By Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News
Coaldale town council has received a request for a municipal inspection.
During their regular Sept. 28 meeting, Coaldale town council met with Jack Van Rijn, who came to council as a delegation on behalf of Citizens for a Better Coaldale, who expressed concern over a perceived lack of dialogue between the citizens of Coaldale and council, noting that for him to speak at the meeting, it required him to submit a formal request and was requested by administration to submit his detailed speaking notes in advance, and the former council member said this was “not possible or realistic to communicate with many residents this way”.
Van Rijn called to attention the town’s public participation policy, which states that “if a proposal, process or project has the potential for significant impact to the community, and there is an ability to allow input to influence decisions in a meaningful way, robust and inclusive participation processes will be undertaken by the Town.”
“People do not want to be just informed after council unilaterally makes a major decision. Residents want to be actively engaged about where, when, and how their tax dollars are being spent, before multi-million-dollar project decisions are being made,” said Van Rijn.
Touching on the Civic Square project, Van Rijn noted it would be the biggest project for Coaldale’s main street in the town’s 100-year history, and there should have been extensive public engagement on it, but this didn’t take place, leading to questions like why is a new town office so urgent compared to a new pool or second sheet of ice and other options for Main Street Revitalization? Van Rijn also noted that to build Civic Square, evictions for existing businesses would need to take place. He raised a question whether the displaced business owners, if they chose to stay in town, would be able to afford rent in the new building, noting that the town has spent over $2.2 million dollars on land purchases for the project so far. Van Rijn also questioned the perceived secrecy around land sales and acquisition by the town.
Pointing to recent town surveys, Van Rijn noted on the town’s own survey on the high school/rec centre, 79.8 per cent of the 736 respondents were unhappy with the site selection, and a recent survey on the new Town Plan confirmed this.
Van Rijn called on the town to initiate a municipal inspection, to address whether their taxpayer’s concerns are valid. A request is made to the Minister of Municipal Affairs by either the municipal council, by petition or is initiated by the Minister, and is an independent review of a municipality’s management, administration, operations and finance.
He stressed that it was important to not mischaracterize the request, but that unfortunately, it is already happening. He said that days before the council meeting, he was informed that a council member was claiming that he wanted to bring in the Minister for Municipal Affairs to investigate the town for being underhanded, and said that was “inaccurate and misleading”.
With town council’s cooperation, the Municipal Inspection would be an “invaluable relationship-building, confidence-building exercise with your constituents”, and if council felt they were doing a good job, Van Rijn said the inspection should vindicate them and silence criticism.
Noting that cost is often a concern, Van Rijn said he spoke with Alberta Municipal Affairs, and a cost for a municipal inspection for the Town of Coaldale might range from approximately $50,000-150,000, depending on the amount of review needed. If town council is correct in their claims, Van Rijn said the inspection would be short, so it would likely cost in the lower range. Additionally, due to the current state of the economy, the cost to hire the consultants should be competitively lower. Funds could come from town reserves, an inspection may indicate new ways for possible future savings and with low interest rates, its a good time to borrow “for the right reasons”.
“At its core, a municipal inspection is nothing more than an independent performance evaluation, with extensive public participation providing multiple benefits. No different than what many businesses often undertake to improve their efficiencies and services delivered,” said Van Rijn. “Instead of interpreting a municipal inspection as an unwelcome investigation, which it is not meant to be, I suggest council should embrace it, look at the many benefits, and in so doing, gain the trust and of town residents showing you are putting the community first.”
Simpson asked Van Rijn about the number of members, noting there were less than 600 members on their social media accounts and they were shared to Lethbridge groups, raising the question if they were reaching Coaldale residents. Van Rijn said he was not aware of any sharing to Lethbridge groups, but for memberships they have the Facebook group, website and a log of people not on social media who would like to volunteer if a municipal inspection takes place.
Simpson asked for clarity on membership numbers, as ‘many’could mean a lot of things, which Van Rijn said was in the hundreds. Coun. Roger Hohm raised the issue of how long the inspection would take place, as from his research, these reviews can take up to two to three years to complete, and with a municipal election scheduled for next year, and asked how they could fast track it, noting that the most likely conclusions tends to additional training, as the reviews are often put forward due to councils not “reacting properly” or a breakdown of governance and administration due to “and I quote, hostile environment by public shadow groups'” and their demands.
As the information gleamed from the inspection would likely be of no value to anyone after the election, Hohm asked if there was any alternatives they could do, and while he wasn’t opposed to it “the timing of it sucks”, and questioned the wording of the document they would send forward.
Van Rijn said if the town initiated it, Municipal Affairs would do a preliminary investigation within the first six months to see if it warrants further examination.
“As far as hostile comments, I think everybody around the council table knows who I am and my love for my community, and the fact that I want to have open and honest dialogue with members of council,” said Van Rijn. “We don’t want to have to be concerned about the dealings the town is doing behind the citizens’backs, that we find out after the fact. This exercise is needed, it’s warranted, and I think it would be in good faith by council to self-initiate the Municipal Inspection.
” Coun. Doreen Lloyd raised a concern whether the inspection affect their chances of getting selected for funding for the new high school. Van Rijn noted that it might “hit the pause button on it”. Coun. Jacen Abrey asked if there was a way to track the IP addresses from the CfaBC survey comments, to ensure it’s not just a bunch going from one computer. Van Rijn noted of the 739 responses, three came front the same address, so they did there results based on 736 responses.
Abrey also inquired what the group was looking for out of the inspection, noting he didn’t see anything wrong with it, but instead of looking at the past three years, they should go back seven years and “do a full audit”. Van Rijn replied it has less to do with members of council, but rather the organization and how it is being run.
Using the example of the Capital Budget being passed back during the Jan. 27 council meeting, while Van Rijn said administration did an “excellent job” on presenting it, there was no questions or discussions from council on it, and there was simply a motion on it. He urged people to review the Capital Budget passed in 2018, whose video is online, although unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, the video of the Jan. 27, 2020, meeting is not available.
Van Rijn also urged the town to revert the way they recorded their council meeting minutes to before July 2018, as until then, council minutes had contained a substantive record of discussions during the meetings. Lana Antony, legislative coordinator for the Town of Coaldale, said she had consulted with Municipal Affairs on the matter.
“The clause that used to be in the MGA stated that minutes were taken without comment or note, so prior to last summer, we had actually been recording them incorrectly,” said Antony. “When I consulted with Municipal Affairs on it, they also stated it was good practice to not include the dialogue or comment, as it could be taken out of context after the fact.”
If council desired the way of recording minutes to change, they would need to pass a resolution to do so.
Mayor Kim Craig said in his opinion, most of what Van Rijn said was “opinionated”, and there should be some substantial reason for the town to launch a Municipal Inspection. Otherwise, there were other methods to address a review of business practices. He then asked Van Rijn if he had any substantial reason for the review. Van Rijn said the in the letter to council and his representation touch on their concerns. He also noted that a petition, that requires 20 per cent of Coaldale’s population to sign, could be done and they are prepared to move forward with that. He also urged council to go back to the old way minutes were recorded, so there was a more in-depth permanent record of what is discussed during council meetings.
Discussion on the inspection request continued later in the meeting, and was eventually tabled to council’s Oct. 13 meeting.