Frustrated with what they see as a lack of communication between Hay River Town Council and its citizens, a number of local residents have decided to take matters into their own hands.
Approximately 35 people were in attendance at the Hay River Community Hall on Dec. 15 at a meeting designed to lay the groundwork for the Hay River Ratepayers Association. The association would represent ratepayers – citizens who pay taxes – on a number of issues, including property assessments and taxation; the level of municipal services; zoning and land use; and other issues that are deemed relevant by a majority of the group’s members. It was formerly registered as a society by Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen, Kandis Jameson, former town councillor Sandra Lester, Brian Lefebvre and current town councillor Bernie Langille.
Beatrice Lepine, a former town councillor, said other ratepayers associations have been successful in improving communication between the community and town council, which Lepine said was currently nothing more than a “rubber stamp organization.”
“Some of them are asleep at the switch,” Lepine said of the councillors.
Corridor Ratepayers Association president Lisa Smith said councillors feel pressured to make decisions quickly. She said many bylaws, including the fire prevention bylaw, were rushed to approval without any serious discussion.
“They’re not given proper time for information to be digested,” Smith alleged, suggesting the process needs to be slowed down. Smith had been invited to sit on the panel by Lefebvre, who explained there are on-going discussions to merge the two associations.
Lester agreed, saying councillors seem to be making snap decisions on bylaws that “seem to be offending everyone.”
“If they don’t know what they’re voting for, don’t vote for it,” she suggested.
Old Town resident Warren Gibb said he was “half-assed” upset that he had to attend a meeting about improving communication between the Town, its administration and its citizens, but admitted there was a need. He said the local economy is struggling so much that his two sons have moved away, and won’t be moving back because they don’t see a future here.
“That worries me,” he said. “Everybody I talk to it’s all negative Nancy out there on the street.”
Other residents said the association should work with the town to find productive ways to improve communication between administration and residents.
“I think we should try to be as positive as possible,” Wayne Keefe said. “We should work with the town, but not against them.”
Groenewegen agreed, saying she had observed a “lack of understanding” by the council and mayor on the process involved.
“Do we have some serious dysfunction? Yes, we do. Is it affecting our community negatively? Yes, it is. That’s why, in a very positive way, we need to come together to bring some order and some straightening out of that situation,” she said. “I really want to see us move forward in a really positive way, as long as we can be. I think that will be viewed … in a better way by the mayor and council, and administration. It may come to an impasse. It may come to a showdown. You guys know me – I’m all about a fight if there’s a fight to be had. Let’s not start there. Let’s start with some positive – bringing people together.”
While she was integral in the group’s founding, Groenewegen said she won’t be involved in an official capacity with the association in the future.
“I see, in my role as MLA, that there might come a point in time where I may need to respond to the ratepayers’ association in some fashion, or may need to respond to the town in some fashion,” she said of her decision.
Some of this in attendance raised issue with the association’s eligibility to be a voting member. Under its constitution, only ratepayers who live or work in Hay River would be able to vote. Non-ratepayers who live or work in the community could join as associate members, but would be unable to vote on any matter.
Harvey Werner, who has lived in Hay River for 19 years, raised issue with that condition, saying seniors should still retain the right to vote on association matters if they are a member.
“A person should not be eliminated from this association because they’re retired,” he said. “I think they’ve paid their dues over the time.”
Lester said she admired Werner’s quest to improve the community, but reminded him that the association had been founded to represent the town’s ratepayers.
“I can’t belong to an engineers’ association, because I’m not an engineer,” she said. “I think that’s one thing you have to look at here.”
Hay River Mayor Kelly Schofield, who did not attend the meeting, said he welcomed the creation of the association.
“I hope this is a process that will streamline the priorities of Hay River residents.”
Lefebvre, who regularly attends council meetings, said he had witnessed conduct “not-becoming of those who sit in the chairs.”
“It never ceases to amaze me what I see,” he said. “It’s deplorable.”
The town’s decision to hold off on talks with Paradise Valley residents until the new year sends the wrong message, Lefebvre said. He said the new association would work with those residents to encourage them not to make any “rash decisions”.
“We do not want them to go. We want them to be members of our community,” he said. “Maybe the message they’re getting from the mayor and council is that they don’t care. But you know what? We do. We care.”
An annual general meeting is planned for sometime in January. Groenewegen encouraged those in attendance to recruit more residents to join the association.
“There still is a good future in Hay River,” she said. “Take back our town!”