At the south end of picturesque Pigeon Lake lies the tiny community of Crystal Springs. Quaint cottages and million dollar homes nestled among tree-lined streets along a shoreline. There are parks, a boat launch, schools, golf courses and city quality services.
But all is not as it seems. This is a community in extreme conflict with chaos at every council meeting, resident petitions, conflicting newsletters and arguments between neighbours and within families. 2017 is the villages 60th and Canada’s 150th anniversary, a proposed history book was scrapped due to in-fighting and the annual boat rally was abandoned due to scarce volunteer support. There was not even a July 1st celebration. There were fireworks of course – lots of them – but all of the activities were “private.”
And the dividing issue? Ironically, a communal wastewater system – a sewer! Previous village councils had attempted to install a public system, but all had failed, partly due to resident opposition and partly due to an unwieldy governance system. Residents around the 37 sq. mile lake are overseen by two counties, 10 summer villages, four unincorporated communities and a First Nations reserve. The 10 summer villages alone have 30 councilors serving some 7,000 people in about 2,300 dwellings. In contrast, Edmonton with a million residents and 450,000 private dwellings has 13 elected officials, yet the provincial government has refused to order amalgamation.
One of the officials opposed to the recommended low pressure system was Deputy Mayor Doris Bell, supported by an organization named Lakewise. mayor Grant Churchill and councilor Pratt, advocates of the system, were supported by the Renewal League, a society with a mandate to improve lake water conditions. The disagreements escalated when Lakewise members Darlene Bouclin and Linda Kerr solicited residents to sign a petition asking the Minister of Municipal Affairs to conduct “an inquiry into the Affairs of the Summer Village of Crystal Springs.” What they presented to the minister in January, 2016 asked for “an inquiry into the affairs,” but then added specifics including the appointment of a new CAO, the removal of the municipality from the summer villages administration, direct decisions regarding the wastewater project and the dismissal of Kevin Pratt and Grant Churchill. The Minister agreed only to the inquiry, but the fight was on.
Bell, Bouclin and Kerr probably expected the Minister’s inquiry to support their position, but when the 126 page report was released in June, Deputy Mayor Bell received the lion’s share of attention within the 85 recommendations. Government inspectors described “weak leadership” by the council overall, but detailed concerns with Bell’s treatment of employees, her criticism of financial management, her opposition to wastewater initiatives and her relations with the community. They cited memos demanding expense payments and reported half term expenditures of almost $20,000 while her colleagues spent about $8,000. The year had seen the village ejected from the joint administrative arrangement “due to one councilor” who placed “an inordinate amount of stress on the CAO and CFO through unreasonable demands and criticism.”
A new chief administrative officer (CAO) had to be found and new offices located. Costs increased as did resident anxiety, along with the attendance at council meetings. Citizens could be heard discussing hostile solutions and Internet exchanges and postings were often heated. The community tension was clearly escalating and the Renewal League chair wrote the Lakewise representatives appealing for a meeting to find common ground. He received no reply.
Bouclin and Kerr persisted. A second petition to stop the sewer implementation failed on a technicality and in late June they presented yet a third, just as tender documents for construction were to be signed. The new CAO Denise Thompson tendered her resignation in frustration, noting every petition cost taxpayers about $10,000 in admin and legal fees. At her final council meeting – while again judging the new petition “was not sufficient,” she gave an impassioned speech about resident conflict. “The continuous divide that this subject is causing in your beautiful community is stomach turning,” she said as she detailed costs to the community.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been spent getting this project to this point. The ongoing costs of the attempts to quash, delay, debate and extinguish this project are hefty. There was a mediation grant of approximately $25,000 that ended without much success. Two additional engineering studies conducted to appease the nay-sayers with a price tag of $18,500 resulting in a slap on the wrists of Council and Administration from Municipal Affairs.” She then referenced “staggering” legal fees, $10,000 in additional staff time, $500 for each Council meeting and $100,000 in annual costs from being forced from the joint administration. “Think carefully about ‘winning,’” she added, “We have narrowly averted a (contractor) lawsuit.” The exiting CAO then closed with a wish that people would “work together.”
The next morning CAO Thompson signed the sewer construction contracts. Trenching began days later. “The conflict is hopefully finally over,” said Mayor Churchill as he and councilor Pratt announced retirement plans. Expressing hope for the future, Renewal Chair Ian Rawlinson articulated a common sentiment. “Crystal Springs can once again become our happy place.”
Guest columnist Ron LaJeunesse is a retired college educator, health executive, police commissioner, school trustee, business owner and author who retired to Crystal Springs a decade ago. He attends Council meetings on a regular basis and is concerned that many residents have incomplete or inaccurate information about important community issues.