Alberta amends controversial Bill 20, repeals cabinet power to unilaterally oust councillors

“Ultimately, the decision rests with the voters of the municipality, which is a good place to be.”

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The Alberta government has introduced amendments to its contentious Bill 20 in a move it hopes will assuage concerns over cabinet’s influence over elected municipal officials and bylaws.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver introduced two amendments in the legislature on Thursday to the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act, 2024, which was tabled in the legislature on April 25.

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The first amendment repeals power the bill would have granted to cabinet to decide, behind closed doors, to oust councillors.

The amendment proposes allowing cabinet to remove a municipal councillor by ordering a vote by the public to determine whether a councillor should be removed.

That process would be limited to councillors cabinet has deemed to be “unwilling, unable, or refusing” to do their job, or if such a vote is “in the public interest,” though how either of those criteria will be determined is unclear. It also takes into consideration illegal or unethical behaviour by a councillor.

“This is similar to the recall petition process that can be launched by a resident,” McIver said. “Ultimately, the decision rests with the voters of the municipality, which is a good place to be.”

Currently, the minister can only remove a sitting councillor under very specific circumstances via the municipal inspection process.

The second amendment addresses Bill 20’s proposal to grant cabinet parallel power to repeal or alter bylaws passed by councils.

It proposes setting out a series of requirements that must be met before cabinet can intervene, including where the bylaw exceeds the scope of the Municipal Government Act (MGA), conflicts with the MGA, or the Constitution.

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That criteria also includes any bylaw cabinet believes is “contrary to provincial policy,” though it’s again unclear by what standards that would be determined.

Presently cabinet can only intervene relative to a land use bylaw or statutory plan.

“These amendments keep the intention of these sections while also responding to what our municipal stakeholders have told us,” McIver said.

He earlier said he believes the changes will be enough to assuage some of the concerns with the bill.

“The amendments are very much as a result of conversations with municipal leaders,” he told reporters inside the legislature Wednesday. “We’ll see what they say after it’s on the table.”

McIver added the government still plans to get the bill passed by the end of the current session, scheduled for next Thursday, May 30.

“You can never assume what the legislative assembly will do,” he said. “So all I can say is we plan and hope to get it passed this session.”

‘Did not move the needle’: ABmunis

McIver said he received a letter from ABmunis — which represents 265 municipalities from across the province — on Tuesday asking for a meeting next week and talked to organization president Tyler Gandam on the phone Wednesday.

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“He had an oar in the water on it,” he said of Gandam’s role on the amendments.

Through a news release, ABmunis presented a different version of events around that phone call, saying it lasted less than two minutes with Gandam describing it as “brief and disappointing.”

“I told minister McIver it was too bad we couldn’t sit down and discuss our concerns,” he said.

ABmunis has previously said it wasn’t consulted on the bill and later called for it to be scrapped in its entirety.

The bill also imposed political parties on civic elections in Calgary and Edmonton, despite McIver being unable to point to any specific source of support for the idea with the government’s own survey showing more than 70 per cent of respondents were against allowing candidates to list party affiliations on election ballots.

Other changes in the bill include reintroducing union and corporate donations into local election campaigns, and banning  the use of vote tabulators, a move municipalities warned could add millions of dollars to election costs.

On Thursday, ABmunis issued a statement saying the amendments “did not move the needle” on its concerns over the bill.

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“Alberta Municipalities is disappointed to see the provincial government is not listening to Albertans,” it states, citing continued concern with cabinet’s powers over municipalities.

“We are disappointed with the level of provincial government consultation with Albertans, with municipalities and with municipal associations.”

Along with ABmunis, the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, which represents 69 counties and municipal districts, also spoke out against the new legislation.

Opposition municipal affairs critic Kyle Kasawski accused the government of ignoring public feedback on a bill he characterized as “authoritarian.”

“Danielle Smith wants to control everything, everywhere, all at once, and she knows this legislation isn’t being well-received by Albertans,” he said in a written statement.

“The amendments proposed today … do not address Albertans’ many concerns.”

Time allocation

As it has with Bill 18 and Bill 21, the government on Tuesday invoked time allocation on Bill 20 that limited debate during second reading to one hour.

On Thursday, government house leader Joseph Schow defended limiting debate, calling the Opposition “obstructionist.”

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“If the Opposition is not interested in bringing forth new ideas, then we’re going to move forward in time allocation so that we can get through the legislative agenda.”

He added the government is introducing evening sittings for the planned final four days of sessions next week.

Opposition house leader Christina Gray said the government limiting debate shows its entitlement and called it “frustrating and shameful.”

“Not having enough time in the house impacts Albertans. It doesn’t let them see the bill, see the amendments, and it truly does a disservice to all of Alberta.”

She said the government was on pace to use time allocation more than 50 times, compared to four used by the Alberta NDP when it was in power.

“Time allocation should be used sparingly and it should be used after a significant amount of debate has already happened,” Gray said.

“They feel so entitled to ram through an agenda that they didn’t even run on.”

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