The province has announced that a new bill, known as The Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act would, among other things enable political parties at the local level, as well as allow the province to remove councillors from office and allow the cabinet the authority to require a municipality to amend or repeal a bylaw. The bill was tabled in the Alberta Legislature on Thursday.

Municipal Government Act (MGA)

Proposed changes to the MGA include mandatory orientation training for councillors, allowing elected officials to recuse themselves for real or perceived conflicts of interest without third-party review and requiring a councillor’s seat to become vacant upon disqualification.

"The overall purpose of these updates to the Municipal Government Act is to establish broad authority for the provincial cabinet to intervene swiftly, but only when necessary; to give municipal[ities] direction when there's a clear risk to the provincial interest or to public health and safety,' said Minister of Municipal Affairs, Ric McIver.

McIver underlined that it is not the desire of the province to intervene in municipal politics.

"My most fervent wish is that this authority is never ever used. We don't want to intervene in municipal matters. We always prefer for municipalities to operate efficiently and within the parameters of the Municipal Government Act. But past experience has taught us this is not always the case."

Speaking to the amendment that would allow the provincial cabinet to remove a local councillor, McIver stated that this too will only be sought when needed.

"This authority will not replace the municipal inspection process that is currently in place. The cabinet would consider the situation very carefully before exercising this authority to ensure that the principles of fairness are being followed... But cabinet needs to have the ability to dismiss a councillor or call a referendum to decide to dismiss a councillor in those very rare situations when it is clearly in the public interest to do so."

Another proposed change is to make Municipal Affairs responsible for validating recall petitions. 

"Currently, it is the job of the local Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of a municipality to count and validate the signatures on a recall petition. I have heard loud and clear from many CAOs across Alberta, that this puts them in a tenable position where they have to decide on whether their boss gets fired or not. It's not fair to them, and we're going to fix it," McIver said. "We are shifting that work to the Municipal Affairs Minister. It makes sense for the provincial government to assume the work of validating recall petitions, and informing locally elected officials whether or not a recall petition has been deemed sufficient."

Other proposed changes include:

  • Exempting non-profit, subsidized affordable housing from both municipal and education property taxes.
  • Requiring municipalities to offer digital participation for public hearings about planning and development, restricting municipalities from holding extra public hearings that are not already required by legislation; and
  • Enabling municipalities to offer multi-year residential property tax exemptions.

"Municipal Affairs will engage municipalities and other partners over the coming months to hear perspectives and gather feedback to help develop regulations," a provincial press release stated.

Politics entering municipal elections?

McIver confirmed that amendments to the Local Authorities Election Act would allow for political parties at the local level. He underlined that the amendments would, 'create the regulatory authority for the government to define local political parties, which will allow political parties to register with a municipality.'

However, for the time being, political parties would be allowed at the municipal level starting in Calgary and Edmonton as part of a pilot project.  

"If and when that happens, the municipality will be required to include a candidate's political party on a local election ballot. But let me be clear, the changes we are making will not require anyone running for local office to join a political party or to register as a party candidate; all of that will always be 100 per cent optional."

He said that this creates an option for candidates to represent a local political party if they wish.

".. And local political parties will be local, they will not have any formal affiliation with a provincial or federal political party. There will be no sharing of funds or voter lists between provincial and federal political parties and local parties. In other words, local government will remain local."

Campaign Financing

The proposed changes in the way of campaign financing are that it will allow donations from unions and private corporations and remove the restriction on donating before the municipal election year, which McIver said is similar to what happens in provincial elections.

"At the same time, we will be adding strict rules around eligible donations and public transparency and reporting will ensure that unions and corporations do not have disproportionate influence on local elections. We are also requiring incumbents or prospective candidates to report annually on the funds they have raised to provide transparency about their financial backing and where it comes from."

Third-party advertising

The proposed changes in terms of third-party advertising see to it that only Alberta companies and Alberta-based local unions can contribute to issues-based third-party advertising.

"We are also requiring incumbents or prospective candidates to report annually on the funds they have raised to provide transparency about their financial backing and where it comes from," McIver stated. "This way Albertans know exactly who is donating and there will be reasonable restrictions that ensure that fundraising does not get out of hand." 

The proposed changes will make third-party advertisers for issue-based campaigns subject to the same campaign contribution limits as donors to local election candidates. Third-party advertisers will not be able to accept contributions greater than $5,000. Third-party advertisers will also have to report their campaign expenses.

Local Authorities Election Act

The government also announced that it wants to eliminate the use of electronic tabulators and other automated voting machines in the upcoming 2025 municipal elections.

"Eliminating the use of electronic tabulators will give confidence to Albertans that their votes are being counted correctly. It's also important for Albertans to have certainty that everyone who casts a ballot in a local election in Alberta is eligible to do so. To that end, we are removing the ability for people to vote, for electors, who do not produce official identification at a polling station that proves their address or post office box," McIver said. "Anyone showing up at a polling station for a local election will need to show ID proving they are a resident of Alberta."

Other changes include that municipal voter lists will not be shared with candidates.

"We will no longer allow municipalities to share voter names and contact information with candidates seeking local office. We are also making it easier with appropriate safeguards for Albertans to access special ballots, often called mail-in ballots. Any Albertan who is on a municipality's permanent election register will be able to access a special ballot if they wish and that will be the only condition outside of being registered."

Criticism of Bill 20 

The province's official opposition issued a statement on Bill 20. Kyle Kasawski, Alberta NDP Critic for Municipal Affairs, stated that municipal councils from across Alberta have been very clear about now wanting municipal political parties. 

"[Municipalities] They know best how to run their own affairs. What municipalities need are appropriate funds so that they can fix the crumbling infrastructure in their communities and to pay for the programs that Albertans deserve. Municipal councillors have a duty to represent the citizens who elected them, and they deserve a provincial government that supports them as a partner."

Previously, Didsbury's town council was vocal against party politics in municipal affairs. In March, thentown council passed a motion to support Alberta Municipalities’ efforts to keep political parties out of local elections.

"Both Alberta Municipalities [ABmunis], the group representing cities and towns of all sizes across Alberta—including the Town of Didsbury, and Rural Municipalities of Alberta, the group representing rural municipalities including Counties, are speaking against changes being proposed by the Alberta UCP government. These changes include the addition of political parties to municipal government. It appears the majority of Albertans are also opposed," a previous release from the town stated.

The town added that responses to the Government of Alberta’s online survey show that 70.3 per cent of Albertans disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that, 'the electoral ballot should be amended to allow political parties to be listed by municipal candidates.'

"It is especially important at the municipal level, which elected representatives are representing the people of the community, and only the people of the community," Mayor Rhonda Hunter previously said. "The current system of nonpartisan politics in municipal government creates a platform for healthy dialogue and debate amongst elected officials that benefits the people we serve in our communities. The interests of the community as a whole are priority—not meeting or following party lines."

Deputy Mayor, Curt Engel added that for communities like Didsbury, it is duly important to understand the implications of the potential changes. Engel made the motion for council to send a letter to Alberta Municipalities, confirming their support of the group’s advocacy efforts, and to share with the public information about the proposed Government of Alberta changes and Didsbury Council’s stance on the topic.

In February, the President of Alberta Municipalities, Tyler Gandam, said that local governments should be safe spaces for conversation and dialogue among neighbours without what he believes is the divisiveness or vitriol that is observed at provincial and federal political levels.

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