Local elections act review under scrutiny at Edmonton city hall

Some Edmonton city councillors are expressing concern with the Alberta government's review of the local elections act, launched earlier this month.

Alberta Municipal Affairs announced on Feb. 4 that it is analyzing the Local Authorities Election Act in areas of campaign length, the nomination process, donation limits, third-party advertising and the recall of elected officials. 

The review includes an online survey Albertans can complete. It's open until March 4.

Coun. Andrew Knack said he's concerned the four-week timeframe isn't sufficient for the government to properly consult the public, elected officials and community groups.

"To rush this — for something that is so important — I think is completely irresponsible right now of the provincial government," Knack said in an interview this week with CBC News.

Knack also made his concerns public in a blog post titled Local democracy is at risk in Albertasaying the consultation process is inadequate for something "as serious as our local elections."

City council is scheduled to discuss the review at its next meeting Feb. 19 and come up with a collective submission to the ministry.

Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu met with Mayor Don Iveson at city hall Wednesday.

Madu said he launched the review after hearing from municipal leaders that areas of the act need to be addressed.  

"The expectation is that all of the concerns that stem from the last election and the last review would have to be dealt with, in addition to the concerns that we've had from citizens," Madu said.

Peter Evans/CBC

Iveson wasn't available for comment after the meeting with Madu but a spokesperson said his viewpoints will come at the council meeting next week.

The former NDP government revised the act in 2018.

Knack said making further changes ahead of the next municipal election — it's set for October 2021 — would be unfair for those already preparing for a campaign.

"We haven't even had a municipal election with the new rules and yet we're already talking about changing the rules and putting in something new," he said. "Meanwhile, you've got candidates who are already preparing under the existing rules."

Instead, he thinks the UCP government should take a step back and focus on revising the act in time for the 2025 election. 

Coun. Sarah Hamilton said she's open to the government changing the current legislation but echoed Knack's concern about the shortcomings of a 29-day public consultation period.

"I think that there's room for improvement but it would really behoove this government to listen to municipalities, listen to the electorate, on what they want to see and give that time."

The act applies to cities, towns, villages, municipal districts, counties and school boards. The review will not affect Métis settlements and irrigation districts.

Donation limits

Knack also asks why the online survey doesn't give people an option to say that campaign contribution limits should be decreased. Respondents are given a choice of keeping the current maximum at $4,000, or increasing it to $5,000, $8,000, $10,000, $15,000 or another amount.

When the NDP government revised the act in 2018, it banned corporations and unions from donating to individual political candidates.

While the restriction may reduce partisan participation on the provincial level, Hamilton said capping donations is more of a challenge for local candidates that run without support of political parties.

"If the government takes its time and starts to find these challenges and understand what local municipalities are dealing with, I think that they'll find they're able to make much more intentional meaningful changes to the current election act," she said.  

Third-party advertisers 

Knack said he worries revisions to the legislation could pave the way for more third-party advertisers, or political action committees (PACs).

Third-party advertisers are people, corporations and groups that typically advocate on specific issues, such as Alberta Proud, Friends of Medicare and the Alberta division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

While political candidates can't accept corporate or union donations, and individuals can only donate $4,000, PACs can introduce partisan politics into an election campaign.

Any third-party group spending at least $1,000 on election advertising is required to register with Elections Alberta but there are no limits on what they can spend — in support of their chosen party and politicians.

Madu said he has not predetermined the outcome to of the review and if feedback from leaders warrants changing the legislation, the revisions will be presented this spring.

@natashariebe