What’s going on in Sylvan?

Sylvan Lake Mayor Susan Samson wants to reassure the 12,000 people in her community that the administrative change her council has initiated is for the better.

Sylvan Lake Mayor Susan Samson wants to reassure the 12,000 people in her community that the administrative change her council has initiated is for the better.

She wants questions about the abrupt dismissal of chief administrative officer Helen Dietz in late March to be washed away by her contention that the town is well managed and well positioned for future growth. A strong municipal sustainability plan is in place, she says, as is a strategic plan. And she wants Sylvan voters to know that the town is in “excellent financial shape,” with significant reserves. She wants people to focus on the major community projects the town has initiated ($30 million was spent last year).

In short, she wants people to reflect on the good work that Dietz had a major hand in creating or guiding over 10 years with the town, eight as CAO. And, in essence, Samson is telling voters that it was a good time to make a change in management direction precisely because Dietz’s management was so successful.

For the people of Sylvan Lake, that kind of logic can only be perplexing — and costly.

And the costs, and questions, are piling up.

In late February, the town announced that it was eliminating the position of assistant chief administrative officer Myron Thompson, and would not fill the vacant protective services position. A new information technology position was created.

In the long term, streamlining operations can save money, if streamlining isn’t shorthand for creating new inefficiencies.

But in the shorter term, parting ways with Dietz will cost the town 21 months of pay, or slightly more than $229,000, plus outstanding wages and vacation pay. No doubt, Thompson received a similar settlement package, pushing the total housecleaning expenditure to revamp the town’s administrative staff to well over $300,000.

In late January, the town set its 2010 operating budget at $20 million by increasing tax rates by three per cent. That three per cent will generate $300,000, which was destined for future infrastructure projects.

So the equivalent of the additional taxes that Sylvan ratepayers will be asked to pay this year will go to departing administrative staff.

All of this falls on the heels of a review conducted by Edmonton-based consultants Beacon for Change Inc. The review was completed last November and recommended administrative, technological and organizational changes. Those are the kind of changes, when done right, that can improve the delivery of services.

But there are those in the community, including one member of council, who believe Dietz was effectively delivering services. “She has done exactly what council has directed her to do,” Councillor Lynda Sills Fiedler said last month of Dietz.

The rest of council disagreed, and opted to remove Dietz without cause — and without public discourse.

For the average voter, this is governance at its most unsettling: poorly explained decisions that cost taxpayers, followed by hollow reassurances that all is well.

That same puzzled voter should take heart that a municipal election is only six months away, and hard questions can be asked of incumbents during the campaign.

But that may not be soon enough or effective enough. Perhaps it’s time for Alberta Municipal Affairs to ask some of those hard questions on behalf of the citizens. All it takes to start that process is a petition from citizens.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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