Contentious issues split county council

County of Stettler councillors found themselves split apart right through the middle over two bylaw votes.

County of Stettler councillors found themselves split apart right through the middle over two bylaw votes, one which would allow the county to borrow money to build the new county shop, and one which would create a code of conduct for elected officials.

In both cases the stalemate was broken by the reeve’s vote in favour of both bylaws at the monthly council meeting, held Wednesday, Feb. 10, The deadlock saw councillors James Nibourg, Les Stulberg and Greggory Jackson voting for the two bylaws, while councillors Ernie Gendre, Joe Gendre and Dave Grover raising their hands against.

Bylaw 1558-16 would allow the county to borrow $7,648,526.92 and use $2 million from reserves for the project to build the new county shop.

The $2 million in reserves is money that the county has been squirrelling away for shop upgrades and repairs over the past three years, council heard. Since the county is building anew rather than upgrading existing facilities, the money can be put to that project instead.

Joe Gendre asked if the money from reserves would be itemized, so council would know exactly from which department and which reserve the money was drawn, but Nibourg quickly jumped in, saying that council has repeatedly revisited the issue and that further picking at details would not be an effective use of time.

Jackson also told council that staff see the numbers on a regular basis, while council sees them a handful of times during the year.

“I trust them,” he said.

Staff pointed out that the money has been budgeted for the shop upgrades over the past years, and would have little impact on taxes, since the amount has always been built into the operating budget. Instead of the money going into reserves now, it would simply go to paying down the loan.

Despite Joe Gendre’s desire to see a breakdown on where the money was drawn, the vote went ahead, passing 4-3.

The other bylaw discussed created a code of conduct for elected officials, formalizing it as a bylaw with penalties for violating the code.

County CAO Tim Fox explained the move to make the code of conduct a bylaw would give the county “teeth” when dealing with situations, as the bylaw would create enforceable penalties for breaking the code.

The move to make codes of conduct a bylaw came after recommendations from the provincial government, which is at present reviewing the Municipal Government Act (MGA).

The MGA provides the rules by which municipalities must govern, and currently does not require codes of conduct to be a bylaw. However, that may be changing, it was indicated at the meeting, though it’s too early to tell.

Ernie Gendre, in his opposition of the bylaw, said it would be premature to create a bylaw code of conduct until the MGA review was complete. Otherwise, the county may have to revisit the issue to be in compliance. He also noted that once something was law, it was harder to change – and he worried that the bylaw could be used to “bully” others.

Brother and fellow councillor Joe Gendre opposed the bylaw because it was written completely by staff with little to no involvement from councillors.

“I feel this should come from council, not be made by staff,” he said, putting forward a motion to table the bylaw until councillors had a chance to gather and work on it together.

Nibourg disagreed with the two Gendres, calling the suggested workshop “navel gazing.” He said that the bylaw was pretty straight-forward, and had been crafted in line with bylaws regulating councillor conduct from similar communities in Alberta.

He also praised the bylaw, saying it would provide an extra layer of protection for councillors, likening it to a safety net.

“With it, we know what is allowed and not allowed,” he said.

The vote to table the bylaw was defeated, and the vote on the first reading of the bylaw went ahead, passing with a vote of 4-3. Councillors Joe and Ernie Gendre and Grover voted against.

Council however decided not to go on with second and third reading of the bylaw at this meeting, giving councillors a chance to go over the bylaw with a fine-toothed comb to bring forward any specific concerns and recommended amendments.