Interview With Council Part 5: Relationship With Admin, Accusations Of Secrecy

Morinville, along with Alberta’s other municipalities, will be holding an election for Council on October 18, 2021 and nominations for the positions of Mayor and Councillors have already opened. With that in mind Morinville Online has approached present Council members about whether they will be standing for re-election this fall ands their views on what they feel has been accomplished and ongoing and future issues.

The responses to our questions are lead off by Mayor Barry Turner, followed by current Deputy Mayor Sarah Hall, followed by the Councillors in alphabetical order.

Q: How would you describe relations between Council and the Town Administration. Is there room for improvement?

Mayor Barry Turner: Relations between Council and Administration should aim for a state of “healthy tension”. Council leads the Administrative team, and ultimately sets the goals for the organization. As such, Council needs to support its Administrative team and work very closely together to achieve the community’s goals. Getting back to Council’s role of balancing unlimited wants with limited resources, Council also needs to ensure that resources are distributed with the needs of residents first and foremost. In an ideal state, this means there is always some push and pull around how resources are allocated to get the best results. Council and Administration must challenge each other to get the best results. There is always room for improvement and this relationship must be constantly developed over time.

Deputy Mayor Sarah Hall: There is always room for improvement in any relationship. However this term Council and Administration have taken many steps to improve trust and transparency. I for one hold our Administration in high esteem, for though we give direction, they ultimately do the hard work. They have worked through many challenges and changes, I see constant improvement and could not ask for more from our small, but mighty team.

Councillor Rebecca Balanko: There is always room for improvement! I feel however, the relationship is pretty decent and the Administration is approachable.

I certainly have felt that through the pandemic people have been tested. Often the way one interprets an email, when we have been unable to meet face to face, can be problematic. I don’t think it’s any different with anyone else doing the bulk of their work through digital means. I feel our Town Administration is working very hard and I often pick up the phone instead, or pop in for a distanced chat.

I have always appreciated the line, “The biggest misconception about communication is thinking it has already happened.”  We could solve a lot of life’s issues by just being candid and honest in conversation, in our everyday life.

Councillor Nicole Boutestein: There is always room for improvement in any relationship.  However as Council is the employer and the CAO is our only employee, it is not appropriate or ethical for me to comment on this.  No one would want their employer discussing their rapport publicly.

Councillor Stephen Dafoe: We have a great Administration, and I think a good relationship with them. The wins this Council has had this term are mainly due to their efforts and direction, in my view. Council and Administration need to be an arm’s length affair. We need to be cordial with each other, but councillors should not be stifled from challenging Administration, and Administration should not be stifled from challenging Council.

In business we say, “if you and your partner agree on everything, one of you is not needed.” Council and Admin are no different in that respect.

Councillor Lawrence Giffin: I would describe council’s relationship with Administration as good. As with any relationship between two groups of people there are some disagreements. However, the disagreements have been just that. We have always been able to come to an understanding and move on.

Councillor Scott Richardson: I think we have had a good relationship with Administration and I think it has dramatically improved over the last three-plus years. There will always be room for improvement and there is a fine line between keeping Administration accountable and not creating roadblocks for success.

Q: In some quarters it is felt that municipalities tend to be overly secretive about decision-making. Do you think this is an issue Council should examine?

Mayor Barry Turner: The simple fact in the matter is that municipalities CANNOT make decisions in secret. Councils can only act as a group by public motion and majority support. Period. Any and all decisions must be public. An active Council that is moving key priorities forward often is involved in negotiations with other municipalities or service providers, making land sales or purchasing property, involved in organizational changes to the structure of the workforce, and other similar things that prevent 100% full disclosure of information. Negotiating strategies and tactics, acceptable sale or purchase prices during negotiations, proprietary information of service providers and staff wages and salaries are all examples of information that, if released can be detrimental to the public good. An effective Council is made up of individuals that work together to ensure the right balance is struck.

