Column: Are councillors to be silent when questioned?

by Ed Cowley, freelancer

The town of Morinville is interpreting anything emailed from media to council to be a request for a formal town position as stated by the Mayor and only the Mayor. An exchange regarding the Leisure Centre Lands secrecy resulted in Mayor Simon Boersma making not only the ruling to deliberately misinterpret media email requests for comments from all council members but also issuing a quasi-step-away suggestion to councillors, citing sections of the council Code of Conduct (despite the Code offering no restriction on councillors voicing individual opinions on public issues).

“As outlined on our website, media inquiries are requested to go through Corporate Communications.  As stated in an earlier email, all media requests received by email, including those through the Mayor and Council email and/or the Town website, will be deemed an official media request and myself as Mayor, as the official spokesperson, will provide the response on behalf of the Town,” stated Boersma. “Your email sent as a Freelance Columnist was deemed an official media request. Our Council Code of Conduct Bylaw provides direction on communicating on behalf of the municipality:

5.2. Unless Council directs otherwise, the Mayor is Council’s official spokesperson and in the absence of the Mayor, it is the Deputy Mayor. All inquiries from the media regarding the official Council position on an issue shall be referred to Council’s official spokesperson.

“5.7. As a member of the community, Members retain the right to make public comment or speak to the media. Members shall, when not speaking on behalf of Council, clearly identify that stated opinions are personal opinions and do not necessarily represent the position of Council nor unduly reflect on any Council decision.

“For clarity, if you are looking for an official media response from the Town of Morinville, please use the Mayor and Council email address and you can expect one official media response.  If you are looking for individual views of the Mayor and councillors and not requesting an official statement from the town, please e-mail each member of Council individually.

“I will have [administration] set up a meeting to discuss this in person should you have any further questions,” stated the official spokesman for the town.

The submitted question asked for council members to comment on their failure to question the Leisure Centre Lands issue going into closed session. I have no intent to pander to the town’s decision to deliberately misinterpret emails sent through the town website as a request for the Mayor’s official stance. If the Mayor and administration want to deem a cat to be a dog, will you as a resident of Morinville line up to get a dog license for your cat? I won’t be lining up to follow a ridiculous ruling on the media contact. I realize there is confusion among councils who feel they can direct media to do as council wishes rather than serving in the role of questioning and challenging council actions to stimulate open debate. (It is a confusion fed by reporters who interpret the role of media in democracy to pander to powerful officials.)

I have no interest in an “an official media response from the town of Morinville” on anything and have never asked for one. It is the individuals who were elected and accountable to the residents that need to make statements to their electorate. Their responses are always treated as individual statements and not the official town of Morinville version. Past columns are still online and can be viewed by any reader wishing to confirm that councillor comments are not presented as the official town stance.

“My policy of dealing with media or residents was, is and always shall be to respond to direct questions to the best of my ability, or to direct the inquiry to the best source to provide that information, whether that is administration or another council colleague. That said, there are times when the mayor, as the official spokesperson for council, is the person to talk to, and my experience, not policy, dictates when that is the path to take,” stated coun. Stephen Dafoe in response to a question sent to individual councillor emails regarding whether the Mayor had discussed his interpretation of their restriction from responding to media questions submitted through the town’s website. He was the only councillor to respond to the question of whether the restriction of councillors’ use of the email had been discussed.

While the silliness over the use of the website contact is confusing (amusing?) and probably just a diversion to take attention away from the secretive Leisure Centre Lands update it has created a serious issue for individual councillors who must decide where they stand on being accountable to the public.

I have no intention of accepting the Mayor’s interpretation that questions emailed to the Mayor and Council will be treated as a request for an official response from the Mayor and only the Mayor. Questions will continue to be sent requesting for the views of all council members.

Councillors will have to make the following decision. Are you going to respond to the questions asked so the electors of the town of Morinville know your stance on an issue? Or, are you going to fall into line behind the Mayor and administration’s interpretation that a request for comment from all council members is a request for an official stance from the Mayor?

The voter turnout in Morinville was embarrassingly low in October 2021, and the failure of the previous council to openly discuss issues and directly answer questions was a factor in discouraging participatory democracy. How can residents provide meaningful input when issues are discussed in closed session and council members evade questions? The town’s willful misinterpretation of emailed questions to all council is just an initial step in a slippery slope that will send this council sliding down to the level of practices of the previous regime.

Residents and businesses need to email the Mayor and Councillors (yes use the single contact on the website) and let them know how you feel. If you want councillors to answer questions when asked, say so. If you want only the Mayor and no councillors to respond to any questions, say so.

Whether council wants it or not, democracy needs your input.

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4 Comments

  1. Ed, why not accept that the Mayor is acting as he believes he should? If you have a question for an individual councillor, ask that person individually. For each councillor? Ask each one individually. Council Code of Conduct Bylaw seems pretty clear here.

  2. Elected individuals come to council with no government experience(as a rule) and therefore seek guidance from the very people who have a vested interest in controlling the message and training you the way they want you to be. For example using questionable reasoning for going in Camera opposed to looking for reasons to stay public. Another example is that of CAO’s trying to stop council from talking to directors. (Not giving them direction but seeking info) Dafoe is the only one of the lot that WORKS for and answers to the rate payers. Answers questions when asked and does not accept the “oh you have to ask the Mayor” BS. Getting elected should be the start of your answering public questions not the end of it.

    • Joe: Appreciate the kind words, but I can tell you that my colleagues on Council are all excellent at responding to residents and media alike, both by email and on social media.

    • Joe, your comments seem to be outta touch with reality. I guess that’s why you lost the UCP election. Better luck next time 😢

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