The Village of Alix council is concerned about the Government of Alberta using a heavy-handed approach to influence municipal governments and their concerns were on display during the discussion of three controversial proposed laws at their regular council meeting May 1.

Councillors discussed Bill 18, the Provincial Priorities Act, Bill 19 the Utilities Affordability Statutes Amendment Act and especially Bill 20 the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act. 

Village Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Michelle White stated she added this item to the agenda to ensure councillors were aware of these proposed laws and the significant effect they’ll have on Alix if passed.

Councillors spent most of their time admonishing Bill 20, which includes a number of changes to the Municipal Government Act (MGA), including giving Premier Danielle Smith’s cabinet the authority to remove elected councillors, to quash locally approved bylaws and allow political parties to run candidates in municipal elections, among other changes.

Coun. Ed Cole began the discussion by saying the governing United Conservative Party (UCP) claims Bill 20 improves transparency and also claims to be gathering feedback on Bill 20, yet when urban lobby group Alberta Municipalities (AM), of which Alix is a member, overwhelmingly rejected the bill the UCP moved forward with it anyway; Cole, who identified himself as a UCP member, said he had a problem with the UCP’s “heavy-handed approach.”

Mayor Rob Fehr noted the Alberta government floated the “political parties in local elections” idea to AM and over 90 per cent of the members rejected it. 

Coun. Janice Besuijen added, “But it doesn’t matter. They’re going to proceed with it anyway.”

The CAO interjected, noting it appears the bill will be made law and then the provincial government will consult with municipalities on it. “…This is happening,” said White. “That was said.”

As councillors discussed Bill 20 they opined that it appears if the public opposes an idea from the UCP government the only way to be heard is through a massive backlash and if there is no such backlash that’s taken as support for the idea.

Coun. Cole noted the “political parties” idea will be introduced in Calgary and Edmonton first and won’t be mandatory right away. 

Mayor Fehr stated this idea seems to him to be a “knee jerk” reaction to council controversies in places like Medicine Hat and Chestermere, with Fehr noting there are already laws in place to handle dysfunctional councils. 

“I think they’re getting too involved in this and it’s overreach to me,” said the mayor.

The CAO noted another proposed change is a requirement for municipalities to have a permanent electors registry, a substantial responsibility, while offering no financial assistance. The mayor stated this was another level of strain placed in municipalities while wondering if voter registries are actually a municipal responsibility.

Another proposed change, noted the CAO, is the banning of electronic vote counters, new recount rules and mandatory orientation training for councillors. 

The mayor responded, “That’s knee jerk,” wondering how the UCP government would react if the federal government forced such a law onto provinces.

Coun. Cole agreed with the point, stating the Government of Alberta complains about the federal government encroaching on provincial authority, but then the UCP government encroaches on municipal authority.

Councillors also discussed the proposed method for removing an elected councillor: the premier’s cabinet would have a private meeting to make the decision. Cole observed many Canadians were angry when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the same method for changing gun laws.

Coun. T. Besuijen noted he doubted whether the UCP government would ever actually use that authority but noted they already have a similar authority anyway. Cole responded, “Then why bring this in?”

Coun. Barb Gilliat noted the proposal to quash bylaws essentially means if the province doesn’t like something a council does, “…they can come after you.” The CAO observed provincial laws already supersede any municipal bylaw if in fact a conflict exists.

Mayor Fehr summed up by saying, “U.S. style partisan politics that really have no place in local politics.”

Bill 18 was the first announced of the three proposed laws, and revolves around municipalities placing a tax on utility bills. 

Mayor Fehr, referring to Bill 18 as the “franchise fee” law, stated the proposed law was another attempt by the Government of Alberta to meddle in municipal affairs. “It’s just an overreach, in my opinion,” said Fehr.

Coun. T. Besuijen noted that it’s generally understood in local government that utilities should be “user pay,” meaning users in theory should pay for the entire system through their billing and such system shouldn’t be subsidized by tax dollars. He added that Alix has utilities systems that are “pretty good” at meeting that standard.

Fehr responded by saying it should be up to the communities themselves to decide that. Coun. J. Besuijen agreed. During discussion councillors noted the City of Calgary has a substantial tax on utility bills.

Coun. Cole, when looking at examples the UCP government cites as reasons for these new laws, invariably involve people who appear linked to NDP or Liberal policies. 

“You’re going to get accused of partisan politics here,” said Cole.

Councillors stated the Village of Alix must contact the Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIvor, MLA Jennifer Johnson and Premier Smith with opposition to these proposed laws. Fehr noted Alix already spoke through the AM feedback but the province doesn’t seem to care about that.

Councillors passed a resolution to send their opposition to McIvor, Johnson and Smith.

By Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 08, 2024 at 09:00

This item reprinted with permission from   East Central Alberta Review   Coronation, Alberta

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