Representatives from the provincial government’s Municipal Dispute Resolution Services (MDRS) team the Town of Athabasca Nov. 3 meeting to discuss the councillors’ conflict resolution options.
“It’s your decisions as a council how you want to move forward with it,” said Michael Scheidl, MDRS manager. “We’re here from Municipal Affairs to give a little bit of information so you can make an informed decision.”
The presentation started with an explanation of the team, which started as a group to deal with inter-council conflicts and then broadened to intra-council conflicts like the one that town council is currently dealing with.
They then went on to ask the councillors at which “level” do they see their conflict.
“We know there’s some issues going on in the town, safe to say. We’re not going to get into the fray of that, I don’t think that’s what this is about here,” explained Scheidl. “It’s to help you objectively take a look at where might we be on a spectrum of conflict escalation and what are some ways that we can deal with it, if you choose.”
This conflict, stated the representatives, is a perfectly normal for a group of people who come together to make a decision. It’s when it goes too far that some mediation might be needed.
“Councils do want to work well together and because naturally when you get more than two people in a room and when you have to make decisions for people that you represent, it’s natural to have some conflict,” said Scheidl.
“It’s natural to have some difference of opinion on what to do. It’s just how you manage that.
Each councillor very strongly stated that they were either on level five or level six, which is the highest level of conflict on MDRS’ list.
“Really, at five and six is where sometimes there can be violent outbursts,” said Lisa Awid-Goltz, a municipal dispute coordinator.
“People can start to feel really threatened and it’s just an escalation down.”
Coun. Tim Verhaeghe went one step farther; explaining that most of the “anger and frustration” described in level 6 was directed towards him.
“There has been a campaign directed towards me. But, I still maintain good communication with my council,” he said. “The organization is divided and I sometimes look at our council as being not for the greater good of the community, but we have maybe a majority and we have an opposition.”
That aside, councillors seemed to agree that something should be done about their current conflict, something that was echoed by chief administrative officer (CAO) Josh Pyrcz.
“It does have a detrimental effect on staff and regardless of how much I can attempt to insulate them from it, it’s still there,” he said.
“When it becomes public, it’s a small community and my staff hears it and my staff brings it to me and I can only do so much to keep them out of the fray and they start to feel what everyone else starts to feel. It’s inevitable.”
Through the MDRS, council could apply for a grant to hire a mediator. They would also sit through an assessment to see what exactly is the root problem.
“We usually find what it takes is sitting in a room where it’s confidential where you can speak frankly and look at each other eyeball to eyeball and say, ‘How are we going to do this? and ‘How are we going to move forward?’ and go forth from there,” said Scheidl.
Verhaeghe had questions about that as well, citing the possibility of an unnamed “rogue” councillor who could refuse to sit down and continue to “do their own thing.”
“We’ll address the situation individually with councillors, and talk with those people that you feel may not want to participate,” said Awid-Goltz. “Sometimes though that dialogue, we can understand why someone may not want to be involved.”
The next stage would be to, as Irene Black, intermunicipal mediation advisor, stated, “look towards the future” by creating protocols and citizen engagement strategies so the problem doesn’t come up again.
“It could look like how do we deal with conflict if it comes up, how do we deal with difference of opinion, which our view is that difference is good, because that makes better decision,” said Scheidl.
“It’s how you deal with it (and) how do you deal with communication going out.”
There weren’t any decisions made during that meeting, however, Scheidl did emphasize the need to make a decision quickly and to not let “stew in the pot.”
“It’s important that as a council we sit and digest what was said and have a little bit of thinking process, rather than everybody getting on the bandwagon tonight and try to make this happen yesterday,” said mayor Roger Morrill. “It’s a process and it’s not a process just to follow through for this council, but to set a framework to try to avoid the issues for future councils.”