The Whitecourt & District Chamber of Commerce held an online forum for the municipal candidates running in the Town of Whitecourt election on October 18. Candidates provided opening and closing remarks and answered questions. In the essence of full disclosure, the reporter who covered the event also took part in it as a councillor candidate (Serena Lapointe).
The Mayor Forum with three candidates, Ray Hilts, Darlene Chartrand, and Tom Pickard, was first. Both Hilts and Pickard are current councillors, and Chartrand is a past councillor who also ran for mayor in the last election. Each was asked what actions they would take to rebuild the relationship with Woodlands County.
Tom Pickard said that oil companies in the area are looking for a competitive tax structure and that it comes down to balance. "For oil companies to be competitive, they need low taxes, but they also need the resources. I think we need to work with the County and the province to ensure that linear taxation and the distribution of that taxation is done in a fair manner so that the municipalities providing those services are given a fair shake in that distribution. For us to succeed, we all have to succeed."
Darlene Chartrand said, "one of the first things I would do if elected as mayor is reach out to the new mayor of Woodlands County. I think it's important that the communication begin again between the two municipalities. I know that it's in arbitration, but arbitration can be bypassed if you can resolve things on your own before the decision coming out from the arbitrator. My experience in the legal world is that anytime arbitration takes place, both parties usually walk away from the table quite disgruntled and then it's hard to resume a relationship after because they both feel like they lose."
Ray Hilts answered that his first focus would be mutual respect. "I think we need to understand that the Woodlands County citizens have different needs. I think we need to acknowledge civic autonomy. Woodlands County is its own jurisdiction, its own community, as is Whitecourt. We have to recognize that Woodlands County may or may not want to be part of certain things, and that's ok. I think we need to work with the incoming council on what those differences might be."
All mayoral candidates agreed that diversifying the economy is important to Whitecourt's future. Hilts called the forestry and oil and gas companies juggernauts for how they support the economy through employment. He said that playing to the area's strengths and location (water, rail, and roads) will be important for capitalizing on opportunities. Darlene agreed. She said she would like to create a new committee that includes successful business owners to help put ideas together on what to do going forward, using their expertise. Tom also agreed. He mentioned finding secondary products from forestry, if possible. He said geothermal and other opportunities that are already here in this area should be a focus.
For the Town councillors, ten candidates are running for six positions. The candidates are Derek Schlosser, Paul Chauvet, Bill McAree, Serena Lapointe, Adam Connell, Ashley Rose, Braden Lanctot, Tara Baker, Raelene Day, and Chris Ashcroft. During the forum, they were asked for their thoughts on service levels in Whitecourt, the proposed Municipal Centre, dealing with motions, and what key issue drove them to run. With so many candidates, we chose one key question and are providing their answers on it. The question was, do you feel you adequately understand the municipal budgeting process and are you comfortable pushing back if needed on non-critical items to ensure fiscal responsibility?
Braden Lanctot was honest, saying he didn't "have a clue" but was very open to learning. "In my business, I can read line items. I would be learning as much as I can on what it looks like now versus what it will look like in the future. I feel I can push back on things but truly probably don't have a good enough understanding to do things in a very short amount of time."
Serena Lapointe felt her years working as a reporter for the Whitecourt Press, extensively covering municipal politics and budgeting, would be an asset. She said it was her "pet project" to bring the information to the public. "I took great care in talking about the finances, how things are done, the 20-year capital plan and things I felt the residents should know or understand." She credits her time as treasurer of the Whitecourt & District Library Board as being another asset. "I feel I have learned so much from that, and pushback is definitely something I can do."
Bill McAree said the nice thing is that a great administrative staff is in place to walk everybody through it. "They explain things so clearly that you get fairly comfortable with it. The resiliency we have in the way things are done is so good. I've been on a long time, and it's easy to push back because they explain it to you, and if you have an idea, it's great to bring it up with the other six people on council."
Ashley Rose said that she is the type of person that needs to know what's going on. "If you sat in these meetings (Community Services Advisory Board) with me, you'll know that I'm full of questions. I want to get to the bottom of things and understand what's happening, not just so I can understand it, but so that I can have a conversation with our residents and feel that I am giving them accurate, factual information. I don't think I would be the type to pushback, but I will dig."
For Derek Schlosser, the town's management team is the best he's ever seen. "Your job as a town councillor is to set policy. It's not to get into the weeds. It's up to the council to decide, do we want a tax freeze, a tax increase, or do we want to reduce taxes? If we decide we want no tax increases this year, then we are going to management to say, how will you make that happen? It is a tough task but very doable."
Tara Baker answered the question by saying that she is learning the role of council versus administration. "I'm not a yes girl. I'm a why lady. I'm continuously questioning everything. I come at it from a view that sometimes we need to look at it differently and get some different eyes on it and see how that might work. There are opportunities for the new council to learn about the process, so I'll be utilizing that."
Candidate Christ Ashcroft spoke of his business background and said that the town budgeting process is "probably the single most important responsibility" every councillor has. "If I'm elected, the first thing I'm going to do is ask the CAO to provide me with a line by line copy of that budget. The reality is there are only two and a half months before that budget has to be approved to meet the municipal government act requirements. My job will be to go through it with a fine-tooth comb."
Paul Chauvet said the budget works with the 20-year-capital plan, which not many municipalities have. "That is a road map for where we want to be in 20 years. As for the budget being approved by the end of the year, that's an interim budget. It's not the full budget. It's only in the spring that we finally get all of our official numbers, specifically provincial grant money. We want to be prudent with the taxpayer dollar."
Adam Connell answered that the town is like a business. "You don't spend money you don't have. There's also staff in place to walk you through it. I'm not scared of the budget, and I can understand it. If it came to non-essentials, where it could seem like a waste of money, I'm not a big fan of wasting money."
Raelene Day said that her previous employment with Woodlands County, working with their budgeting process, was something she considered a slight advantage. "In any municipality, you're always fortunate to have the admin there to back all the questions and explain all the things you do ask, and I think I could bring a little more forward in asking more questions than some of the people might be able to." To see the entire forum, visit the Whitecourt & District Chamber of Commerce Facebook page
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press