Trash compactor debate gets messy, public asked to exit council chambers, violating Municipal Act

A little bit of trash talk derailed debate about the purchase of a landfill compactor at Thompson’s June 22 council meeting – and legislated meeting procedure was discarded as well.

The purchase of a Caterpillar 826K landfill compactor for $1,045,000 plus applicable taxes was approved in a 5-3 vote – councillors Duncan Wong, Jeff Fountain and Earl Colbourne were opposed – but not until after 15 minutes of debate and a 20-minute “recess” unilaterally declared by Mayor Colleen Smook, during which members of the public and some city employees who were asked to leave council chambers could hear the muffled raised voices of councillors from behind the closed doors.

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Wong kicked off the debate by asking if administration had explored the option of rebuilding the existing landfill compactor, how much had been spent over the past couple of years to repair the current compactor, which has about 13,500 hours of use since it was purchased in 2007, and whether the corrosive environment the compactor operates in would be any different for the new machine than the old one.

Public works director Neil MacLaine said refurbishing the existing compactor was rejected because the city would have to rent a replacement while that took place at a cost of about $50,000 per month and that the new compactor has an underbelly guard and a pressurized engine compartment to help keep corrosive debris out.

Coun. Kathy Valentino said Wong's comments, which she referred to as grandstanding, could have been answered if he had attended committee meetings, prompting Fountain to raise a point of oder and request that she retract her grandstanding comment, which she did, though she declined to apologize. 

Deputy mayor Les Ellsworth then complained that Wong was wasting the council’s time.

“I’ve got to spend hour after hour throughout the week discussing the same thing [during committee meetings] that we’re discussing here again tonight and for one councillor,” he said. “I didn’t sign up for that. I’m tired of it. Here’s my recommendation: attend the [committee] meetings, we’ll have less debate, not only will we get home a little bit earlier, so will the public.”

When Colbourne attempted to respond to Ellsworth’s comments, Smook asked him to stick to the subject of the landfill compactor.

“I think if you give one councillor a position to speak, I think you should give all councillors a position to speak,” said Colbourne, at which point Smook asked for a five-minute recess. 

What ensued, however, was neither five minutes long nor a recess, but rather a 20-minute in-camera session and a violation of the law governing municipalities. While councils can, under the Manitoba’s Municipal Act, go briefly in-camera during an open council meeting to discuss certain matters, “A Council may only exclude the public and media from a meeting by passing a resolution to meet as a committee of the whole in a closed meeting,” according to the Municipal Act Procedures Manual. “The resolution must state the topic of the matter to be discussed in the closed meeting.”

Section 152(3) of the Municipal Act says that a council or council committee can close a meeting to the public if the council decides during a meeting to meet as a committee to discuss something, provided that the decision and general nature of the matter are recorded in the meeting minutes and the matter relates to an employee or their job, existing or anticipated legal proceedings, an investigation, the security of documents or premises, a report of the Ombudsman received by the head of council under clause 36(1)(e) of the Ombudsman Act, or a matter that is in its preliminary stages, public discussion of which may prejudice a municipality’s ability to carry out its activities or negotiations.

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