Sundre’s council last week condemned the provincial government’s surprise announcement to pull the plug on public meetings about the Bighorn Country proposal.
Shannon Phillips, minister of Alberta Environment and Parks, announced in a written statement posted on Jan. 5 that scheduled consultations in Drayton Valley, Red Deer, Sundre and Edmonton had been cancelled because of allegations of bullying and harassment.
“As we do not feel we can guarantee the public’s safety or freedom from intimidation at this time, I am very disappointed to announce that the upcoming sessions for Drayton Valley, Red Deer, Sundre and Edmonton will be cancelled,” the statement reads.
The information session in Sundre had been set for Monday, Jan. 14 at the community centre to discuss the proposal to create three new provincial parks and user designations along the Eastern Slopes west of Nordegg as well as see a $40-million investment over five years.
While council seemed to unanimously agree a letter should be written to the minister expressing the municipality’s concern, there was a diplomatic difference of opinion over using the word “condemn.”
Coun. Cheri Funke brought the discussion forward during the Jan. 7 meeting. The councillor said people want more information about the proposal and would be denied that opportunity due to the cancellation.
That being said, Funke moved that the “Town of Sundre condemns the Alberta government’s decision to cancel the public information sessions concerning the Bighorn Country Proposal. I would also like a letter to be written to Minister Phillips stating what our motion is and our belief that the consultation process is unsatisfactory.”
Mayor Terry Leslie expressed opposition to the motion because of the usage of the term “condemn,” and instead sought council’s support in writing a letter requesting that the minister and staff reschedule a public meeting.
“I find that language strong,” he said.
“But I think now it’s time to round that bend, and it’s time to offer the opportunity to come into the community without inflamed language and have the expectation that those folks in provincial government serve this community, and they should come in and do their job.”
Coun. Charlene Preston said strong language should be used and that council had to be firm in expressing its position.
“They’ve abandoned their own process,” she said.
Funke added alternative options such as town hall meetings over the phone and online surveys were not sufficient.
“There’s way too many unanswered questions to follow through with this 119 days before an election,” she said.
Coun. Richard Warnock spoke against the motion only because of the proposed use of the term “condemn,” and said alternative wording that still conveys council’s perspective could be considered. Warnock agreed a letter should be sent to the minister, but wondered whether Funke would be willing to consider rewording her motion.
“I like my word,” said Funke.
The mayor stressed that he took the situation seriously, and had already begun drafting a letter with the municipality’s chief administrative officer.
“Municipal Affairs tells the 352 municipalities in Alberta they must have a public consultation process, and they cite a number of bullet points of how it should be done. What I wanted to do is quote that, and say, ‘that applies to all of us,'" said Leslie.
Other provincial agencies such as Alberta Transportation and Alberta Health Services have publicly collaborated on consultation for issues such as Main Avenue as well as the Sundre Hospital and Care Centre, the mayor said.
“Public engagement in this community, our reputation through the hospital futures committee, is one that the health minister has used to cite the way public engagement should be done in this province,” he said.
However, Alberta Environment and Parks has been reluctant to “come to the counter,” he added, reiterating his request that council direct him to write a letter with “appropriate language” that is still “strong and firm.”
Coun. Todd Dalke said the government could be condemned for its decision without using the word condemn, and agreed with the mayor that the government, by law, expects neighbouring municipalities to work together.
“They made it law, and they don’t have to follow that law. Citing such in that letter would be an important point,” said Dalke.
“But I don’t like the word ‘condemn,'" which is associated with, for example, the death penalty, he said, suggesting an alternative use of phrasing such as “highly criticize.”
Responding, Funke was prepared with a dictionary definition of condemn -- 'to express complete disapproval of’ — that is exactly the way we feel.”
The second definition is being sentenced to a punishment, usually death.
“If we’re hung up on a word because it’s too mean to the government, we have bigger problems,” said Funke.
Council carried — with Leslie and Warnock opposed — a motion that the town condemns the government for cancelling the open house scheduled for Jan. 14 in Sundre and that a letter be sent to the minister stating council’s motion and expressing dissatisfaction with the abandonment of the consultation process that has left too many unanswered questions.
Public backlash prompted the ministry to announce telephone town halls would be held, with one for Drayton as well as Sundre and the surrounding area scheduled for today (Tuesday, Jan. 15) from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.
In a followup post on social media, Phillips added, “We are also working to reschedule the public information sessions in the days ahead for each of those communities if we can ensure public safety.”
The deadline to complete the online survey has been extended to Feb. 15.