By Chris Marchand
In his 11 years on Dryden City Council, Brian Collins says he has never experienced a level of tension anywhere close to what he feels in council chambers these days.
While they may not agree on much, councillors seem united in frustration at the inability to effectively communicate anything to a concerned public — much of the back story to these troubles legally bound in secrecy — originating in closed meetings beyond the reach of public scrutiny.
While the full story will remain undisclosed, it is clear from all accounts that these are delicate, critically important times for the City of Dryden.
“The next six to eight weeks will set the stage for not only this year, but lay the groundwork for the future of the City of Dryden,” said city manager Joe van Koeverden.
Van Koeverden himself could be at the centre of the divide in council — his recent -budget preparation report inspiring open derision in last week’s regular meeting from councillor Mike Wood, who resigned his post this past December and will vacate his seat in the coming days.
When asked to elaborate, Wood says he could only speak for himself.
“The way the city works is, there’s a council and a city manager,” said Wood. “It is the staff’s responsibility through the city manager to provide options for council to review. Council reviews it, asks questions makes decisions and provides direction. It’s not the city manager leading the corporation, his job is to carry out the will of council — that’s an important distinction.”
Dryden’s Mayor Craig Nuttall says he’s thinks the city does far too much behind closed doors, adding that this city council was admonished by voters in the 2010 election campaign about the need for greater transparency and communication with the public.
On Jan. 18, Mayor Craig Nuttall says he and councillors Ken Moss and Martin MacKinnon refused to attend a closed session of council.
“One of the things that really disturbs me is that there are so many closed meetings,” said Nuttall. “There was a closed meeting lately that myself and two councillors did not attend because we did not like the direction that those other four councillors were doing. It was a vigilante-type meeting as far as I’m concerned.”
Following a particularly difficult budget process, Nuttall says council is split over the direction of the city should take in the face of new formidable challenges — notably a significant revenue shortfall owing to large industrial tax reassessment and underperforming business assets.
“I’m concerned that Dryden has a large debt — we have to pay $2 million a year just in interest,” said Nuttall. “It seems that some of these councillors are not concerned about that. Some of those councillors have a personal agenda and have not even been in my office to talk to me and discuss some of the concerns. “
Nuttall says he’d like to update the community on DMTS.
“Before I was elected a lot of people said to me, ‘why is there so much in-camera? Why can’t we know what’s going on?’”, said Nuttall. “It’s my personal opinion that the city should publish all the financial statements from all departments — that includes DMTS. Some of the councillors are saying ‘the competition might see this’ — the competition already knows what we’re doing. They’re not stupid. Domtar publishes their financial statements to their shareholders. Dryden citizens are shareholders in DMTS. It’s my opinion that before we do anything with DMTS, we should have a public meeting.”
Wood says that closed meetings are essential in discussions surrounding the telephone service.
“When anxiety is high it’s difficult to relax and trust that the right things are being done,” he says. “I get that, I understand that. But discussing strategy in open forum is just not appropriate. Our goal and our responsibility as a council is to protect the value of the asset and the revenue it generates.”
Moving forward, councillors like Brian Collins are hopeful that councillors will remain willing to work together to find common ground on the issues before them.
“You have seven strong-willed people on council and we’re not going to agree on everything,” said councillor Brian Collins. “My concern as a councillor is that we respect each other’s opinion. I think we all have to realize that we’re in this for the betterment of the City of Dryden and its residents and we should be doing our best to work together.”