OLDS – If anyone was looking for a wide divergence of views during the Olds all-candidates election forum last week, they were likely pretty disappointed.
Virtually all of the candidates gave similar answers to questions posed by moderator Stuart Cullum. Members of the public had been invited to submit questions to organizers beforehand.
The forum, organized by Mountain View Publishing, 96.5 FM Olds and the Olds and District Chamber of Commerce, was held via Zoom the night of Oct. 6. Between 131 and 136 people listened in or participated.
Two people are running for mayor: incumbent Michael Muzychka who is seeking a second term; and Judy Dahl, who served as mayor for 13 years. In the 2017 election, she withdrew her nomination papers, which meant Muzychka won the post by acclamation.
Nine people are running for the six councillors’ seats. They are incumbents Mary Anne Overwater, who is seeking her third term; as well as Heather Ryan and Wanda Blatz who are each running for a second term.
Harvey Walsh, who served as a councillor until being defeated in the 2017 election, is also running again.
Candidates who have not yet served as town councillors are Janelle Adams, James Cummings, Daniel Daley, Lucinda Watkins and Darren Wilson, who ran in the 2020 byelection but lost out to Mitch Thomson.
Three members of the current town council – Thomson; Mary Jane Harper, who has served four terms on council; and Debbie Bennett, who served three terms on council – are not seeking re-election.
In general, Dahl agreed with Muzychka’s stand on various topics, although she noted that because she has not been a member of council for the past several years, she is not privy to all the information that current councillors have.
One of the most controversial topics – in Olds and across Alberta – is the provincial government’s measures to control COVID-19, especially the latest move – the COVID-19 Restrictions Exemption Program (REP).
Under the REP, which came into effect Sept. 20, Albertans are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test in order to enter many businesses, facilities and venues.
That’s provoked strong reaction among people who oppose any such measures, saying they discriminate among residents and restrict their freedoms; and residents who support the measures.
Generally, candidates walked a middle line, supporting a resident’s right to choose what goes into their body as well as those who say these measures are needed to protect themselves and others.
Incumbent councillors seeking re-election noted the REP and other COVID-fighting measures were brought in by the provincial government and the Town of Olds has little choice but to implement them.
Muzycka gave perhaps the most impassioned plea for those on both sides to get along.
“Please don’t chastise or harass our restaurant staff, please don’t yell at our staff at the arena or the pool," he said. "They’re just trying to follow the rules. Please don’t call people sheep, please don’t call people rednecks. These types of rhetoric just divide us even more.
“I know if I want my opinion heard, I have to first hear yours and respect yours as well."
The future of Olds Institute (OI) including Olds Fibre Ltd. and O-NET, a community-owned firm that provides high-speed internet as well as phone and TV service owned by Olds Fibre, has been a hot topic in the town recently.
This past week, the Town announced that the process to make Olds Fibre a municipally-owned corporation (MCC) is now complete.
Its board of directors – all existing town councillors – consists of Muzychka as chair, Harper as vice-chair and Blatz, Overwater, Ryan, and Bennett as directors.
Candidates were asked how they’d deal with O-NET after the election and if they support it being sold, even at a discount.
There was broad agreement among most candidates that with $18 million in total debt, something had to be done. But there was a desire, even a commitment, to ensure the corporation acts in the best interest of the town.
Several candidates said they lacked details about the whole matter, due to many council discussions on its future happening behind closed doors. Incumbent councillors said those discussions had to be held that way by law.
Incumbent council candidates defended town council’s decisions regarding OI, Olds Fibre and O-NET.
Blatz said council tried hard over four years several times to engage with the OI board and others to find out what its responsibilities are and where things were at financially.
“There was lack of communication perhaps – and maybe it was on both sides, it’s hard to say,” she said.
Wilson said more debt has to be avoided and that the new MCC will need to "actively look for partners” and “equity injection” from co-ops or other organizations in order to grow.
Overwater said O-NET “will survive” and said she is a subscriber to it. However, she said "we’re not telecommunications experts.”
“At the end of the day, O-NET has never been – going to be – sustainable and be able to be profitable, so this is where we’re at today,” she added.
Cummings found it odd that town councillors are the corporation’s board of directors.
“We need to get people that know what they’re doing in that industry running that industry to make sure it’s done properly,” Cummings said.
Daley said he didn’t want to see its assets sold.
Walsh took a stronger stand, noting he’s worked with O-NET for more than a decade.
He conceded it did accumulate debt, but said that’s not unusual for many organizations.
“It has been profitable for the last several years. It has met its obligations of payment to the town,” he said.
“The debt is held by the Town of Olds. That seems to be the problem.”
Walsh said O-NET's assets should not be sold at a discount and he agreed with Cummings that its board of directors should have expertise in the business.
Candidates said steps need to be taken to obtain more doctors in Olds and ensure that all doctors that are in the community are allowed to work in the hospital.
Broadly speaking, the candidates queried spoke in favour of spurring economic growth in the town and tightly controlling spending while still providing services to residents. Wilson and Cummings were among those who touted their business experience.
Adams said the town should be more "independent" and avoid relying on government grants.
Ryan said she voted against a council motion to go over its debt limit.
Muzychka noted last year’s budget provided for a zero per cent tax increase and predicted the same will occur this year. He agreed with Dahl that the mayor has only one vote on council.
Candidates – including incumbent councillors – also agreed that there needs to be better communication between the Town and the public. Many, including Watkins, stressed their plan to listen to residents and be their voice on council.
Some criticized that fact that councillors have held many meetings behind closed doors. However, as noted above, incumbents said they had to do so by law.