April '14 Newsletter

Councillor Timothy Verhaeghe: Being a Town Councillor


Tim Verhaeghe: What it means to be a Town Councillor

Councillor Tim Verhaeghe is a family man who appreciates the quality of life that living in Athabasca affords him and his family. He acknowledges and praises the leaders, supporters and volunteers in the community who work tirelessly to make positive things happen here for the benefit and enjoyment of all.

He is not certain, however, that all members of the community share his appreciation or even recognize all that truly goes into running and maintaining a town like Athabasca. He believes, for example, that if residents understood exactly how much time, attention and effort Town Councillors put into their roles, more people would be much more supportive and appreciative.

“People in the community need to realize that for a town our size, we provide a lot of services and amenities and the time commitment of our Councillors is significant,” says Tim. “It’s much more than just two Council meetings a month. We have a long list of Committees of Council that is divided up amongst us, and besides that there are special meetings, Joint Council meetings, budget meetings, public meetings, strategic planning meetings and other commitments we are expected to attend to.”

Most members of Council are “working” councillors who have jobs or professions outside of their council duties, and a few Councillors have young families. It’s not unusual for Councillors to have to attend at least a few meetings and events each week, sometimes on weekends, and on top of the meetings, there is a great deal of reading, review, responding to communications and more involved.

Every hour tending to the needs of the town is an hour away from business or work or family or personal time. For some Councillors, the demands dig into an even deeper level of sacrifice.

“One Councillor is burning up vacation hours, taking time off work to attend the required meetings,” Tim explains. “For a couple of other Councillors, when they have to take time off from work for council responsibilities, they have to find someone to replace them and may even have to cover the cost for that.”

The demands on the Mayor are even greater. Tim estimates that at times, Mayor Morrill may be committing up to twice as much time as a regular councillor does.

Councillors welcome communication from members of the community regarding town related issues and try to respond accordingly in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, not all of the feedback is positive or given in a beneficial way.

“We do get negative feedback, a lot of it on Facebook,” admits Tim. “When there is merit to it, I will listen, but when people put out random statements, it doesn’t help anything. It’s not constructive. It would be better for them to contact a Councillor or the Mayor. Better yet, come to a Council meeting and see what we do.”

The cost of Council commitment

Tim’s Committees of Council include Administration, Communications, Community Grants, Intermunicipal Development, New School/Pool Steering Committee, Riverfront Design Review Committee, Subdivision and Development Appeal Board, and he is the current Deputy Mayor.

In February, he attended 11 meetings, including the two regular Council meetings, and he says he easily spends 20 hours or more a week fulfilling his Councillor duties.

“This responsibility involves a huge commitment of time from each Councillor,” says Tim. “I do enjoy it. I’ve always had an interest in politics and I do want to give back to the community that has provided a good living environment for my family and me. But you do sometimes question at what cost it comes to your personal life, your family and your work.”

One example of a time-consuming Councillor activity is the agenda package for a Town Council meeting. This package most often runs in excess of 50 pages and can exceed 100 pages. Tim reads through every page and will spend additional time discussing items with the Town CAO, asking questions for insight and clarification.

What is the cost of being a Town Councillor? What is the purpose and value?

Tim says that leadership and service to one’s community is very important. It is easy to sit on the sidelines and ridicule and criticize the efforts of others, but those who choose to make the effort and serve, like Athabasca Town Councillors, deserve the understanding and support of the community they serve.

