by Colin F. Smith
Has the state of public affairs in Sturgeon County become surreal? It may not be as bad as that, but some residents/ratepayers think the county needs to take a new direction.
Last December they formed a group called Sturgeon United Residents For Effective Accountable Leadership (SUREAL) to press forward their concerns to Mayor Tom Flynn and county council.
A proposed county campus, the new land use bylaw, a regional recreation facility and the state of the roads top the list of issues that the group has been addressing.
But just as important as the specifics to them, or perhaps more so, is their sense that Mayor Flynn and the council are uncommunicative, unresponsive and too inclined to take direction from Sturgeon County administration rather than its residents and ratepayers.
According to chairman John Wasmuth, SUREAL came into being after about a year of discussions among a number of residents/ratepayers dissatisfied with what they feel is a poor level of service from Sturgeon County and a lack of response to individual requests for information and unresolved issues.
Morinville News recently spoke with Wasmuth, Alanna Hnatiw and Don Levers, who have spearheaded the group and met with Mayor and two councillors on December 19, 2016 to discuss their concerns.
Anticipating that meeting, they chose the name SUREAL in early December.
“We are at a place where we hadn’t planned on being on December 19,” said Levers. “We met each other at various events over the past year, open houses, etc., and found that we all had a similar concerns and issues.”
Their initial goal was to have county council hold an open forum at which they and other residents and ratepayers could make their views known. While this did not come to pass, discussions with friends and neighbours led to an increasing number of people becoming interested.
“It started with people drinking coffee,” Levers said. “The first time, there were six. It grew to about 20.”
The number of current SUREAL supporters is hard to pin down, as it is not a formal membership organization, according to Wasmuth.
Levers points to an email list of about 250, and a Facebook following of 700 to 800. Of that number, 80 to 200 have turned up for various evening events. There is a more involved group of 20 to 30, although Hnatiw notes that a smaller number of them take care of organizational work including maintenance of the SUREAL website and Facebook account.
The group objective is “to bring together Sturgeon County residents to provide a consolidated voice to the mayor and council to resolve issues that were common to the majority of residents,” Wasmuth declared.
SUREAL also sees itself as watchdog, seeking to hold council and administration to account on expenditures and organizational practices, based on studying financial and other public documents.
Their initial focus was the proposed county campus, a facility intended to consolidate its nine administration offices spread across the jurisdiction.
They feel the project is being pushed forward too quickly, without adequate costing and consultation. Further, they question whether it is really necessary and would achieve the proclaimed financial efficiencies. SUREAL takes credit for the current postponement of the project.
SUREAL also felt council was moving too fast on new county land use bylaw introduced in the spring, and that certain elements of the bylaw were undesirable.
“This document is really affecting property rights in Sturgeon County, said Wasmuth. ”It’s basically an anti-agri-business, anti-farm development, with restricted hours and restricted sales.”
Since its introduction changes have been made to the yet-to-be-passed bylaw, including hiving off of agriculturally related provisions to a future county Agriculture Master Plan.
One issue on which they would like to council to move faster is a regional recreation facility.
“Sturgeon County is one of the few areas where there is no recreation centre,” Wasmuth asserted. “They are usually worked on jointly by municipalities and counties. There is no such facility in Sturgeon County.”
On the perennial issue of roads, SUREAL considers that county ratepayers are not getting value for money in terms of expenditures on construction and maintenance.
The group continues to pursue its agenda through seeking meetings with the mayor and council, advocating for open public forums, putting in information requests, and organizing its own meetings, with varying degrees of success.
“That’s been the really frustrating part,” said Hnatiw. “Why are they not engaging us as representatives of the residents and ratepayers? When we started out our intentions were to be a voice of people who are not being listened to, are ignored. Stonewalled. It’s not just us; we want them to be listened to.
“It’s unfortunate that public engagement cannot happen in a positive fashion. If they are the leadership in the county, they should be setting the tone. It shouldn’t be this hard.”
Another major SUREAL concern is what they see as an overly close relationship between the council and the county administration, particularly Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Peter Tarnawsky.
“Mayor Flynn and four of the councillors bond tightly to the CAO,” declared Wasmuth. “Mayor Flynn feels more allegiance to the CAO than to the residents and ratepayers. They take all guidance from the CAO, who is really running things. To me, that’s a good part of the problem.”
Wasmuth pointed out that in the most recent review of the CAO’s contract it was extended for five years from the end of the current term, which itself doesn’t expire until well into 2018. His salary and benefits are considerably above the average for Alberta municipalities.
Hnatiw called for a review of costs and staffing, both in relation to the CAO and the administration as a whole, whose payroll has increased substantially.
“We’re not saying that that the CAO is overpaid,” said Levers. “He may not be paid enough. We just want to confirm that what we’ve been doing is correct. Get somebody in to do a review.”
The current relationship between council and administration has to change, Wasmuth believes.
“The system is broken. These CAOs have extreme power. Especially where they have a weak council, as we have here. It’s an extremely frustrating and inefficient system.”
Reviewing a June 21 Morinville News article on Mayor Flynn’s intention to run for re-election, the SUREAL members scoffed at some of his announced accomplishments and priorities.
These included Cost Effective Service Excellence, public engagement and that his relationship building with other governments has led to major assistance from the province for energy projects and transportation improvements.
“The feedback we get is that the level of service continues to decline,” said Wasmuth. As for the major projects, they were in place long before the mayor came in.
Hnatiw referred to a survey that indicated less than half of Sturgeon County ratepayers were satisfied with the level of services provided.
“If you’re getting less than 50 per cent [satisfied], but you’re paying some of the highest salaries, where is the value for money?” she asked.
Despite considering Mayor Flynn’s handling of Sturgeon County affairs problematic, they were somewhat hesitant about urging residents to vote him out in the election coming up in October.
But Wasmuth said SUREAL does encourage others to run for mayor.
“We would certainly encourage different directions,” he affirmed. “The mayor’s chosen to listen to the administration rather than the residents and ratepayers, and communicate with ratepayers.”
Said Hnatiw, “I want to see him step up and give strong direction.”
Although links between SUREAL and county councillors past or present have been alleged, Wasmuth said the group would be neither running nor specifically supporting candidates in the election.
“We’re not a political group,” he said. “We’re not actually going to endorse people. We encourage other people to run in the election. We’ll express our views about the issues.”
Hnatiw added that the group has been clear about the issues, and electors can evaluate candidates based on their views of those issues.
The group is hoping to hold candidate forums, Levers noted.