Alberta to amend Bill 20 in face of widespread backlash

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver said the government would amend parts of the bill that grant cabinet new, unilateral powers to other councilors as well as repeal or amend local bylaws

Published May 02, 2024Last updated 1 hour ago3 minute read

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In the face of widespread opposition, the Alberta government says it now plans to amend its contentious Bill 20 to further clarify elements that give cabinet new, unilateral powers to oust a councilor as well as to repeal or amend local bylaws.

Bill 20 — the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act, 2024 — was tabled in the legislature last week but drew near immediate widespread criticism.

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Much of the backlash came in response to those new authorities the government was granting itself, with Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi describing the legislation as “intimidation.”

On Thursday, a week after the bill was introduced, Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver issued a statement indicating changes to the legislation were coming.

“We will be working with municipalities to propose amendments to the legislation and clarify that this would only be used in very limited circumstances,” it reads in reference to the ability to remove councillors.

The bill would grant cabinet the ability to remove a councilor if cabinet deemed it to be “in the public interest” though it sets out no criteria for how that would be determined, with McIver saying last week it would be decided on a “case- on-base basis.”

By convention, discussions within cabinet meetings are kept secret.

He said in his Thursday statement that the power would be “used as a last resort,” echoing his comments from last week that “our most fervent wish is to never ever use this authority.”

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The ability to remove councilors already exists, but municipal leaders have argued the bill shifts what had been a public process to a private one with little oversight or accountability.

McIver’s Thursday statement goes on to present a similar message regarding the potential ability to repeal or amend bylaws, stating it would be used in “very limited circumstances” and in areas primarily overseen by the province, including health care, education, the provincial economy, or public safety.

Currently, cabinet can compel councils to amend or repeal land-use bylaws. Bill 20, as written, would extend that authority to all bylaws.

McIver’s statement did not address other parts of the bill that have been drawn by municipal officials.

Those include imposing political parties on Calgary and Edmonton despite an apparent lack of support for doing so, as well as a ban on electronic vote-counting machines that comes over objections from municipal leaders who say it will needlessly add millions to elections costs.

Changes to municipal election financial rules that reintroduce union and corporate donations to local elections were also unaddressed.

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‘A step in the wrong direction’: Sohi

Opposition municipal affairs critic Kyle Kasawski said that without more details on how the bill might be changed, McIver’s statement provides little clarity.

“It seems to say, ‘Trust us, we’ll deal with this,’ ” he said. “It still reads like authoritarian legislation that’s going to come in and change our democracy here in Alberta.”

Sohi said he looks forward to giving McIver feedback and that in his view the bill remained “an attack on local democracy.”

“Any action that impedes our ability to represent our residents is a step in the wrong direction.”

The two organizations that represent municipalities in Alberta have also spoken out against the bill.

The Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA), which represents 69 counties and municipal districts, referred to the legislation earlier this week as “an affront to democracy.”

On Thursday, RMA president Paul McLauchlin said in a statement that he welcomes the commitment from the province, but that it should’ve happened before the bill was drafted.

He added the RMA remains concerned over the new cabinet powers which he said should be removed from the bill, or at the very least, be more clearly restricted.

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“They absolutely must be scoped in a way that ensures they will deal only with extraordinary circumstances and cannot be weaponized or politicized by the current or future provincial governments to interfere in legitimate municipal decisions they don’t like.”

Alberta Municipalities president, and mayor of Wetaskiwin, Tyler Gandam said he and his organization’s 265 municipal members remain concerned about the potentially unchecked power to remove democratically-elected councillors.

“We’re still wondering, who decides that that’s the public interest, and how is it that it’s done in a fair and democratic way?”

I have echoed McLauchlin’s remarks that the government should have consulted better with municipalities ahead of time.

“We could have had this conversation and saved all of this pushback over the last week.”

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