Those tuning in virtually to a recent St. Albert city council meeting would have missed a motion to increase funding to the city’s St. Albert Trail project by $2.05 million, because the motion was not streamed online.
During their June 20 meeting, city council went in camera to discuss “funding options for transportation capital projects.” When council came out of camera to vote on an ensuing motion to increase funding for the St. Albert Trail widening, however, that portion of the meeting was not included in the YouTube live-stream.
Cory Sinclair, a spokesperson for the city, said in an email that the June 20 meeting “was supposed to be live-streamed right up to the public motion, and we made arrangements to do so.”
“Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding, and the live-stream was ended when council went in camera and was not restarted when they came out,” Sinclair said in the email.
Currently, the city has a policy to stream all council meetings online, in addition to allowing in-person attendance. Councillors are also allowed to attend council meetings virtually or in person.
When addressing the return to in-person council meetings earlier in February, city spokesperson Alex Cunningham said virtual access to council meetings would continue to be available.
"Virtual formats allow individuals at higher risk or those who are sick an alternative to attend council meetings,” Cunningham said.
Council members reached by The Gazette said they were not aware the last public portion of the council meeting was not streamed online.
“We don’t really know if the cameras are rolling,” Coun. Shelley Biermanski said, noting that council made the motion to increase the funding in public, in person.
More funding for St. Albert Trail
The additional $2.05-million project increase to the second phase of the widening — which expands the widening north of Coal Mine Road to north of Everitt Drive — will be drawn from the project’s existing $26-million borrowing bylaw.
Dean Schick, St. Albert’s transportation manager, said in an email that the city requested additional funding because the tendered cost for finishing the second phase of the widening project ended up being higher than what was initially approved.
“When the original budget request was made, the value was based off design estimates and the phase two construction tender process had not yet closed,” Schick said in the email. “The construction of phase two work has resulted in higher-than-estimated costs, and the additional funding addresses the costs needed to move forward with phase two and is inclusive of project contingency.”
Asked about the increase in an interview, Coun. Natalie Joly said she can only discuss what is in the public record, but cited widespread inflation as a general reason.
“At a high level I can say that we are all noticing the changes in pricing right now,” Joly said. “You go to the grocery store and where a loaf of bread was maybe $3 … we’re now looking at $5 and the gas prices are twice what they were a year ago.”
Coun. Sheena Hughes initially voted against going in camera to discuss the budget increase before council returned to meeting in public.
Reasons for holding the initial discussion in private cited in council’s agenda package included discussing plans for the administration of a public body that have not yet been implemented; planning information which could result in disclosure of a budget decision; and information that, if disclosed, could result in financial loss, harm the competitive position of, or interfere with the city’s negotiations.
The above reasons are protected under Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) Act.
In an interview, Hughes said this was because she believes budget discussions should be held in the open.
“In my opinion, a budget debate of this nature needed to be public,” Hughes said.
When asked to give reasons why council went in camera for the discussion, Joly cited the reasons administration had outlined as protected under the FOIP act.
Widening budget continues to increase
Council previously approved a $5.5-million top-up for the St. Albert trail widening project on April 19. At that time, administration said the increase ($4.2 million plus contingency) was largely due to tweaking the road’s alignment to support future LRT plans.
The city’s currently approved borrowing bylaw of $26 million for the project has reached its ceiling at phase two, despite previous plans which pegged it covering the full project’s cost.
Phase three — which spans from north of Everitt Drive North, to north of Neil Ross Road — will now require additional funds. In April, Schick said this phase would cost around $13 million.
“It’s going to require another borrowing bylaw,” Hughes said.
Hughes considers change to borrowing process
Currently, St. Albert city council can approve a borrowing bylaw for a project before seeing the detailed design, meaning projects are often approved by their cost estimates.
Hughes said she is looking to put forward a motion in the future aiming to address potential future increases to project budgets by making it so borrowing bylaws cannot be approved until council sees the detailed design and full cost estimate for a project.
Approving the detailed design before approving a borrowing bylaw would allow council to change projects to reduce the costs before the project has begun, Hughes said.
“This event has precipitated the need for us to reflect and make changes to be proactive in the future,” Hughes said of the St. Albert trail increases, though she noted council would not have been able to predict the current levels of inflation. “We can’t change what’s happened, but we can change what we’re going to do going forward.”