By Trevor Busch
In a decision cloaked in secrecy, complete with a group of anonymous contributors, town council has agreed to improvements to 50th Street north of 64th Avenue which will allow for heavy truck traffic in future.
Following the in camera portion of an April 5 special meeting, town council voted unanimously to accept a contribution of $110,000, from parties who wish to remain anonymous, to be used towards a 50mm asphalt overlay of 50th Street between 64th Avenue and 80th Avenue.
The motion also directed administration to prepare an agreement between those parties and the town regarding this contribution and the need to ensure the road will not be restricted in future; directed that the aforementioned agreement include a provision that if the town is reimbursed by the Municipal District of Taber, or other parties, for all or a portion of the $110,000 contribution, that reimbursed amount be passed along to the original contributors who are party to the agreement; and requested administration obtain pricing quotes for the 50mm overlay and bring a proposal to council to undertake the asphalt overlay in 2016.
“Council was approached by a group of people, who want to be anonymous, and said we would put forward the $110,000, if you will improve the road and allow us to drive trucks on that,” said CAO Greg Birch, in an interview following the meeting. “That was discussed at an in-camera meeting with the people, who again, chose to be anonymous. In short, council accepted $110,000 from an anonymous contributor towards the road.”
“It’s two inches of pavement, basically to bring it up to an industrial standard,” said Mayor Henk DeVlieger, in an interview following the meeting.
“So that there can be no restrictions whatsoever. It will basically take whatever road ban there off, and make it better for some of those businesses. The whole idea is still to see if the M.D. is willing to participate. There’s a party that wants to be anonymous, for now. It will come out in the open, not too long from now, who it is.”
The estimated cost of the asphalt upgrade is $220,000, but the anonymous party donating half this amount could be reimbursed — under the right circumstances.
“You can see it in the motion — that party will be reimbursed if the M.D. would pay,” said DeVlieger. “They’ll get their money back.”
During the in camera portion of a public meeting, members of the general public, including the media, are barred from witnessing or participating in the the proceedings or discussion, although all subsequent resolutions must be made in open session. Alberta Municipal Affairs “strongly recommends” no formal record be made of the discussion or proceedings, as notes or minutes could potentially be accessed by the public as part of a FOIP request.
At their March 23, 2015, regular meeting, town council had voted unanimously to direct administration to construct a 50th Street road rehabilitation (64th Avenue to 80th Avenue) to a minor collector road standard.
This decision was made by council against the advice of administration, which had recommended constructing the 50th Street rehabilitation to industrial collector road standards, which could have supported heavy truck and equipment traffic. According to town administration at the time, allowing truck traffic would cause the roadway to degrade more quickly than if weights were restricted.
“What we’re doing is kind of a fix,” continued Birch. “We’re going to put on 50mm of asphalt, and it will give the road extra load-bearing capacity. What the original design would have been was to improve the base as well. So it will work with 50mm, but in the original price we would have actually improved the base as well so you’re building a better road, so we’re going with a kind of fix. It will work, but a better solution would have been to think even longer term and improve the base of the road.”
A 50th Street road rehabilitation built to industrial collector road standards would have required a 25 per cent increase in the cost of the project due to two layers of asphalt and a thicker granular base, based on a road structure designed for truck route applications. An industrial collector road would have had a longer life span, adding an additional 10 years. A minor collector road standard is primarily used for light vehicles and not truck routes.
The cost of constructing the 50th Street improvement to an industrial collector standard would have been approximately $1.4 million, while construction of a minor collector road standard shaved about $400,000 off the total bill.
“Interestingly, the cost of putting in 50mm of asphalt, at this time, is likely lower — we don’t have the tender results, so we don’t really know for sure — but it’s likely to be lower that what we were planning to do with the original construction of the road,” said Birch. “So we didn’t build the road base — the gravel, how deep you excavate — we didn’t go into that to the extent we might have otherwise, that was originally planned. So there was going to be more base work, as well as the asphalt. So we eliminated the base work, and that’s harder to do now — you’ll never have a road that’s as strong, as we didn’t upgrade the base. But since that time as well, the price of oil has fallen, and the economy is not as good, and so the thought is — and we won’t know until we see the tender — that we’ll get a good price on the asphalt.”
