Approximately 50 concerned citizens attended city hall yesterday to hear a presentation by the North Peace Cultural Society (NPCS) to mayor and council on the city’s decision to assume management of the cultural centre.
“We shouldn’t need to be here, but the circumstances over the past couple of months meant we had to be here in front of you,” said Nelson Stowe, society vice-chair.
The society requested a delegation appearance to address what they consider accusations in the city’s June 15 notice to assume management and CAO Milo MacDonald's June 18 open letter.
“As an organization, I believe we have a right to defend ourselves,” said Stowe. “The society feels like we have been treated unfairly and unjustly in the media with those public statements.”
The society had also hoped to address a letter by Mayor Lori Ackerman to Fort St. John Community Arts Council President Rosemary Landry, as mentioned by Stowe before Ackerman interjected.
“The presentation was to be provided to our staff, and it was three letters,” said the mayor, referring to the June 15 notice, the society's formal response, and the CAO’s letter.
Stowe obliged, and continued the meeting by discussing the three.
“We were meeting the objective of the taxpayers and the city, we were doing our job,” said Stowe, noting the cultural centre suffered from a $100,000 deficit in 2014.
By 2017, a $100,000 surplus was generated by the hard work of over 85 volunteers from both the society board and arts community, says Stowe.
“Over the past five and a half years, what that building has delivered to this community on the shoestring budget is remarkable. It’s amazing,” he said. “And that should be applauded in the community – it’s a success story.”
A cultural service agreement was signed with the city in 2014 while the centre was financially recovering. It was extended in 2017 and expired in November 2020, with new negotiations that should have started in June 2020.
Under the agreement, city staff and centre management met every three months, while semi-annually the chair and vice-chair met with city executives to discuss operations.
A draft agreement had been sent to the city and returned only to correct clerical errors, said Stowe.
He says it all went sideways in March 2021, when Mayor Ackerman and CAO MacDonald met with the society, expressing a drastically different opinion.
"We were told at that point that they did not see the value in the North Peace Cultural Society in our role in maintaining that building and delivering the services," Stowe said. “Basically, that’s where everything went right off the rails.”
NPCS Chair Connie Surerus says the public deserves answers.
“We have a room full of people who have questions about some of this stuff too,” she said. “I think that may be your normal process, but considering that we were never given an opportunity to present, even as an in-camera meeting, based on your decision, when we asked for that.”
Surerus maintains the CAO’s letter was not rooted in facts, noting the agreement had escalation measures in place should financial or management issues arise.
“That’s all in this cultural service agreement that we signed, that you signed,” she said. "And I think where the shock is, and I know mayor, you've said 'Oh it's just an agreement'- well, it's more than that - it's been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get this in place."
“It wasn’t a case of ‘let’s have a discussion, we’ll work this out, we’re thinking of this’ – it was basically put to us that the city was going to take over operations of the centre,” said Surerus.
Mayor Ackerman was the only member of council to make any comment during the presentation, stating she was not solely responsible for the city’s decision.
“It wasn’t me who made the decision, it was all of council and it was unanimous,” she said, stating city policy forbids decision making in front of delegations.
Mayor Ackerman ended the discussion when pressed to further address concerns.
“No, we are done. Thank you very much for your presentation,” she said.
The city has since invited the North Peace Cultural Society to a special closed meeting on July 19 at 3 p.m. to further discuss the issues raised during the society's presentation.
Members of the public are not permitted to attend closed meetings.
Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative, Alaska Highway News