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Councillor engagement gauged in chambers

Posted on December 18, 2013 by Vauxhall Advance

Just how involved should town councillors be in certain organizations in Vauxhall?

That question generated a lot of discussion Monday night in council chambers, which started with an offer from the Vauxhall Business Society to have a member of council sit as a director, with voting rights.

Barbara Miller, the town’s chief administration officer, said council should carefully consider the offer, but added since the VBS is basically a lobby group, it might not be appropriate for a councillor to sit as a voting member. As a paid member of the VBS, Miller added any councillor can still attend the society’s meetings, and suggested monthly meetings of the VBS could be attended by council on a rotational basis.

Miller laid out the history of council’s involvement in various town committees, such as Vauxhall Minor Hockey, for example, and added several years ago, the town made the mistake of appointing councillors to all individual groups and organizations. Councillors would attend meetings and report back to council, which in the end, Miller said became problematic, as it was difficult for the groups to understand the councillor appointed to their committee did not speak for council as a whole, and could not make promises of action or funding.

She added in 2009, a consultant with over 35 years of municipal government experience reviewed the council committee structure, and recommended council stop the practice of making appointments to individual organizations and service groups. In the background provided to council on the topic, it was recommended council should remain independent of the decision-making processes of these organizations.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t want to partner with these organizations, because they do a ton for the community,” said Miller, who added typically, councils in most towns stick to representing governing boards such as housing foundations, libraries, regional economic development authorities and other commissions and authorities directly associated with government services.

The CAO added council could also look into what boards and committees councillors in other Alberta towns sit on, for extra guidance on the issue.

Coun. Russ Norris, however, had a different opinion of the situation.

“I 100-per-cent disagree with the consultant,” he said regarding the discontinuation of councillors sitting on boards involving community groups. “I think this is where the lack of communication in this town started. It has caused a lot of community concern, and I don’t think this council has to follow the last council on this.”

He said he did understand the concern of councillors not committing the town to promises of action but in the end, council has a responsibility to be as involved as it can, no matter what a consultant recommends.

“Council is elected by the people, and I don’t want to be treated as a child and not be able to talk to people,” said Norris. “If we’re asked to be involved, I think we should be jumping for joy. I’d be the first one to volunteer, and that’s been the opposite of what’s been happening.”

As an alternative, Miller suggested council could ask community groups to attend council as a delegation, or for council to go as a delegation to their meetings.

“There are other ways of engagement without having one councillor on these committees,” she said. “Any association would welcome council as a delegation.”

Some agreed council could still be engaged without having to be involved in the decision-making process.

“We can be a member without being a voting member,” said Coun. Christine Sorensen.

“Participation is good but I’m not convinced we need voting rights,” added Coun. Richard Phillips, who noted in the case of the VBS, that is an organization whose interests should align very closely with the town’s.

Mayor Margaret Plumtree added she could see both sides of the issue.

“Myself, I am very conflicted. I’m really not sure what side of the fence to be on.”

Norris added council needs to be more involved, and added in the last three years, committees have had the opportunity to approach council, and have not taken that opportunity.

“That approach hasn’t worked. If councillors are not there at these meetings, there’s no chance to clear up any misinformation. If we just let it go and two months later you have a meeting, you have a lot of wildfires out there burning.”

Miller added when the town does involve organizations to approach council as delegations, they do show up, and added maybe the town’s downfall is these organizations have not been invited to speak on a regular basis.

“We could be more aggressive and invite them every quarter, every six months or whenever, to be more open.”

In the end, council agreed more information was needed before a decision was made on accepting the invitation from the VBS, as a unanimous vote tabled the issue for a future meeting. Council also agreed to draft a positive response letter to the VBS, to be delivered before Christmas, to express council’s appreciation for the invitation and express council’s support for the society, but to also state council was not sure at this time about making a councillor available to have voting rights.

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