By Trevor Busch
Town council has rejected all tenders for the walking trail project intended to link the community to the Municipal District of Taber Park in 2016, and will be pushing forward with the work in-house.
Following the in-camera portion of their March 29 regular meeting, town council voted unanimously to reject all tenders for the trail extension from the western edge of 80th Avenue to the boundary of town property, east of the Municipal District of Taber Park, on the basis that they exceeded budget allocations, and directed administration to undertake the trail construction using internal resources, hiring additional casual staff and purchasing resources as necessary.
During the in-camera (closed session) 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 as part of a FOIP request.
“Council had a budget in mind for the trail. They went to tender on it, and the tenders came in higher than anticipated,” said CAO Greg Birch, in an interview following the meeting. “So they asked staff what would be the implications of moving that in house, how would the work get done, and ultimately, how much would it cost? And not just in terms of everything being ‘free’. We, as administration, try to make council understand, and the public understand, that when we do something it’s not necessarily ‘free’. It takes away at the very least from doing something else. As a result of that discussion, council said let’s do it in house.”
At their Feb. 8 regular meeting, town council had voted unanimously to approve the tendering of the east trail extension on lands owned and under the jurisdiction of the Town of Taber. Council had allocated $100,000 for the trail extension to the M.D. Park project for 2016.
This proposed construction was originally allocated an extra $100,000 in the town’s 2016 capital budget, but was ordered removed following a cost-cutting decision by town council during budget deliberations in late 2015.
“The big thing, in terms of the trade off on timing — If we do it in house, it won’t be as fast,” said Birch. “It’s going to be slower, and we told council that your downside, but we will fit it in. Except for the asphalt, I think they actually do have the expertise. They’ll still have to hire someone to put the asphalt in on top. But everything’s fairly straight forward in building a trail, and it was engineered.”
In a letter to the town from Reeve Brian Brewin dated Jan. 28, 2016, it was indicated that while the M.D. of Taber has plans to construct a trail through the M.D. of Taber Park in future, no timeline is currently in place for this project.
“We cannot commit at this time to a timeline for construction as other municipal projects, which municipal construction forces are scheduled to complete, are of a higher priority to the M.D. of Taber at this time,” reads Brewin’s letter.
In an interview following the meeting, Mayor Henk DeVlieger indicated the M.D.’s announcement lessened the urgency that may have been attached to the project in the recent past.
“They (tenders) came in fairly high. And then we looked again, too — because we have our own department — and since the M.D. is not going to right away do their part. We’re doing it to the M.D. property line, and then they have to take it down to the bottom, to the park. They’re not too excited to do that right now right away, so now we have more time. Because of that, to make our public works more effective, they can work on it in time when they have waste hours, that kind of thing. Because it’s an easy project, they have their own equipment to do it. The pavement will still be subbed out to free enterprise. It’s to the benefit of the taxpayer, because I think we’re going to save ourselves at least $30,000.”
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.
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).
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”.
Mayor DeVlieger indicated legal concerns kept the matter from being discussed during the public portion of the meeting.
“It became a little bit of a legal thing, I guess. We tendered it out, and now we’ve decided not to accept any tenders. So we wanted to first talk about the kind of consequences that might have. Basically, all we did in closed session was discuss the legal aspect of the thing. After that, we could have had it right in open (session).”