Monday's vote by city councillors on whether or not to start a city-owned utility corporation is shaping up to be one of the most important decisions this council has faced so far.
The subject has proved a contentious one for residents, many of whom have expressed deep concerns with the proposal. Some of those concerns include: flaws in the business plan; the speed at which this seems to be moving forward; and the impact it could have on the business community, driving out competition if it succeeds.
Councillors could consider several options at Monday's meeting, and will no doubt have to weigh the urgency of finding a new funding source against the risk, including the cost of failure. While they will likely be asked by administration to vote yes or no on a bylaw to establish the MUC, councillors can put forward a different motion if they choose – they could, for example, move to postpone their decision and have the business plan reviewed by a panel of arms-length experts. They could even decide, as several residents have suggested so far, to put the issue to a plebiscite vote.
Regarding the preliminary business plan, there's no doubt consulting firm Grant Thornton did its job according to the task it was given: that is, to develop a plan supporting the creation of an MUC. Therein lies the flaw: objectivity has taken a back seat to a mandate (as specified in the project tender) to support the creation of an MUC. The resulting document, as with any report, cannot be above scrutiny. The mayor has said publicly she’s relying on expert advice over that of the public. The front page of today’s Gazette features two experts who raise serious doubts about the proposed MUC’s viability. The mayor and council should take heed.
As far as the prospect of a plebiscite goes, past plebiscites have shown the difficulty in putting a complex issue to residents in a clear and simple manner that gives voters the details they need to cast an informed vote. Results can be interpreted different ways by different councillors, depending on the wording of the question. But with a carefully crafted and balanced information campaign, which needs to include the risks that the city is refusing to disclose, the city could prepare residents for such a vote. A plebiscite may give council a clear mandate forward on this, or direction to drop the idea entirely.
If councillors agree with residents that the business plan leaves too many unanswered questions, is flawed or is incomplete, they could seek out a panel of independent experts to review the plan. Such a panel would give residents the reassurance that due diligence is being done. This panel could identify issues with the plan before they arise and provide a level of oversight that is currently lacking.
Either of these options – panel or plebiscite – would be more responsible than taking the MUC to a vote on Monday. This subject requires more study. It deserves a deeper look and it should not be rushed. St. Albertans deserve to know what they’re getting into – after all, they’re the ones footing the bill.