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Emotions rule as council discusses recovery, controlled access

Fort McMurray, AB, Canada / MIX 103.7
Emotions rule as council discusses recovery, controlled access

Mayor Melissa Blake hearing delegates during council on June 14, 2016

Emotions were high for both councillors and the gallery Tuesday night as measures to move forward were debated in the first meeting back in Fort McMurray since the wildfire.

Council passed a bylaw to control access to Abasand, Beacon Hill, and Waterways beyond June 30, but failed to move on to third reading on the creation of a Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee & Task Force.

The evening featured angry outbursts from residents and tense exchanges among councillors on the subject of the three most-damaged neighbourhoods. Many residents demanded answers on when they could go home, criticizing the RMWB for “lacklustre” communication on the subject.

“Where do you want us to go?” Donald Lutrie, a resident of Beacon Hill asked. “I have a 14-month-old that’s coming home to an RV.”

The gallery was overflowing with members of the public, with standing room only even in a separate viewing atrium. Many residents were met with rounds of applause as they challenged council to get answers sooner on the habitability of the neighbourhoods.

A move that wasn’t met with clapping hands was delaying the creation of the Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee & Task Force. Mayor Melissa Blake took issue with last-minute amendments made by Councillor Keith McGrath to add six “expert” community members to the committee, and to nix pay for councillors pulling salaries from their second jobs. Blake said she, council, and the public needed more time to digest the amendments to ensure it was the right path forward.

The bylaw was originally proposing to more than double councillor salaries from $36,000 to $75,000 for part-time duties. Councillors McGrath, Germain, and Vinni would move to full-time status, denoting a pay increase to $150,000. Mayor Melissa Blake’s salary would also be at $150,000.

The rationale behind the increase in pay is that the workload councillors are facing will be increasing as well. Even part-time councillors say they are currently putting in 40-hour work weeks outside of the regular employment.

McGrath’s amendment, which was approved in second reading 9-2, would prevent “double-dipping” salaries by councillors who hold other full-time positions outside the municipality by taking their municipal paycheque away.

Councillor Jane Stroud stood with the mayor as the other no vote, saying she could not support the drastic pay increases for councillors. She cited High River and Slave Lake’s councils, who maintained their usual remuneration despite increased workloads after flood and fire disasters in the communities.

“We were all aware of what our remuneration would be, and the hours required, going into our elected position,” she said.

Despite being the only two “no” votes, Stroud and Blake decided to vote against consideration of third reading for the creation of the committee. Since considerations of third reading need to be unanimous, the bylaw’s final phase was delayed until next week’s meeting.

“To have at 8:15 a whole suite of changes of other stuff we discussed but I wasn’t expecting, it just wasn’t the night,” said Mayor Blake. “Putting the extra duration of a week in will give me time to reflect on what those elements are and if they are going to serve the citizens in the best way.”

Blake was also levied with criticism by other councillors and members of the public after an “embarrassing” exchange when she realized that the committee bylaw dictated that she wouldn’t be an ex-officio member.

The title allows members from the mayor’s office to take part in committee meetings to offer input and give feedback, with no voting powers. Traditionally, the mayor is an ex-officio member of all municipal committees.

“That is a personal slap in my face,” the mayor said, adding that she thought the provision was added after discussion of the bylaw at the June 8 meeting in Edmonton.

However, it was brought to Blake’s attention that the item had been in the bylaw during first reading in that meeting.

“You can twist it any way you like in public,” McGrath said to the mayor. “But you were not slighted, there was no bomb dropped. This is not a time for us to be arguing, this is about a time for us to get these people back in their homes.”

The bylaw was ultimately amended to include the mayor as ex-officio by Councillor Sheldon Germain to help move the process forward.

Notes:¬†First reading of a bylaw to put a 90-day moratorium on development in Abasand, Beacon Hill, and Waterways was passed and will be discussed at the June 21 meeting… Discussion on the capital budget was also shifted to the June 21 meeting, turning away Conklin residents who had driven in for debate on the Conklin Rec Centre…

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