By Trevor Busch
Enhanced formalization of the town’s Coffee with Council initiative has drawn strong reservations among some councillors, resulting in a 4-3 split vote.
Since initiating the Coffee with Council program, various items have been brought forward to council from the public. The idea was approved by council in November 2018 for a three month trial run. At the May 13 meeting, administration was seeking council’s direction as to how these publicly-initiated discussion items be brought forward, and how feedback is provided to the public.
“There’s been a number of items that have come out of your Coffee with Council initiatives — which I think are great, and a real good success — we direct people that have concerns often to Coffee with Council,” said CAO Cory Armfelt. “What’s come out of that, though, on the administrative side, is those requests that come in — and then the answers that your administration provides — there’s not really a set format for how we get that information back to the person that has questioned.”
Armfelt suggested council consider a worksheet format to be collated in a binder brought to future meetings, with answers or responses prepared by administration.
“I like that idea,” said Coun. Carly Firth. “Also, when you have the feedback in the binder, it provides you some information, questions that have been asked before, repeat questions, subjects that residents have lots of questions about, so that information is right there at hand, and then the message is consistent — it’s not one councillor’s opinion, it’s the information that we have.”
Coun. Joe Strojwas, on the other hand, was less than enthusiastic about formalizing the meetings.
“This whole process was intended to be just a casual type thing. Are we going to make this a formal thing now, where we’re taking notes, giving that to administration? I realize there’s a gap here, but it would seem like we’re getting a little too structured.”
Mayor Andrew Prokop viewed it as a natural progression of what has become a successful initiative.
“I guess that’s a good question, fair question. But I think all things considered, it’s sort of evolved into this. It became an open-ended, transparent item to be part of our Strategic Plan that we followed through on, and it’s just sort of evolved as a result.”
Coun. Garth Bekkering was ready to sign off on the process as a necessary by-product of receiving feedback from citizens.
“If people are good enough to come to one of these Coffee with Council meetings, and they’re brave enough to ask questions, and complain about something, I guess we should be good enough to give a response. Even though I agree with Councillor Strojwas, I think we owe people an explanation, certainly in responding to a question. And it should be noted somewhere.”
Coun. Jack Brewin was resistant to the proposal which might create another formal meeting process.
“I think Coffee with Council has been a great deal, and good idea. But I agree with Joe (Coun. Strojwas), we’re turning this more into a public meeting setting instead of a casual coffee discussion.”
Slipping into hyperbole for a moment, Coun. Mark Garner argued formalizing the meetings would enhance their accountability.
“I understand what you’re saying, Councillor Brewin, but I think that an item not written down often times is only a wish. Really, when you want to get things done you need to put it on paper so there’s some traction to it, and some accountability. I think it opens that two-way communication, whether they want to be responded to with their concerns through a text message, an email, or a phone call, at least we have some track-ability with those people.”
Strojwas remained unconvinced that adding a level of bureaucracy to the process would have positive results, and might even succeed in driving people away.
“I’m worried if we get too structured, it’s going to be like a council meeting where residents are scared to come because there’s going to be a process that has to be followed. If residents have a real issue that they want to identify, a lot of times they don’t come to a structured meeting because they don’t want to stand up in a meeting and be singled out or whatever. I really enjoy the casualness of sitting down and talking around a table, and hash some things and know that not everything is going to be notarized. We might be setting a precedent here, and pretty soon we’re going to have an extra council meeting, and it’s going to be structured, and pretty soon people will say ‘I’m not going to go to that anymore, I don’t want my name recognized.’ It was supposed to be a casual thing. Originally it was supposed to start out with us going to coffee shops to have a coffee, and just talking and hearing concerns. Now it’s evolved to another structured meeting, and I have my reservations about that.”
Garner countered that the idea is largely unavoidable given the context of the meetings.
“I think if you were on the other side, and you were a citizen of Taber — like we all are — I think I would appreciate it if I had a concern, that the person I’m giving it to — that body of people — would at least write it down, so at least we can follow through. That’s just good business sense, I think.”
Coun. Louie Tams weighed in on the side of Brewin and Strojwas.
“I’m of the same opinion as Councillor Strojwas, that we don’t need to have it really structured.”
Firth was of the opinion that formalization would not result in any problems with regard to the casual nature of the meeting currently.
“While I appreciate all the concerns that have been raised, I don’t think that having a consistent way to respond to all the people that come out is any less casual.”
“A little follow up I don’t think is a bad thing at all, and expected actually,” added Prokop.
Following discussion, council voted 4-3 to direct administration to put together a binder that can be brought to future Coffee with Council sessions in order to provide consistent feedback to residents about the concerns that are raised. Councillors Tams, Strojwas and Brewin opposed the motion.