Barely a week has passed since Taber town council passed its operating and capital budgets in the wake of a provincial budget that will see less money going to municipalities, and many questions still remained unanswered.
Questions which need to be asked because once again, council decided it was best the public did not hear the reasoning by council members and administration on how best to spend taxpayer dollars in tough economic times.
“We had an in camera discussion at the last meeting with regards to the reality of the provincial cuts that we would have to make to the 10-year capital plan for 2020,” said CAO Cory Armfelt at council’s Nov. 25 meeting.
Why are capital project priorities being discussed behind closed doors?
If the Holy Trinity of in camera discussions is Land, Legal and Labour, how does a capital project affect any of those three?
Capital projects are on land the town already owns, and town labour remains the same, it is just devoted to the areas council finds as more important than others that were pushed back in the capital budget.
Is there some sort of legal case pending for one of the capital projects?
While there was at least some open discussion in the operating budget, that was bare bones as well.
Why was there open discussion involving the Taber Golf Club’s request for two new mowers, yet none about the fate of the Taber Library’s funding request to increase its budget by $125,000, where both organizations were required to make their case in open session right next to each other earlier in the year?
What was the reasoning behind some of the cuts or postponements with Taber Police Service projects? To ensure the two new officers that were approved (with the needs assessment for increasing the complement from 15 to 17 also discussed behind closed doors) back in June still remain a reality?
In postponing projects, why has the Small Arena been pushed back despite a tax-paid study that has proven the arena is way, way past its life expectancy and has been identified as a priority by user groups and two recreation master plan studies?
These are just a few questions which can be endless about the operating and capital budgets that go far past the bullet point summary provided at a council meeting.
Questions that could be answered if council simply explained the reasoning it had in agreeing upon the final operating and capital budgets during discussion period while the live-streaming cameras are rolling.
No doubt, all municipalities across the province have been put in the unenvious position of having their respective councils have to do more with less, as the belt-tightening news in the United Conservative Party provincial budget which was passed earlier this year sees more costs downloaded on towns while unceremoniously cutting MSI funding.
But bad news is still news that has to be delivered to the general public in a way that is as transparent as possible, along with being as digestible as possible to the general public.
Open discussion can help the general public better understand the number crunching they are seeing, which may very well be misunderstood when there is no context being explained.
What are the comparisons to last year’s budget, which departments broke even, which saw increases and decreases?
The reasoning council gave in identifying priorities with a tight budget could very well be admirable as shown by taking a wage cut.
But the public will never know, or get to decide for themselves if the logic is sound, if council continually chooses to keep its discussions and reasoning behind closed doors.
Making detailed information as difficult as possible to access by the general public is certainly not good for optics.
At this point, as the list continues to grow of what Taber town council has decided to discuss in closed session where its connection to a Municipal Government Act provision is tenuous at best, where does the buck stop on who gets the final say of whether something goes in closed session or not? Is it the CAO? Is it the mayor? Is it council who approves as a whole, or a combination of the three?
Being part of town council is a hard job. But if one is afraid of critical analysis of how one chooses to govern, why sign up for it in the first place?