St. Albert inspection report points fingers at outrageous behaviour by some councillors, but fails to name names

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PHOTOS: Consultant George Cuff, author of the City of St. Albert “inspection report,” at St. Albert City Hall after yesterday afternoon’s special council meeting. In the background, portraits of earlier, perhaps less fractious, St. Albert city councils. Below: Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson and St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse.

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Despite a few pages of eye-popping details about threats, insults, grudges, vitriol, open contempt, and disrespect of administration employees by certain city councillors, St. Albert taxpayers didn’t really get their money’s worth for the $80,000 they spent on the “inspection report” released yesterday at a special meeting of city council by provincially appointed consultant George Cuff.

The much-anticipated report, which a majority of city councillors voted in July 2016 to ask the provincial municipal affairs ministry to carry out, was presumably intended to identify the causes of ongoing division and dysfunction on council and suggest ways to fix them.

In fact, as anyone who has observed local politics in this bedroom suburb northwest of Edmonton might suspect, it is not beyond the realm of possibility some councillors who pushed for the inspection did so to exacerbate dysfunction on council to advance an agenda of attacking and defeating Mayor Nolan Crouse – which, if that was the strategy, is now moot, as Mr. Crouse seems to have pulled the plug on his political career.

Indeed, Mr. Cuff concluded on page 80 of the 189-page report that there is a “poisoned environment” on council, and that the target is the mayor. In the next line, he noted there was a slate in the last municipal election and that there is a “notion of official opposition” among certain councillors.

Mr. Cuff also noted on page 86 that, after the 2013 election, Mayor Crouse also attempted to reach out to all members of council but “this ‘olive branch’ was met in some instances with a firm ‘no thank you’ and/or silence.”

“The degree of disharmony is palpable,” Mr. Cuff observed on page 94, “and while not always apparent at a public council meeting, some portions of council, committee and in camera meetings have been anything but civil.” He went on to reiterate, “an attempt by the mayor to set aside differences at the beginning of the term was rejected out of hand and the stage was set.”

So it ought not to be that difficult for readers to connect these particular dots.

Considerable attention in the report was devoted to the mayor’s conduct in two votes that were the subject of an unsuccessful legal bid by resident Steve Stone, now a candidate for council, to have the mayor removed from office. Mr. Cuff’s conclusions were similar to the judge’s, if a little more generous, finding the mayor to have acted appropriately in one case, to have made an error in another, and to have conducted himself honourably throughout (pages 165 and 166).

Again without mentioning names, Mr. Cuff also discussed at some length the controversy surrounding the hiring of former councillor Gilles Prefontaine to a senior city administrative position in April 2015. While it was clear the consultant didn’t approve of the decision, and asserted that all council members should have spoken out against it, he noted that “it can be legitimately argued that the decision was the City Manager’s to make and he made it.”

Since Mr. Prefontaine and Patrick Draper, then the city manager, are no longer employed by the city, and “the city has now taken the right steps in ensuring that a similar situation does not happen in the future,” Mr. Cuff did not pursue it.

Most observers see a 4-3 split on council on most issues, Mr. Cuff also noted, but never quite managed to name who is on which side.

Well, this much is easy to figure out from what we know from following council and the trail of breadcrumbs Mr. Cuff left in his report.

Councillors Sheena Hughes, Cam MacKay and Bob Russell frequently oppose the mayor, and were all endorsed by the same anonymous groups in the 2013 election. (Mr. Russell was not elected at the time, but in a by-election to replace Mr. Prefontaine in 2015.) Mr. MacKay is now running for mayor.

Councillors Wes Brodhead, Cathy Heron and Tim Osborne often, but not always, side with Mr. Crouse on issues. Ms. Heron is now running for mayor as well.

Neither Mayor Couse nor Tim Osborne, the only other council member who voted against requesting the inspection in July, intends to seek reelection in this October’s municipal vote.

It is said here there are three principal flaws with the report:

  • First, beyond providing a few cringe-worthy details of immature behaviour by unidentified councillors, it doesn’t really tell us much that anyone paying attention didn’t already know.
  • Second, Mr. Cuff, a former mayor of Spruce Grove with a reputation as a fearless auditor of troubled public organizations, inexplicably declined to name names, which under the circumstances should have been an obvious part of the job.
  • Third, the report’s anodyne recommendations, unsurprisingly accepted by Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson, are the administrative of equivalent of urging unruly children to be quiet and play nice in the sandbox when we all know not all children are equally naughty.

As written, the report has the unfair effect of tarring all members of St. Albert City Council for the misdeeds of two or three. And it’s far from certain there’s much value in the extended civics lesson that pads out at least half the report.

Raised but left unanswered by the report are the following significant questions:

  • Who was the council member who “referred in very disparaging language to colleagues on council in front of a local school audience of Grade 6 children and staff” in January 2014? (Page 167.)
  • Who was the council member who complained in an email on Sept. 30, 2015, that council’s priority-setting session was a waste of time and only about “public relations”? (Page 168.)
  • Who was the council member who wrote a blog post on Sept. 23, 2015, that described members of the administration in “a very demeaning manner”? While we’re at it, where was the blog published? (Page 170.)
  • Who was the council member who on Oct. 29, 2015, unjustifiably accused the city administration and other councillors of supporting a “culture of dishonesty”? (Page 170.)
  • Who was the councillor who on Nov. 19, 2015, sent the mayor “a very aggressive and threatening email … using demeaning language unsuited to a member of council”? (Page 170.)
  • And who was the councillor who on Aug. 23, 2016, who emailed a management employee “and threatened him with physical discomfort.” (Page 170.)

With so many councillors seeking re-election, St. Albert voters certainly deserve to know who was responsible for this kind of behaviour.

Of course, before election day rolls around on Oct. 18, I wouldn’t be at all surprised that most of them do.

Categories Alberta Politics