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Alberta to overhaul municipal rules to include sweeping new powers, municipal political parties

Click to play video: 'New legislation gives Alberta Government more municipal oversight'
New legislation gives Alberta Government more municipal oversight
The UCP has introduced new legislation that would give the province sweeping new powers over local government. As Jasmine King reports, the changes would not only introduce political parties to civic elections but also give the UCP a say on who sits on council – Apr 25, 2024

The government of Alberta has tabled legislation that will give it sweeping powers over municipalities across the province, including the right to fire councillors and overturn bylaws.

Bill 20, the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act, includes two pieces of legislation: the Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA) and the Municipal Government Act (MGA).

If passed, the amendments to the Municipal Government Act will allow cabinet to remove a councillor “if in the public interest” or to order a referendum to decide whether a councillor should be removed, which will be reviewed in a case-by-case basis.

The amendment will also enable cabinet to require a municipal government to amend or repeal a bylaw, as well as giving cabinet the ability to postpone elections.

Right now, provincial cabinet can only intervene with municipal land-use bylaw or statutory plan. Only the municipal affairs minister can remove a sitting councillor under specific circumstances through a municipal inspection process.

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Click to play video: 'Alberta government tables legislation with new rules around municipalities'
Alberta government tables legislation with new rules around municipalities

The legislation also proposes allowing municipalities to require criminal record checks for candidates as part of their nomination package. Candidates can currently be disqualified for certain criminal convictions on their records, including corruption-related offences.

“Albertans expect fair and free elections, and through this legislation, we are ensuring that locally elected officials are accountable to the Albertans who elect them and make decisions that are clearly in Alberta’s interests and reflect the transparency and fairness that Albertans deserve,” Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver told reporters on Thursday.

Kyle Kasawski, Opposition municipal affairs critic, said municipal councils have a duty to represent the citizens who elect them.

“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,” Kasawski said in an emailed statement.

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On Thursday, municipal politicians were quick to push back against the bill.

Edmonton Coun. Aaron Paquette wrote on social media, “Bend the knee or be fired?

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said that she is left with more questions than answers. While she welcomes criminal record checks for candidates, she raised concerns about other parts of the bill.

“This is a piece of legislation that requires a thoughtful and fulsome response. However, we have little to no details on things that will change the face of municipal governments,” she told reporters at a news conference Thursday.

“The provincial government claims that this is intended to ensure that local elections are transparent, fair and free.

“But I’m left asking why they’ve inserted themselves in municipal governments in a manner that actually strips the voting public’s right to elect the council that they believe is the best to serve?”

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said in a social media post a vast majority of residents don’t want political parties at the local level. He said the legislation would make city council decision-making more toxic and divisive.

“People know that local issues aren’t partisan issues,” he said.

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Gondek added the provincial government is overstepping its authority with the legislation.

“If the people in provincial government are interested in doing the work of municipal government, maybe they should have run for these positions.”

However, McIver said the authority for cabinet to overturn planning decisions has been in place for years but has never been used.

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“We often remind the federal and municipal governments to stay in their lane. And occasionally, perhaps, the provincial government needs to be reminded to stay in their lane, and this is one of those examples,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Alberta Municipalities reject idea of local political parties'
Alberta Municipalities reject idea of local political parties

Alberta Municipalities president Tyler Gandam said the organization representing more than 260 municipalities will be looking for clarification on details of the bill, especially when it comes to allowing cabinet to overturn bylaws and dismiss elected councillors.

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“Why? What are the parameters going to be for them to be able to do that?” he said, adding it’s unclear how political parties could improve city councils.

Political parties to be allowed in municipal elections

The proposed changes would also enable municipal political parties in the October 2025 municipal election, but only as a “pilot project” in Calgary and Edmonton.

Under the proposed legislation, candidates are not required to join a political party in order to run for local office.

Officials said municipal parties cannot be officially affiliated with provincial or federal parties, however, the legislation won’t prevent them from using names similar to existing political parties.

“Party affiliation at the local level is something that happens already, particularly in bigger cities,” McIver said.

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“The amendments we are making will actually create the regulatory authority for the government to define local political parties, which will allow political parties to register with a municipality.

“If and when that happens, the municipality will be required to include a candidates political party on a local election ballot.”

