Mayor Responds to Allegations Levied Against Council and the Town's Civic Square Project

Date

 

The Mayor of Coaldale has formally responded to recent allegations against Town Council. The live broadcast recording is available on the Town's YouTube channel - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPiA_ElBhTo

The Mayor's statement begins at 1:40:14.

To see the full transcript of the statement click here or read below.

Introduction:

I have thought long and hard about how best to respond to the most recent letter, addressed to myself and Town Council, that was received on September 8, 2020 from the Group that refers to themselves as “Citizens for a Better Coaldale.” I shall refer to them as “the Group.” The Group’s letter of September 8, 2020 is the third letter they have submitted to Town Council. 

Given that they have chosen to dialogue indirectly with Council through various social media and media outlets, I feel compelled as Coaldale’s Mayor to set the record straight on a number of fronts, and as such, I have prepared a statement that I would like to read onto record. 

When Council discussed the Group’s first letter of July 8, 2020 at the Regular Council Meeting of July 13, 2020, Council responded by inviting the Group to meet with Council in September of this year. Council was hopeful that this meeting would be productive, given that the Group espoused to be in  favor of promoting – and I quote from their letter of July 8 – “constructive dialogue between Coaldale Town Council and its residents.” 

Unfortunately, it does not appear that this Group’s actions are consistent with their vision of promoting “constructive dialogue.” Having observed their behavior over the past several weeks, there is sufficient evidence in my view to call a spade a spade. In my opinion, this Group is not interested in having constructive dialogue with the Town; they appear, instead, to be politically motivated and dedicated to painting the Town and Town Council in a disparaging light, sowing discord in the community along the way. 

Unfortunately, the day after Council agreed to meet with this group, they published a press release, which contained numerous factually inaccurate statements and leading questions about the Town’s Civic Square project, and other matters, on July 14, 2020 – less than 24 hours after Council publicly agreed, at a Regular Council Meeting, to meet with them.

Given that misinformation about the Town – regarding our capital projects and some of our colleagues around the Council table here – has spread as a result of this Group’s efforts, I feel compelled to set the factual record straight. In my opinion, it is unfortunate that this Group went public with their campaign before taking up Council’s offer to meet with them. 

Since the Group didn’t wait for Council to explain, in person, facts that have long been public, I will do so here for those who may now be confused as a result of the recent spread of misinformation. 

What is Civic Square?

Civic Square involves the construction of a two-story commercial office building and the development of a neighboring outdoor space that aims to attract people and businesses to Coaldale’s downtown core. 

While new businesses will locate to the main floor of this building, the Town will relocate its administrative office building to the second floor, allowing the Town to sell its current Town office building for commercial redevelopment. 

This is not simply “clever branding” or a camouflaged name for a new Town office building; Civic Square is the name of a project that aims to transform Coaldale’s downtown core. 

Council developed this project in response to community feedback it received during its Strategic Planning open houses, and the subsequent community survey, that took place in May-June, 2018. Through these feedback avenues, the consistent message received by Council was: revitalize Main Street, and make Main Street a priority! 

What are the intended benefits of the Town’s Civic Square project?

The Civic Square project is another step in Council’s strategy for revitalizing Main Street, a long-established community focus area. 

Civic Square is an economic development project at its core, but unlike the Town’s NE Industrial Park development, this is an economic development project that will be occurring on Coaldale’s Main Street! 

When Council first approved this project in public during the Regular Council Meeting of November 26, 2018, we were motivated to approve it because of the significant economic development potential that it carried. 

To list a few examples:

  • Once completed, Civic Square will bring additional businesses, services, and activity to Coaldale’s downtown core;
  • As the first new commercial office building in many years, it will bring new jobs to Coaldale;
  • The commercial space within the Civic Square office complex will be taxable assessment; same goes for the current Town Office building once it is sold to a private developer. This creates additional tax revenue for the Town.
  • The Civic Square Complex will contain meeting rooms that will be available for community use;
  • Paying cash for the Town’s space allows for the project to have zero impact on the Town’s operating budget (aside from expenses it already has, like utilities).
  • Our goal is that such a project will stimulate additional growth and investment in Coaldale’s downtown core, creating economic momentum, if you will.
  • The adjacent outdoor space will facilitate the community’s ability to meet and host events, which will have positive spinoffs for many existing businesses.