Committees of Council

The Committees of Council are distributed to Councillors in a fair and equal manner during an organizational meeting. Visit the Committees of Council page on the Town website for the list of assignments. Councillors may volunteer for some committees, while other committees are assigned by the Mayor. Additional committees may arise at times. Here is the current list:

  • Municipal Planning Commission
  • Subdivision and Development Appeal Board
  • Riverfront Design Review Committee
  • Greater North Foundation
  • Athabasca Municipal Library Board
  • Northern Lights Library System (NLLS)
  • Family and Community Support Services (FCSS)
  • Northern Lakes College
  • Library Building Committee
  • Athabasca Project (Athabasca University)
  • Administration Committee
  • Communications Committee
  • Intermunicipal Development
  • Athabasca Regional Multiplex Society
  • Athabasca Regional Waste Services Commission
  • Aspen Regional Water Services Commission
  • Joint Council Committee (with Athabasca County)
  • Community Transportation Committee
  • Physician Recruitment and Retention Committee
  • Community Grants Committee
  • Tourism and Economic Development Committee
  • Steering Committee: New Pool / New School

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Councillor Shelly Gurba: Positive Experience


Shelly Gurba: Demanding schedule still a positive experience

Councillor Shelly Gurba is no stranger to the demands of a heavy schedule. She teaches at Edwin Parr Composite School, is a past president and current treasurer for the Alberta Teachers’ Association local, and has served as a councillor with the Summer Village of Island Lake South.

Still, the reality of the time requirements of being a Town Councillor in Athabasca has been more intense than she expected. Despite the huge learning curve that comes with the councillor role and the threat of information overload, Shelly is enjoying the experience.

“I didn’t fully realize what I was getting into,” she admits. “Between the number of meetings involved and the time required to prep for those meetings, it’s more than I ever anticipated, but it has been quite an adventure so far; a very positive experience.”

Shelly’s list of Committees of Council include the Athabasca Regional Multiplex Society, the Athabasca Municipal Library Board, the Library Building Committee and the Athabasca Regional Waste Management Services Commission.

Councillors are required to attend meetings held by the committees they represent and while meeting activity can be low during some times of the year, there are other times when the meeting obligations can be very demanding.

“March has been lighter, with three committee meetings besides our regular Council meetings,” Shelly explains, “but I attended seven meetings in January and nine in February. We had many more meetings because of the announcement of the new school in Athabasca. The Multiplex is part of that process. The library is part of that process. Those are my committees.”

Adding to the challenge is the fact that some committee meetings are held in the day time, during working hours, while others are held in the evening. Councillors are expected to find a way to accommodate the meeting schedules. Evening meetings generally work better for Shelly, but she does what she has to to meet her Councillor obligations.

This also happens to be budget planning time for some groups and organizations, for example, the Town, the Multiplex, Athabasca Regional Waste, so that involves another level of reading, research and involvement.

It is quite a balancing act to keep up with all of the Councillor responsibilities. For Shelly, it is a matter of knowing your priorities and scheduling them accordingly. “You have to use your day timer,” she declares. “You know your priorities and you just make time for them.”

Collaboration is of key importance

The driving force behind Shelly’s run for Town Council was a desire to have a voice on Council as a representative of the community. Also, she believes in the value of collaborative efforts between the Town, Athabasca County and other communities and wanted to see what could be done to strengthen the existing efforts and develop new areas of collaboration.

She points to the Athabasca Regional Waste Management Services Commission (ARWMSC) as a very good example of collaboration.

“It is a great joint venture between the Town, the County, communities in the county, and Slave Lake,” says Shelly. “I didn’t realize exactly how extensive the Regional Waste services and the collaborative relationships were. And I’m still on a learning curve with all of this.”

Between the garbage services, recycling facilities, regional landfills and more that ARWMSC deals with as a whole, the services available to town residents are certainly more extensive than they might have been without collaborative partners, she notes.

“Some of these services, we couldn’t do, if not partnered with other municipalities,” says Shelly.

She gives credit to the management and staff of the facilities for the success of the services and operations they run. “The people running the facilities do a very good job. We are so fortunate to have (manager) Rob Smith. He is a very knowledgeable and capable person.”

Shelly hopes to see more examples and opportunities for regional collaboration during her term on Council. It has been a huge learning experience and the demands on her time and energy may at times be intense, but the town has so much potential and she wants to contribute to its success.

The guidance and support received from Town staff has been a great help to her.

