St. Albert will move forward as planned with the installation of new smart water meters after city councillors decided not to require an information campaign to inform homeowners about the devices.
The meters, which use a radio-frequency (RF) transmitter to send data, have been a source of controversy among some homeowners since their roll-out began in December. This prompted the city to introduce an opt-out program for the transmitter.
Some of the fears residents have expressed surrounding smart meters include the possibility of privacy violation, since the meters track water usage throughout the day and may show a pattern of when people are home or away. Some residents also have questions about how RF waves may impact health.
The $6.4-million program aims to replace the city’s current water meters, which are coming to the end of their lifespan, by March 2019. Residents will be able to access their water information on a secure website and the new meters can flag leaks quicker than the old ones.
The program came under further scrutiny in January when former city alderman Jerry Manegre asked the city for an official apology after receiving a final notice to replace his meter, which called the upgrade “mandatory” and stated that property owners could have their water shut off if they do not comply.
Utilities director Kevin Cole told the Gazette that would be an absolute last resort for the city and residents should not generally worry about that happening as the roll-out of the program reaches their neighbourhoods.
Manegre returned to council chambers on Feb. 20 to deliver a presentation urging council members to require informed consent for the meters to be installed. He also asked for a written response to a 56-page document that outlined his concerns with the meter replacement program.
Among Manegre’s concerns is that the nature of the water meters, including information about the RF transmitter, have not been disclosed on any of the notices he received to replace his meter. Copies of notices provided with the Feb. 20 agenda refer to advanced water meters and provide web links for more information, but do not mention the RF transmitter.
“Who are we talking about that can have their water shut off? Who doesn’t deserve informed consent? They are your family members, your friends, your neighbours,” he told council members on Feb. 20.
“They are people who voted for you and consent to be governed by you because you are now their civic government. They are people looking to you for governance.”
Later in the meeting, council members voted down a motion from Coun. Sheena Hughes to have city staff provide “disclosure and informed consent” for the meters and RF device. Hughes was the only councillor to vote in favour of her motion.
The definition of “informed consent” was an issue Coun. Ken MacKay brought up during the discussion. MacKay said that to him, informed consent has legal connotations.
City solicitor Greg Klenke said there is no legislative requirement to obtain informed consent from residents.
Following the vote, Hughes said she was disappointed in the decision.
Hughes said she felt there should be an information sheet included with the replacement notices for residents to sign off on. The alternative, she said, is that residents turn to other sources of information to answer their questions.
“In spite of the fact that some people are very enthusiastic about this program, it is a controversial program,” she said, saying the city needs to realize that.
In an administrative report to the motion, Cole cited Health Canada’s exposure code for RF energy which says the RF waves are well within safe perimeters. He stated that city staff believe informed consent is not required for the city to install RF transmitters with the meters.
“Additionally, Administration has proactively provided information about meters and the RF transmitters on outgoing communications including the City website and for any requests,” he wrote.
The city has more information about the program available on its website, along with fact sheets about the meters’ RF emissions.