While not everyone will agree with this strategy – nor does everyone have to – we have been public about our vision for this project for almost two years. The anticipated outcomes of the Civic Square project is consistent with Council’s Strategic Plan, which was first presented to the community in early spring 2018. 

Civic Square Timeline:

The Town first discussed its Civic Square project in a public Council Meeting, which was live streamed, on November 26, 2018. A copy of this video recording can be found on the Town of Coaldale’s YouTube Channel. Please refer to the 47:25 minute mark of Part 2 of the November 26, 2018 Regular Town Council Meeting recording, which can be assessed through the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOAp3qQ4NQc&t=4167s

Subsequently,

  • A detailed written description of the projects contained within the Town’s 2019-2021 Capital Budget was published on the Town’s website the next day and has remained there ever since.
  • From December 3, 2018 to December 12, 2018 poster boards were displayed in Council Chambers at the Town Office, along with numerous social media updates, inviting anyone that was interested to stop by and learn more about the projects. Two evening sessions between December 3 and December 12, 2018 were held to accommodate those who may have been unable to view the capital project information boards during daytime hours.
  • On January 25, 2019 the Town posted on the Alberta Purchasing Connection a Request for Proposal for Preliminary / Schematic Architectural Design Services for the Town of Coaldale’s Downtown Civic Square Project. This RFP contained great detail about the Civic Square project.
  • On June 12, 2019 Town administration, at the direction of Council, delivered a presentation about the Town’s Civic Square project to the Coaldale and District Chamber of Commerce. Several local business representatives were in attendance, including, as has been customary for several years, members of the local media. 
  • At the Regular Council meeting of December 9, 2019 Council made the decision to “shop” the Civic Square commercial building opportunity to potential third-party developers following the conclusion of a competitive Request for Expression of Interest process. In fulfillment with this directive, the Request for Expression of Interest document for the Town’s Civic Square Project was posted on the Alberta Purchasing Connection (APC) from December 18, 2019 to February 6, 2020.

Given that Requests for Expression of Interest processes can contain complex accounting exercises and elements of subjectivity, Council developed a thorough and robust evaluation process. 

A few points of note here:

  • First, the Request for Expression of Interest package for the Civic Square project, which was posted on the Alberta Purchasing Connection, was drafted by the Town’s legal counsel. 
  • Second, Council appointed a representative from AVAIL LLP to serve as the chair of the Civic Square proposal evaluation process, including the task of delivering a recommendation letter to Council on which proponent to select based on the criteria set forth in the Request for Expression of Interest document. 
  • Third, to ensure the process was as fair and transparent as possible, Council appointed three Town Councillors to observe the evaluation process: Councillors Hohm, Pauls and Lloyd.

I have sat on many boards and committees throughout the Province of Alberta. This is one of the most thorough evaluation processes that I have seen, and one that we will continue to utilize as we  go forward. 

Conflict of Interest:

This next section deals with conflict of interest.

For the reasons I am about to provide, I am able to safely conclude that Councillor Simpson has complied with all legislative requirements as relates to conflict of interest situations this Council term. 

Councillor Simpson first declared a pecuniary interest with respect to the Civic Square project at the Regular Council meeting of February 10, 2020. This was important because the deadline for Proponents to submit expressions of interest to undertake the Civic Square project was February 6, 2020. 

At the Regular Council Meeting of February 10, 2020 Item 12.1 on the Council Meeting Agenda was a Request for Expressions of Interest Submission update with respect to the Town’s Civic Square project. At the start of this meeting, Councillor Simpson said that she would be recusing herself from this particular item on the agenda. When Council got around to Item 12.1 on the agenda, Councillor Simpson recused herself from Council Chambers. Which is exactly what an elected official is supposed to do when a matter could “monetarily impact the Councillor or an employer of the Councillor; or the Councillor knows or ought to have known the matter could monetarily impact the Councillor’s Family” – and none of the exceptions apply. 

As an aside, it is not uncommon for conflict of interest situations to arise in local government, especially in smaller communities. This is not something that is peculiar to the Town of Coaldale. It’s how a Councillor responds when they have a conflict of interest, that is key. Since Councillor Simpson’s family was connected to a commercial interest in one of the Request for Expression of Interest proposals, she recused herself from Council Chambers while discussion about the Civic Square project took place. She did not re-enter Council Chambers until after Council concluded its discussion on the matter and not until after Council made a resolution appointing Councillors Hohm, Pauls and Lloyd to the Civic Square evaluation committee, which was chaired by the Town’s Auditors, Avail CPA.

