Little town,
big issues

A look at the province's Municipal Inspection Report
on the Town of Athabasca



Produced by Allendria Brunjes

General comments
on the report

From the province


In response to your email, I can offer the following:

The inspection report makes 29 recommendations over the broad categories of governance, administration, municipal operations, and finances.

The Minister accepted the inspectors’ conclusion that the county is managed in an improper, irregular, or improvident manner and requested council to provide written comments on the report, including council’s plans to address the issues identified in the inspection report and strategies to implement any of the recommendations.

o   Council has 45 days from the date the report (August 28, 2017) was presented to the public to submit the plan (October 12, 2017).

The Minister may issue directives if council’s plan does not adequately address matters identified in the inspection report.

Ministry staff will continue to be available to council and the chief administrative officer to provide advisory support and assistance as they require.

I hope this helps,

Jerry Ward
Public Affairs Officer
Alberta Municipal Affairs

From town officials

Tanu Evans, Town of Athabasca councillor

Coun. Steve Schafer was unavailable for comment on this piece.

Joanne Peckham, Town of Athabasca councillor

Shelly Gurba, Town of Athabasca councillor

Robert Jorgensen, Town of Athabasca CAO

The full report


Overall: Good

7.5 Overall Financial Position

Financial statements show that the Town of Athabasca is in fairly good financial condition overall. The town’s financial liabilities include over $2 million in deferred revenue from grant funding received, but not spent yet. Records from the 2016 audited financial statements indicate that the organization has relatively strong fiscal health, as follows:


Financial Assets


Financial Liabilities


Tangible Capital Assets and Inventory


Accumulated Surplus

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Roger Morrill, Town of Athabasca Mayor

Capital plan


Some capital planning efforts were observed. A 2008 Master Services Plan was completed by Associated Engineering, however, the town did not appear to fully use this plan as a guiding document. In 2016, Tagish Engineering Ltd. completed a Town of Athabasca 2016 Infrastructure Study which focused on existing infrastructure and short-term growth.

The 2016 Infrastructure Study provides recommendations in many service areas. The study also proposes a 10-year capital plan requiring annual expenditures of approximately $1,500,000 to address existing infrastructure problems and to prepare for new growth.

The plan was reviewed and accepted by council, but as of the time of the inspection there had been no solid attempt to implement the 10-year capital plan. The Outside Services Supervisor did not have a copy of the plan, but referred to a copy in the CAO’s office. Some senior operations staff were aware of the 2016 Infrastructure Study, and the utility operator had access...

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Capital plan it on his computer. The Parks Foreman indicated that he had input to the plan and although there are no recommendations in the report related to parks there is a reference to parks in an appendix section. Some community facilities were not included in the project scope of the infrastructure study, such as the fire hall and public works facility, which both appear to be nearing capacity and will likely have to be addressed at some point in the near future...

RECOMMENDATION FOR CAPITAL PLANNING: That council, in consultation with staff and the town engineers approve a comprehensive five and ten-year capital works plan to address existing infrastructure issues and new or upgraded infrastructure required for community growth.

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Tanu Evans, Town of Athabasca councillor

Council relations
and division

Aggressive comments

5.7 Council Leadership and Political Capacity

Some council members expressed concern for their well-being after receiving aggressive comments from their council colleagues during meetings, outside of council meetings, over email, and through various social media. In one locally publicized example, Councillor Peckham addressed Councillor Verhaeghe as a “little bitch” while they were outside of the town office after a meeting. Personal friendships were strained and damaged among some council members during this term when personal sentiments shared “among friends” were provided to the media. Comments shared on social media apparently posted by former council member, Nichole Adams in response to her telling the mayor to “put a leash on your dog” in reference to Councillor Verhaeghe, states that:

I completely meant every word I said and I don’t care if people think
name calling is immature...I wont be apologizing in any case. If calling him names makes
Councillor Verhaeghe storm out of the meeting I’ll be doing it a lot more,
who knew that was the answer to solving bully problems and getting rid of him. I don’t care
if I burn political capital while I do it...I’ve piled up enough of that to say burn, baby burn.

