City council will spend up to $374,000 this year to upgrade council chambers to improve safety and accessibility.
This is part of an ongoing multi-year project to update St. Albert Place, which was built in the mid-1980s. Building codes and safety standards have changed since then.
City staff currently had $149,000 allocated toward safety and accessibility upgrades. On Nov. 28, councillors voted to top that up with an additional $225,000 in order to allow more of the upgrades to proceed.
Chief legislative officer Chris Belke said safety and mobility upgrades would include railings along the front of the gallery and providing wheelchair access to the mayor’s seat, which is currently on a step. The leg space councillors have with their current desk also don’t meant the requirements for wheelchair users.
Belke added the city is also looking into making the gallery more wheelchair-accessible, although staff have run into some problems with that.
“One of the things that’s been a bit of an obstacle is determination of modifications to allow an area for wheelchair seating,” he said.
“We were a bit disappointed to find out that because of the amount of space we’re required by code to allocate for a wheelchair-specific area, it may require some structural modifications in the gallery area.”
That could mean knocking out concrete and adding a structural beam at a cost of an additional $50,000.
The news of accessibility upgrades drew praise but also criticism from St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud, who has long been an advocate for people with disabilities. Renaud said she found it disappointing the item was even up for discussion instead of just being done.
“(Accessibility) is not a luxury; it’s a necessity,” she said.
“This is a public space and you need to ensure access for every single citizen.”
Coun. Sheena Hughes said people who have mobility issues have difficulty coming to council and cannot access the podium where residents give presentations.
“We have to bring them a mike and have them sit back there as a second-class citizen, and then speak back there to them,” she said.
The $225,000 in additional funding will also go toward updating the audio-visual system used to broadcast meetings, as well as a new council desk, among other projects. Hughes said some projects that wouldn’t be included in the $225,000 are lighting upgrades, furniture for administration and painting the ceiling.
Mayor Cathy Heron, Coun. Ray Watkins and Coun. Jacquie Hansen voted against the extra funding.
Watkins and Heron said they felt the additional funding sends “the wrong message” as some of the projects, such as the new council desk, are not necessities.
Watkins said he would support upgrades to the audio-visual system but felt the rest could be put off.
Heron said the $149,000 city staff already had for the project should be enough to upgrade the gallery and audio-visual system.
“These are hard choices we have to make and we can’t have everything, and this one seems very self-serving. And I think our residents would not be very pleased with this decision,” she said.
Hughes said the concern about a “self-serving” decision shouldn’t stop councillors from pursuing the project.
“It happens to be in an area we’re in, so we’re not being altruistic. But it’s also an area where the people need to be able to have confidence that when they come there, they will be respected equally, that they will actually be safe,” she said.