Editorial: Is it time to elect a smaller Council?

ballot boxIt has been a tough 12 months for Morinville Town Council. In August of 2012, then Councillor Ben Van de Walle took ill and resigned from Council, opening the door to a by-election that placed Councillor Sheldon Fingler in the seventh seat by a 32-vote margin over a largely one-issue candidate.

Three months later Mayor Lloyd Bertschi resigned due to work commitments preventing him from attending meetings or putting in the efforts to the standards he’d long set for himself.

From the remaining six, Councillor Paul Krauskopf was selected as Mayor and served a term of office cut too short by his passing June 30.

The deputy mayor now acts as mayor until the next regular Council meeting, Aug. 27, when Council must decide whom to appoint as mayor until the new Council is sworn in after the general election in October. That is unless Council decides to call a special meeting to make the short-term mayoral appointment sooner.

Through the past year, Morinville Town Council has worked with reduced numbers. Whether through Mayor Bertschi’s prolonged absences due to work or through a reduced number of councillors after Mayor Paul Krauskopf shifted from a councillor’s seat to the mayor’s chair.

With his death and the appointment of a new mayor at some point between now and Aug. 27, Council will cross this term’s finish line with only five members, exactly the number that served on Council when Paul Krauskopf was first elected on Oct. 20, 1998.

Although Morinville has continued to grow over the past 15 years, Council has grown along with it to the point where our Council now consists of mayor and six councillors. While it may be true that many hands make light work, it does not necessarily hold true that more deciders make better decisions.

Under the Municipal Government Act, a town can have six councillors and a mayor, giving Council an odd number to prevent tie votes, which would defeat a motion and hamstring the work of Council.

But does Morinville Town Council need seven members to run a community of 8,569 residents? St. Albert, a community of 61,000, seems to do all right with that number, but do we need the same size Council as St. Albert? We frequently hear of how overstaffed Town Hall and the Morinville Community Cultural Centre are, but perhaps it is time to look at how big Council really needs to be.

What could be effective is for Council to take a lesson from the business world and run a leaner ship with the right people. Elect a five-member Council at large and have that Council select their mayor from within as the Town of Legal does.
On the leadership side, the community benefits because when two solid Council incumbents make a play for the mayor’s chair, the community loses one of the two who had previously brought strong value to the table as members of Council.

From a fiscal standpoint, a leaner Council potentially cuts Council’s own budget by almost 29 per cent. With an annual budget of approximately $250,000, that could result in a real savings to taxpayers of approximately $72,500, which is almost a one per cent tax differential.

But beyond the relative assurance the best of candidates have a seat and four wheels beneath them in Council Chambers, and the real dollar savings to taxpayers, a two-member reduction on Council could increase efficiencies both on administrative resources and in Council discussions and decisions.

While there is no assurance five members of Council would get along any better than seven, anyone who has served on a large committee can attest to the reality that the length of decisions are often directly proportional to the number of deciders with no greater outcome on the matter being decided.

Anyone who has ever served on a committee knows the futility of trying to make things smaller when they have grown large. The common refrain of “We’ve always done it this way before” is like an overplayed song on the radio.

But as we reflect on the governmental future of this community, we can hope the idea of a leaner and meaner Council might take root with those elected to office Oct. 21. Sadly, the time has long passed for the idea to be a reality this election. In order to reduce the size of Council or to change the manner in which a mayor is selected, a bylaw must be passed 180 days prior to the election. Such a bylaw, passed at this stage, would not take effect until the 2017 General Municipal Election.

If Morinville Town Council is to be made up of a group of seven, let us make sure we select seven that will endeavour to work as hard as those the community has lost.

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  1. While what you say about a ‘leaner and meaner’ bunch of councillors might well be true (and is probably an idea well worth being considered, I am MORE than a little concerned as to WHY the Deputy Mayor (who is responsible for doing so) is unwilling to call a special council meeting to appoint an interim Mayor.

    Is she afraid that her fellow councillors might not appoint her?? Not a great position to be in after having thrown one’s chapeau into the ring to get the job for the next four years, eh?? While this issue may seem like small spuds to some, to others it smacks of a deliberate attempt to circumvent democracy.

    Stephen, you speak about saving money by having only five elected Councillors. How about saving money by eliminating some of that good old ‘Administrative Bloat’ which continues to exist within our Town Administration?

    Stay tuned for “more to follow”…

    Y’all have a nice day.

