October’s municipal election is a special one for Norman Wells.
It will be the community's first since its town council was dissolved by the Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) last fall, following results of a municipal inspection that found the town was “experiencing operational difficulties.”
The inspection was triggered in the summer of 2017 following numerous complaints to the department, including “alleged improprieties, conflicts of interest, breaches of confidentiality, and failure to follow legislation and council procedures” according to the report.
John Hazenberg, the municipal inspector hired, wrote that the main areas of concern “centred around council, governance principles, and administration matters.”
He concluded relationships between council members, and between council and town administration, had deteriorated to the point that "external action" was required.
While Hazenberg's recommendations were redacted in the inspection report, Deputy Minister Eleanor Young hopes changes the town and administration have made over the past year will ensure things run smoother this time around.
Over the past year, she explained, Allen Stanzel – hired last fall to act as administrator until this year’s October 15 election – “essentially filled the role of council.”
Stanzel, MACA, and the town administration have been busy reviewing Norman Wells’ policies and bylaws.
“One of the things we had identified was some issues with bylaws and policies that were leading council to some of the issues that they were dealing with,” said Young.
“Especially the council procedure bylaw – I’d love to see that ready for a new council to start with. It just makes sense to have the ground rules ready on day one for how they’re going to work with each other.”
Young said many documents were outdated.
Using the council procedure bylaw as an example, she said: “It didn’t deal very well with how councillors work with each other, what their mechanisms for working together with their staff were, and how they dealt with council attendance or non-compliance.
“It was a bylaw that probably was fine even 10 years ago but, as councils have evolved and issues have become more sophisticated, bylaws need to be advanced. They just didn’t keep up with the kinds of issues that the town was facing.”
MACA has held two pre-election workshops in the community to inform people about the roles and responsibilities of council. Whether they are interested in running for election or not, Young says, people should know what a properly functioning council should look like.
She said approximately 15 people turned out to each workshop.
The department also plans to host orientation and training sessions for the newly elected council. Sessions on conflict of interest, financial management, and duties of council won’t be mandatory, but attendance will be highly encouraged.
Young said MACA plans to keep a close eye on things as the town adjusts to having a council again.
“I think we will still be involved. Obviously, it’s in our best interest to make sure that they get off on the right foot and that they’re stable, so that they don’t fall back into what was happening before,” she said.
“I would say we will be more involved than we would be on average, but less involved than we probably were with administration.”
MACA expects to be involved in either a supervision or co-management capacity. What, exactly, that will look like won’t be determined until after the election.
It may include attending council meetings, reading the meeting minutes, or coaching and mentoring the new senior administrative officer (SAO) – and it will depend in part on the experience of those elected, what the council’s interests are, and who the new SAO is.
The town’s current SAO, Catherine Mallon, will wrap up her contract in early November, though she will be on vacation starting next week until the end of her term.
Mallon has been entangled in controversy although, unlike the council, held on to her position.
Stanzel was tasked with completing a “comprehensive performance review” of Mallon and, while Young was able to confirm this had been completed, she was unable to provide details.
As reported by the CBC last summer, one former employee launched a lawsuit against Mallon claiming defamation of character; another alleged the workplace had become “a toxic environment.”
Karel Meulenbroek, the former employee behind the lawsuit, takes issue with MACA’s involvement in the town’s affairs. He wishes they had done more.
“MACA only did partially did their job. They only removed council and didn’t remove the administration,” he said.
Alleging more than 25 people over the past few years have either been fired, laid off, or have gone on sick leave, Meulenbroek said he believes the culture will only change with complete turnover.
But he is not planning on running, stating his lawsuit against the town would place him in a conflict of interest.
“I think I can be more effective outside of council than on council,” he said, adding he has been encouraging others to run.