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Coaldale group alleges conflict of interest over Civic Square

Posted on September 8, 2020 by Sunny South News

By Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News

A Coaldale group is raising questions about a councillor’s potential conflict of interest in regards to the Civic Square Project.

Citizens for a Better Coaldale (CfaBC) are questioning whether Coun. Briane Simpson has a financial interest with the controversial Civic Square project.

The $8.6 million project — of which the town is paying $3.5 million for their space — would see a new town office and business space in a two-story office building on 20th Avenue next to the Coaldale Public Library. As of press deadline, the town is still making a decision on a contractor/developer for the project, and therefore cannot share further particulars on the project at this time. An announcement will be made once the contractor/developer is chosen.

According to town council’s meeting minutes, Simpson had recused herself from in-camera discussions about Civic Square this year during the Feb. 10, Feb. 24, March 23, June 8 and June 22 council meetings due to pecuniary reasons. She had also excused herself from discussions regarding the amended Firehall Borrowing Bylaw during the public session of the June 22 council meeting for pecuniary reasons.

“If there’s been zero public engagement because of a potential conflict of interest that they’re trying to hide, I mean that just raises a bunch of red flags. The prospect of a sitting town councillor using their position to be able to benefit financially down the road from the tax payers, to me that doesn’t sit well,” said Jason Beekman, a member of CfaBC. “Coun. Simpson recusing herself, to me that just stinks of a red flag, and maybe we should be knowing more about what the pecuniary reasons are before contracts go ahead and get signed.”

A pecuniary interest occurs when a member of council, their family or their employee could be monetarily affected by a council matter. According to the town’s Councillor Code of Conduct Bylaw, councillors are to leave the room when matters concerning conflicts of interest come up. Councillors also must declare any potential conflict of interests to the town CAO on an annual basis.

“In recent years, council has enacted a number of procedural practices to not only try and reduce the number of incidents of pecuniary interest or, when unavoidable, to identify the pecuniary interest early and ensure councillors respond accordingly,” said Kim Craig, Coaldale mayor. “At the start of each council meeting, council is given the opportunity to disclose any conflicts — real, perceived, direct or indirect — they may have with respect to any matters on the agenda. We make note of this disclosure at the start of the meeting. If it falls within the realm of a pecuniary interest, we ensure the councillor(s) are not present for any discussion related to the matter in respect of which they disclosed a pecuniary interest. In such instances, the councillor is recused from council chambers and is not permitted to return until after the discussion has concluded. This practice is entirely in line with the requirements of Sec. 172 of the Municipal Government Act. I can confirm that the town has been in full compliance with all legislation pertaining to this area, including the town’s handling of the procurement process surrounding its Civic Square project.”

According to the Municipal Government Act, Sec. 172 states that a councillor must disclose the pecuniary interest regarding a matter before council or a body of which they are a council representative prior to any discussions on it, and abstain from voting or any discussions on it.

Adam Parker, a member of CfaBC, said it was quite concerning to see a council member keep exiting in-camera meetings, citing pecuniary reasons, for a major project.

“The town has not engaged the community one bit regarding this project, and to find out this additional piece has been added on top of it is truly disheartening. What a councillor should truly be doing is serving their community, going out and finding out what the community truly does want,” said Parker.

The group is wondering if Simpson’s involvement prior to recusing herself from the project affected the project or the rewarding of it, and even the perception of a councillor having a conflict in interest in a major project is concerning.

“I am unable to provide any particulars about the status of the town’s Civic Square project as I have recused myself from all council discussions pertaining to this matter,” said Simpson in a statement to the Sunny South News.

“As a councillor, I have an obligation to disclose and abstain from any discussion and voting on a matter which comes before council in which I have a pecuniary interest. A pecuniary interest arises when a matter could monetarily affect the councillor, an employer of the councillor or a member of the councillor’s family. In this case, I am associated with an entity that was part of a proposal that was submitted to undertake the Civic Square project, following the Request for Expression of Interest that was posted on the Alberta Purchasing Connection in December 2019. Therefore, I decided to remove myself from council chambers and abstain from any discussion pertaining to the Civic Square project and will abstain from any further discussion and voting in the future.”

“I have complied with all internal protocols, municipal bylaws and provincial legislation that apply to situations like this. Council’s decision will be made without any input or participation from me and I trust their decision will be fair and objective and, as always, in the best interests of the town.”

The group has also raised concern about a missing council meeting video. Coaldale town council live streams and posts recordings of their meeting’s to their Facebook or YouTube pages. However, the Jan. 27 meeting — where council discussed the capital budget — is not available on either of these platforms. Civic Square was an item in the budget.

“It’s the one meeting the mayor has referred to where Civic Square was discussed in a public council meeting,” said Parker. “My understanding of that meeting was that it was a line item, that was mentioned that went down the line page. It was not discussed, it was not brought forward to anybody, it was just a line item. And now that it goes missing, we cannot prove that this has been discussed in the council chambers in the public portion of their meetings outside of that.”

According to the town’s Audio/Video Recording of Council Meeting policy, “Town Council shall make audio-visual recordings of Town Council meetings available to the public on the Internet for a period of four (4) years from the date of the meeting”.

According to town CAO Kalen Hastings, the town has experienced some technical difficulties from time to time with their live-streaming service, and they were not able to record or upload the meeting video. The Jan. 27 meeting appears to be the only one this year they hadn’t been able to record and upload to either Facebook or YouTube.

“Since the start of this term, council has undertaken a number of steps to enhance transparency. Aside from the City of Lethbridge, we were one of the first municipalities to begin live streaming in southern Alberta, and since the start of this term, we’ve been posting our entire agenda packages onto our website. We didn’t do either of these things last council term,” said Hastings. “Municipalities are not required by law to live-stream council meetings; however, this was something that the Coaldale council initiated at the very start of this term in order to be as transparent as possible. Unfortunately, glitches do happen from time to time. This council meeting was open to the public, and we had members from the public in attendance at this meeting.”

The minutes of the meeting — considered to be the official record of the meeting — is available online.

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