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Dennis Primeau’s eight-year Westlock County council career ends with fireworks

At his final meeting admin asks his removal; looking back Primeau calls his tenure a “a one-man battle”
dennis primeau
Dennis Primeau says he has no regrets following his eight-year term representing Division 7 in Westlock County.

WESTLOCK - Dennis Primeau knows he can be gruff, abrupt and would undoubtedly flash his trademark grin if you called him a jerk.

Unapologetic as a municipal councillor over the past eight years, Primeau has been the quintessential pain in the neck, drawing the ire of current and former CAOs and councillors, county staff and even councillors from neighbouring municipalities.

First elected in 2013 to represent Division 7, Primeau took a swing at then-reeve Bud Massey during his first term. He was just warming up.

And while he’s far from the easiest guy to like, it’s worth noting he was the only incumbent to keep his seat in 2017 as ratepayers across Westlock County voted for change following the release of the Municipal Inspection Report. That damning 116-page document called into question everything from the culture, to the business practices of the municipality and ultimately cost four incumbent councillors their seats.

Throughout the first three years of the second term, then-CAO Leo Ludwig and Primeau had what can only be described as a running feud that lasted until the day Ludwig took his six-figure severance package last fall. For those run-ins Primeau was censured on a pair of occasions for crossing the line of the municipality’s code of conduct bylaw — the last six-month censure came in the fall of 2019. And when it comes to how close he’s been with the men and women he’s shared the council table with, Primeau recalled an in-camera session where he says a fellow councillor “hollered at me to resign.”

“Listen you moron, do you think I’m that stupid that I’m going to capitulate and allow you to walk all over me and force me out of here,” Primeau recalled. “If you ask me to resign, that's the last thing I’m going to do.”

At one of his last meetings as an elected official Sept. 14, Primeau accused the current CAO of hiding the figures of the recently-signed agreement with the Tawatinaw Valley Ski Club.

Then at his final curtain call as a councillor Oct. 12, senior county admin asked for his physical removal from the building. CAO Kay Spiess, who supported the request which had been made by planning and community services director Laurie Strutt, went on to say that Primeau was involved in “some unethical events” in the days leading up the meeting which were “unacceptable” by administration and triggered a health and safety investigation. After an hour-long recess, the meeting reconvened with senior admin attending via Zoom, while Primeau remained in his seat.

And through it all Primeau, who didn’t run this fall, says his job wasn’t to make friends, or smile and nod and simply raise his hand in unison with his fellow councillors. He says his job was to represent the interests of Westlock County ratepayers and it’s one he took seriously from Day 1.

“When you fight as hard as I’ve had to fight, there comes a time you need to get off the bus. People get tired of you … they will get tired of you,” said Primeau during an hour-plus, in-person interview before council’s final meeting.

“You beat that drum as hard as you can for the length of your term. But it’s time to move on and let somebody else carry the torch. It’s been a one-man battle.”

Abrasive? Yes. Brusk? No doubt. Standoffish? Unquestionably.

So, looking back, does he believe could have done a better job to work with his council brethren as well as administration for the betterment of the municipality? For anyone who’s followed county politics it’s apparent that his sandpaper persona has alienated the rest of council and administration to the point where regardless of the validity of his message, no one is listening.

“I tell everyone, including this new CAO, that my delivery is not good. I’m not smooth, I don’t articulate well. I spent my life in construction, not in an office so my delivery is rough and I acknowledge that,” he said.

“But I can tell you that my intent and my desire for the county is good. It’s my responsibility to not only hold myself accountable, but to hold the rest of council accountable and to hold the CAO accountable for their actions.

“I’ve told these guys, read George Cuff. He basically says that if you have a council where there are no dissenting voters on it you have a dysfunctional council. And if you do have a council with dissenting voters, you must, must, follow process and procedure and I’ve told these guys that 100 times and it just doesn’t register. When council makes a decision, and if you follow process and procedures, when people ask questions after asking ‘why’ you always have the answer.”

The ongoing ski hill squabble

Primeau and the Tawatinaw Valley Ski Hill have become synonymous throughout his terms.

And while most think he’s against the hill, Primeau contends that isn’t necessarily the case.

He points to the hill’s year-end financial figures dated July 31 that shows Tawatinaw posted a surplus of $251,000 — a figure presented during the Sept. 21 governance and priorities meeting and was included in the agenda package.

And while the number is in black and white, at that meeting admin said that surplus wasn’t entirely accurate as the year-end statement was missing more $90,000 worth of expenses, plus the last quarter of operational expenses.

So, if you take him at face value and the $251K figure as gospel, his point is straightforward: if the ski is making money, why is the county contributing anything?

“The ski hill can be run with no tax dollars,” he claimed, noting there’s lot of groups and businesses willing to fund capital purchases at the facility. “I call them placards. They want to have their names on a plaque.”

He still has a burr under his saddle with the recently signed six-year contract that sees the county pay $175,000 annually to the Tawatinaw Valley Ski Club to manage the site — he said it was “ridiculous” that it was negotiated behind closed doors and the figures weren’t publicly released for almost a month after it was signed.

Aside from the length, which he says hamstrings the incoming council, it continues to fly in the face of the 2017 plebiscite that saw roughly 54 per cent of residents vote to sell the hill. Of note, the contract does have a 14-month out-clause and for comparison, the previous deal, signed in 2018, saw the county pay $250,000 annually ($200,000 in operating and $50,000 in capital) to the group to manage the site.

“As a councillor I only have one motive and that’s to get the best I can for the taxpayers. And that’s where we run into the collisions over there. It’s all dollars and cents to me,” he said.

“Some people make decisions based on their emotions. As a councillor, I can’t.”

And while throughout the interview he circled back to many of his past claims about what’s wrong at Tawatinaw, he was never able to easily answer the one question posed: What’s your solution?

While he talked about the county needing to figure out how much it allocates to recreation and would have liked to have an independent financial analysis of the hill, he believes fundamentally that too much county money is being spent at Tawatinaw when there are other more pressing needs.

“I don’t think there is anybody out there, including myself, who doesn’t want the ski hill to succeed. But I don't come out of the far left of the political spectrum. I’m out of the centre and I’m a believer that private enterprise can do a whole bunch of things better than municipalities,” he said. “There’s a wedge being driven in by the ski hill group that somehow if you’re not in favour of throwing piles of money at the ski hill you’re an ass****. And that’s totally false.”

George Blais,

George Blais

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