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Council approves policing committee

St. Albert city council has voted to take the next step in implementing a policing committee in the city. The first look at a new policing committee bylaw will return to council in the new year.

St. Albert city council has voted to take the next step in implementing a policing committee in the city.

The first look at a new policing committee bylaw will return to council in the new year.

Council approved guiding principles for the new committee, which will provide civilian oversight of the RCMP and the city’s municipal enforcement services, by a 6-1 vote at its Nov. 28 meeting.

The committee would replace council’s current role overseeing the municipal policing agreement with the RCMP, communicating with the officer in charge with respect to setting annual priorities and communicating public concerns. It would also appoint a public complaints director and assist in selecting the officer in charge.

While city staff had initially hoped to get the draft bylaw before council in January 2017, interim city manager Chris Jardine said that time frame could be affected depending how the province proceeds with planned oversight to municipal policing committee operations.

Council learned via email late last week that the province is looking to establish a set of oversight standards that may change the way the city’s bylaw will have to be written.

“The key difference … is around the decision and authority for setting the priorities of the RCMP, the annual priorities,” enforcement services manager Aaron Giesbrecht said.

Coun. Cathy Heron proposed, then promptly withdrew, a motion to postpone discussion on the city’s bylaw until there’s clear direction from the province.

“I’m not sure delaying the matter is going to be helpful,” Jardine said. “I don’t know that there’s going to be any answers to provide a clearer direction.”

Instead Heron successfully proposed an amendment to the motion that would incorporate the Solicitor General’s guidelines, once they’re established, into the city’s bylaw.

Coun. Bob Russell, who has taken a lead role on council in pushing for the formation of a policing committee, observed that incorporating the recommendations in the coming provincial report could mean several more months of delays.

“If you think this (Solicitor General’s) report is going to get wrapped up and brought back in a few weeks, you’re dreaming in technicolour,” he said.

But potential delays notwithstanding, council members were nearly unanimous in support of the oversight committee.

“I do think there’s value in civilian oversight with respect to policing,” Coun. Tim Osborne said.

“It’s going to be a tremendous benefit, in my opinion, to the population in general,” Coun. Sheena Hughes said.

Mayor Nolan Crouse, the only council member to vote against the committee, said he was concerned council was making this decision without understanding all the implications.

For example, he said it is unclear if the committee would be able to give direction on matters like the DARE program, or on school resource officers, or on the city’s photo radar operations.

“My concern is, quite frankly, without going through this with a really high level of understanding, we’re giving up responsibilities,” he said. “I think the buck stops with mayor and council, and that’s where we have to keep it.”

Before approving the terms of reference, which Giesbrecht first presented to council earlier this fall, councillors voted on three amendments Coun. Sheena Hughes proposed.

First, the size of the committee was reduced to nine from the 11 administration had initially proposed.

“The committee has to come to a level of consensus and agreement,” she said. Anything above nine is going to make it difficult to come to that kind of agreement.”

Second, council voted to remove administration’s recommendation that no more than one committee member have a policing background.

Hughes argued no other committee of council has that kind of “discriminatory” limit on a member’s background, and the policing committee should be no exception.

Ultimately, committee membership would be decided by council of the day, and several councillors pointed out that while a diverse committee is a good thing, any council would likely shy away from appointing too many members with similar backgrounds regardless.

“I wouldn’t want to see this committee dominated by ex RCMP,” Coun. Cam MacKay said. “Hopefully council of the day will be cognizant and take this into account.”

Lastly, council narrowly approved an amendment that would have the committee oversee not just RCMP operations, but the city’s municipal enforcement operations as well.

Hughes said she felt the two entities both provide policing services in the city, and ought to both be subject to the same kind of oversight. It would be easier, she argued, to incorporate it right from the beginning.

“It just makes sense the committee would be providing input into both areas,” she said. “I’d like to get this right the first time and not have to add on to the scope.”

Jardine cautioned council about approving this change, noting the regulatory mechanisms and the chain of command are very different between the RCMP and municipal enforcement.

“We’re concerned about a lot of confusion happening about who you take direction from,” he explained.

Currently the RCMP comprises federal employees who are accountable directly to council via the mayor via a policing agreement, whereas municipal enforcement comprises city employees who are accountable to council via the city manager.

Jardine noted it’s unclear exactly how much authority a policing committee could have over a city department like Municipal Enforcement Services, and there is uncertainty around issues like deciding who is the manager of the city’s enforcement services department.

“That can’t happen,” he said.

A draft bylaw is expected to come to council by the end of March 2017.