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Aggressive comments

Joanne Peckham, Town of Athabasca councillor

Tim Verhaeghe, Town of Athabasca councillor

"Offensive strikes"

5.6 Council sanctions

The back and forth actions between this divided council resembled offensive strikes between opposing camps. Further actions and events can be found throughout the council meeting minutes. Local media reported on council actions, with no shortage of dirty laundry to air. The March 15, 2016 edition of the Athabasca Advocate refers to the “Talk of the Town” on the front page of the paper with the following caption:

Over the past four meetings, the Town of Athabasca’s council has voted to disqualify the mayor and a councillor and remove them from all committees. They have voted against calling a lawyer about a staff intimidation statement – but voted in favour of publishing a letter about their own efficiency. What’s on the agenda for tonight?

Overall, the extensive council drama caused a loss of public patience and confidence in the council members that were elected and entrusted with community leadership.

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"Offensive strikes"

Tim Verhaeghe, Town of Athabasca councillor


Roger Morrill, Town of Athabasca Mayor

Tim Verhaeghe, Town of Athabasca councillor

5.3 Elections

The inspectors heard concerns from several stakeholders over allegations that Mayor Morrill and Councillor Verhaeghe did not reside in the community yet still served on town council. Both Mayor Morrill and Councillor Verhaeghe provided proof of residency to the inspectors in April 2017 with each showing a valid Alberta driver’s licence displaying an address within the Town of Athabasca.

Mayor Morrill and Councillor Verhaeghe appear to meet the rules of residence requirements in accordance with the Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA) ...

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Procedures, policies and bylaws

Policy review needed

Tanu Evans, Town of Athabasca councillor

5.21 Policies

Town of Athabasca policies need attention and a dedicated effort to promptly address irregular matters and provide municipal administration with proper standards and guidelines for service levels.

RECOMMENDATION FOR POLICY REVIEW: That the council authorize a policy review to correct irregular matters and ensure that approved town policies are consistent with the MGA, applicable trade agreements and other legislation.

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Toss the admin committee

Roger Morrill, Town of Athabasca Mayor

5.15 Council committee structure

The use of the administration committee likely contributed to a council division and apparent alignment of former CAO, Josh Pyrcz with council members on this committee, particularly in...

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early 2016. The administration committee for the town is counterproductive, poorly designed and should be discontinued. Council used a committee of the whole in previous years which met occasionally, included the “whole” council, and recorded activities with committee meeting minutes. Some municipalities use a committee of the whole to accommodate expanded deliberation on issues, such as budgets. Some officials feel that a committee of the whole is a redundant use of council time and that if the “whole” council is present, they might as well have a council meeting.

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Pecuniary interests

Roger Morrill, Town of Athabasca Mayor

5.12 Pecuniary interest

The pecuniary interest provisions in the MGA refer to the monetary effect of a council decision, which could be either positive or negative. It is appropriate for council members to seek legal counsel prior to voting or abstaining from voting on matters if they are unclear on a potential pecuniary interest matter. Legal counsel can consider the situation and advise a council member whether or not they have a pecuniary interest, or if they are required to vote on an agenda item.

It appeared that some council members did not have a solid understanding of the pecuniary interest provisions of the MGA.

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Town administration and staff

Infighting and town staff

6.4 Human resources management

Throughout the extensive actions and energy spent in the attempt to disqualify council members, the staff issue largely went unaddressed. An impossible situation developed where council was ill suited to deal with staff concerns. The majority of council didn’t want to deal with the staff concerns and didn’t support hiring an HR consultant. The staff appeals policy 300-014 obligates council members to hear the staff appeal through the Administration Committee. The result was...


organizational stress, a damaged office culture, staff resignations, and tax dollars spent in pursuit of council disqualifications, which were eventually dropped.

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RECOMMENDATION FOR HUMAN RESOURCES REVIEW: That the municipality undertake a human resources review to ensure the physical and emotional safety of all staff in their working environment.

