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Alberta government wants power to remove municipal councillors

The proposed changes have met a chorus of disapproval from Alberta's municipalities.
Premier Danielle Smith and Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver.

When the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment known as Bill 20 was tabled in the legislature on April 25, it listed off multiple changes that the UCP government hopes to make to both the Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA) and the Municipal Government Act (MGA).

It would allow cabinet to remove a municipal councillor from office if it is deemed in the public interest. It could call a public referendum to do so, or it could take the action directly.

It would also enable local political parties to become part of municipal politics for the first time. This would be test piloted in Edmonton and Calgary only.

In addition, it would allow municipalities to require criminal record checks for local candidates and drop the amount of money that third-party advertisers could accept in contributions to $5,000 from $30,000. It would also ban automated voting machines.

Those are some of the issues that have raised eyebrows and ire from politicians and political organizations around the province.

“Danielle Smith and the UCP have complained ad nauseum about overreach into provincial jurisdiction but when it comes to municipalities, Danielle Smith insists on being gatekeeper-in-chief,” said Kyle Kasawski, Alberta NDP Critic for Municipal Affairs, in a press statement.

“Municipal councils from across Alberta have been very clear they do not want municipal political parties. They know best how to run their own affairs. What municipalities need are appropriate funds so that they can fix the crumbling infrastructure in their communities and to pay for the programs that Albertans deserve.

In its own statement, the Board of Directors for Alberta Municipalities said that Bill 20 appears to fundamentally redraw the blueprint for local democracy in Alberta.  

“For the last eight months, Alberta Municipalities has repeatedly said that the introduction of political parties in local elections is a bad idea that most Albertans do not want. In the absence of any consultation, we have publicly offered sound ideas to strengthen local elections, boost turnout rates, and limit the influence of affluent donors – all the issues that Premier Smith identified as concerns,” the statement read.

“Alberta’s local governments have no interest in fighting with the province. Nor do they want to be caught in the middle of an Alberta-Ottawa ‘forever war.’ Our members want to be respected by the provincial government as a democratically elected order of government and allowed to focus their attention and energy on providing the services their residents expect and deserve. 

Jasper Mayor Richard Ireland agreed with that troubling assessment. He said that he has two overarching concerns, the first being the increase in costs to municipalities due to the proposed ban on electronic tabulation machines, which have been in use for years. If bigger centres like Edmonton and Calgary can’t count votes electronically, then they will have to hire many staff members to do the work. He said that council had been even considering introducing them in Jasper.

“The other is what I perceive as a general diminishment of democratic values,” Ireland said.

“It's really concerning to me. Some of the stuff in this legislation, coupled with the fact that it is clear that one of the major tenets of this bill that is the introduction of political parties into municipal politics, has been rejected by 70 per cent of the population and yet they’re going to go forward with it in any event.”

Jasper has a unique perspective on this, Ireland continued.

“As a community, we spent decades wrestling with the federal government to have the right to have local autonomy – the exercise of local government – because we didn't want the Minister of Environment in Ottawa, or in those days the Minister of Canadian Heritage, to be able to determine what was in the best interests of our citizens.”

Now, that fight is being shifted to be fought on the provincial level.

“Cabinet will decide what is in the best interests of the residents of Jasper, and they can dismiss duly elected members of this council, and they can override bylaws. That takes us a huge step back to where we were and what we fought so hard to achieve.”

Ireland said there was one little piece of Bill 20 that he considered to be “decent.” That was around the conflict of interest. The proposed change to the MGA would allow elected officials to recuse themselves for real or perceived conflicts of interest and clarify that this choice is not subject to third-party review.

“I'm happy to see them dealing with that,” he added.

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