Council and residents clash over AUMA spending

By Stephen Dafoe

Legal – Council Chambers played home to a sometimes heated exchange between Legal Council and Legal residents Jeannie and Dan Charrois Monday night. At issue was the approximate $7,650 being spent to send the whole of council and some administrative staff to the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association conference and trade show in Edmonton later this month.

Mr. and Mrs. Charrois were largely concerned with the fact that hotel accommodations were included in the expenditures and the image that sends back to Legal residents, many of whom commute to and from Edmonton each day.

“I do conferences regularly in Edmonton,” Mrs. Charrois told council, noting she personally could not justify spending money on hotel rooms when Edmonton was so short a drive from Legal. The consensus among Legal residents she spoke to was they could not see how council could justify the expense either. “It really wasn’t a favourable response.”

Mrs. Charrois also took issue with the number of people attending the conference, stating her understanding was as many as eight people were attending the AUMA gathering at a cost of approximately $11,000.

Mayor Albert St. Jean told Mr. and Mrs. Charrois that, in fact, only six were attending the conference: all five council members and Chief Administrative Officer Cory Brown, and even then Legal was only attending two of the four days the event is scheduled to run.

Hotel rooms defended

The mayor defended the procurement of hotel rooms on the basis that conference sessions run all day and are followed by social events in the evening that run as late as 11 p.m. The hotel rooms would give councillors a place to take a break or a nap during what would often be 16-hour days. Additionally, because alcohol is served at the evening social functions, the mayor felt driving home to Legal was not a good idea. The Charrois contended the responsibility for drinking was the responsibility of those attending the conference and not Legal’s ratepayers.

While both sides in the debate conceded that excessive drinking was unlikely to happen, the Charrois maintained their stance that too much money was being spent to send all of council to the conference and that the money might be better spent elsewhere, particularly with some of the local committees, including Legal’s Youth Committee which has to fundraise for what it needs.

“I always have to be aware of what I’m spending,” Mrs. Charrois said of her own business. “I can’t raise taxes in my business.”

St. Jean said the need to send all councillors to this year’s conference and trade show was because it was a new council and that in most years not everyone attends. The mayor said he has not attended the AUMA conference for the past three years.

Common Ground Found
Councillor Phil Hughes suggested that an accountability factor be put in place whereby councillors reported back to council and the community what they did at the conference and how it benefitted the community. It was an idea which Mr. and Mrs. Charrois agreed would be a good idea.

The Charrois said they were not opposed to the idea of councillors attending the conference; they just wanted some reassurance that ratepayers were getting the best value for their tax dollars.

“I hope that we put enough of a seed out there for them to just kind of think twice when they are planning for conferences, and just being a little more fiscally responsible with their spending,” Mrs. Charrois said after the meeting. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to go to the conference. I just think – think about how many people you are sending and how much money is being spent. If spending $5,000 is going to be just as effective as spending 10 [thousand], why not spend five [thousand]?”

Legal Mayor Albert St. Jean said outside of the orientation sessions for new councillors, the AUMA conference is one of the few educational forums councillors have an opportunity to go to and is an event that is important to meeting the community’s needs.

“The networking that goes on in the evenings gives us a chance to build relationships with our neighbouring communities, and if there’s any relationships that need repairing or nurturing – that’s a good place to do it,” St. Jean said, adding the conference is attended by the majority of municipalities around Legal. “Some of the networking can result in positive stuff for our community.”

St. Jean said the discussion on the $250,000 grant Legal received for its arena from Sturgeon County began at an AUMA conference. “We got a quarter million dollar grant because of that conversation that started there,” he said. “Without being there, I would not have got the inside scoop that we could have actually got this money because it was the first time we had ever asked Sturgeon County for a capital expense grant. They’ve always just paid operational. Through being at that meeting, I actually found out that I could ask for that.”

The mayor said the annual conference and trade show has resulted in Legal gaining information and knowledge about its park upgrades, and that during this year’s conference he will be looking for information on the Town’s proposed skate board park.

St. Jean said the AUMA is a big lobbyist for municipalities with the provincial government in securing sustainability money. “Legal has received over a million dollars in the last three years” he said. “Without that, we wouldn’t be improving our roads.”

The AUMA conference takes place Nov. 23 – 25.

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