Strong members of Council also hold each other and Administration accountable by addressing and resolving internal issues of miscommunication, personal conflict, or conduct that can negatively impact a team’s performance. This is an important function of all teams, and Council cannot meet outside of a Council meeting as a whole, and regular opportunities to address issue or concerns proactively are important.

This Council has made a number of changes to how it operates to increase overall transparency and disclosure. Closed session agenda items are now listed along with the appropriate sections of FOIP that apply. Previously, generic “in camera” sessions were held, with the only information released the number of topics discussed, and if they were “land, legal or labour” related. This Council has examined this issue in the past and will continue to examine it going forward as needed, as all effective Councils do.

Deputy Mayor Sarah Hall: This perception has been pushed on the public aggressively in the past couple years. It is one that I find ironic, as this Council has made it a priority to be more transparent and communicative. The more steps Council takes towards that goal, i.e., listing closed session items, the more accusations there are of secrecy. One thing residents need to know is that not everything can be talked about in the public. If they had a tax or legal issue, they would not want it broadcast. All residents and businesses deserve that protection, and legally, it is our responsibility to protect them.  We work very hard to be as transparent as possible, and make ALL decisions publicly. When dealing with the amount of growth and changes we have had in the past couple years it just makes sense that we have more to deal with behind closed doors. One of those things is working on the Council/Administration relationship, as can be seen in our standing items.

Councillor Rebecca Balanko: This one is a tough one. I have grown concerned regarding the optics. I feel unless we have something needing discussion, we need to have closed sessions removed from our agenda package. There are certainly times we need to have closed sessions. There is a place for these conversations; they have purpose. We have had some very fast moving projects and issues. I see the value of closed sessions, but not weekly. Our Council has continued to share transparency as a goal; we should examine the process and frequency, in my opinion.

Councillor Nicole Boutestein: This is truly unfortunate that this may be the perception, as Council follows the Municipal Government Act and Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP), which clearly state that we can only go “in camera” or hold a “closed session” to discuss land, legal or labour items.  Our agendas do have a CAO and Council closed session option, if needed, to discuss land, legal or labour items.

Councillor Stephen Dafoe: A couple of years ago, I compared minutes of Sturgeon, Gibbons and ourselves and found the three municipalities were on par concerning closed session time.

This Council has, for good or for ill, developed a reputation for secrecy. I think some of that is earned, partly because of the standing “dialogue” part of the meeting. But it is more than that. I believe silence is secrecy in the eyes of our fellow residents. When questions arise in the street about gravel roads, rising COVID-19 numbers, or any other topic, it is already too late for a Mayor or Council to respond. We need to be out in front of things, even when the information is not what they want to hear.

That is not an issue with Town communications, in my opinion. We have seasoned and capable professionals in that department. The next mayor, this one or a different one, needs to be more proactive in messaging and framing the argument on the topics that matter to our residents.

It is a refrain I’m sure my colleagues are sick of hearing from me. But communication is critical and expected from our residents and something we owe them.

Councillor Lawrence Giffin: As mentioned in the last question, there are disagreements between council and administration. The disagreements have never amounted to anything. The reason is that we take the time to work things out. There are two standing items that are on every meeting agenda. They are “CAO Dialogue” and “Council Dialogue.” This is the opportunity to make sure we work things out between Council and Administration and any issues that might arise between Councillors. Council can only be effective if there are no personality issues getting in the way. Most of the time these agenda items are only a check-in, however at times things need to be clarified.

There are also times when Council must go into closed session when the law requires it (FOIP). These are times when privacy issues are in play. Council is very aware that the Free Press has made a big issue of this, but I can assure you that no decisions that affect the town or the public are made in closed session.

Scott Richardson: I have expressed my concerns on the perception of this council being secretive. I’ve had discussions with Councillors about this and I have asked for this topic to be brought up at the Committee of the Whole meeting on February 16.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email