County of Stettler spent thousands on partisan events

County of Stettler spent $6,540 in violation of election financing rules on partisan Tory events over nearly a decade, according to an internal investigation.

County of Stettler spent $6,540 in violation of election financing rules on partisan Tory events over nearly a decade, according to an internal investigation.

The municipality went back through its books last month after Wildrose Party justice critic Shayne Saskiw called for an Elections Alberta investigation of the county for possible rules violations.

It was alleged that documents provided under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act suggested county staffers may have done work for the Progressive Conservative Party on county time.

In one case, an email was sent drawing attention to a Facebook page by then-local MLA Jack Hayden. In another incident, it was alleged a county worker put up election signs for the Tories while on the job.

“There was no evidence to suggest that either of those activities have or are currently taking place,” says county chief administrative officer Tim Fox in a statement issued on Friday.

In reviewing documents dating back nearly a decade, the county did find that $3,440 was paid out to councillors to attend “politically associated” events and another $3,100 was reimbursed to staff.

Reeve Wayne Nixon said the practice was stopped when the last council came to power in 2010.

Nixon said at the time the political events were seen as useful opportunities to press government leaders for funding and other issues of local concern.

“We just looked at it as the cost of doing business at that time,” he said, noting the county depends on government grants for many of its projects.

The amount of money doled out is small considering hiring a lobbyist would have cost in the tens of thousands, he said.

Nixon said county politicians and staffers are free to continue to attend party events, but now they pay their own way.

“In the long run it leads to less confusion and less finger pointing.”

Nixon remains frustrated by the amount of time and effort that went into what he calls little more than a “witch hunt” by the Wild Rose Party.

He sent letters to local MLA Rick Strankman and Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith calling the freedom of information requests a “waste of time” and they would better serve constituents by doing something constructive.

Strankman and Saskiw could not be reached for comment on Monday.

The use of municipal dollars for attending political party events has come up before around Alberta.

In February, the towns of Rimbey and Sylvan Lake were been identified as making illegal campaign donations in a report posted by Elections Alberta.

Sylvan Lake was singled out in the report posted for making a direct contribution of $640 to the Innisfail-Sylvan Lake Progressive Conservative Constituency Association by waiving a rental fee for a party event.

Elections Alberta issued a $160 administrative penalty against the town and the constituency association was ordered to repay the $640.

The donation was made in error, the town said.

In Rimbey’s case, indirect contributions of $850 were made when two tickets to the premier’s fundraising dinner in Edmonton were reimbursed in May 2010. Under Elections Alberta rules, any reimbursement over $25 is considered an indirect contribution.

Rimbey had earlier refunded money that was reimbursed to members of council and staff for attending Tory events. The payouts had been an oversight, the town said.

A $212.50 administrative penalty was issued to the town and the Progressive Conservative Party was ordered to return the contribution.

In all, chief electoral officer Brian Fjeldheim’s investigation uncovered 45 cases of illegal contributions, all involving either the Tory party or one of its constituency associations.

Total donations were more than $20,000, with the largest contribution coming from the Town of Okotoks at $2,550.

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