Village of Alix community hears Government of Alberta rationale for Bill 20

The Village of Alix community heard an explanation of why a controversial provincial government bill made quick changes to the Municipal Government Act (MGA) at a town hall meeting June 5.

The town hall meeting focused on controversial Bill 20, passed earlier this spring in the legislature by the UCP majority, which contained numerous changes to the MGA, the law that governs municipalities.

The town hall meeting at the community resource centre building was hosted by the UCP’s Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Jennifer Johnson.

Johnson began her presentation by addressing what she stated was a common criticism of Bill 20: that it is an overreach by the UCP cabinet into municipal authority.

Johnson essentially stated it’s not possible for the provincial government to “overreach” into municipal authority, as all municipal authority is granted by the provincial government.

Johnson explained provincial and federal authority is guaranteed by the constitution but the same can’t be said for municipal authority; it all comes from the province.

She asked that the public keep that in mind when the UCP cabinet is accused of such overreach.

Another controversial change to the MGA was the UCP’s cabinet's proposal to allow itself to remove locally-elected councillors through a private process.

Johnson said Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIvor listened to criticism of this approach and revised Bill 20 to instead give the UCP cabinet the authority to begin a recall process for a locally-elected councillor.

She further noted the MGA has currently and in the past given the minister authority to remove locally-elected officials.

Readers should note this is true, both with municipal councillors and school board trustees. For example, current Premier Danielle Smith was elected to the Calgary public school board in 1998 and within 11 months Minister of Education Lyle Oberg removed all the trustees from office, including Smith, after the board was described as “dysfunctional.”

The same goes, heard listeners, for Bill 20’s repeal of bylaws. Johnson noted such authority has always existed in Alberta, albeit not always in Bill 20’s form.

During discussion of the repeal of bylaws issue the subject of the City of Chestermere was mentioned several times by Johnson and by members of the public.

Chestermere gained notoriety across the country over the past few years for what some critics have described as its dysfunctional nature.

Johnson moved on to address Bill 20’s permitting of political parties in municipal politics; she noted this change only applies to the Cities of Calgary and Edmonton. Further, it was noted this approach is already permitted in B.C.

Johnson explained allowing local councillors to campaign for election on behalf of a party allows voters to identify more easily with candidates they’re interested in.

She suggested that in large cities like Calgary and Edmonton some voters may know little or nothing about candidates when looking at a ballot.

Coun. Janice Besuijen voiced concern about this change, noting councillors may be worrying about their party affiliation instead of focusing on local issues important to residents.

Johnson responded party affiliation is only optional with J. Besuijen wondering what the point of it was then.

Village of Alix Coun. Ed Cole stated he was concerned about Bill 20’s initial granting of “behind closed doors authority” to the UCP cabinet to remove locally-elected councillors. Cole likened it to the arbitrary gun control regulations approved behind closed doors by the Trudeau government.

“The people of Alix should decide through the ballot box,” said Cole.

Coun. Tim Besuijen observed that many of Bill 20’s changes are similar to authority the provincial government already has over municipalities.

Mayor Rob Fehr observed that Bill 20 could have been introduced more carefully, noting he felt some of the backlash against it stemmed from some people feeling “steamrolled” as the bill was rammed down people’s throats.

Johnson responded a municipal election year is looming and these changes needed to be in place before the campaign starts.

Coun. J. Besuijen acknowledged problem areas like Chestermere but wondered if those few trouble spots justified changing laws.

Johnson responded the problems with Chestermere took years and a lot of money to resolve, and some people involved in that situation felt the system could be streamlined to prevent a situation like that again.

Coun. Cole mentioned a change within Bill 20 granting cabinet authority over public health. “It’s too open,” said Cole.

Johnson acknowledged she also is awaiting clarification on the public health part of the bill.

“This one concerns me,” said Johnson, adding different people will run government in the future and she wanted reassurance the public health authority would be used in the spirit it was intended.

Lacombe County Coun. John Ireland stated he was concerned about unclear wording on conflict of interest; during discussion it was stated that the conflict of interest section referred only to financial questions.

Other sections of Bill 20 discussed included local election campaign donation caps, electronic voting machines, criminal records and mandatory councillor training.

Bill 20 was passed by the UCP majority at the end of the legislature’s spring sitting.

Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, East Central Alberta Review