The regional collaboration hearing Feb. 23 brought to light a few areas that would be better off without regional collaboration, as well as some areas that municipalities are already working together on.
A crowd of around 50 people, including elected officials, municipal employees, and community members, packed the Westlock Inn boardroom to capacity Feb. 23 for the public workshop.
Transitional Solutions Initiative (TSI) Inc. hosted the workshop to gather input on seven areas of potential regional collaboration — fire services, water, waste, recreation, economic development, the Westlock Airport, and bylaw enforcement — and provide recommendations.
“It seems like we don’t get much action happening unless there’s some kind of threat happening,” an audience member said.
TSI president Erica Thomas noted that municipalities had taken a proactive approach by initiating a regional collaboration.
“When we provide our recommendations moving forward on collaboration opportunities, we want to ensure that service levels, at minimum, are maintained and if there’s an opportunity to increase service levels or provide those service levels in a more efficient manner, that’s our job,” she explained.
Some guests said there were cost savings and more efficient management associated with regional collaboration and governance.
Another reminded councillors that they were in office to represent all constituents.
“Everyone that gets elected should be responsible and do what’s best for the entire region, not just division,” resident Larry Strilchuk said. “I think that’s the problem that we have; that people think in terms of their division.”
One service area that attendees said did not need formal collaboration was in fire services.
There are seven fire departments in the area, six of which are in the county. All departments operate under their own fire chief and within their own boundaries. During emergency calls, guests noted that there has been confusion over boundaries where multiples departments will arrive at a scene.
However, the group concluded that it was better to overperfrom on fire service delivery.
The audience agreed that the various departments train together and the system worked well with little government involvement, since members report to their fire chief.
The Westlock Regional Airport was another area where it was suggested that less government control would work better.
The airport is owned by the Town of Westlock and Westlock County and operated by the county under an interim-operating agreement.
However, town Coun. Murtaza Jamaly said management is complicated and requires each municipality to approve changes separately before coming back to the table, so he would rather see a local group take over and co-operate with the councils.
“This airport needs a vision,” he said. “We need to know where we’re heading. Develop a strategic plan that tells us
‘this is our 10-year strategy,’ and we can actually implement it.”
Regional bylaw enforcement was an area already undergoing regional collaboration in an informal sense.
Currently the town and county each have their own full-time bylaw officers — the Village of Clyde is working on training a staffer.
Although the town and county’s officers work together, there is no formal agreement in place. Due to limited manpower, it was pointed out that their duties are more often reactionary than proactive.
However, complications could arise from operating under one umbrella because of bylaw confusion and what applies in the county versus in the town.
Another suggested implementing a standardized bylaw and educating residents on the different enforcement roles of bylaw and community peace officers and the RCMP.
Waste and water
The three municipalities in the area co-operate under the Westlock Regional Water Services Commission by providing members to sit on the commission, which is a separate entity that owns the treatment plant and run by town employees.
There are plans to expand a transmission line to Jarvie and Fawcett so that it becomes fully regional.
However, users do not have to pay a transmission fee to cover the cost of putting in that line and an audience member suggested applying a transmission fee to the water bill.
A Busby resident said there were opportunities to build on the recycling program and create an eco station for the region.
It was noted that recreation services showed a lack of intergovernmental co-operation, as well as between governments and athletic associations.
A member of the Westlock Minor Ball Association said he would like to bring in a tournament but the diamonds in Westlock were not maintained as those in Clyde.
On the other hand, it was pointed out that there was room for the region to collaborate on promoting recreation programs at community facilities and events.
Eventually, Thomas turned the discussion towards amalgamation, which she clarified TSI was not there to study specifically.
The response was mixed, with some saying that 20 councillors were too much for a region of this size, while others thought it would lead to “one huge, unwieldy bureaucracy.”
One attendee, who had experience with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo amalgamation with Fort McMurray, said amalgamation was possible, but only if there was a clear and thought-out agreement outlining exactly how it would work.
“Otherwise you’re going to have bullets flying all over,” he said.