County faces Elections Alberta inquiry

Reeve dismisses Wildrose complaint as ‘a silly little thing’

More than 16 months after the provincial election, the County of Stettler is being probed because one of its administrative employees is accused of violating election-financing laws to promote the local Progressive Conservative candidate, former county councillor and provincial cabinet minister Jack Hayden.

Drumheller-Stettler MLA Rick Strankman confirmed that the Wildrose Caucus Research Team obtained approval from Information and Protection of Privacy that alleges that an employee in the county office might have used county time, along with a county email address and computer, to create a Facebook page to promote former Hayden, whom Strankman defeated in the April 2012 election.

County Reeve Wayne Nixon admitted this week that director of communications Shawna Benson sent an email on county time, which he said took “just a fraction” of a second.

“It’s such a silly little thing and so frivolous,” Nixon said of the Wildrose party investigation.

He said that if the Opposition wants to be effective, he suggested the Wildrose focus on “bigger and more serious issues” than the county correspondence.

The evidence was forwarded to Elections Alberta, which is expected to determine whether a greater investigation or penalties are needed.

The reeve said municipalities have to work with the government, regardless of the party in power.

“Our council is very non-partisan,” Nixon claimed.

He said the door is open for the Wildrose party to receive more information from the county, but he was frustrated with the lack of response from Strankman and the ongoing FOIP requests.

“I want them to stop their frivolous FOIPing and get on with more-serious issues, instead of the MLA going on a witch-hunt with his constituency,” Nixon said.

While the reeve said he has sent letters and emails to Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, and phoned her, she hasn’t responded, he said. Nixon also questioned Strankman’s actions.

“He’s losing his credibility with me and he should be acting more like an MLA, and not the chairman of the witch-hunt committee.”

Strankman, however, said he wasn’t directly involved with the probe.

“I had no personal direction in the FOIPing process,” Strankman said.

“I have no personal vendetta.”

He said there’s no need for personal meetings or visits to the county office to discuss a matter that’s now in the hands of Elections Alberta.

The FOIP request for information about the month of the provincial election campaign found that the county’s director of communications sent out an email to promote Hayden.

“That’s what ensued the request,” Strankman said. “Are they abusing taxpayers’ money?”

With several other names in the email blackened out, Strankman questioned whether other county staff or council members used county resources to promote Hayden.

Municipal governments are prohibited from financially contributing to a provincial party. Violators would be required to pay back the financial contribution or face a fine of up to $10,000, decided by a provincial court judge, said Drew Westwater, director of communications for Elections Alberta.

He said that privacy legislation prevents election staff from stating if an investigation will be launched. Generally, the results are posted online only if a violation occurs.

News of the county investigation comes a month prior to the Oct. 21 municipal election. The reeve and all seven current councillors plan to run again. Nomination day is this coming Monday, Sept. 23.

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