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Use of democracy going up in flames

Posted on May 31, 2018 by Vauxhall Advance

By Greg Price
Taber Times

The running joke in all my years of being at The Taber Times is that as fate has it, whenever I go on holidays, something big seems to happen locally that is not your run-of-the-mill news cycle.

I took some time off in the middle of May to fly to Nanaimo to visit my parents and especially my mother, for Mother’s Day.

Low and behold, all hell breaks loose, starting with the day I am about to fly out of Lethbridge. As I waken early in the morning, there is front and centre, a shared video on my social media feed, a video that has already been shared thousands of times at that point of an irate and racist customer at Denny’s Restaurant in Lethbridge. The story of course goes national, and once again, southern Alberta is in the limelight for some wrong reasons.

It doesn’t end there, as the day after I celebrated the person who gave birth to me in Nanaimo, back home in Taber, a controversial topic was given berth once again — the emergency services/fire hall debate.

Both the actual need for a new emergency services building and the location of the proposed facility have both garnered petitions with hundreds upon hundreds of signatures on them.

On my first day back to work on May 23, our town council scribe Trevor Busch asks me…’so did you hear about the fire hall?’ ‘Ummmm, no I replied’, caught up at the time of the local decision, trying to soak up every B.C. ray of sunshine I could with some nature walks back in Nanaimo.

I hurried over to the newspaper rack and read ‘Town council pushing ahead with fire hall project’ on the front page, in which I could only shake my head in disbelief.

Not so much that the fire hall looks to be going ahead, but rather the process that has got us here, where we still do not really know how much this project is going to cost, or how much, if any burden it is going to be on taxpayers. It has been a road littered with potholes, involving a lack of transparency and lip service to democracy.

Previous councils had beaten the drum of the idea of relocating the emergency services building being around since 2009, but apparently only really seems to have gained steam after a discussion for rationale that was done in-camera back in July 2017, of how to allocate millions of dollars that would eventually become public funds from the estate of William Ferguson.

Seeking further clarification of why discussion of such a large amount of public funds ($1.5 million for the fire hall) was done away from the public eye, especially since I’m sure councillors and the public themselves could give a laundry list of initiatives the money could have gone towards to spark discussion, I was given the ‘it was a legal matter’ response by one former councilor. Perhaps the transfer of wealth from the Ferguson estate to the town was a legal matter to ensure all the T’s were crossed and the I’s dotted to ensure everything was on the up and up, but the moment those funds become public…sorry…that’s public discussion, at least in letting voters/taxpayers know your rationale as an elected representative in arriving at such a decision in open council chambers.

Since that decision, discussion has never really simmered down, filled with petitions whose combined numbers have rivaled the number of votes even the most popular of councillors received that got them into office.

One of those petitions was to have a possible location removed from a list of sites considered for a new emergency services building at the southeast corner of town-owned property near Dr. Hamman and St. Pat’s School. The proposed site had also seen opposition from Horizon School Division’s board of trustees, who issued a stern rebuke at a board meeting last August.

The town decides to hold an open house on the proposed new emergency services building on Feb. 13. Likely expecting its share of residents with pitchforks and torches at the ready at the Taber Community Centre over the contested petitioned sites, town council once again partakes in in-camera discussion and takes the two embattled locations off the board…the evening before the open house.

The Holy Trinity of municipal in-camera discussions is land, labour or legal. Both pieces of land that were taken off the board by council were already owned by the town, so why the need to have discussion in-camera at the Feb. 12 meeting? Compounding the confusing logic council and administration uses to go in-camera, the powers that be at the open house proceed to release a revised list of potential sites the town is looking at to the public — sites that are not currently owned by the town, and have every excuse not to be released to the public if you are worried about land-negotiation prices.

I also find comments by the same councilor to be very contrasting when you look at them side by side in a November Taber Times story when the site petition was first presented, and May 23rd’s story where it seems like the contested site is now back on the board…conveniently after the buzz of the open house has died down.

