Public interest

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You may have been wondering what has happened since the city held a plebiscite on ice, aquatics and library space last fall. You wouldn’t be the only one.

Since the civic election, councillors have been playing their cards pretty close to the chest on which project(s) St. Albert should support. But as it turns out, they have already given input on what facilities should be prioritized – the public just wasn’t told when it happened.

The city revealed in a report on June 16 that council held two meetings behind closed doors with RC Strategies, the consulting company responsible for developing a facility needs report.

The first of the in camera sessions took place April 9 and lasted 72 minutes. The second, held May 14, lasted an hour.

During those meetings, council ranked six potential projects: additional indoor ice, additional aquatic services, additional library services, a food bank, an indoor full-size field and a gymnastics facility.

Some of the criteria they said they used to make their decisions included public and stakeholder input, utilization, partnership opportunities, economic impact, accessibility and historical support.

Although they plan to release the results of their collective prioritization at the June 25 city council meeting, they have spent three months crafting a position on which facilities to support without residents being aware it was even happening.

Given the amount of public interest in the past surrounding facility development, and the fact that three of the proposed facilities were specifically voted on in a plebiscite last October, city council has done a disservice to its electorate by keeping this secret.

Coun. Ken MacKay says he feels it is necessary for councillors to be able to have a “frank, open discussion,” which is better done in camera.

There’s some truth to that. It can be very difficult to have an honest discussion (silly questions and all) in public as an elected official. However, councillors need to remember that the questions and concerns they have are usually the same questions and concerns residents have. They should not be afraid to discuss something as important as the city’s next taxpayer-funded facility in the open.

When council went in camera in March to approve pay raises, municipal consultant George Cuff said there is a difference between controversial and confidential – just because something is controversial does not mean it is actually confidential.

Cuff’s words of advice should be heeded. A vote to move in camera should be seriously weighed against whether a topic is in the public interest. If debating the building of a public facility is not in the public interest, we are at a loss as to what is.

Last fall’s plebiscite and the ensuing emotional debate during the election showed the building of St. Albert’s next public facility is undoubtedly controversial, but 65,000 people have a vested interest in how council arrived at its decision.

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