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With Bill 20, Danielle Smith sows fear and loathing (and confusion) in Alberta councils, big and small

It’s hard to get 260 Alberta municipal governments to agree on much, which is why their blanket organization seldom has anything provocative to say.

What advocacy points can members as disparate as Calgary, Lethbridge, the town of Two Hills and the villages of Czar, Barons and Bawlf agree on? Safer fare, typically — suggestions that the province should consult more widely, or provide predictable funding for infrastructure, and more of it.

This is why it’s worth noting when the leader of Alberta Municipalities (ABmunis) doesn’t mince words in reaction to the legislation that gives the provincial cabinet enhanced powers to unilaterally remove councillors and repeal or change local bylaws.

“Bill 20 is an attempt by the provincial government to grab more power and wield more control over how people choose to live in their own communities,” ABmunis president Tyler Gandam told reporters this week.

“I can’t say this strongly enough: if passed, the proposed legislation will fundamentally redraw the blueprint of our local democracy and alter how people’s local needs are met and who represents them.”

A man stands behind a podium.
Tyler Gandam, the president of Alberta Municipalities, calls some of the Bill 20 measures a ‘power grab’ that has some local leaders afraid of being punished for not agreeing with the UCP. (Alberta Municipalities)

There’s been much commentary on how Premier Danielle Smith and her United Conservatives have sparred with the councils of Edmonton and Calgary over matters like the single-use plastics bylaws and neighbourhood rezoning.

And after her recent bill on federal deal gatekeeping took aim at some of the major deals those cities struck on housing and electric buses, Bill 20 seemed to have them in its crosshairs too — after all, only those two municipalities are getting the partisanized election system that municipal leaders had widely opposed.

Indeed, the sweeping legislation to overturn municipal decisions gets called “authoritarian” by Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, and that it “strips the voting public’s right” to choose their path by Mayor Jyoti Gondek of Calgary.

The UCP’s manoeuvre on low-income transit passes, for just those cities, seemed to bolster that perception, even if Smith’s team thought better of that budget cut after a day.

But it’s not just the cities that went majority NDP last election that feel threatened by Bill 20.

Down towns

The vocal dissent is also coming from those smaller communities that reliably vote conservative.

“Overruling municipal bylaw authority calls into question the integrity of a municipal council,” said Didsbury Mayor Rhonda Hunter. 

“They need to quit meddling in our business,” said St. Paul Mayor Maureen Miller, who criticized the unnecessary new “super-powers.”

Grande Prairie Coun. Dylan Bressey protested: “This government doesn’t appear to see municipal governments as a legitimate, fully elected, order of government, they’re increasingly seeing us as a wing of the provincial government, which is not how I think local voters feel.”

Responses range from perplexed to anxious to irked about Bill 20 among elected members in Okotoks, Red Deer and Red Deer County, Medicine Hat, Foothills County, Diamond Valley, Cold Lake and Bonnyville.

There’s also a chill factor this bill creates, said ABmunis’ Gandam, the mayor of Wetaskiwin. He said that’s why the umbrella group is being so vocal.

“The possibility of locally elected officials being removed at any time for any reason is deeply unsettling and likely to have a chilling effect on councillors who might otherwise speak out against the provincial government,” he said.

Rural Municipalities of Alberta, which represent the counties and municipal districts that form the true core of the UCP’s power base, also spoke in harsh terms about the bill. That group said the proposals would “degrade municipal autonomy” and “attacks local democracy.”

Mayors, reeves and councillors are now accusing Smith of the same sort of turf-trampling jurisdictional intrusions that she’s steadily accused the federal government of doing.

Of course, as she and Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver state, this is a different beast, constitutionally. There are clearly divided lines of provincial and federal jurisdiction in Canada’s establishing document, and it also declares that municipalities are the creation and domain of the provinces.

Great power, great responsibility

While this is true, there’s more than a century of practice at stake here that mayors are defending. Municipal bodies are duly elected, and their authorities ought to be respected.

The province already does wield considerable authority over what local councils can and cannot tax, and they do have extraordinary powers to remove council members — see Chestermere — and even quash land-use planning or zoning decisions.

But premier after premier has largely resisted wielding those powers. This premier wants to upgrade them, and the worry is that like Chekhov’s gun of drama lore, you don’t introduce a weapon unless you intend to use it.

This week’s surprise yanking — and then backtracking — on provincial support for low-income transit passes for Calgary and Edmonton adds an intriguing wrinkle to the turf debate. After all, when Calgary first proposed the deeply discounted passes, some councillors argued that poverty support measures were provincial jurisdiction, while supporters insisted the city must step in where the province was falling short.

A man stands at a podium.
Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver has said the government didn’t want to put limits or guardrails on their proposed new powers because they’d never know what circumstances would force them to overturn a local bylaw or eject a councillor. (Emilio Avalos/Radio Canada)

While McIver said he would only use the bylaw-thwarting measure as a “last resort,” his bill puts no parameters or limitations on the cabinet power, not wanting to constrain it because he can’t imagine the myriad ways or reasons the government may want to use it.

And he predicts any cabinet would use fear of public backlash in an election as an internal limitation against overreach. “The greatest guardrail of all is the public pressure,” he said.

Smith refused to set her own rhetorical parameters on where it would or wouldn’t be used. She wouldn’t say this week if she’d have applied this power to nix the big cities’ plastic forks bylaws that she’d railed against this winter. But she did cite two municipal decisions the UCP has stepped in on — Edmonton’s city mask mandate and, this month, Calgary’s utility access fee.

“That gives you an example of the kind of thing that causes us concern at the municipal level,” the premier said. “So we would use it very sparingly, but we want to make sure that municipalities are not creeping into provincial jurisdiction and that they’re [not] enacting policies that are out of step with the kind of policies that we’re trying to implement at the provincial level.”

However, Calgary’s Enmax fee structure wasn’t new to Premier Smith’s time — they’d had it in place for decades, including back when Smith was a lobbyist pushing against it in 2006. So to other premiers, until this one came around, that was left as a local decision.

When she undid it, the law required her to use legislation, which at least gets publicly tabled and debated — like every municipal bylaw in Alberta. 

Cabinet of secrets

Local leaders especially worry that Smith’s Bill 20 allows closed-door cabinet meetings to quash councils’ publicly deliberated policies, and that it’s subject to the whims of how the premier of the day thinks it complements the governing party’s policy.

McIver says that, now having put out the bill, he’ll consult on its many provisions. But based on his stout defence of his government’s ideas, he doesn’t seem to have much interest in backing down on establishing political parties for the big cities, or banning vote-counting machines, or the other new cabinet powers to get rid of disagreeable elected members or their decisions.

After backlash in 2022, Smith permitted amendments to her keystone Sovereignty Act, to remove cabinet authority to privately alter provincial laws as ministers felt necessary. One wonders if the pushback from councils large and small might prompt similar changes in this powerful bill, or how far a move like that would go to blunt the screams about what the premier is doing to local democracy.

Calgary Eyeopener9:45Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister on Bill 20

<p>Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister, Ric McIver, on the new provincial bill that would give cabinet new powers over municipalities.</p>

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