Members of Ashcroft council in December 2014. (from l) Al Mertens

Members of Ashcroft council in December 2014. (from l) Al Mertens

Former councillor speaks out

Al Mertens feels it's better for the village of Ashcroft that he take his leave of council.

Acknowledging that he is somewhat sad about now being on the outside looking in, former Ashcroft councillor Al Mertens—who resigned his seat on June 16—says he feels it was the appropriate time to say goodbye. “Overall it wasn’t working for me. It’s better for the village and the process if we had our own separation.”

Mertens’s resignation came as a surprise to his fellow council members, who had had no indication that he was contemplating it. In a lengthy conversation with The Journal, Mertens said that he had had several concerns which led to him taking the decision to resign.

The budget process was one of his main concerns. “I wasn’t at all happy with the amount of effort that council put into critiquing this year’s budget. We were presented with numbers, as I recall, and asked to come up with a tax increase, and after that there was no look at alternatives. With the advent of an increase in utility rates, and property charges for the fire truck, and the upcoming possibility of taxes being increased for the water treatment plant, I felt we could have done more to alleviate the tax burden or get more for the money we collected.”

He acknowledges that he did not speak to anyone about his concerns, preferring to wait and see if there was any more discussion. “I believe there should have been more meetings, but I didn’t ask for another one, as I didn’t feel that was my role. Perhaps I was naive, but I don’t fully understand how it should be the role of one councillor to question where we’re at. I don’t believe in going to administration individually.”

He also felt that there was not enough public consultation over the budget. “The [public] presentation [of the budget] at the community hall was a done deal, in my mind, at that point.”

He also voiced his concern over the village’s continued use of consulting firm Urban Systems in relation to the proposed new water treatment plant. “Previous council sanctioned that a water master plan be prepared, and Urban Systems was asked to do it. The plan was generated and accepted by the previous council, and Urban did the grant application on behalf of the village. We then went from getting the grant to Urban Systems being consulted on the development of the water treatment plant.

“I asked the facilitator of our strategic planning session if we could go elsewhere for advice, or reconsider the plant development, and was told that it’s standard business practice to go with the firm that got you the grant. To my mind that short circuits the process, which people ask me about. Where were the competitive bids?”

As for the design of the proposed new plant, Mertens feels council was given few options other than sand or membrane filtration, and there was a lot of back-and-forthing on the location. “I wasn’t comfortable with the process. I felt there needed to be far more questions asked of different people involved in the process. I also felt that as a council we were too naive, or not knowledgeable enough to know how to deal with the process as it progressed, and were too accepting. We needed to have far more discussion to see if we were doing the right thing for the right money.”

Mertens feels that as a council, there were too few times they worked in a diligent fashion. “We responded to issues, we voted on issues, but we never sat and worked out what vision we were working towards. I don’t see a plan for the future here, and don’t feel we have been given any real tasks to accomplish.” When asked about the strategic planning session he mentioned, and what came from that, he is dismissive. “Nothing of great consequence came from it. In my mind we’re just treading water.”

Ashcroft Mayor Jack Jeyes was contacted, and says that as far as he is concerned, most members of council took it upon themselves to query staff in order to make themselves comfortable about what was being proposed in the budget. “There was also ample opportunity for council as a whole to ask questions during the budget meetings. It’s fine to feel it’s not an individual councillor’s role to ask questions one-on-one, but it is each councillor’s role to ask questions. In order to ensure you’re going to get an answer, it’s best to go to staff and ask questions so they can bring an answer to the next meeting.”

Jeyes noted that in his opinion, this year’s budget does a good deal to get value for money, with a large number of projects approved. He adds “The majority of the projects to be done this year will provide long-term savings in costs.”

He says that every year the village holds town hall meetings where residents are invited to come and provide input on projects they would like to see and ask questions about what has been proposed. “That way, when the public budget meeting is called there has been considerable input by all involved: residents, council, and staff.”

Mertens was quoted in Kamloops This Week as feeling that council “always has to be on board”, which pushed him further than he was comfortable with and led to tension. Jeyes notes that there have been several times when different members of council have been in opposition to something, but adds that “We always try to work towards a consensus. At the end of the day a decision has to be made and we move forward.”

When asked about the village’s continuing use of Urban Systems in the water treatment plant process, Jeyes says that while it is standard business practice to go with the firm that got the grant, that was not the main reason Urban was chosen to help with development of the plant. “It was more a case of Urban Systems’ familiarization with our [water] system. If we had gone to another consulting firm we would have had to start from day one again.

“We got a letter from Urban saying what their costs would be. I trust staff to do their homework and make sure the fees are in line with standard practices. Urban Systems also has a demonstrated expertise to carry out the necessary work.”

Jeyes notes that the contract for construction of the water treatment plant will be put out to public tender, and that Urban Systems will stay on as project engineers because they will ensure compliance with contract standards and documents. “We don’t have the in-house expertise for that, which is why we contract it out.”

He adds that many other communities have an engineering firm of record, who are the first people they go to when they need something of this nature done.

As for not being given other options for the plant beyond sand and membrane filtration, Jeyes says there are none, other than a slow sand system, which was dismissed right away as not meeting the village’s needs. “We were given options as to where the building would be situated, and what type of plant we would need. Our initial thoughts were that the membrane system would be way more expensive, but when the analysis was completed it was in the ballpark with sand, and there would be lower ongoing operation and operator costs. It’s also a simpler system to manage.”

He feels that there was ample consultation, and opportunities for council to ask questions. “There were meetings with Urban Systems, and we visited the two types of plants. Council and staff were presented with ample opportunities to see both systems in action and ask questions of engineers, and the system staff and managers.

“It’s staff’s job to ensure we have the information to make decisions. In this case staff and engineers provided, in my estimation, sufficient information for council to make a decision and ample opportunities to ask questions.”

When asked about Mertens’s opinion that council does not have a plan for the future, Jeyes says he disagrees. “Council has worked diligently to develop a strategic plan which has short, medium, and long-term goals. It’s a living document that addresses the reality that there are things we need to do, but we can’t do it all at once.” Jeyes also notes that, after discussion with staff, he recommended that funds in this year’s budget be put towards economic development to position Ashcroft for the future.

Among the projects being worked on is a land bank, which will give prospective investors a list of all the available land within the village, how it is zoned, and what services it has. He adds that work has started on upgrading the village’s Official Community Plan and development bylaws in order to bring it up to date so development of the mesa land can progress in an organized fashion.

Jeyes is sorry that Mertens felt he could not stay on council to effect the changes he feels are necessary. “But council has to be able to reach consensus in order to move forward.”

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