Almost 200 people flooded the Sturgeon County office Monday with two simple messages for council: fix our roads and can the county campus.
County council held a special meeting Monday to address concerns about road construction, taxation and the proposed county campus raised by the Sturgeon United Residents for Effective Accountable Leadership (SUREAL) citizens group.
About 130 people crammed into council chambers, with others listening in from the hall outside or watching a video feed in a side room. Former mayors Helmut Hinteregger and Don Rigney were in attendance, as was Simon Boersma, president of the Morinville & District Chamber of Commerce.
John Wasmuth, a spokesperson for SUREAL, said the group formed a few months ago to address complaints from residents and concerns about the proposed county campus.
Speakers at the meeting denounced poor road conditions in the county and criticized staff pay, especially that of county commissioner Peter Tarnawsky.
SUREAL member Don Levers decried the “arrogant attitude” council and administration showed towards residents, saying that residents felt lied to but feared retribution from staffers if they spoke out.
Levers said administration’s attempt to fix county roads in the last two years was “such a disaster,” and he accused county engineers of never leaving their office to look at a piece of property.
He and Wasmuth called for an immediate hiring freeze and halt to the county campus project until an efficiency audit of administration and a feasibility study of the project was complete.
“We are not lobbying for or against any candidates at this point and time,” Wasmuth said, and he was not running for council.
When questioned about the group by retired councillor Ken McGillis and another resident, Councillors Wayne Bokenfohr and Patrick Tighe said they had met with and (in Bokenfohr’s case) advised SUREAL, but were not members or founders of it.
Mayor agrees to pause
Mayor Tom Flynn said that the county’s budget had grown from 1.3 to 8.55 per cent in each of the last five years, with this year likely to have no increase.
These increases helped hire firefighters, peace officers, bridge inspectors and development officials the county needed to keep up with growth and regional planning, as well as pay for graders, regional libraries and rec-centres.
The county has about $8 billion in industrial projects now in the works, Coun. Jerry Kaup said.
“You can’t do that without extra staff.”
That growth has helped the county keep some of the lowest taxes in the region, he continued. While it had also caused some suffering, that growth would soon pay off as revenues from it start coming in.
As for roads, Flynn said, “We recognize things aren’t as good as they should be,” and that council would soon receive a consultant’s report on how best to fix them. Council was also addressing years of road-related drainage issues previous councils had not.
SUREAL spokesperson Brian Reed questioned why the county had to hire outside consultants to do that study and why it was keeping engineers on staff after they had failed to fix county roads.
“Why are we not firing those people who cannot do their jobs correctly and hiring people who are competent?” he said, to applause.
In an interview, Flynn said that council had made it clear that it was displeased with some of the transportation department’s practices and that Tarnawsky had recently replaced the manager of the transportation department with a highly skilled official.
“I expect to see a lot of improvement.”
Flynn said in council that he had long had misgivings about the county campus project and that it should be subject to the same rigorous review that council had applied to the Morinville recreation centre.
“You’re right, the process has to be slowed right down, and (we should) say no to deciding to build it right away,” he said, to applause.
As for an efficiency review, he said in an interview he wanted to hear more details on it from SUREAL before committing to one.
Council agreed to hold a second public forum on these issues and to answer attendees’ questions as soon as possible.