Crowsnest Pass Ratepayers Association
Hillcrest Mines, Alberta - TOK lCO
May 24, 2013
Tim Morrison, Chief of Staff Department of Municipal Affairs Chris Hutchison, Principal Russell Farmer & Associates Consulting Ltd.
Dear Mr. Morrison and Mr. Hutchison,
Regarding our petition, we did not petition the Minister to remove our sitting Council because our hope was the Municipal Review itself would be enough to bring about better governance. Unfortunately, with the review well under way, it is now clear our hopes have been misplaced.
Our Council and administration keep behaving as if the petition never took place and the concerns of the petitioners are all but ignored. The Municipal Newsletter, copy included,has been used to tell us to, more or less, be quiet while important work is being done.
It appears our sitting Council, and the administration, are of the opinion that the problems in which they find themselves with the voters are mainly due to poor communication. The petitioners, on the other hand, strongly feel that the real problems are not due to poor communication. We are convinced, now more than ever, the real problem is poor municipal governance.
While change is always difficult, change should not be used as an excuse for poor governance. If, as the municipal newsletter claims, our council is developing a policy driven governance,then the proper policies, first and foremost, must be applied to Council work. It appears to us our Council is prepared to bend, or stretch, policies when it comes to its own behaviour.
The criticism most often heard on the street is still about the lack of open debate in council. Decisions were, and are, made without the ratepayers understanding the rationale for these decisions.
Now we learn our Council has been having Secret Meetings, they have conducted these meetings under the name of Administrative Meetings for more than two years. They feel it is alright to have secret meetings and the Privacy Act is the legislation used to support this belief.
There is no provision in our current Procedural By-Law for having secret meetings of the Municipal Council, without minutes taken, and with a quorum of councillors present. There is also no record of a motion being passed to have such Secret Meetings. Using the Privacy Act to justify such secret meetings appears to be taking the Act into an area where it was never meant to go.
A Municipal Council Meeting, with a quorum present, is not a 11Cabinet" or a 11Caucus" or designated committee, or a few public officials debating policy in a relaxed environment.
Our Municipal Council is also our legislative body and it is having Secret Meetings (with a quorum present) outside our Procedural By-Law. This appears to be much the same as if the Alberta Legislature, with a majority of the MLAs present, were having secret meetings at the legislature without anyone keeping minutes. No one would tolerate such behaviour at the Provincial level and the same can be said when it comes down to municipal governance.
Changing the name of the meeting from Administrative Meeting to a CAO Report half way through a Provincial Municipal Audit,with the hope to legitimize these meetings, does not change anything. In fact, if it were not so serious, it would almost be comical.
We feel these Secret Meetings are a serious breach of municipal protocols. The knowledge these meetings taking place also helps us understand why we have witnessed so little debate in open forum. While the CAO claims "he seeks no input, direction nor do we develop strategy," he offers no records to back his claims. If no records are kept, imagination wanders. This is not good governance within a public body.
It is also unfortunate our CAO used the name of George Cuff to legitimize the format of these meetings once questions were raised. We are not sure that a respected and experienced municipal expert like Mr. Cuff would have supported such format if he was given, what looks to us, the full context of how these meetings seem to have come about and how these meetings appear to have been held.
These Secret Meetings involving the quorum of council and the lack oftransparency in the decision making process is at the root of our governance problem.
There are many examples of decisions and actions taking place without a transparent council debate and a proper council resolution. A few examples which underline the problem are:
• Municipal review of our electrical system with a possibility of future sale of our municipal assets to Fortis Alberta. The community has been aware such a review has been taking place. When we contacted our CAO about the review, he acknowledged the review. When we asked him if there was a Council debate and resolution to such effect, he replied that it was not necessary because it is in the Strategic Plan. The Strategic Plan is not there to replace processes which normally take place in the administration of a municipality. The Strategic Plan is also very clear about the need for transparency.
• Our community has also been aware that the municipality hired consultants to conduct a forensic audit of our former fire department. While such audits are sometimes required, it is not a common occurrence in a community of our size. These types of audits are very expensive if done right and costs and benefits should be debated. We have enquired of our CAO whether an audit of this type is being undertaken and whether there was a council resolution to that effect. Our CAO replied to us that while such an audit may not be common, there was no council resolution because it was within his administrative purview to order such an audit on his own. It appears that only one part of the municipal operations was singled out for this audit. In the end,we may be faced with expensive and unproductive legal costs. Only a proper debate can bring out both sides to a story.
• Since there was no visible debate on fire department restructuring, we feel that Edmonton may have not been presented with a clear picture of our former fire department. We don't know what was presented, but is not hard to paint an organization in a negative light if enough effort is put into the task. A couple of examples which may have been used were the storage of fireworks in a building constructed for that purpose behind the fire hall or the presence of alcoholic beverages at the fire hall. The alcoholic beverages were kept under lock and key and were mostly leftover from the many charity fund raisers in which the firemen were involved with. Since the liquor store will not take back open case or open bottles, that liquor was being held for future charity events. One can use these two examples to paint a good picture of the fire hall or to paint a bad picture of the fire hall; it all depends on who needs the picture.
• We don't know who called the police about the fireworks being stored in a purpose built building behind the fire hall, but it is clear to the community that the removal of the fireworks could have been affected in a more mature manner by everyone involved. After all, these fireworks were purchased through the joint effort of the municipality and the fire department and were stored on municipal premises with the full knowledge of municipal authorities.
The current forensic audit of the fire department can be viewed through the same lens as the calling of the RCMP to the Fireworks storage building. When an organization as large as our municipality finds problems in only one area of its operations, it seems to us the question should always be asked whether other areas of operations are also a contributing factor to these problems. This is why escalating such issues into the legal arena usually ends up costing a lot of money for legal work.
• We have a recorded instance, as described by Councillor Andrew Saje in his report (attached) where the council discussed something in camera and then subsequently, when they came out of camera, instructed the CAO to take action without an appropriate motion taking place. One can only imagine that the hiring of Calder Batman from Edmonton to give advice on public relations and crisis communications was something that someone wanted to keep off the record; this is really not how things should be done in a small community such as ours. When the news finally came out, the whole affair appeared to us as an unnecessary public relations disaster. Excuses were given why there was no resolution to hire the company, but since there was no budget for this kind of thing, we feel a resolution should have been taken. A policy should not be avoided just because it is inconvenient and appears easy to avoid.
There were many different reasons which led to the petition and we feel our council has failed to address our main concern, which from day one, was a very apparent lack of transparency in council's decision making process. We would like to thank the Minister for granting us the Municipal Inspection. It is still our hope that the review process will allow all of us an opportunity for reflection and, ultimately, lead to better Municipal Governance in the Crowsnest Pass.
William Kovach, Petitioner's Representative
Cc: Myron Thompson
Municipality of CNP council