WESTLOCK - Westlock County will pay $175,000 annually to the Tawatinaw Valley Ski Club for the next six years to continue managing the Tawatinaw Valley Ski Hill.
The contract, which has been negotiated exclusively during in-camera discussions over the summer, was approved following a closed-door session at council’s Aug. 10 meeting — the yearly financial commitment by the county and length of the deal were not made available until after council’s most-recent meeting held Sept. 14. 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.
Coun. Dennis Primeau got the ski hill contract on to the agenda of the Tuesday meeting as an “emergent item” stating he had expected details of the agreement to have been made public in advance of nomination day, Sept. 20. More details of the contract are available on the county’s website, as well as on Page 33 of the Sept. 21 issue of Town & Country This Week in a paid advertisement.
“This has been going on for a long time. You know full well there’s an election coming up and people need to know this information. We’re talking about a multi-million-dollar contract and you’re going to disclose it after nominations close,” said Primeau.
An outspoken voice on the ski hill over the last four years, Primeau then alleged the number was being kept secret until after nomination day, a charge vehemently denied by CAO Kay Spiess who said the process took a little longer due to staff turnover.
“Councillor Primeau that is not accurate whatsoever. Councillor Primeau I do not appreciate the personal attacks on this,” said Spiess. “Your council voted on this at your table, you are the decision makers. Then it comes over to administration to deal with the operational side of things, to create a media release to let people know what has gone on.”
Initially the news release wasn’t going to contain the dollar figure, although the figure was added after administration got clarification from the county’s lawyers as the contract details were protected by FOIP. Councillors by and large pushed to have the number included, while reeve Jared Stitsen said “council does not want to hide anything” but they need to follow the Municipal Government Act and do “our due diligence.”
“I don’t know if I speak for all of council, but I definitely think we need to include the number in the release and the years. I know I speak for pretty much all my residents when I say that,” said Coun. Isaac Skuban, noting council previously voted 4-2 on the dollar amount of the contract, then voted 5-1 in August to approve the deal.
“I don’t know why we’d try to hide it? That’s what it feels like we’re doing. Residents want to know. I just took it for granted that it would be included, especially since it’s such a contentious issue in the county.”
Deputy reeve Brian Coleman, who noted that the new contract contains a 14-month out-clause, agreed with Skuban.
“We should put some numbers in that message and a very important number we need to include is that the new contract significantly reduces the impact on taxpayers,” said Coleman. “It’s important in this message to show that the people operating Tawatinaw are adding significant value to the hill and the cost to the county has come down. I think that’s an extremely important part of the message.”
Primeau said he believes the contract and negotiations never should have ended up behind closed doors.
“It’s a single-source contract and should never have gone through the FOIP process. This all should be out in the open, all of it,” said Primeau.
Going forward Spiess said they’re going to have a consistent method of releasing information surrounding contracts.
“As a best practice most municipalities just share who was awarded the contract and how much it is. And I think in the future we’ll be posting to our new website who was awarded the contact and for how much. But we need to be fair and consistent with all of the contracts across the organization, not pinpointing one contract here or there,” said Spiess in a follow-up interview. “We need to be professional in how we conduct our business, making sure we get legal opinions where needed and making sure we do things properly.”