  2. I never understood the reasoning behind the creation of a 6th councillor to begin with. It is unnecessary, given the population of this town. While one councillor hasn’t necessarily affected our pocketbooks, I do agree with James regarding the cost of a bloated bureaucracy.

  3. I believe that there are several areas in which the Town could trim its administration overhead; looking at councillors may be a good place to start. However, some questions that need to be asked are why are there seven councillors and how did we get there? Exactly what will the savings be? What additional work with there be for the others? Is our town involved in too many committees? I like to think that there was a valid reason for adding a councillor.

    In times of budget cuts, too often the mantra is do more with less. Well, after 30 years in the Army and Federal government, I can tell you that that doesn’t always work or make sense. Hand-in-hand with cutting means stop doing what doesn’t make sense and do what does. I think that the Town needs to take a hard look at what they do, why, how much it costs and look to see what matches up with their stated priorities. The CAO is a pretty smart person, so I like to believe that it has been underway for some time. One thing I will add is that this exercise always looks easier when you are not the person who has to do it or work with the staff after it is done.

    James has a much better eye for the undercurrent in politics than I do. Not getting appointed would send a message, especially if someone on the Council is thinking about running for mayor. I never thought about that. Very astute observation, James.

  4. Although I do not remember the dates, town council was five, went to seven, went back to five, and then to the present seven.

    I was on council at the time the decision was made to go to seven.

    Some of the reasoning in doing so, was to alleviate the amount of work we had to do. It was also thought, that two heads are better than one.(more heads are better that less)

    I can agree with Stephen that it does not necessarily result in better decisions being made all the time, but some of the times it does.

    Please note that, just because you put your hat in the ring, get elected, and get lofted onto a town council, does not suddenly make you any smarter!!!

    Most areas of town governance that decisions needed to be made on, we as a council, would have little or NO experience on.

    What does anyone know about Law, sewer, road construction, various types of engineering, accounting???

    I could go on and on.

    Having more on council helped with some of these decisions because some of the times, it was hard to ask a good question because we would not know enough on the subject to ask one, other times someone of the seven would come up with some good ones to ask.

    The extra skills and life experience of seven is better than five.

    Having said all that, I’m not sure which is better.

    I was there with five and seven. There are pros and cons to both.

    Oh! Ya!!! On the less work part. Depending on who’s elected. There is not necessarily less work. Just more people talking!!!

  5. Brent: Thanks for the compliment… It’s just that I had over 37 years in the Army and, like yourself, have seen the wheel being re-invented more times than enough. Unfortunately, bureaucrats everywhere seem to have two objectives – one is to retain their very lucrative positions at all costs; and two – to construct the largest empire(s) possible. I firmly believe that what must be driven home every now and again – very ruthlessly, if necessary – is the fact that we elect the Mayor and Council to represent OUR interests. WE, the constituents, have a vested interest in good government in our community, unlike our Administration where very few, if ANY, of the SENIOR folks running the show, even reside in Morinville.

    Joe: Good historical perspective and there probably were good reasons for the increase in Council membership. However, is it strictly necessary for Councillors (or ANYBODY for that matter) to be on all those committees? If Councillor attendance on ANY external committee cannot be seen to provide a DIRECT and DISCERNABLE benefit to the citizens of Morinville, I say forget about it… it’s probably an expense we really don’t need.

    As well, your points concerning Councillors probably not having experience in all aspects of running a town – TRUE. But then that’s why we have our vaunted Administration. However, when THESE so-called experts seem unable to answer simple, straight-forward questions with simple, straight-forward answers – we have a BIG PROBLEM! We’ve been given the run-around on so many issues in the past few years that I keep checking the budget documents to determine which line item covers the tap-dancing lessons!

    ’nuff for now – have a nice day!

  6. I was on Council from 1998 to 2004 when we had only 5 members on council and was a big supporter to go to 7 yes St Albert has 7 as does a lot of bigger and also smaller communities then us but the pay in some is quite a bit more . There are a lot of committees that councillors have to sit on and having 7 people is a lot better then 5 as most of people on council have full time jobs . Also its a lot easier to get a split council of 3 to 2 which we had back when I was on . I agree with one response that maybe we could cut the extra money somewhere else . I agree with a lot of Joe’s comments

    • A 3-2 vote or 4-3 vote will both pass or defeat the motion and ensure a motion is passed or defeated by a majority rather than by a tie.

