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Abby to revisit committee of the whole system

By Kevin O’Brien

Worried about misleading the public, elected officials in Abbotsford are reconsidering a system that currently allows them to vote on issues as a full council even when the agenda says they are meeting as a “committee of the whole.”

Shortly before this year’s spring election in April, the council voted to scrap all of its advisory committees and switch to a committee of the whole, which gives all eight council members a chance to meet for discussion purposes only on a different night than the full council, when motions are actually voted on.

“No final or official votes are taken at meetings of the committee of whole, although the membership may vote to make a recommendation to be taken up at a regular common council meeting or assign tasks to city staff or other city commissions or bodies,” according to the new ordinance adopted in April.

Last month, however, a committee of the whole meeting was used to vote on a motion without first referring it to the full council meeting, which is normally the first Monday of the month.

At that Sept. 18 committee of the whole meeting, members voted to “convene as a council” before voting to move ahead with a new policy to fine residents $50 if they put leaves and brush out on the street after the city’s fall pickup deadline.

A motion to formally adopt that new ordinance wasn’t actually approved until a full council meeting on Oct. 7, but the proposal itself had never been discussed at a meeting prior to Sept. 18 — the same night it was approved.

At that same meeting on Sept. 18, the committee also voted as a full council to renew a garbage collection contract with Advanced Disposal. In that case, the council had previously discussed the garbage contract its regular meeting on Sept. 4, but it authorized the committee to vote on it Sept. 18.

City administrator Dan Grady has said the committee of the whole has the option of voting to “convene as a council” whenever it wants to take action on an agenda item immediately instead of waiting until the next council meeting.

Committee of the whole meetings are normally the third Wednesday of the month, but a few of them have been changed to full council meetings.

At the council’s most recent meeting on Oct. 16 — which would normally be the date of the committee of the whole — several members questioned if this new system was fair to members of the public who may not expect the “committee” to vote as a “full council.”

Ald. Lori Huther said people might be more likely to show up at a committee of the whole meeting if they know for sure that action is going to be taken.

“If they’re assuming it’s a committee of the whole, they may not come, thinking that nothing’s going to get voted on,” she said.

Ald. Brent Faber agreed, saying he doesn’t like the idea of people not showing up to a committee of the whole meeting just because they assume it’s for discussion purposes only.

“If it’s a council meeting, I might come because things are actually getting decided and getting voted on,” he said.

Grady said he would put the topic on the Nov. 6 council agenda, so that council members could vote to change the ordinance again if they want. He said those changes would not take effect until after the next spring election in April 2020.

Five-year road plan approved

The council approved a five-year road plan, which starts with the 2020 Safe Routes to School project and West Spruce Street resurfacing next year.

Reconstructing Linden Street, from STH 13 to Industrial Park Road, is tentatively planned for 2021. Milling and overlaying 880 feet of North Third Street north of Pine Street is also penciled in for 2021.

In 2022, projects are planned on Hiline Avenue, West Hemlock Street near Abbotsford Elementary, South Seventh Street and North Ninth/Galvin.

North Fourth Avenue, from Spruce to Larch, and North First Street, from Spruce to Oak, are tentatively on the docket for 2023, and West Cedar Street and North 11th Street, Spruce to Elm, are set for 2024.

DPW Craig Stuttgen said approving the five-year plan does not commit the city to completing any of the projects on the list, but a plan needs to be in place for the city to qualify for grant money “We apply for funding for these projects, and as it comes in, we move them up and down the list as need be,” he said.

2018 audit presented

Accountant Lucas Dorn of Johnson Block went through the city’s 2018 audit report at last week’s meeting, pointing out the impact of several major capital projects on the city’s finances.

Dorn noted that both revenues and expenses went up substantially in 2018, primarily because a new TIF district became active and generated revenue for construction of a new residential subdivision. The city also received a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) last year that was used to do a major street project on Cedar and Second streets.

DPW Craig Stuttgen said he was disappointed to learn that only $350,000 from the CDBG was recorded as “street work,” with the other $150,000 going toward water and sewer utilities. Stuttgen said he thought the council had voted to use 100 percent of the grant for the street portion of the project so it could be used to bring in more transportation aid from the state, which is based on how much the city spends on street work every year.

“Having that low number in our average will cost us money for the next six years,” he said.

Dorn said, as auditors, they don’t get to decide how project expenses are divvied up. To ensure that all future road work costs are being reported to the state, he suggested that Stuttgen review the form submitted to the state every year.

The audit report also showed a 20 percent drop in the city’s general fund balance, down to $309,796, at the end of 2018. This amount represents 20 percent of the city’s operating budget, or 2.5 months worth of expenditures.

“You’re just below what we like to recommend sitting in fund balance,” he said, noting that 30 percent of the operating budget is preferred.

Mayor Lori Voss said the city’s general fund should go back up over the next couple years once the city is reimbursed by the federal government for expenses already incurred for next year’s Safe Routes to School project.

When asked if he saw any areas of concern in the audit, Dorn pointed out a deficit of over $200,000 in the sewer utility’s operating budget. In response, city officials said the council has already raised sewer rates once this year, and will be revisiting the revenue situation after six months with the higher rates.