“The Town staff and administration includes some amazing people who have made it easier for the councillors,” she says. “And all in all, Town Council is very easy to work with. I think we have a good sense of what we want to do for the benefit of the town.”


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Councillor Joanne Peckham:Passionate about Community

Joanne Peckham: Passionate about community, approachable

Councillor Joanne Peckham is passionate about community involvement. She enjoys being with people, hearing their concerns, discussing issues and providing information they need to make informed opinions about matters that are important to them.

“People have a vested interested in the community and I love helping them out,” Joanne explains. “They have a right to be informed and if I can give them insight and information, then, when they offer opinions, they will be informed opinions.”

Joanne notes how the Internet and Social Media allow users to vent when they are upset, but she cautions people to be more considerate when posting opinions online. Not only can the comments be hurtful, but they may not be entirely accurate. She encourages people with concerns to talk to her, or to other Town Councillors, to get more insight into an issue before posting comments that may be inappropriate.

“I am approachable,” she says. “People who know me know that I like talking to people. It’s natural for me. People know that if they have a question, they can call me or come and talk to me and I will find an answer.”

Joanne is kept very busy between her duties as manager of The Whiskey Store in Athabasca and the many meetings and responsibilities associated with her role as a Town Councillor. Even so, talking with residents and others in the community is important to her and she makes the time.

“I have always listened to people’s concerns. Over the years, I have been active in the community and I have established relationships with many people, from the younger to the older.”

Joanne’s list of Committees of Council include Family and Community Support Services (FCSS), Athabasca Regional Multiplex Society, Community Grants Committee, Community Transportation, Municipal Planning Commission, Riverfront Design Review Committee, Tourism and Economic Development and the Magnificent River Rats Festival Society.

Some committees meet more often than others. Between regular Council meetings and other committees, Joanne attends a minimum of seven meetings a month. That number can go up to 12 meetings a month at certain times, for example, when it is budget planning time for the Town and for other organizations and groups.

The amount of time a councillor spends in meetings is substantial. On top of that, there is reading and preparation required before meetings, reading and responding to email and phone messages, and in-person interactions with others in the community.

Joanne admits that for an inexperienced councillor, the demands can be overwhelming. You don’t truly know what all is involved until the meetings start up and the calls start coming in. Personally, she thrives on the experience.

“It’s not work to me,” she asserts. “I want to be approachable and people know that I am. They come into the store all of the time, or run into me around town. People who have elected me? They have no trouble sharing their concerns. They expect me to be their voice. I have to honour their expectations.”

Magnificent River Rats Festival Society

Joanne is particularly excited to represent Council on the Magnificent River Rats Festival (MRRF) Society after being away from the society for a few years. As one of the original co-founders of the festival, she brings unique insight and perspective to her committee role.

“Originally, the River Rats Festival was a one day event intended for the enjoyment of our community,” she recalls. “Its purpose was to recognize all of the talent we have here. The fee was nominal so everybody could come, and we had just one headliner.”

As a community event, it was hugely successful.

“The whole day was comprised of volunteers who represented the groups and organizations in the community,” Joanne explains. “The Athabasca Lions Club handled the food, Athabasca Recreation looked after the children’s events, the Rotary club took care of security. We had so many volunteers helping in so many ways to make it a success. The synergy was amazing.”

Over the years, the event developed into something much bigger and along with that growth came more expense, more expectations and greater challenges. Joanne believes that this resulted in the loss of some of the earlier synergy and she would like to see a return to a more manageable and more locally focused event.

“We have major talent in this community,” she declares, referring both to creative talent and to volunteer effort and potential. “We don’t have to hire people from out of town. Let’s work with what we have, give greater focus to our local talent, and go back to bringing in just the one headliner.”

While the Magnificent River Rats Festival Society holds special interest for Joanne, she commits herself wholly to all of the Committees of Council that she is responsible for. Overall, her councillor duties require a tremendous commitment of time, attention and energy, but that is the role of leadership and she is determined to do her best to serve effectively as a Councillor.

Joanne welcomes questions and communication from community members.


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