Council strategic planning flawed, Cuff says

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A report released this week says a flawed strategic policy and planning process has contributed to St. Albert city council’s inability to achieve a broader vision.

The municipal inspection report compiled by inspector George Cuff reveals a policy that allows the city manager to overrule council and a strategic plan that is not reflected in city budgets.

Cuff observed minimal changes between the 2017 and 2018 strategic plans, which he said should be different if the document is meant to look at the future. He also noted an attitude from some councillors that priority-setting is not important.

He recommends council and the city manager review the current approach to strategic planning in order to make sure the process is both strategic and council-led. Cuff also recommends council use an external facilitator when it develops its plan and for city council to revise its strategic planning policy to reflect its responsibility for providing direction for the city.

Coun. Cam MacKay described the current approach to strategic planning as “the tail wagging the dog” and suggested council needs to be able to set its own priorities from scratch during strategic planning sessions.

“A lot of things you want to do are governed by a document over which you don’t have a lot of control,” he said, adding Cuff’s recommendations can be used as a road map forward.

He also believes strategic policies need to be simpler in nature.

“It has actually been one of my pet peeves, that you have an economic development policy or strategy that’s 20 pages long but it doesn’t provide you any guidance on how to get there,” he said.

“The elected officials need to take charge and start to set the priorities.”

While critical of the report in general, Mayor Nolan Crouse said the public nature of council’s strategic planning meetings this term rendered the process ineffective.

“How do you … put your feet up and talk about stuff when there’s news people and cameras in the room? You can’t be frank,” he said.

“When council is having a planning session and talking about stuff, we’re a public body — but there are times when you should be private.”

Crouse said the current council decided to take a public approach to strategic planning so people could see what was happening. However, Crouse said he believes  that decision has led to “dog-whistle politics” and grandstanding instead of an honest look at what direction councillors wanted the city to go in.

That would change if planning meetings were held out of town or behind closed doors, he added.

“I think (these problems) really can be fixed,” he said.

Coun. Cathy Heron said she would also like to see planning meetings held out of town so councillors can focus on the task at hand.

“That’s a small thing to ask, for seven people to focus for 48 hours on the strategic plan of the city when you run for council,” she said.

“That’s what you signed up for.”

Heron also said she agrees with Cuff’s recommendation for an external facilitator, noting that could help to unite council.

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