  7. Mr. Melville:

    You state that: “There are a lot of committees that councillors have to sit on”. Just WHO is it that says councillors HAVE to sit on ANY of these committees? I have been unable to find anything in the provincial Municipal Government Act which DIRECTS anyone to sit on these committees. Furthermore, even if SOME of these require Municipal representation, why not send the Municipal EXPERTS – department heads (or their deputies) from our Administration. THEY should be able to report back to Council to render any decisions, n’est pas??

    C’mon folks – once again I get the weird feeling that we’re being had and, unfortunately, this all translates into more of our precious tax dollars flying right out the window. Now I MAY be wrong in all this but, so far, no one has offered up any evidence which contradicts my premises!

    Again – Have a nice day.

    PS – I have JUST received an email from the Deputy Mayor advising of a Special OPEN Council Meeting on Thursday at 5:30 PM, to discuss and appoint an Interim Mayor to take us to October’s election. I REALLY hope that the actual decision is NOT made IN-CAMERA prior to the open meeting!! Hope to see some of you there!

  8. Most of the committees that council sit on have spending authority. If we send no one to sit on the committee, then our money will be spent with out any input. IE: landfill, sewer, library etc.

    Others, like volunteer appreciation and the various festivals etc., I think are helped by council participation.

    Not all of the above cost the tax payers money, but all of the above cost Councillors TIME.

  9. Thanks for that information Joe.

    I guess my next question would be: “Does the Councillor who actually attend any committee meeting where taxpayer dollars are being committed have the AUTHORITY to spend those funds or does any expenditure require a Council vote?”

    It seems to me, based on your first comments (concerning “lack of expertise”) that very few folks are legitimately able to make those kinds of decisions. Do Councillors take “experts” to advise them at these meetings?

    If a Councillor is required to make snap decisions on spending, and the rest of Council or Administration have no input, maybe the time has come to review the procedures surrounding some of these committees.

    I’d like to learn more, Joe. If you have the time, please contact me and maybe we can get together for coffee – I’ll even buy! Stephen has my email address, and my permission to give it to you.

    Have a good one!

  10. James,

    Traditionally, budgets must be approved by the whole of council. Then, depending on policy (But generally followed by municipal governments) committees also have to approve their spending of monies by way of motion.

    Ie: Committee X creates a budget which it agrees by way of motion and goes to Council to ask for approval and the money. Council gives Committee X a budget of $5000. Committee X uses those funds to hold an open house, hire an expert and so on, as per their budget.

    It is intelligent to have a member of council, at least one if not more, on each committee. The rationale is that councilors are elected and are meant to represent their constituents. Appointed persons are not. Councilors then can report back to council, gain knowledge quicker through channels that they have access to that non-elected officials do not and so forth.

    In so far as council having this number of members or less… I think it is a good question to pose to those who are running when Stephen starts his questions or at the debate. I personally feel there is value in having seven members over five, but there are valid arguments on both sides. When one person on council brings forward a potentially foolish (Or dangerous) motion, sometimes they can sway one or two. Making a poor decision is a bit more difficult with more people. On the other hand, sometimes getting a decision made takes longer with more people because there are so many differing opinions and often more than one person that rambles on endlessly (And often aimlessly).

    Good question posed by Stephen here and great discussion. Joe and Brent, thanks for the insight, I think it’s valuable.

  11. Many, many thanks for your input Rob, but my concern is less with committees set up WITHIN the Municipality and more with those set up with neighboring municipalities – thus my questions re: Councillor expertise, the bringing along of “experts” from our Administration and the authority to commit OUR taxpayer funds resting on the shoulders of the one Councillor supposedly representing our interests.

    I THINK I understand the internal budgeting process, but I’m not really too sure how we can budget for items which may pop up during these external committee sessions – and I find THAT aspect quite troubling.

    My offer to get together for further discussion is now also extended to yourself, should you be interested(??)

  12. James I really think you should run for council and then you would understand what goes on right now you have no clue as you have never been on council and are venting which I understand as im not happy with some things that are going on in town ….but if we go to 5 then all we are doing is going after people who are not working and have time to run .Im a business person and I believe we need some people on council who have business experience as it helps but if a person like myself and other business people have no time to committ then all we are looking at for council is retired people and maybe housewives or househusbands trying to be politacally correct . Having been on council for 6 years it was very time consuming and took away from my business and my family . I am not or never will be a career politician like some people but I do care about this town and if I ever got back on council would only do it for the good of the town not for my personal gains .I have been approached by many people to run for mayor but at this stage in my life can’t commit to it . I really usually have no time to comment on these issues from paper but STRONGLY BELIEVE WE NEED 7 PEOPLE ON COUNCIL thats it .

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