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Melody Wolansky, former town ACAO

Human resources

Robert Jorgensen, Town of Athabasca CAO

Tim Verhaeghe, Town of Athabasca councillor

Melody Wolansky, former town ACAO


RECOMMENDATION FOR HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT: That the municipality engage qualified HR expertise to undertake an HR policy review, create an updated personnel policy and employee handbook to ensure consistency and appropriateness in managing staff

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Admin committee & staff

Roger Morrill, Town of Athabasca Mayor

5.21 Policies

The Administration Committee was made up of council members, and this staff appeal policy enables staff to make their concerns political. This policy circumvents the CAO, as the administrative head of the organization, and interrupts proper organizational order as it allows staff to appeal to their boss’s bosses. The policy places contentious and sensitive HR matters at the feet of council members. This is an improper practice which contravenes the MGA s. 201 and policy 300-014 should be rescinded. If there is a local desire to implement a staff appeal process, the new policy should refer to engaged dispute resolution resources and qualified, objective professionals to hear appeals.

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Services and facilities

Fire department

5.20 Bylaws

Contrary to position appointments outlined in the town bylaw, an internal system of officer elections was in place within the town of Athabasca fire department.

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Athabasca does not have a Quality Management Plan in place for fire services under the Safety Codes Act and therefore the provincial office of the Fire Commissioner would undertake fire inspections and enforce Safety Code provisions. The volunteer nature of the department also presents resource capacity limits and it appears that this section of the bylaw may be better suited for a municipality with some full-time department officers.

RECOMMENDATION FOR FIRE SERVICES REVIEW: That the council authorize a review of the fire services bylaw and fire department operational policies to ensure alignment and appropriateness.

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Robert Jorgensen, Town of Athabasca CAO

Travis Shalapay, Athabasca fire chief

Peace officer

6.4 Human resource management

Athabasca’s Peace Officer Program struggled from a lack of clearly defined and consistent priorities. Some confusion appeared to stem from multiple CAO changes over the past two years where each CAO brought a slightly different vision for the peace officer program. A lack of consistent direction and management oversight appeared to contribute to a fairly self-directed peace officer program.

RECOMMENDATION FOR PEACE OFFICER SERVICES: That council establish peace officer program priorities and service levels; and that the CAO provide guidance and oversight to ensure that a robust peace officer program exists in the community.

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Robert Jorgensen, Town of Athabasca CAO

Joanne Peckham, Town of Athabasca councillor


7.7 Facility management

Despite delegating local facility responsibilities to a formal society, some funding shortfalls and emergency expenses are still covered, or requested to be funded by the town. For example, on May 17, 2016 town council approved funding for arena netting and a hot water tank purchase for the multiplex society. Some stakeholders expressed concerns over the lack of reserve funding within the society’s financial picture. The current funding arrangement may not be sustainable and should be reviewed to ensure long-term viability and equity among all contributing partners of the Athabasca Regional Multiplex Society.

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Tanu Evans, Town of Athabasca councillor

Pool design committee

 5.15 Committee structure

An irregular matter was identified where some committees were in place without an authorizing bylaw to establish their function, such as the pool design committee, FCSS board, communications committee, and administration committee.

Various council appointments may contain some historical remnants of past practices. It is necessary to conduct a ‘refresh’ and review all council appointments to ensure appropriateness due to the passage of time and application of best practices.

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7.7 Facility management

Most recently, the society has managed the process of design and construction for a proposed new regional pool which was still in the preliminary stages during the time of this report. Through the society, the Town of Athabasca and Athabasca County entered into a cost-sharing agreement for the construction of a new aquatic center at the site of the existing Multiplex and new High School. Each municipality committed $5,000,000 to the project, totalling $10,000,000.

Group2 Architecture Interior Design was retained and are currently finalizing the design of the pool, under the direction of a pool design committee. A concept plan was available on the town and county websites, as shown below. The final cost of the pool was estimated between $10 to $15 million, and officials were considering options such as grant funding and sponsorship in an effort to fund the gap.

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Tanu Evans, Town of Athabasca councillor