Dec. 9, 2020 meeting
Last Wednesday’s council meeting was notable among other reasons for being the first for brand new chief administrative officer Barb Miller. She was in council chambers with reeve Murray Kerik and Barry Kolenosky, who has been acting CAO for the past couple of months – all of them duly masked up. The others participated from their homes or offices, via Zoom. Early on, they were asked to turn off their video, as the lag was worse than usual and apparently the audio worked better without the extra workload. So the meeting was for the most part an audio chat. It didn’t work very well for councillor Robert Esau, who seemed to be disconnected more often than not.
The first question Miller got to field was one from councillor Brad Pearson. Given the new restrictions on social gatherings, he said, “does that mean the council table is in contravention?”
“It’s a grey area,” said Miller.
Councillor Darcie Acton didn’t think so.
“It’s not a social gathering,” she said. “It’s a business gathering.”
Kolenosky cleared it up. When it comes to work-related situations, he said, “the number is seven, and we are not there yet.”
Pitch from Smith School
First on the agenda was a visit from Aspen View Schools and Smith School. The presenters made the case for the M.D.’s continued financial support for the Family-School Liaison position at Smith School. Diana Thomas has been doing this job the past two or three years and has been making a big difference in the school and in the community, said school principal Caitlyn Chernish. Thomas gave some examples of the type of work she does.
“A couple of times, when kids were in crisis, I was able to help the family,” she said.
In another case, a student had made “suicidal comments” to other students. They were able to reach out to Thomas “because they knew me,” she said.
Later, council approved a $24,763 contribution from next year’s FCSS budget to support the program.
In (probably his final) CAO report, Kolenosky spoke about what he called “loopholes” in the new provincial COVID restrictions that require the M.D. to close its public facilities. There had been some scrambling the previous evening to figure out if and how a couple of programs that depend on M.D. halls could continue. One is the playschool in Widewater; the other is a food program in Smith run by Gentle Ben. Both will be able to continue, thanks to the above-mentioned loopholes.
Councillor Becky Peiffer thanked Kolenosky and Ag Fieldman Russ Jassman for working overtime on the matter. In the case of Smith, 80 families are registered for the Second Harvest Food Program, which depends on the hall in Smith to operate.
Kolenosky reported that break-ins and thefts at the landfill and transfer stations continue to happen. Damage is the bigger issue, rather than theft. In one case, he said, the fence was damaged in a break-in where all that was taken was some bags of bottles.
New COVID enforcement powers
The province recently empowered municipal peace officers to enforce COVID rules. This was duly noted in council’s agenda by way of a letter on the topic from Alberta Justice and Solicitor General. Whether the M.D.’s peace officer will really be doing that sort of work is another question.
“Is it mandatory, or optional?” asked new CAO Barb Miller.
Judging by comments from councillors, they are hoping it’s the latter.
“Our peace officer is at capacity already,” said councillor Acton.
Reeve Kerik agreed: “I don’t think we want to pile anything on Paul that we don’t have to.”
Support for food programs
Council (meeting as the Community Assistance Board) accepted a recommendation to allocate most of the money remaining in the M.D.’s FCSS budget to December food distribution programs. Food banks in Slave Lake and Athabasca (both of which serve M.D. residents) are each to receive $7,500. The Gentle Ben Care Society in Smith will receive $10,000. Normally, FCSS funds can’t be used for such purposes, but a ministerial order has waived that restriction for this month, council heard.
Marten Beach flood mitigation
In council’s package was a report on flood mitigation for the hamlet of Marten Beach, courtesy of the engineering firm Stantec. Introduced by director of field services Ryan Tufts and presented in detail by James Bigelow of Stantec, it had berm and sheet pile scenarios designed to keep a 100-year flood within the river channel and out of the hamlet. The estimated price tag is $7 million.
Also in the report was news of the M.D.’s successful application for funding for mitigation via the province’s Municipal Stimulus Program.
Councillor Brad Pearson jumped right in with his view that more studies are not needed.
“We know when it rains we’re going to get wet here,” he said.
Fair enough, said Tufts. But “if I’m going into negotiations where I’m talking about people’s houses, I need more than that. There’s so much at risk here.”
Not mentioned at the meeting was what exactly the $334,000 MSP grant would be spent on.
There are lots of ‘what-ifs,’ technical considerations and various complicating factors in the scenario, which perhaps will be dealt with in a separate article.
Athabasca Regional Waste – Break-ins and thefts are a problem, reported councillor Melzer. In one case, a 1,000 gallon tank with 300 gallons of fuel in it was stolen. Discussed at the meeting was talk out of Westlock County that it is thinking about shutting down transfer stations to save money.
Community Education Committee – Councillor Becky Peiffer reported that a new NLC campus in Fox Creek is up and running and the one under construction in High Prairie is slated for completion in March. Ken McKen is back looking after trades at NLC and spoke at the meeting about a mobile trades training lab that will be going around to communities.
Peace Library System – councillor Pearson had attended a meeting (remotely). Perhaps mainly for the new CAO’s benefit, he put the PLS in perspective: it serves a region of 175,000 people, has 38 municipal members and one Métis Settlement and serves 46 public libraries and 50 schools. It also has a new CEO – Louisa Robison.
Homeland Housing – Councillor Melzer’s report included the sobering news of a COVID case at one of the Homeland facilities. But it appears it has been contained. In other news, the budget was approved and the organization has “surplus across the board,” for 2020.
Eggs in one basket?
Councillors spoke a bit about a recent meeting with reps from Slave Lake, the Sawridge First Nation and the M.D. on the topic of economic development. “What works, what doesn’t – lots for thought,” was how reeve Murray Kerik put it.
Councillor Pearson had a couple of thoughts. One was that it (economic development) all depends on how much money and time you put into it.
Pearson added that he thinks too much focus on tourism isn’t good. He called it “putting all your eggs in one basket.”
“Tourists aren’t going to pay the bills in the end,” he said. “You’re not getting bang for your buck if that’s all you think about.”
Hints of good news to come
Reeve Kerik spoke of a recent meeting with Alberta Environment and Parks that apparently went well.
“We didn’t waste our time,” Kerik said.
An assistant deputy minister was present, added councillor Acton, as well as the executive director of the Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation and the mayor of Slave Lake.
“We are waiting to hear something official out of the minister’s office,” she said.