Big trouble in little Donalda

.

  • Jul. 27, 2011 10:00 a.m.

Julie Bertrand / Independent reporter

“I, Hector Goudreau, Minister of Municipal Affairs, because of an inspection conducted under section 571 of the Municipal Government Act, consider that the Village of Donalda is managed in an irregular, improvident or improper manner.’

Thus started the ministerial order number L:138/11, which was released on July 21 at 6:45 p.m. It accompanied a 24-page municipal inspection report of the village, which contained many troubling facts and allegations.

The inspection had been ordered after residents signed a petition indicating their lack of confidence in the mayor, council and CAO that were in charge of the village in 2009.

The inspection report, which was completed in May 2011, does not hesitate in condemning the previous council’s actions in the 2000s.

“The inspectors have found that the village has engaged in practices over the last decade that have been contrary to what a prudent council and administration would have done, such as: failing to issue utility bills on a regular basis; failing to collect some other municipal revenues; and failing to ensure that the decision making process has been transparent, leading to much discontent in the community,” wrote the ministry inspectors Sandra Dohei, Tony Sykora and Sarah Ranson.

“It appears that much of this occurred as a result of lack of administrative capacity and a failure of village council to hold administration accountable for the operation of the municipality.”

The report directs a lot of the blame in the direction of then CAO Peter Simons, who resigned in December 2010 and is now a Town of Stettler councillor and a Clearview Public Schools trustee.

The first reproach is that Simons was providing very little written advice to Council and most information was provided verbally during meetings.

“Council had to rely on their interpretation of what they thought was being said,” wrote the inspectors.

“Through the interviews conducted, the inspectors learned that it was sometimes difficult to determine what council was discussing at its meeting.”

Moreover, when interviewing the present council, it emerged that all councillors believed that Simons had unduly directed the previous council by not clearly informing council of issues, which led to a perception that misinformation was being provided.

“There is a belief among councillors that the previous CAO may have intimidated the previous council to regularly accept his recommendations with little or no debate,” wrote the inspectors.

The inspectors upbraided the former council and CAO for letting former mayor Terry Nordahl participate in a vote in which the village wrote off two of her utility accounts.

“The motion was carried and shows no evidence that the mayor declared a pecuniary interest and excused herself from participating in the decision,” wrote the inspectors.

Lack of transparency by the former council, mayor and CAO is a constant reproach in the report.

The inspectors remonstrated the former councillors for not recording most details of all meetings they attended, making it somewhat difficult to determine the validity of the claims of remuneration.

As part of the inspection process, the inspectors spent two days in Donalda during the last winter and attended the council meeting held on March 2.

Based on this report, Municipal Affairs made eight recommendations and asked for their immediate implementation.

The council and the administration of the village must attend a Municipal Affairs workshop; keep better records of attended meetings; be up-to-date on its utility bills collection, review existing policies and establish new ones when none were existent; establish policies to receive revenues; submit financial statements and information returns to the ministry in a timely manner; and have the CAO supervise the public works foreman.

Reactions

Former mayor Terry Nordahl was contacted but declined to comment, as she had not read the report yet.

Present mayor Bruce Gartside was satisfied by the report.

“I think it is fairly accurate in my opinion,” he said.

Gartside is quick to point out that council has already implemented four of the eight recommendations and is hard at work on the others.

“These things were pretty obvious when we started,” he said.

He complimented the work of present CAO Joan Kapiniak, who worked on providing council with up-to-date audits and financial statements.

Former CAO Peter Simons was willing to talk at length about the report. He does not understand why the inspectors never interviewed him, even though he made the offer to meet with them.

“At no point in time during the whole process was I ever asked my opinion or given an opportunity to explain,” said Simons.

He is willing to accept some of the blame.

“The utility issue was the worst problem I had in Donalda and I take responsibility for it,” said Simons.

“It is partly lack of resources. I also just got burned out.”

Simons stated that the reason council wrote off Terry Nordahl’s utility accounts was because the village was double-billing her.

“We interpreted the utility rate bylaw that way,” said Simons.

He points out that a lot of the accusations in the report are based on beliefs and lack tangible proof and facts, especially the intimidation accusation.

He believes that the previous council’s biggest problem was its lengthy hesitation in making decisions.

“There was not a lack of foresight; there was maybe a bit too much worry about the future,” said Simons.

As for the lack of transparency and written directives, Simons claims he regularly submitted requests for decision in the council package.

“Did we do as thorough a job as a larger municipality does?” said Simons.

“Absolutely not. I did not have a director of planning or a director of operations.”

It was up to Simons to write the requests for decision, provide the information and include his interpretation and opinion.

Moreover, all council meetings were open to the public and many residents regularly took the opportunity to ask questions.

“I would like to see a community that was more transparent than we were,” concluded Simons.

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