RMWB council fires FMWBEDT's board of directors

Councillors said they are frustrated with the progress shown by Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism.

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Council has unanimously voted to fire the board of directors for Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism (FMWBEDT). RMWB chief administrative officer (CAO) Henry Hunter will appoint councilors to the board as interim members. Mayor Sandy Bowman will be board chair. The organization’s current president and CEO, Kevin Weidlich, will report directly to council.

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The motion was proposed by Councillor Keith McGrath at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. Motions proposed at the start of a meeting are usually debated at a future date, but council unanimously made the rare decision to debate the motion immediately. Councillor Loretta Waquan was absent.

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“Sometimes we drift away from using our own people,” said McGrath in a 15 minute speech to council. “I was not a fan of this because I’ve seen too many people come to our region and develop their own careers, and I don’t think we’ve got our bang for our buck.”

Much of McGrath’s speech was also nostalgic for business leaders and the economy of past years. However, McGrath’s main argument is FMWBEDT has underdelivered on promises to bring investment at a time when it’s desperately needed in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo. He also pointed out that Hunter tried justifying recent proposals to layoff municipal staff because of shrinking tax revenues.

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The original 13-member board included former WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky as board chair and Sandy Martin of Suncor Energy as vice chair. The rest of the board included former RMWB councilor Sheldon Germain, RMWB CAO Henry Hunter, and local business and Indigenous leaders such as Kristi Hines of Hines Health Services and Chard Metis CEO Justin Herman.

Weidlich said in an interview that Saretsky was paid $10,000 per month. The rest of the board were volunteers. Weidlich estimates expenses for the entire board totals roughly $10,000 per year. Weidlich said the relationship between the board and council never recovered from a 2022 funding dispute.

keith mcgrath
Councillor Keith McGrath at Shell Place for the swearing-in ceremony of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s council on Oct. 25, 2021. Photo by Greg Halinda of Greg Halinda Photography for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo jpg, FM

Council frustrated with progress

Mayor Sandy Bowman reminded councillors the motion changes how FMWBEDT’s board is governed and praised its staff. Many councillors said they are frustrated with FMWBEDT’s progress.

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“Information has come up which leads me to believe that council is not getting the full picture,” said Councillor Jane Stroud. “How the funding is being dispersed has led me to believe that, as a councillor, I need a better understanding and council needs to take some control.”

Councillor Funky Banjoko said the group has become unpopular in the community. Any changes should consider the staff at FMWBEDT with a “holistic” outlook, but she agreed council needs to intervene with its leadership.

Councillor Kendrick Cardinal said he supports some of FMWBEDT’s programs, but believes FMWBEDT is not aligned with the RMWB’s strategic goals. He is also concerned with the organization’s rural outreach and relationship with Indigenous communities.

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Weidlich has argued that building relationships with investors is a long process, but in an interview denied FMWBEDT has made little economic progress. In 2023, he said the group delivered more than $30-million in economic support that has created more than 600 local jobs. He also said FMWBEDT has brought 23 new businesses into the region.

He argued funding has been used properly and is reported annually to council, the board of directors and shareholders.

“There is no new information in our financial statements that is any different,” he said. “We have accomplished a lot. We have delivered on the priorities and we are strategically aligned. I look forward to sitting with the council, understanding where they believe there is any disconnect and adjusting as needed.”

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