Councillors expressed a mixture of frustration, disappointment, and even anger, at a special council meeting held Wednesday, Feb. 24 called to combat what councillors called misinformation being shared in the county about both the county shop project and councillor code of conduct – though the main focus of the meeting was the shop project.
While council was disappointed with the misinformation, allegations -which were denied – that the petition was at the office of Drumheller-Stettler MLA Rick Strankman elicited anger.
When Nixon began receiving phone calls about the petition, he told council he had heard it was available for signing Strankman’s Stettler office.
“It’s nice to see our MLA supporting our council,” Nixon said, his voice sarcastic, before seriously adding, “This is not right.”
While Reeve Wayne Nixon and fellow council members expressed their pleasure that residents of the county were interested in civic matters, and would encourage people to take part in civic activities like petitions, Nixon said he feared people were signing the existing petition that is making rounds through the county without full or accurate knowledge of the facts of the project.
The petition calls for a plebiscite, or vote, on whether or not the county should pass a borrowing bylaw to fund the project. The bylaw passed first reading at the last county meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 10. The bylaw would allow the county to borrow roughly $7 million to fund the multi-year, multi-million county shop facility, in conjunction with $2 million taken from reserves.
“To be blunt, there’s a lot of outright lies out there,” Nixon said as he opened the meeting. “This bylaw will not double or triple taxes.”
In addition to the tax rate increase misinformation, rumours are also said to be circulating that if the new shop doesn’t go ahead, the county will outsource much of the work currently done in-house, to remove the need for a shop facility.
This is causing undue stress on employees and their families during a time of economic uncertainty, Nixon said.
He also expressed frustration and disappointment in how the county’s administration staff has been “unfairly blamed” for decisions by council.
“It was our decision to go ahead,” he said. “Not theirs.”
If the petition acquires the required signatures from county residents, the county will then have to table a motion to support the outcome of the plebiscite. If the plebiscite results are in favour of the borrowing bylaw, council would vote in favour of the bylaw. If the plebiscite is not in favour of the bylaw, councillors would be required to vote against the bylaw.
Under the Municipal Government Act (MGA), after receiving the petition, county staff will need to verify if the signatures are legitimate. Legitimate signatures require the signatory to be a county resident (not necessarily a land-owner), have a legal land address, be minimum of 18 years of age, have legal eligibility to vote in a provincial election and that the signature is dated and witnessed; then the county will be required to table a motion calling for a plebiscite on the bylaw, and will be required to vote in favour of it.
“Elections aren’t cheap,” councillor Les Stulberg said. “Just look at what the last election cost.”
If the borrowing bylaw is defeated, it doesn’t mean the shop project would be abandoned, council noted.
The county has the money in reserves to fund the project in its entirety without borrowing, though it would drain the reserves almost completely.
That would limit the county’s ability to respond to grant opportunities where funding from the county is required, or emergent issues and disasters, councillor James Nibourg said.
“I’d hate to limit the possibilities,” he added.
Discussion on what council would do if the bylaw was defeated ended quickly, though, with council deciding to discuss the matter should it come to pass.
Councillors Joe Gendre, Ernie Gendre and Dave Grover, who voted in opposition to the borrowing bylaw at the last meeting, joined their fellow councillors in expressing their disappointment in the quality of information going through the county.
To combat the incorrect information, Nibourg tabled a motion to have a Q&A document drafted to be posted on the county website, as well as sent out to the community through mail and in the local media. The motion passed unanimously, after councillors discussed what information to include in the document.
MLA responds to accusations of meddling
After the meeting, the Independent contacted Strankman, who said the petition is not available at his office, nor would it be at any time.
“I have no knowledge of it being at the office,” he said. “It would be improper. And I’ll ensure it isn’t there.”
He noted that his office can advise constituents about the MGA and about how to form petitions to abide by the requirements of the MGA, but the office will not help constituents write petitions nor host petitions for signing.
Even if his staff are county residents and are involved on a personal level, Strankman said staffers “have to differentiate between partisan and governmental duties,” and could not bring their personal crusades into the office.
“There’s a civic responsibility all of us have, and as government employees, we have to be cognizant of our appearance.”