WESTLOCK – Westlock County reeve Jared Stitsen, one of two incumbents returning to the seven-member council for the next four years, says he wants to “bridge the gap” with the new councillors and wants to start with a “clean slate.”
Stitsen, previously acclaimed in Division 2, will be joined by Isaac Skuban as the only two holdovers on council following the Oct. 18 municipal election. Two other incumbents, Lou Hall and Victor Julyan, were soundly defeated in Divisions 3 and 1, while Brian Coleman, Division 4, and Dennis Primeau, Division 7, didn’t seek re-election and Division 6 has been vacant since the retirement of Fred Slobodian last fall. Skuban won Division 5 by a 53-vote margin over challenger David Woynorowski.
Stitsen, who himself was first elected in 2017 as a wave of six new councillors, is looking forward to working with the incoming group, while thanking Hall and Julyan for their service. He said it’ll be his and Skuban’s job to get the new group up to speed as quickly as possible as their first meeting is slated for Oct. 26. The new councillors include Sherri Provencal, Division 1, Ray Marquette, Division 3, Francis Cloutier, Division 4, Stuart Fox-Robinson, Division 6 and Christine Wiese, Division 7 — Marquette previously served on council from 2015-2017.
“I really look forward to working with Coun. Skuban again, him and I were on the water commission and some other boards together so it will be good to have that consistency,” said Stitsen Oct. 20. “And I’m really looking forward to the new councillors and what they have to offer and what they can bring to the table. I hear lots of good stuff about them and am looking forward to getting back to work.
“I appreciated working with Lou and Victor, we had a lot of good discussions. But at the end of the day it was the will of people and they voted to go in a different direction.”
In an e-mail statement, Skuban said residents voted for change and he’s honoured to have been elected to continue what he’s been pushing for the last two years following his initial byelection win in September 2019.
“We had the largest turnout we’ve had in a long time and that’s something to be proud of. A big thank you to all candidates who put their names forward for election,” he said, while also thanking the residents of Division 5 who voted.
“Congratulations to the five new councillors who have been elected, as well as all the candidates who put their names forward. I have a lot of optimism in the next council and hope residents will see a council that is laser focused on expanding our industrial base as a solution to our high taxes. There are many tough decisions facing this county going forward, but I’m confident that this new council will work to get the job done as one cohesive unit. I also hope and believe that this council will obtain a level of professionalism and class that brings a positive light to how we do business in this county.”
A clean slate
Council’s final meeting Oct. 12 was filled with drama, as senior administration walked out citing “disrespectful” and “out-of-order actions” from Primeau, who they asked to have physically removed from the building.
It punctuated the end of a term that started with promise following the September 2017 release of 116-page Municipal Inspection Report that decried everything from the culture to the business practices of Westlock County. And while the municipality has taken baby steps over the past four years towards stability, many meetings have been marred by infighting and dissent over issues ranging from the Tawatinaw Ski Hill to the closure, then reopening of transfer stations — Primeau was censured twice and carried on a running feud with then-CAO Leo Ludwig, who ultimately left the municipality last fall and got a six-figure severance package. Current CAO Kay Spiess, who was hired in the spring, is the 10th CAO in the past seven years, not including planning and community services director Laurie Strutt’s brief tenure. Spiess said at the Oct. 12 meeting that the senior admin walkout was meant to “send a message” to current and incoming councillors that bullying and blatant disrespect towards staff would not be tolerated.
“I see this as a clean slate. And really I see myself and Isaac as being able to bridge the gap with the new councillors. There’s so much initially to get caught up on. We start with the budget, so it’s very difficult,” he continued.
“People say it’s like drinking from a fire hose. For me when I was coming in 2017 it was more like drinking straight from the hydrant. There’s just so much to learn and there’s a lot of work to do.”
Stitsen said personally he wants the municipality to go forward with changing the makeup of council. Specifically, he’d like to see four councillors elected — two in the south and two in the north — and then a reeve/mayor voted on by all ratepayers. Currently the reeve is elected on a vote of council and Stitsen said he’ll let his name stand for the position at the Oct. 26 organizational meeting. He’s also looking forward to the continuing the regional economic development initiative as well as strengthening ties with the town and village.
“If the will of the people is to go down to five councillors, let’s do it, but let’s get two in the north and two in the south and a mayor voted in by the general public. Then the population gets to choose who that person is,” he said. “That’s one of my goals over the next term. I think it’s important.”
George Blais, TownandCountryToday.com