RMWB council rescinds surprise full-time vote after weeks of public outrage

No public speakers endorsed the June 11 decision of some councillors to skip public debate and become a full-time council.

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After weeks of public outrage and second thoughts, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s (RMWB) council has cancelled a June 11 decision to skip public feedback and become full-time councillors.

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Councillor Kendrick Cardinal, who proposed the promotion and skipping public notice, says he will keep pushing for full-time status. Councillor Funky Banjoko, who originally voted in favour of both motions, proposed rescinding the June 11 decision.

I believe strongly that the characteristics, qualities of a great leader is the ability to listen, the humility to admit when we make a mistake and to act upon that to correct any error, and the strength to make amends,” said Banjoko at the Wednesday council meeting.

Public speakers at the meeting attacked the councillors who supported the June 11 motions and praised the ones who opposed it. Councillor Keith McGrath was criticized for frequently interrupting Councillor Allan Grandison during the June meeting, while Cardinal’s comments in a June 13 interview with Fort McMurray Today were also condemned by people.

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No public speakers said they supported how council had made themselves full-time last month, and every speaker urged councillors to rescind their motion. Cardinal appeared frustrated at times that his motion was getting attacked.

Residents Peter Spiers and Amanda Ayers-Clements criticized councillors for supporting the idea after Cardinal mentioned there would be an eventual salary increase. Resident Ronald Pelletier said upholding the motion would be “a vote to repress our democratic rights.”

“The whole situation on June 11, 2024 and the headlines that followed was yet another embarrassing moment for our community that we call home,” said Craig Milley, president of CUPE 1505.

Council voted 9-2 to rescind the June 11 vote, with only councillors Cardinal and Keith McGrath opposed. This also meant Cardinal’s original motion had to be debated again. This time, the public got their say.

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Councillor Funky Banjoko defends rescinding a surprise June 11 vote to skip public debate and become full-time councillors at a July 3, 2024 council meeting. Screenshot/Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

Review needed before RMWB can consider full-time councillors: speakers

Most speakers said they did not oppose a full-time council, but said council had handled the matter poorly last month. Milley accused the current council of being ineffective, especially after 459 unionized municipal jobs were nearly cut earlier this year. He doubted they would be more efficient with full-time status.

Ayers-Clement and speaker Rene Wells questioned the size of the RMWB’s council. Ayers-Clement pointed out Edmonton and Calgary have 12 and 14 full-time councillors respectively. Wells said the average council size of a mid-sized Alberta city, according to his research, was 7.25 councllors. He wondered if a smaller RMWB council would be “less cats for our mayor to herd.”

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Councillor Ken Ball countered that the cities of Grande Prairie, Lethbridge and Red Deer have eight councillors and a mayor, and Lac La Biche had seven councillors and a mayor. Wells said he included more cities in his research.

Speakers also argued any change to full-time status should begin after the next election. Decisions about salaries, staffing, changes to ward boundaries and council sizes, and expectations should be decided following public input and a third-party review.

Speaker Michelle Landsiedel, who ran for a council seat in 2021, argued moving to full-time status excludes people with leadership skills and expertise who are also balancing careers. She would not have ran in the last election if council was a full-time position, and said there is no proof full-time status would be an incentive for more competent people to run.

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Councillor Lance Bussieres agreed many people, especially tradespeople and oilsands workers, would not give up their salaries and careers for what could be a single four-year council term. Bussieres and Landsiedel said they would not have run for a full-time council seat.

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The municipal Jubilee Centre and provincial building on Franklin Avenue in downtown Fort McMurray on Sunday, April 19, 2020. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Some speakers, including Landsiedel, said salaries would need to be higher to lure people away from their careers for four years. Another of those speakers was George Cuff, the former mayor of Spruce Grove who has worked as a consultant for many municipalities. He recently investigated the dysfunctions of the City of Chestermere.

The work of all councils is full-time, he said, but a move to formal full-time status carries logistics that were not thought out last month. He also warned that a full-time council that cannot match oilsands salaries would attract older people, which does not match the RMWB’s demographics. The public should be allowed to vote on the idea during the next election, he said.

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Pelletier wondered why there was a sudden rush for that status. Previous councils, he said, governed the RMWB through economic booms and busts, natural disasters and the pandemic. Pelletier also rejected arguments a full-time council could closely oversee administrative staff because this is not allowed under Alberta’s Municipal Governance Act.

Throughout the evening, councillors McGrath and Cardinal repeated arguments they made at the June 11 council meeting and in the media: that a full-time council could work closely with administration and the mayor, and would be more efficient in responding to the needs of the community.

Bowman, Banjoko, Grandison, Wigle and Councillor Loretta Waquan acknowledged the public outrage throughout the evening. Bowman mentioned the June 11 meeting had caused serious damage to public trust in council and the RMWB.

Council voted against moving immediately to full-time status. Only Cardinal, Dogar and McGrath voted in favour of the idea.

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