distress, I didn’t know at that point [of purchase] how in distress it was, but I wanted to do better,” said Lien.

He admitted to having multiple options for the property ranging from a doing a restoration to building “a big new home” or building a multi-unit condominium development that would cover much of the lot.

Council, however, felt preserving the building was sufficiently important that they voted 10 to one in favour of imposing a municipal heritage designation on it.

“A community that destroys its past has no future,” Councillor Hawkins said during his comments to council. “If we rip apart the works of the last generation, then we can expect our children and our grandchildren to rip apart the works that we’re most proud of — the works that reflect who we are and the things that we value. And that’s why we’re having this discussion and that’s why heritage matters.”

With municipal heritage designation, the Cook Residence cannot be torn down or significantly altered. It will also be eligible for heritage restoration funding from the city and province.


Footnotes

[1] Actually, Hawkins’ motion was amended so that instead of a hard cap there will be a vote at the four-and-a-half hour mark to end meetings. But if “lively debate” is taking place, the meeting can be extended until that item is completed. The motion also mandates a 15-minute health break.

[2] This is not true. A time limit on meetings is vry smrt. My brain turns to fudge after four-and-a-half hours, while my fingers devolve into nematodes. If you follow my council live tweets, you can watch me deteriorate in real time!

[3] This is also not true. I wrote this introduction right after council then promptly fell asleep on my couch with my laptop on my stomach. I am scrambling to write the rest of this report the next morning before Steve freaks out about deadlines. (I mean, like Steve doesn’t abuse deadlines…)