Elkford Mayor and CAO advise Colombian municipalities

Pair travel south as part of Federal mining town liaison program

Despite being on different continents, La Guajira, Columbia and Elkford share at least one commonality: coal mining.

During a recent trip to the South American country, Mayor Dean McKerracher offered his mentorship in attempts to bridge gaps between local politicians and the mining company.

“Our mission is to work with the local government and the mining company to see if we could bridge the huge gap that they have,” McKerracher said.

He and District of Elkford CAO Curtis Helgesen were delegates to the small town, as part of a mining communities liaison project with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).

The program saw them mentor the mayor of the town, speak with local university students and give a presentation to a group of other local dignitaries from Colombia and Peru.

After seeing the issues with corruption, poverty and nepotism, he told the mayor and other representatives he met on the trip to South America that they have to put the past behind them and be open to change.

“We were there to show them how we govern,” said Helgesen. “Transparency and financial management were the two key themes.”

McKerracher says the FCM was particularly interested in having Elkford liaison with Colombian governments because of the Mine Tax agreement that they have with Teck Coal Ltd.

This is the third trip that District of Elkford representatives have made to the country, in order to provide advice and mentorship for local governments with mining companies in their towns.

There were a number of differences that the pair noticed in how the Colombian government operates.

First is that the governments are limited to a four-year-term. After that, McKerracher says a new government comes in and usually fires all the staff, replacing them with their own friends and family.

The Elkford mayor noticed that there is no succession planning with staff, nor are projects planned any further ahead than four years.

“We’re not exactly sure how the taxation works,” he said. “We tried to figure it out…but we never came to a conclusion.”

The Colombian federal government collects the monies from the mining companies in the communities, opposed to the funds going straight to the municipalities.

This was a change made a number of years ago to avoid corruption on the municipal level, however, both Helgesen and McKerracher heard about the difficulties with ensuring this money reaches the poorest families living around the mine.

In La Guajira, the Cerrejon Coal Mine is an entirely fenced off and guarded community for senior staff, where it’s workers have their own medical clinic, and the children of staff have their own school.

It’s said that children inside the school at the mine graduate with a Grade 12 American-style education.

On the other side of the fence, however, it’s an entirely different story, McKerracher said.

Cerrejon Coal Mine donates over $7 million in community grants to around 230 communities in the area.

McKerracher and Helgessen saw that these communities are varied in size, from towns and villages, to what is referred to as a “rancheria”, which is just a few mud huts off the side of the road.

“Down there, the head of the family would get the funds, and the head of the family would decide who got what,” said McKerracher.

Many Colombians were surprised by the fact that Mayors in Canadian councils only count as one vote. In many Colombian municipalities, the mayor and CAO are one in the same.

“The mayor down in Colombia is everything,” McKerracher said, and because the mayor takes on the role of treasurer and CAO, there’s a problematic concentration of power.

When the pair presented to students at the University of La Guajira, McKerracher said public administration students cried when the pair spoke about Canada, about the opportunities girls have, and about the mandated transparent practices in government at all levels.

“If there’s a will to change, then the young people through education will probably make that change,” Helgesen said.

The Elkford CAO was told by the interpreter that Global Affairs Canada has been in the country, checking on the practices of the Canadian mining companies operating in Colombia.

The City of Kimberley has worked with FCM on liason projects, as well as City of Fernie Councillor Ange Qualizza, who visited Colombia in 2015.

Helgessen says that there is about nine municipalities across Canada that are active with the mining communities liaison project with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

He and McKerracher hope to speak to more students on their next trip, and focus on helping municipalities mirror their own mine tax agreement.

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