The Civic Square proposal evaluation subcommittee provided an update to Council at the Regular Council Meeting of February 24, 2020 during closed session. This item was listed as “Item 12.4 – Civic Square – RFEI Evaluation Sub Committee Update” on the Council Meeting agenda. At the start of this Council Meeting, Councillor Simpson declared that she would be recusing herself from Council Chambers when this item on the agenda emerged. When Council got to this closed session agenda item, Councillor Simpson exited Council Chambers and did not return until after Council made a resolution to conclude its discussion about this item.

At the Regular Council Meeting of March 23, 2020, the Civic Square project appeared on the agenda as closed session item 12.2 “Auditor’s Report – Request for Expression of Interest Analysis – Civic Square – C. Scott.” At the start of this Council Meeting, Councillor Simpson advised Council in public session that she would be recusing herself from item 12.2 for conflict of pecuniary interest reasons. When item 12.2 of the agenda emerged in Closed Session, Councillor Simpson exited Council Chambers and did not return to the meeting. After Council concluded its closed session with its external auditor about the Civic Square proposals, they came out of closed session and made the following resolution: 

That Council adopt Avail CPA’s recommendation for a developer/proponent to undertake the Civic Square Project following the request for expression of interest process that was posted on the Alberta Purchasing Connection. FURTHER that Council direct administration to have legal counsel prepare the “Negotiated Agreement” for the developer that has been selected to undertake the Civic Square project. FURTHER, following the completion of the agreement by the Town’s Solicitor, that Council ratify the agreement at a future Council meeting. FURTHER, that a design workshop be held with Council to determine a vision for the lands in and around the Civic Square construction area.

In the absence of Councillor Simpson, this resolution passed by a vote of 6-0. Under the Municipal Government Act, every member of Council has an obligation to disclose and abstain from any discussion and voting on a matter which comes before Council in which he or she has a pecuniary interest. If it falls within the realm of a pecuniary interest, the Councillor is not to be present for any discussion related to the matter in respect of which they disclosed a pecuniary interest. In such instances, the Councillor is recused from Council Chambers and does not return until after the discussion has concluded.

In view of this, having been part of every Council discussion this Council term, I can say that Councillor Simpson’s actions have been entirely in line with the requirements of s. 172 of the Municipal Government Act. As a Town, we have been in full compliance with all legislation pertaining to this area, including the Town’s handling of the procurement process surrounding the Civic Square project.

Civic Square Project Status:

Council has not entered into a contract with any of the Proponents who submitted a proposal to undertake the Town’s Civic Square project. When the decision to finalize an Agreement with a developer comes before Council, residents can be confident that Council’s decision will be fair and objective and, as always, in the best interests of the Town. For these same reasons, Councillor Simpson will not participate in future discussions about Civic Square and I am confident she will follow the same due diligence measures that she has followed to date.

Letter of September 8, 2020:

This now brings me to the Citizens for a Better Coaldale Group’s most recent letter of September 8, which I added to today’s Council Meeting agenda.

Again, as has been the case with the previous two letters that a member of this Group has submitted to the Town, they have not waited for Council to respond or to provide additional factual clarity to what appears to be a series of loaded questions, but instead, have undertaken efforts to pre-emptively disseminate their viewpoint through various mediums. This again raises the question: how interested is this Group in having a constructive dialogue with Town Council?

The Group has asked five questions, which I have reposted below in italics along with a
response to each:

1. Does Councillor Simpson or any member of her family have a financial interest with the contractor / developer or other party that is in negotiations with the Town of Coaldale for the Civic Square project?

ANSWER: Yes, that is why she recused herself from all discussions pertaining to the evaluation of the Civic Square proposals. As is legislatively required, Councillor Simpson disclosed the general nature of her conflict at the start of each of the Council Meetings in which an agenda item posed a conflict of pecuniary interest. This was noted in our meeting minutes, which are published on the Town’s website.

2. If Councillor Simpson recused herself from the past three Council Meetings, why was it acceptable for her to participate in a July 2020 council discussion about a plebiscite request on the Civic Square project and subsequent vote on a motion to deny it?

