When I was elected to Westlock County council, I made a commitment to myself not to respond to letters or editorials in the local newspaper — I find I now have to break that commitment to defend my fellow councillors, the chief administrative officer (CAO) and staff.
I am not the official spokesperson for the county so the opinions expressed below are my own and not those of Westlock County council, or administration.
In response to Mr. Turnbull’s Letter to the Editor printed Nov. 5, I would suggest you have a very frank discussion with your councillor regarding governing within the current Municipal Government Act (MGA) as well as the Council Code of Conduct, which was approved by this council. The following are direct excerpts from Bylaw 03-2019 Westlock County Council Code of Conduct.
3.8 “Censure Motion” means a motion passed by council prescribing consequences for non-compliance with the Council Code of Conduct Bylaw.
4.16.2 cause or attempt to cause detriment to Westlock County, council, any individual elected official, any board and/or individual member thereof, any member of county staff, and member of board staff, any member of the public or third parties;
5.3 Council decisions are made by majority vote by the elected officials. Board decisions are made by majority vote by the board members. The decision of council or a board must be accepted and respected by all elected officials and board members even if some individual elected officials or board members do not agree with the majority decision.
Mr. Turnbull, if your councillor is prepared to commit to governing within the Council Code of Conduct which was approved unanimously by this council I will personally recommend removing the censure motion immediately.
In response to Mr. Dusza’s Letter to the Editor, printed on Nov. 12, questioning “Who is in charge?”
First to clarify to Mr. Dusza and all ratepayers it might come as a surprise that the CAO does run the county, not county council. Council’s role is clearly defined in the MGA as follows:
(1) A council is responsible for
(a) developing and evaluating the policies and programs of the municipality;
(b) making sure that the powers, duties and functions of the municipality are appropriately carried out;
(c) carrying out the powers, duties and functions expressly given to it under this or any other enactment.
(2) A council must not exercise a power or function or perform a duty that is by this or another enactment or bylaw specifically assigned to the chief administrative officer or a designated officer.
Council cannot be involved in the day-to-day operation of the county. Council approves policies and bylaws that guide administration in the daily operation.
Council also approves the annual operating and capital budgets that administration must manage. Administration then has full authority to utilize the budgets to provide services to Westlock County residents and only require council intervention if changes to the budget are required. Council also works with administration to develop a strategic plan that guides administrative plans as well as the budget process.
The MGA makes it very clear that council cannot be involved in the operation of the municipality. Individual councillors have no power and council only has power through bylaw and resolution.
Mr. Dusza suggests council, CAO and supervisors should lead by example and take a wage freeze or cut. This council did exactly that in the 2019 budget process. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) removed the tax-exempt status for the one-third pay for elected officials starting Jan. 1, 2019. This effectively reduced the average net salary by 14 per cent for municipal elected officials.
Every other municipality in Alberta including the Town of Westlock increased their existing honorarium by at least 14 per cent. Westlock County council chose to lead by example in a tough budget year and take the loss in pay, which apparently went unnoticed by the ratepayers and the local newspaper as it was never covered. (See publisher’s note at end of letter).
Mr. Dusza mentions that “for the last three or four years things have been tough in Westlock County” and I totally agree with that statement. The three variables that have made things tough are the weather, loss of revenue as well as increased expenses and Westlock County has also had to deal with these very real issues. The past three years have been some of the wettest on record, which makes maintaining roads and infrastructure extremely difficult and expensive, and administration has been able to maintain or improve road conditions under these rare circumstances.
Westlock County has seen a reduction in revenue from linear taxation of $3,477,787 over the five-year period from January 2014 to December 2018. In 2018 alone the reduction was $ 1,154,324, which is 10 per cent of the 2018 taxes collected, and at the same time expenses continue to increase. For example, Westlock County has been advised that insurance premiums are likely to increase another 10 per cent in 2020. Westlock County council and administration recognize we are in tough times. Without all of the facts it may look like this council is not managing appropriately, however let me remind you that administration brought forward a 14 per cent increase in 2019 and this council working with administration were able to reduce this to a 3.97 per cent increase which I agree is still too high.
When this council was elected in October 2017 they were faced with some very difficult circumstances. The Municipal Inspection Report was just completed with 27 action items that needed to be addressed immediately.
The report identified areas where either the MGA was not appropriately followed, or poor policies, or bylaws were in place.
This was a direct result of poor governance by previous councils and previous administrations. In addition, the provincial government mandated municipalities to negotiate intermunicipal collaboration framework (ICF) and intermunicipal development plan (IDP) agreements with all municipal neighbors by April 1, 2020, which has added a significant workload for both council and administration.
This council has been “hung out to dry” over the Tawatinaw ski hill, which was mismanaged by previous councils. From 2013 to 2017 approximately $3 million dollars were spent building a new chalet without an operating plan or plebiscite and to make matters worse the engineers report on where to locate the chalet was ignored.
The previous council decided to hold a plebiscite after the money was spent. This council agreed to uphold the plebiscite by selling the property through an expression of interest. There were no offers to purchase the facility and two offers to operate which were both rejected by council. Council identified they would remain open to offers until Sept. 30, 2018 and only one additional offer was presented which was accepted by council.
This offer removed the legal liability from the county and limited the capital exposure to $50,000 per year. Westlock County is extremely fortunate to have such a strong group of volunteers operate this facility on our behalf. If council did not accept this offer the $3 million facility would have been shuttered and vandalized within six months rendering the property worthless.
The other issue that council has taken heat over is the Land Use Bylaw (Bylaw 04-2016) that was approved by the previous council in March 2016 limiting development in the Pembina River flood plain. This council listened to the residents that are affected by this bylaw and put in place several exemptions to allow people to get on with their lives and farming operations. In addition, council has approved a committee of impacted residents to work with council to recommend a final solution. This council is dedicated to working with residents, however we are not prepared to make decisions that violate provincial legislation and regulation.
I am however very tired of one councillor ignoring the Code of Conduct bylaw and trashing the CAO, council and staff at every council meeting.
This council is prepared to work cooperatively with residents, neighbouring municipalities and the provincial government, however the financial interests of the county as a whole will always be top priority. This council will govern by the values outlined in our Council Code of Conduct and will bring to task any member not prepared to do the same.
Publisher’s Note: The Westlock News reported on county councillors freezing their wages with a Page 5 story in the Feb. 19, 2019 edition.