Minister's power to revoke bylaws still under question by municipalities

Dan Murphy, executive director of the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick, says the organization remains concerned with Bill 45. (Shane Magee/CBC - image credit)
Dan Murphy, executive director of the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick, says the organization remains concerned with Bill 45. (Shane Magee/CBC - image credit)

New Brunswick municipalities continue to call for changes to a proposed law giving the minister of local government the power to repeal bylaws.

An amendment limiting how the power can be used passed during a committee meeting at the legislature Thursday.

"We're happy to see the minister being willing to work with us to make those changes," Dan Murphy, executive director of the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick, said Friday.

"But there's still concerns with the bill."

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

The union is one of three municipal associations in the province that raised the alarm over portions of Bill 45, which creates a new local governance commission.

The commission, promised as part of sweeping local governance reforms the province has been enacting, will handle things like investigating code of conduct complaints or conflicts of interest.

But the bill would also allow the commission to review municipal bylaws and then gives the minister power to revoke them.

Fredericton Mayor Kate Rogers has called it an "erosion of democracy."

The bill was back before a legislative committee on Thursday.

"We have listened to the concerns being raised and as a result we are proposing additional amendments to the bill today which would serve to further clarify the intent of the legislation," Daniel Allain, the minister of local government, said during the meeting.

The amendments change the bill so that only a landowner, instead of any person, can seek a review of a bylaw that "prevents the reasonable use of the property."

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

During a previous committee meeting last month, Allain used an example of a farm that's existed for decades surrounded by new homes.

He said if the municipality passed a bylaw restricting how that farm can operate, the bill would allow the farmer to ask for the commission, and minister, to review the bylaw.

On Thursday, Allain said the department is working with municipal associations to limit what categories of bylaws could be subject to review or ministerial revocation.

But Murphy said the group representing 54 municipalities still doesn't understand why existing processes, which require bylaws to pass three votes at public meetings, are insufficient.

"The examples that the minister has given as to why he would use that power, when he would use that power mostly seem to deal with former local service districts that now find themselves in a municipality or new municipalities that have just been created due to reform," Murphy said.

"So that's the piece where we're saying if that's the case, then we should … prioritize working with those new communities, helping them have the information and the resources they need to make sure they're making good decisions."

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Opposition MLAs also questioned the purpose of giving the minister the power to revoke a bylaw.

Liberal MLA Jacques LeBlanc said there should have been more consultation about the bill and that it gives too much power to the minister.

Green Party Leader David Coon said the party's main concern with the bill is the increased power it would grant the minister.

"From our perspective, it doesn't make any sense that the minister would be seeking to gain so much authority as it's described in this current Bill 45," Coon said.

Green Party MLA Kevin Arseneau attempted to amend the bill to remove the minister's revocation powers, but the motion was voted down.

In response to several questions, Allain has said the commission and ministerial power to revoke a bylaw are needed so landowners have a mechanism to avoid going through the "overwhelmed" court system.

"I can't see this being something used on a regular basis," Allain said.

"However, if there's a property owner that feels that they've been wronged in some way, they don't have to go to the courts. They go through the new municipal, independent local governance commission."

Allain did not provide an interview about the legislation on Friday.

The legislation is expected to continue to be discussed by the legislature's committee on economic policy. It also still needs to pass third reading.

Murphy says the union is also concerned about other aspects of the legislation, including the commission's power to access private documents and how costs related to its investigations may be handled.