ANSWER: The Municipal Government Act includes an exception to the pecuniary interest provisions where the interest cannot reasonably be regarded as likely to influence the Councillor’s handling of an issue. For this reason, Councillor Simpson may not have a pecuniary interest in all matters which come before Council related to Civic Square. A Councillor who does not have a pecuniary interest in a matter is required to participate and vote. Councillor Simpson concluded that the discussion about whether to delegate capital projects (plural) to a public vote was too remote a connection for a conflict of pecuniary interest situation to exist. As Council has made clear over the past year, we are committed to executing our 2019-2021 Capital Plan. We are not going to stall good projects through costly and time-consuming community votes in response to the magnitude of volume displayed by a few persistent and determined voices. We declined the request to refer the location of the Joint High School and Multi-Use Recreation Center to a plebiscite vote in June 2019; Council has remained consistent in its desire to execute its Capital Plan, in full, as approved in November 2018. We are elected to make decisions in the best interests of the community. While not everyone will agree on which direction to go, we are committed to making our community a better place. 

3. If Councillor Simpson or an immediate family member has a financial interest in the Civic Square project, is this ethically acceptable to taxpayers, especially due to the large financial value?

ANSWER: Council established a thorough evaluation process to select the proposal that would have the greatest economic impact on the community. Indeed, our role as Council was to select the proposal that brought the greatest size of investment to our community. We are not going to discriminate against proposals that may have a connection to a Town Councillor. As long as a Councillor is removed from the decision-making process, we as a Town are committed to going with the best proposal. We are not going to deviate from this approach simply because a loud minority has tried to use this as an opportunity to paint the Town in a bad light. 

4. Since prior Civic Square planning meetings have likely taken place for over a year, during which time Council Simpson did not recuse herself, is this fair to other possible competing developers or contractors? Hypothetically could Councillor Simpson have acquired privileged information regarding the project and or shaped the outcome of the RFP to her advantage?

ANSWER: Town Councillors have a legal and ethical obligation to hold all information they learn by virtue of their position in office in the strictest of confidence until it is made public. Since there is no evidence to suggest a breach of this expectation by Councillor Simpson, we have no concerns with her conduct. As stated, the Town’s legal counsel drafted the Request for Expression of Interest document. Council created a thorough evaluation process to ensure that the proposal that was selected would have the greatest economic impact for the Town. The Town was clear with all proponents who submitted that as long as they met the minimum project execution requirements, the winner would be the Proponent who was going to make the biggest financial investment in Coaldale. If the Proponent who was going to make the biggest financial investment in Coaldale was
connected to a Councillor who had recused themselves from the evaluation process, we were not going to discriminate against them for this reason.

5. In addition to a possible conflict of interest, would these circumstances not at least create the perception of a conflict of interest by Coaldale taxpayers or contractors interested in submitting possible bids? 

ANSWER: The point of this question is unclear. Councillor Simpson is the one who declared, in a public Council meeting, that she had a conflict of interest with the Civic Square Project once it was known that a business entity connected to her was part of a proposal. Since February 6, 2020 Councillor Simpson has recused herself from all discussions related to Civic Square proposals to ensure that no bias factored into the evaluation of same. What this process does is create a process of fairness. We are not going to scare potential future candidates away from running for Council by giving into loud community voices who are trying to manufacture an issue that isn’t there. 

Closing Remarks:

Given Council has not entered into a contract with any of the Proponents who submitted a proposal to undertake the Civic Square project in response to the Request for Expression of Interest, it is premature for me to relay any further particulars about any of the Proponents at this time. 

As a result of the foregoing, I see no reason to believe that Councillor Simpson was offside in any way in regards to her responsibilities as a Councillor to recuse herself in conflict of pecuniary interest situations.

As a Council, we take very seriously the need to behave ethically. I think people need to remember that Council has the ability under its Council Code of Conduct Bylaw to commence its own investigation should we perceive an issue amongst ourselves. We are satisfied that this is not appropriate in the circumstance as there were no grounds for us to commence our own investigation. 

Councillors Hohm, Pauls or Lloyd – all three of them – were on the Civic Square evaluation committee. Do any of you have anything you’d like to add before I conclude my remarks?

Based on the behavior displayed by members of the Citizens for a Better Coaldale Group, I no longer see a reason for Council to meet with them. To this end I would entertain a motion from Council to receive my report as read, and to rescind Council’s motion to meet with this Group.

Kim Craig
MAYOR