Airdrie Mayor, Peter Brown has shared his thoughts on the province's announcement of sweeping changes that they are proposing in the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act.

Although the bill was tabled in Alberta's legislature last week, it has not yet become law. Changes proposed would include enabling political parties at the local level, as well as allowing the province to remove councillors from office and allow the cabinet the authority to require a municipality to amend or repeal a bylaw. 

Mayor Brown stressed that is difficult to comment on specifics as the regulations have yet to come into life. He did however say their there are aspects of the proposal that he feels could have a positive impact on Airdrie.

"... Certainly around the affordable housing that we've been advocating, here's training for municipal elections, which is something we've been advocating for that was not mandatory is now [would be] mandatory."

Other proposals included in Bill 20 also include:

  • Requiring municipalities to offer digital participation for public hearings about planning and development, restricting municipalities from holding extra public hearings that are not already required by legislation; and
  • Enabling municipalities to offer multi-year residential property tax exemptions

Mayor Brown said the question of the cabinet's power to require a municipality to amend or repeal a bylaw is not clear enough to be commented on.

"I'm waiting to see more and seeing it defined as to how this will be implemented and what it could look like to different municipalities because every municipality is different," Mayor Brown added.

Last week, Minister for Municipal Affairs, Ric McIver, said that the overall purpose of these updates to the Municipal Government Act is, 'to establish broad authority for the provincial cabinet to intervene swiftly, but only when necessary'

"... To give municipal[ities] direction when there's a clear risk to the provincial interest or to public health and safety," he said. "My most fervent wish is that this authority is never ever used. We don't want to intervene in municipal matters. We always prefer for municipalities to operate efficiently and within the parameters of the Municipal Government Act. But past experience has taught us this is not always the case."

Mayor Brown said that when it comes to the public safety aspect, there is something to be said for uniformity.

"If you go back in time with COVID-19, municipalities were acting independent of other municipalities, [as it] related to masking bylaws and other health provisions. For me, it was a problem because you've got a large center beside us in the City of Calgary that was doing its thing," he said. " And Airdrie, we decided to leave all health decisions to the health authorities. It created a bit of a conflict in our community."

The wait-and-see approach is something Mayor Brown said will also have to be employed when discussing the proposal by the government which would allow the province to remove councillors from office.

"When you're talking about removing duly elected officials, there has to be some significant judicial process that would have to be included [and] it depends on who you talk to."

McIver noted that the authority to remove a councillor would not replace the municipal inspection process that is currently in place.

"The cabinet would consider the situation very carefully before exercising this authority to ensure that the principles of fairness are being followed... But cabinet needs to have the ability to dismiss a councillor or call a referendum to decide to dismiss a councillor in those very rare situations when it is clearly in the public interest to do so."

The other major change that would impact municipalities is the introduction of politics into municipal elections. McIver confirmed that amendments to the Local Authorities Election Act would allow for political parties at the local level. He underlined that the amendments would, 'create the regulatory authority for the government to define local political parties, which will allow political parties to register with a municipality.'

However, for the time being, political parties would be allowed at the municipal level starting in Calgary and Edmonton as part of a pilot project. Mayor Brown said that the question he would pose to the province is whether this change is trying to fix a problem.

"I came from British Columbia, where municipally elected officials all had a brand, unless they ran as an independent, but most councils were from a different party. I think that for me if I was going to run, I can still run as an independent; so to me, it wouldn't impact me because I still run as an independent," Mayor Brown noted.

He added that observing the system in B.C., he never observed the cross-over between provincial political parties and political alignment within municipalities. 

"But no, I don't feel it's going to be that detrimental to independent thought or people making decisions on their own. However, I really would like to have a better understanding as to why this is coming forward at this time. I've been doing this for four election cycles now and it was never an issue, at least, up until the last six months, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around why the province is going in this direction."

However, the Mayor lauded the province's most recent announcement of the Passenger Rail Master Plan, which will include Airdrie. 

"I'm glad we're here. I know it's billions of dollars and lots of time invested and it's going to take many decades to get there, but we used to offer a day line out of Calgary to Edmonton several years ago," Mayor Brown said. "To me, it's a pretty much a given I would much prefer to be riding a train up there than driving my car in the wintertime. I'm glad that Airdrie is part of the announcement and looking forward to seeing more details as we progress because obviously, they'll probably need some commitment from our community to set up transportation hubs."

While Mayor Brown was not overtly critical of the possibility of politics being introduced into municipal politics, there has been more stark criticism levelled by Alberta Municipalities - the organization which works with, 'elected and administrative leaders of Alberta's municipalities to advocate for solutions to municipal issues' in response to Bill 20.

On Monday, Tyler Gandam, the president of Alberta Municipalities said that the organization doesn't see how it makes local elections any more transparent, free or fair.

"Local government decisions are made in public, contrasted with Bill 20, in which cabinet decisions to dismiss and repeal will be done in secret. Bill 20 is an attempt by the government to centralize strengthen and tighten her government's hold on power. At its heart, Bill 20 does not improve the lives of Albertans it does not build up our province," Gandam said. "Bill 20 threatens our society because it threatens to split us apart. Without a healthy, fair and secure democracy."

Since last week, the NDP has also put out several statements lambasting Bill 20. On Monday, Irfan Sabir, Alberta NDP Critic for Justice and Public Safety stated that the Premier was, 'setting up a totalitarian government for herself.'

"Bill 20 gives [Premier Danielle} Smith sweeping powers to overrule local bylaws, dismiss any councillor or mayor at her whim, and give her Minister final say over recall petitions," the statement read. "Plus, this Bill will allow for local election donations to be gathered into campaign war chests outside of an election year and for party banners to be formed at the local municipal level in Edmonton and Calgary."

A second reading of the bill is slated for next Monday.

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