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Councillor emails cause concern

St. Albert Coun. Bob Russell concedes sending emails threatening and criticizing staff members is a breach of the Council Members' Code of Conduct, but is unapologetic about it. The most recent criticism came following a council debate Aug.
St. Albert Place is shown in this photo. A threatening email from a councillor to a staff member has sparked a controversy at city hall.
City councillors have signed off on creating a seniors advisory committee.

St. Albert Coun. Bob Russell concedes sending emails threatening and criticizing staff members is a breach of the Council Members' Code of Conduct, but is unapologetic about it.

The most recent criticism came following a council debate Aug. 22 about Russell's defeated motion to halt work on a joint servicing study with Sturgeon County.

Russell sent an email the next morning taking issue with an answer chief community development officer Gilles Prefontaine gave at the meeting, which he said made it sound like Russell had been misleading council.

“This is not the first time you have made such a comment,” Russell wrote. “Better not happen again or you will lend (sic) up wearing one of my crutches in a very uncomfortable position.”

Coun. Tim Osborne had asked whether work on the joint boundary growth study had already begun – Prefontaine confirmed it had, and suggested Russell may have been referring to something else.

Russell was correct that there is money budgeted for 2017-2019 for this project, but discussion has already begun with the boundary growth study announced in January 2016. The two communities announced Feb. 29 the project was moving forward under the Intermunicipal Affairs Committee, in which the county and city discuss areas of mutual interest.

Interim city manager Chris Jardine confirmed Friday the money budgeted was allotted to cover both the joint boundary growth study and the joint servicing study, but isn't necessarily going to be spent without further direction from council. It is next slated for discussion at council's Sept. 12 meeting.

Russell said he felt the response from Prefontaine was incomplete, implying Russell's figures were wrong.

“This is perhaps a bit nit-picky on my part, but I thought nevertheless when somebody questions you about a program where my figures were clearly correct, he could have been more explicit,” Russell explained.

The council code of conduct says city councillors are to direct any concerns they have with city staff to the city manager.

The Council Members' Code of Conduct standard 6.c. states: “Any Council members' comments on unsatisfactory staff performance will be directed to the City Manager. Council members will also avoid public comment on unsatisfactory staff performance.”

Some councillors have been at odds with Prefontaine since he resigned his position on council last year to take a general-manager-level job with the city. He was on a committee overseeing former city manager Patrick Draper's evaluation when he was hired. Russell won the byelection to replace him.

Russell described the email as “out of character” for himself, but said he was frustrated with the response Prefontaine gave to Osborne's question.

Mayor Nolan Crouse described Russell's most recent email as “inappropriate,” but said it's keeping in line with a well-established pattern. He forwarded several more emails and a blog post to the St. Albert Gazette that he said “crossed the line.”

In an email to the mayor on Sept. 3, 2015 Russell takes issue with comments from Draper apparently made in council implying Russell was mistaken about a development issue.

“I did not appreciate Draper insinuating that I didn't know what I was talking about,” he wrote. “Next time he gets both barrels … in public.”

In a blog post to on Sept. 23, 2015 Russell refers to hiring Prefontaine as a “joke” saying he lacked the credentials and experience, and indicates engineers have left the department because of his hiring.

In a Nov. 19, 2015 email to Crouse with the subject line, “Library,” Russell says the mayor “must be related to that bimbo” who wrote a letter to the Gazette.

Russell then adds to Crouse: “I've tried to work with you since being elected but this sleezy (sic) act by you just ended any cooperation. Keep you (sic) head up from now on.”

In another email to the mayor March 24, 2016, Russell demands Crouse suspend Draper in relation to a complaint he made to the RCMP about Russell's use of the word ‘illicit' to describe Prefontaine's hiring.

Finally in an email to a resident May 18, 2016 which was forwarded to Crouse, Russell takes aim at economic development executive director Guy Boston's travel and spending, and initiatives that provide city funding to events such as the $40,000 grant to the Seven Music Fest.

“I swear that if I run and get re-elected that I will do everything to put a stop to people with their hands up to their armpits in the taxpayers cockie (sic) jar,” Russell wrote.

Russell said many of the problems relate to the former city manager (Patrick Draper) before he left the city, and go back well before Russell was elected to council. But Russell conceded the emails in question aren't appropriate under normal circumstances.

“Over the long term, under normal circumstances, no. But I'm arguing these are not normal circumstances,” he said. “I have not got along with Mr. Prefontaine. He has not treated me with respect since I've been elected.”

And the issue doesn't appear to be limited to Russell. In a Sept. 30, 2015, email to another staff member organizing one-on-one interviews to discuss council priorities, Coun. Cam MacKay was blunt in his criticism of Prefontaine.

“I can barely stand to look at Prefontaine,” he wrote. “Every time I see him I think of how he turned his back on the public for personal gain, if he is present I may not attend.”

MacKay said he doesn't see this as a breach of the code of conduct because he believed he was providing confidential feedback. He expressed concern Crouse had forwarded confidential communications to the St. Albert Gazette in spite of privacy legislation he believes should have prevented it.

In an email to the Gazette early Friday morning, MacKay said he planned to take several actions against Crouse as a result of the alleged breach, including; filing a complaint with the information and privacy commissioner, considering civil legal action and reporting the matter to Municipal Affairs.

“The fact this (privacy legislation) wasn't followed, to me, shows a dangerous trend at city hall where at the mayor's whim rules are followed or not, depending on his particular point of view of the day,” MacKay said.

He reaffirmed his criticism to the Gazette, suggesting that using one's position as a councillor – in this case, Prefontaine – to get employment with the city was a clear violation of the code of conduct.

“You see political points attempted to be gained, rather than dealing with council as colleagues,” MacKay said.

For his part, Crouse explained he believes councillors' email addresses are paid for by the public, and should be treated as public.

“Your emails are public documents,” he said. “They're not cavalier, or they shouldn't be cavalier.”

But he noted the code of conduct does not actually include any consequences, something that councillors expressed an interest in changing at the same Aug. 22 council meeting.

“The irony's not lost,” Crouse said. “It's just fascinating.”

Prefontaine declined to comment on the comments made about him in the emails, or the ongoing criticism from councillors, referring the matter instead to Jardine.

Jardine explained that the city manager has an obligation to both council and the administrative staff working under him. He confirmed he had spoken to Russell about the issue, but would not elaborate.

“That's an in-house thing,” he said.

He also said typically, councillors should direct criticism and concerns about staff through the city manager. When councillors raise concerns directly with city staff it can have a negative effect on the organization, but described the current situation as “manageable.”

“If this is something that is extremely pervasive and very acrimonial on a long-standing basis, can that have an impact on our ability to work together and advance where council wants to go, absolutely it can,” Jardine said. “Do I think we're in that position? No I don't.”