City council puts off Epcor drainage decision

A long and contentious debate on Tuesday over Epcor's proposal to take over Edmonton's drainage utility ended with city council requesting more information.

'Letter of intent' with more information to come back to council in April

Heavy rain caused flooding at St. Albert Trail and the Yellowhead on in 2014. (Phil Laplante Jr./CBC News)

A long and contentious debate on Tuesday over Epcor's proposal to take over Edmonton's drainage utility ended with city council requesting more information.

Council decided by a narrow 7-6 vote to ask for a letter of intent to allow further consideration of Epcor's proposal. The letter of intent will come back to city council for debate on April 11.

There are several requirements Epcor will need to satisfy in this new letter, including allowing the city auditor to look at the books, and making sure the public's interests are top priority.

Council also added requirements for more information on the transparency of Epcor's operations involving drainage, and that the public have as much access and involvement in future drainage operations as they do now with the city.

Openness of decision-making questioned

Transparency and access were some of the main concerns raised during the public hearing at council.

All 10 people who spoke were against the transfer of the drainage utility.

Mike Scott, a union representative with the Canadian Union of Public Employees 30, said the Epcor proposal was long on estimates and short on specifics.

"The numbers don't add up for Edmonton residents," he told council, saying that any future rate increases under Epcor wouldn't have the same scrutiny as they do now.

"What's good for Epcor isn't necessarily what's good for Edmonton," said Bruce Fafard, with the Edmonton and District Labour Council.

He's concerned that turning over drainage to Epcor would mean the public would lose access to how decisions are made about the utility.

That message hit home with a number of councillors.

"The simplest way to support transparency is to keep it the way it is," Coun. Bev Esslinger said in voting against the motion for more information.

Coun. Dave Loken also voted against the motion, saying it will only end up in the same conversation when the information comes back to council.

"I want to keep drainage under our roof," he said. "Citizens will be better served by that."

More information before making decision

But the majority of councillors want to keep the possibility of an agreement with Epcor alive.

An independent report prepared for the city by consulting firm Grant Thornton found that Epcor's proposal had "strong merit."

Coun. Scott McKeen said the city's relationship with Epcor is a good one and that they have always responded to any concerns he raised with them.

Coun. Andrew Knack said he's still on the fence about how to vote on Epcor taking over drainage, but he voted in favour of getting more information.

"I'm unable to make the decision until seeing if we can actually address some of the very valid concerns about governments and accountability," he said.

"If there's a way to properly address that, then I'm open to that. If there is not, well, then it's going to be a pretty quick decision come April."

Lanny Chudyk, president of Civil Service Union 52, doesn't want to see drainage transferred to Epcor. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Lanny Chudyk, president of Civil Service Union 52, said he doesn't think getting any more information will help with the decision. And he's still not convinced that transferring drainage over to Epcor is a good idea.

"Epcor is willing to agree with almost anything at this point in time to make the deal happen," he said. "Let's see it in writing and let's see exactly what it says.

"I'm very skeptical about it."


Nola Keeler is an award-winning journalist who has worked with CBC in Whitehorse, Yukon and Edmonton since 2000. She has worked as a host, reporter, news reader and producer for CBC. Send story ideas to nola.keeler@cbc.ca.