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‘An attack on local democracy:’ Edmonton mayor rebukes province’s new municipal governance bill

Edmonton elected officials and political scientists are skeptical about proposed changes to legislation by the Alberta government, which they say would affect the way municipalities govern.  

“I see Bill 20 as an attack on local democracy,” Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi told CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active Thursday. “This is going to undermine local decision-making and it’s going to hurt our communities.” 

Introduced in the legislature Thursday, the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act would give the Alberta cabinet authority to dismiss councillors in any municipality and repeal bylaws already passed by a council. 

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver said the provision would be rarely used, but it is important for cabinet to have the power if needed. 

“I think the public will judge cabinet kindly or harshly depending upon the facts and the circumstances around when this decision is made.”

McIver introduced the bill, which would amend two current pieces of legislation: the Local Authorities Election Act and the Municipal Government Act. 

Bill 20 also introduces a pilot for political parties for Calgary and Edmonton local elections.

“Meddling in municipal elections and introducing political parties into local decision-making are something Edmontonians have never asked for,” Sohi said.

‘Not listening’

Tyler Gandam, president of Alberta Municipalities and mayor of Wetaskiwin, questions the move to give cabinet the authority to remove a councillor or repeal a bylaw.

“I’d like to see an example of why this needs to be in the legislation,” Gandam said in an interview Thursday.

“It’s taking away our ability to govern and represent our residents.” 

LISTEN | Edmonton Mayor responds to proposed changes to municipal legislation:

Radio Active11:39Mayor Sohi on the province’s new municipal elections bill

This afternoon the province introduced Bill 20, full of changes to municipal elections. Amarjeet Sohi is Edmonton’s Mayor.

The government conducted a survey last fall, giving Albertans the chance to provide input on potential changes to local elections and councillor accountability. 

The survey showed about 70 per cent of respondents didn’t want political parties introduced to municipal elections.

Alberta Municipalities, representing 265 municipalities around Alberta, commissioned another survey, which also showed 70 per cent of respondents oppose a party system for municipalities. 

“It tells me that they’re not listening to Albertans,” Gandam said. 

‘Micromanaging’

Brendan Boyd, MacEwan University assistant professor of political science, said the proposed changes may not be the best for good independent governance. 

Boyd said Bill 20, along with the Provincial Priorities Act, Bill 18, introduced by the Alberta government earlier this month, gives the impression the province is “micromanaging” municipalities. 

“One of the things that is valuable about local government is the flexibility to go out and make decisions based on local realities and be closer to citizens and have that closeness that builds trust, which is necessary for our democratic system,” he said.

A man with glasses speaks at a podium.
Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver speaks at a news conference Thursday announcing Bill 20, the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Boyd said he worries that the legislation could change the way councillors make decisions, since the province could repeal or change any bylaw, or even unilaterally remove a member of council. 

Municipal governments are trusted the most in Canada in part, he said, because they are non-partisan. 

“The big problem with political parties is they end up representing the party to constituents rather than the other way around,” he said. 

Boyd said one positive change he sees in the legislation is making orientation training mandatory for councillors.

Andrew Knack, city councillor for Ward Nagota Isga, echoes Sohi’s concerns and is worried that political parties will affect how local governments behave and influence who will run.

“That is an assault on every municipal government across this province,” Knack said in an interview Thursday.   

“In terms of the things that most fundamentally impact the democratic process, it’s actually getting worse in almost every single way possible.”

Among the changes, will giving corporations and unions the ability to donate to directly candidates again, after it was removed for provincial candidates in 2015, which Knack said he sees as a step backward. 

Sarah Hamilton, councillor for Ward sipiwiyiniwak, said she thinks some changes are positive, like mandatory council training, but she wants to the province to work with municipalities. 

“In reality, we can’t understand the full impact of these changes without conversation with the provincial government. We know municipal government needs to be modernized, but municipalities need to be partners in that process.”

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