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Wetaskiwin councillors vote to 'reconsider' Hope Mission approval, despite legal warnings

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Exactly eight months after approving a permit for the Hope Mission, Wetaskiwin City Council narrowly voted Monday to "reconsider" despite legal warnings from the city manager.

The May 8 approval was part of an effort to turn an existing temporary homeless shelter in the city into a permanent one.

The development has been met with fierce opposition and support in the city of roughly 13,000 located about 70 kilometres south of Edmonton.

Before a vote of 4-3 in favour of a pause, the city manager cautioned councillors that the motion violates the Municipal Government Act because a 21-day appeal period is long gone.

"You have to rely on the Municipal Government Act, which says that the appeal period has passed. So this [motion] would not be possible," Sue Howard explained, saying administrators previously discussed the situation with councillors and consulted with lawyers.

"The MGA also states that if council makes an action that is in bad faith or outside their functions, duties or powers, they could be personally liable."

But councillors Dean Billingsley, Joe Branco, Bill Elliot and Wayne Neilson voted to reconsider anyway.

"Let's have the vote and let's rock and roll. I'm willing to take the chance," Branco urged.

"Let's do it. Threats, I'm sick and tired of threats in this council by administration. I'm willing to go ahead. Enough is enough."

Branco's statement drew an immediate point of order from Howard.

"Administration is not threatening council. And I resent that statement, councillor Branco," she said.

Mayor Tyler Gandam and councillors Karen Aberle and Gabrielle Blatz voted against the motion.

A spokesperson for Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver later stated that councils have "authority to make land use decisions in a direct control district" and gave no indication the province will intervene in the Wetaskiwin decision.

"There is no legislated appeal mechanism for decisions made by a council in a direct control district. Individuals that have concerns about council's decision may seek independent legal advice to determine what remedies may be available," Scott Johnston said.

"The minister’s authority in the MGA to intervene in municipalities is reserved for situations of significant and broad concern with the management and governance of a municipality."

'IT'S EASY TO TEAR IT DOWN'

The vote came after months of complaints about council's May decision.

In November, dozens of people attended a community meeting to discuss concerns the shelter is attracting addicted people and making Wetaskiwin less safe.

"We are a city of under 13,000 people and they want to put a shelter that has the potential of 147 beds here. We can’t handle that," organizer Debby Hunker told reporters.

"We're losing businesses because of the crime rate. I've been a victim of theft as well in my own yard. That is what started all of this."

On Monday, about two-dozen people took turns at the city hall microphone in an effort to convince councillors.

Some want the permanent shelter built and some do not. Others insist the proposed location is too close to businesses and homes.

"It's clear to me that there is a deep need for people who are at risk to be served by addiction and mental health services and I support Hope Mission," said Rev. Andrew Bellows.

"It's difficult to build something and it's easy to tear it down. Because building something takes compassion, foresight and understanding, and tearing something down only requires fear."

'LET'S DO SOME MORE HOMEWORK'

Coun. Neilson made the motion to "reconsider" and another to "rescind" a May 8 direct control permit application. The latter was tabled for 120 days, approved by a vote of 5-1.

Wetaskiwin councillors recently met with chiefs and councillors from the four Maskwacis First Nations and Neilson said there is a possibility that a treatment centre will be built there.

Wetaskiwin is about 15 kilometres north of Maskwacis.

"My motion is not, at this point in time, to discontinue relationships with Hope Mission," Neilson said.

"For me, this motion says, 'Let's pause. Let's do some more homework. Let's investigate what Maskwacis has to offer. Let's see if Hope Mission and Maskwacis can work together."

Coun. Billingsley urged the same.

"Nobody at this table, or in this room, wants to see anyone freeze to death," he said.

"I think it's important, in my opinion, that we look at all avenues. And that could include Hope Mission moving forward, but I would not be doing a service to our community if we don't investigate all avenues."

But Coun. Blatz wanted the permit to stand. She said 40 people who received services from Hope Mission in Wetaskiwin are now in varying stages of recovery and obtaining housing.

"We're having people graduate out of homelessness because of this program that we have," she said. "We can turn this into something that is incredible for our communities."

In November, Blatz also worried about legal action if the city reconsiders or pulls the permit

"There could be potential massive liability to the city in the form of payment due to Hope Mission," she told CTV News Edmonton in a statement.

"Additionally, reversing the decision to donate the land could potentially discourage future co-operation and funding from the province."

Nielsen said after the meeting that voting for a pause is worth "taking a bit of a risk."

"I think it would be unwise, just out of fear of potential liability, to steer away from something you feel strongly about," he told CTV News Edmonton.

'TIRED OF WATCHING THE PEOPLE FIGHT'

Coun. Aberle wanted councillors to let the permit stand and pointed out that there is no guarantee of provincial funding for a similar facility in Maskwacis.

She called the Hope Mission "one cog in the wheel" to help vulnerable people in the area.

"I fear this motion isn't serving the wellbeing, the emotional wellbeing, of our community," said Aberle.

"I am tired of watching the people fight. I am tired of community members being called names…we can move on and be those leaders. So I will not be supporting this motion."

Despite the decision, Hope Mission will continue to provide services at its temporary space and keep working toward a permanent one, promised its local community engagement official and chaplain.

"We're going to do our business day-by-day like we do, helping the people we're called here to serve and do it to the best of our abilities and trust that this project will eventually get the green light," Kelly Row told CTV News Edmonton.

He believes that even if a Maskwacis facility is built, there will still be a need for permanent Hope Mission services in Wetaskiwin.

On top of the shelter, Hope Mission also provides in-school lunches, after-school care as well as gardening and horse-riding programs in the area.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nav Sangha

 

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