'A terrible mistake': Municipal leaders say Alberta's Bill 20 amendments still allow too much power, not enough accountability

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The government’s proposed amendments to Bill 20 introduced Thursday still allow cabinet too much power over local governments with too little accountability, according to the presidents of the two largest organizations that represent municipalities in Alberta.

Bill 20 — the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act, 2024 — was tabled in the legislature on April 25 and outlined a series of changes to local governments that drew near-immediate and widespread backlash.

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Those included granting cabinet expedited powers to unilaterally oust councillors and change bylaws as well as reintroducing corporate and union donations to local elections, banning vote tabulators to count municipal ballots, and imposing political parties on Edmonton and Calgary, despite the government’s own survey showing overwhelming opposition to that idea.

On Thursday, the government attempted to calm some of the concerns around the bill by proposing amendments to the process around cabinet removing councillors and repealing bylaws.

The amendments suggest cabinet would only remove councillors following a public vote or if it is deemed to be “in the public interest,” and bylaws could only be altered if they were seen to be inconsistent with provincial policy, although neither of those terms are defined.

“The amendments are very much as a result of conversations with municipal leaders,” Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver told reporters inside the legislature Wednesday, adding he was hopeful the changes would appeal to local governments.

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“We’ll see what they say after it’s on the table.”

‘Empowered a future monster’

That reaction came Friday when, speaking to Postmedia, Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) president Paul McLauchlin called those parts of the bill “a terrible mistake” and “extremely dangerous.”

“You’ve just empowered a future monster that we don’t know who it is, that is going to hold this over us, and it’s going to make municipal politicians unable to do their job,” he said.

“This government has shown us they have a baseball bat. And, every meeting we show up to, they’ve got a baseball bat now. Are they trying to put us into a small box to put up or shut up?”

He said he’s heard from leaders from the 69 counties and municipal districts the RMA represents that those parts of the bill could hamstring future rural municipal governments, particularly as the province’s population continues to shift to urban areas.

“This is the last rural government, or potentially one of the last rural-focused governments we’re going to have. Future urban-centred governance, you just gave them the ability to hold rural Alberta to command and control. You’ve literally just taken away rural municipal politicians’ ability to support rural Alberta.”

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McLauchlin said some parts of the bill around councillor training and criminal record checks were improvements on the status quo, though his counterpart at Alberta Municipalities continues to call for the legislation to be scrapped in its entirety.

ABmunis president Tyler Gandam told Postmedia Friday that the organization’s 265 municipal members remain troubled over the legislation despite the amendments.

“If I’m speaking out against the province, now is it in the province’s best interest to initiate that recall against me?”

Gandam said he has a meeting with McIver and Premier Danielle Smith set for early June where he hopes to get a better understanding of where the push for some of these changes is coming from.

“We want a good working relationship,” he said. “And, if we can understand better, what their direction is, we can also be the voice for them for our members to provide that explanation as to why legislation like this is coming out.”

Both Gandam and McLauchlin stopped short of calling for McIver’s resignation as minister, though both said their relationship with the province needs to improve.

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“Our friends are punching us in the face right now,” McLauchlin said of the government, adding there were more pressing priorities to be worked on, listing the need for better infrastructure, payment of outstanding taxes from oil companies, and the province paying its full share of property taxes through the Grants in Place of Taxes program as examples.

“You’re not addressing that, but you sure want to know how to weigh in to tell us how to do your bylaws, and you sure want to streamline kicking us out.”

‘Selling a pig to a girl that wants a pony’

McIver was not made available for an interview Friday but his office issued a statement noting further consultations on the regulations for the bill would come over the summer and produce more details on how the legislation could be used.

“Since tabling Bill 20, I have been clear that the bylaw policy would only be used in very rare circumstances, and related to areas that are primarily overseen by the province, such as health care, education, and the provincial economy,” it reads.

“We listened and these amendments reflect the feedback we received.”

McLauchlin stated that he believed McIver was doing the best he could with the bill, but that large parts of it should be removed entirely.

“He’s selling a pig to a girl that wants a pony,” he said.

“He’s got that pig dressed up as best you can, but that little girl wants a pony.”

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