Monday's vote to spike the plan for a city utility corporation (MUC) was a tough one for some members of city council, but it was the right decision to make. Residents made it clear they had grave concerns about the viability of the business plan and were not prepared to move forward, at least without a much more thorough analysis and disclosure of the risks.
The pages of the Gazette have been filled with articles and letters on the utility corporation where residents and experts have offered their perspectives. We cast a wide net for experts, people familiar with St. Albert's utility system and residents with relevant business experience to understand what such a venture, based on the details that have been publicly released, could mean for the city. Those who spoke with us spoke with one voice: a voice of concern. Many of them took the time to speak or write to city councillors, as well. While we received letters supportive of waste-to-energy efforts, we received none supporting the MUC.
Concerns ranged from caution about proceeding too quickly to outrage at the prospect of a municipality competing with private business for services such as commercial garbage pick-up, utility inspections and consulting. Certain parts of the business plan posed a concern for some people; the entire plan posed a concern for others.
Residents weren't the only ones with misgivings. On Monday, some members of city council reflected those reservations in their own comments. The reservations proved great enough that councillors defeated the motion to move ahead with the MUC by a 4-3 vote. Mayor Cathy Heron and Councillors Wes Brodhead and Natalie Joly supported the motion by Brodhead and were opposed by Councillors Jacquie Hansen, Sheena Hughes, Ken MacKay and Ray Watkins.
The decision not to move ahead with the MUC means the City’s waste-to-energy pilot is set to proceed under the municipality instead of a stand-alone corporation. Last week Mayor Heron announced that project has recently secured a home at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. St. Albert hasn't announced any private partners, yet, but councillors approved up to $1 million in capital costs to get the approximately $4-million facility up and running. The lion's share of the capital cost would be borne by the aforementioned private partner. The city hasn't released any information about operating costs.
As bitter as Monday's decision may have been for some, at least one lesson can be taken away from it. And it’s not like we haven’t been here before. Last election’s library plebiscite and the west bypass road election of 2000, when voters replaced an entire council, come to mind as examples of a council getting out-of-sync with voters. St. Albert is blessed with a highly educated and engaged citizenry that expects to be consulted when council is contemplating major decisions. Do not underestimate the value of being open and forthright with them.