June 21st, 2024

Apology issued after municipal planning commission confusion

By COLLIN GALLANT on February 24, 2023.

Council is delaying a decision on the future of the municipal planning commission after its chair, Coun. Darren Hirsch, was left without knowledge of proposed changes.--NEWS FILE PHOTO

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

The fate of the city’s municipal planning commission is on hold after an apparent breach of protocol left its chair out of the loop in a decision to disband the local development authority.

Council members tabled the issue when it arrived on the agenda of Tuesday’s city council meeting, voting to send the matter out for consultation after an an apology was issued to Coun. Darren Hirsch, chair of the MPC.

He told the News this week that the entire episode is a result of some institutional confusion among council committees, and he’d like a planned review of all committees and their mandates completed soon.

“It’s important to clear the air,” said Hirsch, adding he didn’t initiate the process, was only briefly informed of the idea last fall and hadn’t heard about it again before his commission members and the development community received a letter outlining the potential move.

“There’s been a series of missteps and it hasn’t landed well. It was well intentioned and I don’t blame anyone, but I’m not impressed with the execution.”

Hirsch said he now backs a plan for the city managers office to order a public feedback effort before the matter returns to council.

City manager Ann Mitchell, who took over the position two weeks ago, made the usual step of offering an on-the-record apology on behalf of staff.

“I don’t think we did a good and thorough job of engaging the commission, and we want to apologize,” she told council. “The process going forward will be more robust and involve everyone who needs to be involved.”

The specific bylaws would have eliminated the MPC – as has been done on other mid-sized Alberta cities – and instead delegate its duties and authority to a relatively new committee of council.

That body, the “Economic, Land and Strategic Planning and Development Committee” (ELSPD) was created last fall to house a number of city department functions left without a committee reporting structure during corporate reorganization in 2021.

Among other things, it oversees the planning department as well as the strategic analysis and management office, which evaluates internal operations and can initiate policy changes for council approval.

Later in Tuesday’s meeting there was confusion about whether ELSPD was bringing forward a potential sewage service with Cypress County extension for council’s approval, or whether the “inter-municipal collaboration committee” was responsible.

The latter group was created in 2020, but is one of three new committees, along with ELSPD and an employee relations committee, which were both formed last year.

The council-employee committee deals with some facets of human resources department, which technically reports to the corporate services division that has its own separate committee.

It and other committees have discussed the creation of set mandates over the past year, the first of the four-year council term.

Hirsch stated that with a new top administrator, the entire committee structure should be evaluated and perhaps streamlined.

That comes after several years of shuffling and movement of entire departments from one division to another.

For example, the corporate reorganization effort in 2021, moved the planning and business services department under the umbrella of a new division, which at the time left it without an avenue to communicate with council. The same situation existed with Invest Medicine Hat and the land department, which were put under direct control of the city manager in 2019.

Council has a standing committee system, which is to provide oversight on each of the city’s major divisions, as well as other committees, such as audit and legislative issues.

Two years later, a wholesale change in portfolios between committees and divisions was done in an attempt to find cost savings. The current committees exist for corporate and public services, which saw relatively little change, though the former “development and infrastructure” was joined with utilities to create the utilities and infrastructure committee.

Previously, in 2015 the city’s gas production business – once a stand-alone enterprise with its own chief operating officer #- was restructured under the municipal umbrella and the direct oversight of the municipal manager, who was Merete Heggelund at the time.

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