OLDS — A public hearing on a plan by town council to turn the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development (OICRD, or OI) – and more specifically O-NET into a municipally-owned corporation (MCC) is over.
Council says it will now take what it heard and deliberate on it before determining next steps.
The hearing, which lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, took place July 26 in council chambers.
The gallery was jam packed. So much so that extra chairs had to be brought in and people stood along the north wall and out the door. Others were moved into the town’s board room.
At the outset, speakers were asked to leave the room once they gave their statements so that others could come in and give theirs.
It was pointed out that several years ago, the town arranged to obtain loans totalling $14 million to help finance the installation of fibre optic lines to homes and businesses throughout Olds to connect customers to O-NET.
A $4 million line of credit was provided too for a total of $18 million.
One man, former municipal byelection candidate Darren Wilson, who was elected to the OI board in 2020, spoke in favour of the idea of creating the municipally-owned corporation -- especially in regard to Olds Institute – but “with some reservations.”
Essentially, Wilson said, he agreed that something needed to be done regarding OI because “for many years, it has struggled with its identity and its focus and its role within the community.”
Also, he said, it had had basically consumed its cash reserves.
But he didn’t agree with the way the town attempted to exert that control.
“In the absence of trust, and with emotions and egos, perhaps there was little hope for dialogue and negotiations which could have led to common ground, for which I’m disappointed did not happen in the past 15 months,” Wilson said.
“I don’t know if the MCC is the answer to gaining access to investment capital and growth or sales. It does appear to address the town’s desire for increased involvement, input and control.”
Several people raised concerns that the decision could hurt OI, and possibly see O-NET absorbed by a big corporation that would not be as responsive to consumers’ needs as O-NET has been.
Resident Grant Spence was on of two speakers who called on council to delay any decision on the future of OICRD/O-NET until after the Oct. 18 municipal election when a new council – which could have different councillors – is sworn in. Spence presented a petition making that request.
He said 473 people signed that petition after it was drawn up and circulated from Friday evening through Sunday.
On May 22 last year, town council called on OI to repay the loan as part of a larger call for that entity’s loan refinancing to be “reorganized” and "additional process thereafter."
That started a process to find a buyer – or least someone to invest in O-NET to help relieve that debt burden. But that didn’t happen, and that led to the decision to consolidate all the assets into a municipally-owned corporation.
At the end of the hearing, mayor Mike Muzychka told the crowd council heard and sympathized with the concern and passion of residents who are worried about the future of OI and O-NET, but he assured them council is acting in their best interest.
He said unfortunately, residents aren’t hearing the full story about OI/O-NET because, under provisions of the Alberta government’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) and the Municipal Government Act, they must keep certain information private.
After the meeting, The Albertan asked Muzychka if council will indeed honour the request contained in the petition.
“We’ll give it some consideration but I’m not sure that’s the right way to go either,” he said.
Muzychka was asked why council may not do that.
He said council was privy to much more information about O-NET that can’t be divulged because it’s a for-profit business.
“This council has been at the forefront of all the decision-making so far and have lived and breathed O-NET and Olds Institute since the beginning of our term," he said, noting that term began about three-and-a-half years ago.
“To place a burden like making a huge decision like this on a potentially brand new council I don’t think is prudent.”
Muzychka was asked point blank: “will O-NET be sold to a big telco?”
“I can’t answer that at this point,” he said.
The Albertan asked Spence if he thought council heard and will act on the concerns expressed by the crowd -- specifically his call for a decision on the future of O-NET to be postponed until after the municipal election.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” he said. “I hope they -- what that is saying to them is we’re looking for a new council, correct? A new mayor, a new council or many more new council members who might have a better way of handling this.
“But I think they wouldn’t do it because they know that some of them are going to be gone – including the mayor.”