WESTLOCK – Two Westlock County council candidates got into a digital brouhaha with a sitting councillor following a Thanksgiving-weekend e-mail from “Concerned Residents” who asked council not to consider an in-camera “contract discussion” agenda item at its Oct. 12 meeting — the final of the group’s four-year mandate.
The crux of the 400-word e-mail sent Sunday, Oct. 10 at 3:20 p.m. to all sitting county councillors and candidates in the Oct. 18 election, as well as the Westlock News, requested that no decision be made on making the CAO an “indeterminate employee of Westlock County until after the October election.”
Council did go ahead with “contract discussion” at its Oct. 12 meeting, one of three in-camera items (industrial park, contract discussion and Echo Lake Campground) on the agenda — a motion from Coun. Dennis Primeau to have the topic removed was defeated 1-5.
Reeve Jared Stitsen, as well as CAO Kay Spiess, confirmed council did have a discussion on the CAO’s contract, but no motions were made after the in-camera portion concluded — see the separate story for more on that decision. Spiess was hired as Westlock County CAO in April of this year and is the 10th CAO for the municipality in the past seven years.
“New council members, who will be the new employer of the CAO, should be afforded the opportunity and the responsibility of assessing and determining if the current CAO has the competencies and skills required to implement the priorities and direction of a new council,” reads the e-mail from firstname.lastname@example.org in part.
“Any decision regarding Ms. Spiess indeterminate status with Westlock County before the October election could be considered improper, unethical and improvident. There is no compelling reason for the existing council to consider this matter at their last meeting of the current term, and, as noted, potentially exposing Westlock County ratepayers to another unnecessary severance payment we cannot afford.”
Online sparks fly
Division 1 Coun. Victor Julyan, who signed his e-mail “Concerned Councillor” was the only sitting politician to respond saying: “People who do not (have) the courage to put their name to extravagant expressions and opinions deserve to be treated with contempt. If you are men or women with any grit let’s have you identified, so we can judge whether to consider your cowardice as a mistake or merely the adoption of a holier than thou lecture. Perhaps from people who may have been anxious just to cause trouble? Who are you? Why should we listen to you, faceless critics? Or is it a band of one?”
Division 5 candidate David Woynorowski, an outspoken critic of the municipality over the past four years who has penned more than a dozen Letters to the Editor, made three presentations to council and has authored countless e-mails and social media posts on the county, suggested, “all who were sent this e-mail look past the bluff, bluster and moral indignation of ‘Concerned Councillor’ Julyan.”
Woynorowski also denied he was the author of the e-mail.
“How dare a group of ratepayers, whether anonymous or not, question what their elected officials are doing? Let’s focus on the issue identified,” Woynorowski wrote back. “IF, as suggested in the e-mail I was copied on from ‘Concerned Residents’ it is council’s intention during their last meeting on Oct. 12 to issue a new contract to the CAO, I agree that this action would be considered ‘improper, unethical and improvident.’ I also agree this action, if taken, would be ‘potentially exposing Westlock County ratepayers to another unnecessary severance payment we cannot afford.’”
He also gave Julyan his phone number and urged him to, “Deal with the issue at hand, act in the interest of all ratepayers and put aside the contempt, name calling and disrespect of persons who elected you and other members of this council.”
Julyan replied: “I was taught a long time ago you have to a bait a fox to get it to reveal itself.”
“Your glib and uninformed response to my e-mail, failure to acknowledge the contract issue/matter and attempt to justify your inexcusable comments directed at ratepayers who raise questions and concerns speaks volumes about your suitability as a councillor in Westlock County,” Woynorowski shot back.
Division 6 candidate Stuart Fox-Robinson also entered the fray stating: “I thought it would be odd for the current council to make such a decision with only a week left in their term, however, clearly the concerned resident(s) thought they needed to raise their concerns. When councillor Julyan responded with such disdain it brought a moment of reflection, perhaps council are in fact considering the CAO's contract with just a week left of their term.”
Fox-Robinson went on to state that although they’re the sitting council, making a contract decision on the CAO at their final meeting would “likely not pass community approval.”
“Personally, I sincerely hope that the council takes no action whatsoever on this matter, if indeed it is to be discussed,” he wrote. “I am merely a candidate in the election, I do not know the CAO and have had no interactions whatsoever. I can only state that if I were fortunate enough to be elected, I would do my utmost to ensure that Westlock County has the best, suitably qualified person in the role of CAO.
“It is standard for senior management positions such as this to have extended ‘probationary periods’ of 12 months or more, to ensure there is a good fit on both sides and I sincerely hope that council pauses for reflection on this matter.”
How did it end up in the public?
Stitsen didn’t get pulled into the online squabble and wondered, tongue-in-cheek, where the information presented by “Concerned Residents” came from.
“This was an in-camera item that was only given to councillors. It wasn’t released to the public. It wasn’t talked about publicly. So, someone (on council) disclosed it to the public and that’s disheartening in and of itself,” said Stitsen.
“Certainly, after an in-camera discussion and when we come out and then make a motion, for sure it can come out. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. We’ve had Zoom meetings where we can tell that there are other people in the room when they’re supposed to be alone. I can connect the dots all day long … it’s the same thing right up until the final meeting. And it’s disgusting. It’s like someone is pulling the strings on the other end.”
And while Stitsen said he encourages constructive dissent and discussion at the council table and with ratepayers, the in-fighting, unattributed e-mails and leaking of in-camera items is doing more harm than good.
“It’s not constructive. If you want to make Westlock County a better place there are ways to do it, but this is just a breakdown and makes the region look bad,” said Stitsen.