“This is democracy in action, and when council does go down a certain path, this is how the residents can respond,” said the councilor in a Nov. 22 Taber Times story of when the petition was presented in council chambers. “So we do appreciate the fact that you’ve come and made your voice known, and we certainly — at least I will — take that into consideration if this does go down a further road. We applaud you for standing up for something that you believe in.”
Fast forward to May 2018 and the same councillor…”Here we’re getting so much flak. I think this is something that we’ve got to proceed with, but I don’t think as a council we’re doing our due diligence. People are coming with ideas and suggestions and we’re just taking it all without weighing all the facts. We certainly need to take a look at this and move forward in a progressive way, and if it means — if this motion does pass — going back into looking at that school-yard component over at the schools, talking to the Airdrie Fire Department to see why they located next to schools. I think we need to do a lot more due diligence as a council and investigate this a lot better, and have a lot more open communication on this.”

Looking at situations in Airdrie, Coaldale and Calgary as various councillors noted in May’s meeting is fine as templates, but in the end, it is Taberites you are representing. Taberites that, when you factor in three petitions, letters to the editor, coffee-row gossip, and overall discourse at an open house, rivals or exceeds the number of votes any mayor or councilor candidate got as votes of confidence to hold office in the first place. Should council be able to proceed with some autonomy without having to be micromanaged by the public over every single detail of town business?…yes. But obviously, the potential of a new emergency services building has struck a chord in the community, dominating discussion above any other topic in recent months. That is obvious to all but the most naive, head-in-the sand naysayers, or perhaps unseen powers behind the scenes that may be pulling the strings with vested interests.

If these concerns are easily shrugged off due to technicalities within the MGA, an MGA that doesn’t seem to be getting followed to the letter of the law anyway when it comes to in-camera sessions in both council and various boards, why should citizenry attempt to partake in democracy in now what seems, futile efforts? I can see why some of the public is utterly frustrated.

In an unrelated topic, but related in how council has arrived at decisions, I can’t but help see the contrast in how council has arrived at its decisions when it has come to the new emergency services building and refusing to fly the Pride Flag back in January for the Taber Equality Alliances’ Pride celebration early next month.

It seems council wants to do its ‘due diligence’ to see if it can find similar incidences in other communities in the province that line up with its thought patterns for a new emergency services building, but did not adhere to the same logic when it came to flying Pride flags for a short duration of time. A simple Google search would have found more towns, cities, provincial buildings, and policing organizations etc. who have had requests made to their respective organizations, have flown the Pride flags for a portion of June than those who do not in the province. But finding examples in other communities didn’t seem important back then in using due diligence like it does now for a new emergency services building.

Also, in adhering to the principles of democracy, the two examples are like night and day.

Council has just brushed aside hundreds, if not thousands of people who took the time to attend the open house and have their voices heard, and pound the pavement to go door knocking to strike up a petition. Technicalities aside, the need for a new emergency services building has been a divisive topic, both pro and con to say the least.

Meanwhile, back in January, this tidbit from administration was noted before council’s Pride flag decision…”following the double vandalism of the Pride flag in 2017, considerations as to the safety and security of property and people must be taken into consideration.”

Council has set a dangerous precedence. Apparently hundreds upon hundreds of signatures on petitions, and an outcry at an open house fall on deaf ears. But the actions of a few arsonists/thieves/vandals are heard loud and clear.
If you want action for something you believe in, it’s far more effective to get council’s ear by breaking the law than it is to attempt more democratic means by making united presentations in council chambers and beyond.

In the end, if this is something town council believes in, both for a new emergency services building and the best location being a contested one, so be it. Who knows…it may be the right decision…or the wrong one…only time will tell.

But the missteps in arriving to these decisions when it comes to transparency, inconsistencies in decision-making logic, and weak platitudes being muttered about democracy, but not being followed through with, has to stop.

For if they don’t, voters may not have a short memory when it comes to October 2021 for some on council.

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