This northern Alberta town wants Bill 20 to change


ATHABASCA – Athabasca city councillors are joining the growing list of municipalities opposing Bill 20. They had instructed Mayor Rob Balay to send a letter to Premier Danielle Smith recommending that her government withdraw or amend the bill.

Much has been said about the provincial government’s announcement of Bill 20, Law amending the municipal statutesCritics say the bill gives the province too much power.

“The ability for the provincial government to fire elected municipal officials, including mayors and councillors, goes against the very notions of democracy that we are built on,” said Councillor Sara Graling. “Whether you like what a government does or not, at every level they are elected.”

Balay raised the issue with his fellow councillors along with a package from Alberta Municipalities (ABMunis) highlighting the group's recent commitment to the province's municipalities.

“I was really shocked to see how many ads Alberta municipalities had on this issue,” said councillor Ida Edwards of ABUnis. She bought five different ads on YouTube that reached 500,000 views as of May 8. “They offered some very good comparisons between the actual situation and the changes (the province) is proposing.”

“I think the biggest concern is finding a collaborative and trustworthy consultation to update this. I think that's important, and I don't think that exists.”

AB Munis highlighted four major concerns about the bill: it will increase the money supply and unfair taxation in local elections, increase partisanship rather than promote respect, increase accountability to political parties rather than to citizens, and increase accountability of council members to the provincial cabinet rather than to citizens.

Yes to that, no to that

Bill 20 would both Local Government Act (MGA) and the Law on Elections to Local Authorities (The LAEA (Law and State Equality Act) has various effects on local politics, for example by allowing provincial parties to enter local politics, allowing the recall of a local councillor if it is deemed “in the public interest”, and by allowing businesses and unions to contribute to local election campaigns.

Since the announcement on April 25, local politicians and ABUnis have repeatedly stressed that the draft law contains some good elements.

Positive aspects cited included a requirement for councillors to attend orientation training, multi-year tax breaks for residential property and a clause allowing the Minister of Local Government to determine the circumstances under which a local election can be postponed in the event of an emergency, including natural disasters.

Graling also stressed the lack of dialogue with municipalities. On May 2, Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver issued a statement acknowledging the need for certain changes, but Athabasca City Council was still in the dark about what those changes might be.

Due to time constraints, Bill 20 was to be amended by the provincial parliament the day after their meeting before it was adjourned.

“There are many aspects to this bill,” Balay said. “I think we have to give a lot of credit to ABUnis; they've done a very good job in their lobbying efforts and data collection.”

“Ultimately, the government still has the ability to do what it wants, but we need to make sure our voice is heard.”

Amendments take into account concerns

The province made two changes to the bill on May 23 after communities had their say. Instead of unilaterally removing council members, the province can call a vote, similar to existing removal legislation.

“One of my biggest concerns was that the minister or the government would remove a councilor or mayor, but with the change they have made now, it has to be the voters,” Balay said in an interview on May 30. “They could instruct the CAO to hold a plebiscite or referendum to remove the councilor or mayor in question.”

“Then at least it is up to the people who elected the person to make the final decision as to whether they want to keep that person.”

The Second Amendment proposes a number of conditions that would have to be met before the province could repeal a municipal charter, including if the province believes it exceeds the scope of the MGA, conflicts with the MGA, or violates the Constitution.