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Councillor concerns over conflict of interest in Athabasca County

A proposed donation to community event sparks debate around table
Natasha Kapitaniuk, president of the Athabasca Rotary club and Division 2 county councillor, spoke in favour of the county’s in-kind contribution to the Rotary Celebrity Dinner and Auction amidst concerns from other councillors about club involvement around the table.

ATHABASCA — Tensions in the Athabasca County council chambers rose again April 9, when discussion around a proposed donation for a community event resulted in tense exchanges and a point of order called. 

The subject of the debate was a tandem load of three-quarter inch crushed gravel — the county’s suggested response to an April 2 letter from the Rotary Club of Athabasca, requesting an in-kind donation of material for the upcoming Celebrity Dinner and Auction. 

Following the deliberation and two terse exchanges, councillors voted to approve the donation of gravel as recommended with a 6-3 split, which saw councillors Tracy Holland, Gary Cromwell, and Rob Minns opposed. 

“This sets quite a precedent with regards to our donations, we do have a policy … where donations can come through through the CAO, and I think that that’s the direction that this should have taken,” said Coun. Tracy Holland. 

She cited Athabasca County Policy 6275, Donations, which grants council the discretion to donate to projects at it's will, and gives the CAO authority to make donations up to $100 without approval from council. According to the April 9 agenda package, a tandem load of crushed gravel would cost approximately $800. 

Ahead of the passing vote, Holland moved to accept the item, presented to council through a request for decision report, as information. The motion was defeated by a vote of 6-3, with councillors Kelly Chamzuk, Cromwell, and Holland in favour. 

“I urge people to really sit down and have a look at this,” said Holland. “Receive this for information doesn’t mean it’s off the table, it means we’re not prepared to do this at this time.” County council is slated to meet for its last April meeting one day before the Celebrity Dinner and Auction, scheduled for April 26. 

“We support a lot of projects as a county, and we do lots of donations, and this to me is an opportunity to provide a donation for something that, for very little actual cost, utilizes the resources that we have,” said Reeve Brian Hall. 

“Where would our region be it if wasn’t for service groups?” he added. “Through events like we’re being asked to support, whether Rotary or Lions, they bring the community together and get things done.”

Club concerns

“This is a really great way for the county to show some support to the Rotary club,” said Coun. Natasha Kapitaniuk, current president of the Rotary branch in Athabasca. “All projects are used by county residents as much as town residents.

“I’m actually surprised that we would have to even consider supporting, as this letter states, the largest single donating club to the pool, and the fitness centre, and the fieldhouse, which are county- and town-owned amenities,” she added.

Holland cited councillor connections to the club in question as one of the driving factors behind her stance, as well as the projects slated to receive funds raised from the event. 

“When we have such strong representation from Rotary at the table, it also brings an element of optics,” said Holland. “We also are concerned about the Rotary initiative … a helipad that we haven’t gotten all the information on.” 

"Council does not have a concern, in fact they do not have a position. Any concerns expressed rest with the councillor individually," said Hall in an April 12 follow-up.

Holland’s concerns prompted an interjection from Hall that personal involvement in Rotary is irrelevant, and off-mic comments from Kapitaniuk resulted in a point of order issued by Cromwell, who was cut off by Hall. 

For more in-depth coverage of the exchange, see the sidebar article on page 13. 

Differing opinions 

Other concerns expressed at the table included balancing which service clubs to consider for donations and selecting in-kind contributions that don’t inspire debate for future events.

Minns said his concerns with the item didn’t centre around the gravel or the donation itself but lay in the potential liability for the county. He cited a grey area in the motion’s wording around the delivery of the donation, which would allow the gravel to be “delivered within the county, or equivalent,” within an hour radius. 

“This gravel could actually end up going to Westlock, could end up going to Thorhild, could end up going to Lac La Biche,” said Minns. “That’s the only thing I got a bit of a pushback on this, is just due to the fact that all of a sudden now we have county trucks going outside the county with county gravel.” 

Chief administrative officer Bob Beck said the wording was intentional, meant to allow for the delivery to a municipality within the county’s boundaries, like the town, Boyle, or the numerous summer villages in the area. 

Coun. Camille Wallach voiced her support for the donation, noting the positive promotion for the county, and how efficiently service clubs utilize funds and similar in-kind contributions.

“We see time and time again that non-profits and charities around the area take our money and double or triple what they can do with it. They’re good at using money — better than municipalities, let’s be real,” said Wallach with a chuckle. 

“They do a lot for the community, and they take our money and stretch it further,” she added. 

Wallach’s comments garnered ire from Cromwell. “I’m quite offended by a comment from the other side of the table saying our administration does a worse job than a board, than a committee. I think that was a very negative thing to be hearing,” he said. 

Holland and Cromwell expressed the importance of healthy debate on issues impacting ratepayers, but Anderson expressed differing thoughts on the conversation.

“I just can’t believe we’re having this much discussion about one simple load of gravel.” 

Lexi Freehill,

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