BONNYVILLE – What if an elected official is not able to attend council meetings on a regular basis due to scheduling conflicts? This question has come to the forefront for the MD of Bonnyville council following a transition from Wednesday meetings to Tuesdays, which went into effect as of January 2023.
The decision to switch the days of MD regular council meetings and committee of the whole meetings was introduced by the MD’s CAO Al Hoggan at a committee of the whole meeting prior to the organizational meeting on Oct. 26, 2022.
The suggestion to change MD council meetings was because the majority of other Alberta council meetings are held on Tuesdays. Based on administration’s review of 69 Alberta counties and municipal districts, 59 per cent hold council meetings on Tuesdays, while 26 per cent hold meetings on Wednesdays.
According to administration, changing the MDs’ council meetings would also reduce scheduling conflicts involving other municipal and provincial affairs.
At the organizational meeting on Oct. 26, council passed a motion to change the day of council’s meetings to Tuesdays in a 5-2 vote, despite concerns raised by Ward 2 Coun. Darcy Skarsen.
Skarsen informed the rest of council that the change would significantly interfere with his work outside of council, limiting the number of meetings he would be able to attend.
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The Jan. 10 meeting was the first MD of Bonnyville council meeting to be held on a Tuesday, which Skarsen was not present for.
On Feb. 14, Skarsen requested that the scheduling of regular council and committee of the whole meetings, which are typically only reviewed at the annual organizational meeting, be included in council’s agenda to be discussed once again.
“I want to apologize for bringing this back and beating a dead horse here, but this is one that I just can't get over,” Skarsen told his fellow council members.
“Coming to council meetings is something that I pride myself on. In my first term, I think I missed two council meetings in four years, and I just feel that this decision was maybe decided on without enough thought to it.”
Skarsen, who has a full-time job outside council chambers, noted that he has an arrangement with his employer to have Wednesdays off in order to be able to attend council meetings.
Skarsen asked why there was an immediate need to change the day of council meetings part way through council’s term. He added that he has also received calls from residents in his Ward questioning the change, for which he says he has no answer.
“If we're able to, I would like to get that changed back to Wednesday. Otherwise, I'm just giving my notice that I will probably miss a lot of meetings.”
Skarsen made a motion to move council meetings from Tuesdays back to Wednesday, which was met with opposition from some councillors.
“An appeal could have been done, but instead we waited a long time. That affects our staff. Our staff have gone and put in a lot of time to make amendments to get this done,” said Coun. Ben Fadeyiw. “We're costing our administration time.”
Coun. Josh Crick inquired why Skarsen could not simply switch the days that he worked to meet council’s new schedule.
In response, Skarsen said, “It's a lot more than just me. There's a lot of moving parts. So no, it wouldn't be possible.”
Showing support for returning to Wednesday meetings was Coun. Dana Swigart. He noted that when candidates run for election, they are handed a package stating when meetings of council are set, which is what a candidate could reasonably expect for the next four years.
“Even the residents out there know [meetings] were on Wednesdays. So, if there's a great reason to change this to Tuesdays, I'd say let's think about that but let's do that at the end of our four-year term, and let the next guy start with a new council package, new dates,” expressed Swigart. “Now what you're doing is you're restricting Coun. Skarsen from attending because he's one of these guys who works.”
The motion to change meetings back to Wednesday was defeated in a 3-4 split vote. Voting in favour of returning council meetings to Wednesdays were Councillors Mike Krywiak, Swigart and Skarsen.
Following the defeated motion, Skarsen put forward another motion seeking Tuesday council meetings be moved to start at 1 p.m. instead of 9 a.m.
“I'm just taking another stab here, just trying to be able to make meetings. You guys are stuck on Tuesdays now for whatever reason. So, I could probably make one o'clock work.”
In a somewhat surprising result, the motion was carried, switching council meeting start times from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Voting in favour of the 1 p.m. start time were Councillors Swigart, Krywiak, Fadeyiw and Skarsen.
However, the result sparked frustration among council and administration.
“I lose my entire legislative services department from nine o'clock in the morning on the day of the meeting and then I probably lose them the next morning. And we will now incur an overtime cost with no thought to the impact on the people who make this operation work,” said the CAO.
Skarsen pointed to the operations of other municipalities, such as the Town of Bonnyville and City of Cold Lake, both of which hold evening meetings.
“How the Town and City make it work is significantly different,” stated Hoggan. “The Town is dealing with a $20 million budget, we deal with $100 million budget. We are a significantly bigger municipality with 200 plus full-time employees, as opposed to the 50 or 60 that the Town has. Our issues here are significantly larger due to the fact that there are more numbers in front of the decimal point.”
After two weeks, Skarsen walked back his stance and voted to rescind the resolution calling for a 1 p.m. start time during the Feb. 28 regular council meeting.
“I've been thinking about this since we've left the last council meeting. And while I feel that Wednesdays at 9 a.m. are still the best option. I feel that Tuesdays at 9 a.m. was probably a better option than 1 p.m.,” said Skarsen, prior to council voting to rescind the Feb. 14 resolution.
“I'm in favour of this. But I am still in favour of making the best option available – Wednesday mornings – like we've had for years.”
Swigart followed by saying, “I wouldn't have voted for this, if Coun. Skarsen had not been in favour of it. You want to support your own council.”
Prior to council voting to rescind the 1 p.m. meeting start time, Krywiak, the councillor for Ward 3, added “Wednesdays work better for me as well, but I'll try to make things work as much as I can.”
The vote to rescind the 1 p.m. start time was unanimous. The MD of Bonnyville council will continue to meet on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month and its committee of the whole meetings will be on the third Tuesday of each month, with the meetings commencing at 9 a.m. in council chambers.