Opinion: Morinville delegations reveal systemic problem 

by Ed Cowley, freelancer

There was an incident at the Morinville town council meeting Oct. 11 that should have all members of council and senior management cloaked in shame and vowing to never let it happen again. It also reveals why Morinville residents who keep electing good people are frustrated by the subsequent action (or inaction) of council.

A lot of significant issues were discussed at the meeting. Intersection and crosswalk safety, too narrow street width in new subdivisions, target level for 2023 budget revenue, regional collaboration for FCSS services, possible disposal of the community bus, and the taxation policy were all subjects for discussion. All are worthy of comment, and several probably will be addressed in future columns.

However, an incident started before the council meeting that is enlightening. Members of the library board, Morinville Museum officials, and Rendez Vous centre supporters began showing up after 3:30 p.m. for the 4 p.m. meeting. They were greeted by a sign on the closed council chambers door stating ‘public meeting’, but town staff told them they could not go into the room until 4 o’clock. There were only a handful of seats in the town foyer as the waiting public—mostly seniors—mingled while standing.

Finally, the doors opened, and the public entered council chambers with sufficient seating for between half and three-quarters of those in attendance. Council members and experienced staff should have known that when the library is on the agenda, there will be a group attending in support and were aware that the museum delegation would be present and had also been given a heads-up that Rendez Vous folks were not happy with the possible disposal of the community bus. A large crowd should have been anticipated by council, management, and staff.

Despite the bulk of the crowd being seniors (many 70+ years), little effort was made to accommodate them with additional chairs, however, eventually, the crowd standing at the doorway started to capture chairs from the glass meeting rooms just off the foyer.

So why didn’t any member of council step forward to address a simple situation? There is absolutely no doubt that if the only official in the room had been Mayor Simon Boersma he would have taken steps to make sure the public was accommodated and done so graciously—as would any of the individual councillors and the town staff present.

The problem results from a condition of ‘group think’ where each person thinks someone else has the expertise (or taken the initiative). So the Mayor assumes staff will handle it, councillors believe the Mayor has it under control. Meanwhile, staff sit with their back to the public (due to the configuration of the room) and find it easy to avoid seeing a problem that was impossible to miss. Both the new CAO and the temporary CAO were in the room.

It sounds petty, so why are we even mentioning it?

The reason is that it reveals the height and depth of the systemic problem in the town operations. There was a quarter million dollars of council payroll on the platform at the front of the room and well over a million dollars of management and administration in the room, but not one of them took the action that each one of them would have done if alone to handle the crowd.

The phenomenon helps explain terrible decisions which have been made by this and previous councils. No one spoke up to quash a terrible budget policy this summer that was approved after only the worst component in it was removed, many lesser disgusting clauses remain. Now the town is left budgeting based on copying neighbouring municipalities’ strategies. Council approved a $38,000 expenditure to join an Edmonton regional development group even after being told the town doesn’t have an inventory of commercial/industrial property available and won’t for two years. A month later council is moaning about having to control spending due to the debt it inherited. Not one member of council has advocated for changes to financial reporting that would see improved public oversight of funds going into and out of reserve accounts. The handling of reserve accounts is a quagmire in which no councillor wants to appear less than intelligent discussing—so no one tackles the problem. Council not only failed to improve financial reporting, it changed the quarterly reports to be only three times per year. So council will get a draft budget this month, but the last financial statement it has seen ended April 30, resulting in no comfort for councillors to analyze the statements independently.

While the Oct. 11 council meeting revealed the depth of the failure to provide leadership even in minor situations, the meeting also offered a glimmer of hope. There was real debate replacing the smile-and-nod support for virtually all resolutions. Coun. Scott Richardson and the Mayor actually exchanged verbal barbs over Richardson’s attempt to have council direct town management to bring in a zero tax increase draft budget. Boersma accused Richardson of waiting until two weeks before the draft budget presentation to make the motion that should have been made in July if he wanted the budget draft prepared that way. Richardson didn’t wilt from his stance, noting that all members of council had run on a platform of tightening up spending, and that message should have been clear to administration. He didn’t want to see a draft budget come in with a large tax increase that would cause stress in the community and spark a backlash even though council has no intent to pass such an increase.

While staff or some councillors may have been uncomfortable with the exchange, it was the first sign of true governance in a long time. All sides of an issue should be presented and thoroughly debated. It was beautiful. (Even if council did make the wrong decision in the end—at least it was a sincere discussion and not a re-enactment of a closed-session debate).

At the next council meeting, the Mayor has to take the reigns to show leadership. That ‘public meeting’ door had better be open by 3:30, so the public is welcome when they arrive. It’s not a concert with ‘rush’ seating. Boersma needs to make it clear to his council that he wants all sides of an issue debated to reach the best outcome possible. He also has to make it clear that at no time in the future will anyone be treated the way the supporters of the three council delegations were treated on Oct. 11, regardless of whether it is a small crowd, a large crowd, or an individual.

Bring in the chairs as the crowd grows. After all, the Mayor is the meeting chairman.

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  1. The only question that need be asked is why a sitting member of Council appears to be paying for regular columns that appear focused on destroying the reputation and respect of both Council and administration in the community.

    • Because Mr. Turner, the role of media – which is apart from the role of any ownership a publication may have – is to present contrasting points of view. Mr. Smith covers council in a pretty straight forward here is what happened and what the decision was way as a reporter. Mr. Cowley’s freelance column is his opinion on the questions of the day. As a former councillor of some 20 years of experience, we’d suspect you to be aware of the media’s role regardless of the publication’s ownership.

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