Mayor DeVlieger agreed that costs for the upgrade will likely remain lower than in the past.
“Due to economic circumstances right now — we all know asphalt, a big part of that is oil. Right now, those kinds of contractors are looking for more work. So due to economic circumstances right now, it’s pretty much a wash. If times were good, like two years ago, we would have been more. But because of this, it basically ends up being roughly the same, or less maybe even.”
Under guidelines laid down by Alberta Municipal Affairs, as an elected body municipal councils should avoid conducting business in-camera, including discussion of difficult topics such as budget deliberations, capital expenditures, tax recoveries, salary ranges or hiring of additional municipal staff, bylaw amendments, subdivision proposals, and any contentious issues such as sensitive local issues.
Protecting the anonymity of the donating party was a factor in why the issue was discussed in camera (closed session), according to DeVlieger.
“Because we met with that party, and that party’s wish was not to sit in public. So it was that party’s wish, and we have to appreciate that, I think. I would say it was for the best of the town to do that. We asked them just to come to our meeting, but they wanted to be anonymous, so we had to accept that.”
In 2015, strong objections from the agricultural sector over the road ban on 50th Street, which restricts heavy traffic from using the roadway to access rural properties to the north, led to criticism of Town of Taber and M.D. of Taber councils over the M.D.’s level of participation in the project and the town’s controversial decision to institute a weight restriction.
“Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP), when there’s a business interest of a third party — ‘Hey, we’re willing to give you $110,000, what would the deal look like, would you promise to let us have our trucks on that road if we give you $110,000, in the event that the M.D. doesn’t’ — that kind of conversation council thought was better in private,” explained Birch. “I don’t know why there would be, but in case there was some wheeling and dealing that was necessary.”
Section 197 of the Municipal Government Act (MGA) states that councils and council committees must conduct their meetings in public unless the matter to be discussed is within one of the exceptions to disclosure in Division 2 of Part 1 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) Act (Sec. 16-29). These limited exceptions for discussion include third party business interests (Sec. 16), third party personal privacy (Sec. 17), individual or public safety (Sec. 18-19), law enforcement (Sec. 20), intergovernmental relations (Sec. 21-24), and economic or other interests (Sec. 25-29).
“There’s another section that deals with intergovernmental relations,” said Birch. “So if you’re going to have a conversation that might have a negative outcome on your relationship with another government party. Obviously, one might think in that regard that council might think about how to resolve the difficulty of wanting to build the road to a higher standard, and how they would approach the M.D. to ask those questions, what strategies they might use to engage the M.D. in a positive outcome in terms of intervening with the road. So that conversation was also in camera for that reason.”
The MGA sets out clear requirements for municipal councils to conduct their business openly, except in very limited and specific circumstances. According to Alberta Municipal Affairs, the “powers of a municipal council are balanced by councils’ accountability to the citizens who elect them. It is therefore essential that citizens are allowed to take an active interest in the development and direction of our local governments and express views to their locally elected representatives”.
Birch indicated he provides input on what items are suggested for in camera discussion, but ultimately Mayor DeVlieger makes final determinations in this area.
“I provide comments and suggestions, but really, one of the mayor’s duties is to establish the agenda for the meeting. In terms of most things, the mayor has no more power than any other councillor, but in terms of setting the agenda, he actually does.”
In closing discussion to public scrutiny through in camera proceedings, DeVlieger stated his opinion that this decision is always made in the best interests of the community.
“I really try to keep things in the open. There are certain items when we do it in closed, we do it for the best of the town, not to hide things. Sometimes to make the best decision, or to do what’s best, you do that. To be honest, most things that are in closed are personal issues. That’s fair that shouldn’t go in the open. So we’re very selective — we want to keep things in the open. And you guys remind us of that all the time, and that’s fair.”
As a follow up motion, town council voted unanimously that due to increased town-related traffic that will utilize 80th Avenue between 50th Street and Highway 36 once the new composting site becomes operational, council agrees to give the required six month notice to the Municipal District of Taber that it is terminating the May 14, 2007 Road Maintenance Agreement for 80th Avenue.