But Kasawski said the municipal councils across Alberta have made it clear they do not want political parties in local elections.

“Citizens of municipalities elect local representatives to serve the best interests of their community, not because of what colour partisan flag they fly,” the municipal affairs critic said.

“Danielle Smith needs to realize that municipal councils are not a farm team for the UCP to carry out their wishes at the municipal level.”

Calgary Ward 13 Coun. Dan McLean told reporters on Thursday that the province is trying to formalize “what already exists,” saying many groups endorse slates of candidates during municipal elections.

However, he said he expects city councillors to remain independent within council chambers because they were elected to represent their constituents.

“I would always hope that councillors would remain independent and represent their ward, regardless whether they were endorsed by a party that leans more towards conservative values …. or more to the left,” McLean said.

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Click to play video: 'Alberta could soon change legislation on municipal political parties'
Alberta could soon change legislation on municipal political parties

Calgary Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott questioned the province’s motives behind the legislation.

He told reporters the new legislation will dissuade independent candidates from running for local office because they will have to respond to a partisan and “divisive” political system.

Walcott also said the party system will create centralized ideologies and will limit the ways councillors are able to represent their constituents.

“Is this really just a matter of the province trying to institute some type of control over municipal elections, because they really can’t handle the fact that municipal councils tend to be independent and the end result is they don’t play the party line as much as they wish we would? Because it would make their life so much easier if other elected officials didn’t ask the questions,” he told reporters.

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“I think the provincial government wants to be the central government, which is always ironic, of course, because there’s so many accusations of socialism and communism. Yet it’s only the province who seems to be trying to become sovereign from the federal government and then now trying to take control of local governments.”

Campaign financing expanded, tabulators banned

The legislation proposes several changes to campaign financing rules, including the reinstatement of union and corporate donations to individual candidates with a $5,000 maximum; previously prohibited during the last municipal election.

Donations will also be allowed outside of the local election year and will require candidates and elected officials to report them annually.

If the legislation passes, third-party advertisers would to report finances when campaigning on a plebiscite issue, after donations were only regulated during the third-party promotion or opposition of a candidate during an election.

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Donations to third-party advertisers would also be limited to a maximum of $5,000 during election periods. Currently, those donations are capped at $30,000.

“This way, Albertans know exactly who is donating and there will be reasonable restrictions that ensure that fundraising does not get out of hand,” McIver said.

“Alberta elections belong to Albertans, so the updates will ensure that only Albertans, Alberta companies and Alberta-based union locals can contribute to issues-based third-party advertising. The proposed changes will make third-party advertisers for issue-based campaigns subject to the same contribution limits as donors to local election candidates.”

Bill 20 will also eliminate electronic tabulators and automated voting machines if passed. All ballots will have to be counted by hand.

The bill will also mandate recounts if they’re requested by a candidate when the margin is within half a per cent of the total votes cast.

Bill is an attempt to create a conservative council: political scientist

Duane Bratt, a political scientist with Mount Royal University in Calgary, said Bill 20 is an attempt to create conservative city councils in Calgary and Edmonton by the province.

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“We’ve had periodic discussions about political parties but not very seriously and the provincial government seems to be gung-ho about this despite public opposition. They don’t appear to be interested in doing this across the board, only in the City of Calgary and Edmonton,” he said.

“(Premier Danielle Smith) has explicitly said that this is about getting rid of progressive mayors and progressive councils. This is a partisan move.”

Bratt also said the bill highlights historical tensions between municipal and provincial governments.

Municipal governments are in the domain of the provincial government and Bratt said Alberta can choose to repeal or amend bylaws and remove councillors if they deem it necessary.

Bratt said he wants more restrictions placed on political fundraising and remove the ability for unions and corporations to donate to political campaigns.

“We don’t often know who is donating to a third party. Third parties are not to coordinate with campaigns … I’d like to toughen those rules up significantly … But I think it’s an important step to remove corporate and union funding of municipal races, whether it’s direct donations or whether it is to third parties,” he said.

“I would also like to see changes to recall legislation … I think the threshold needs to be separate, depending on whether you’re a small town, or whether you’re a major city. I think that all needs to be done. I think we also need financing rules around municipal recall.”

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— With files from Lisa Johnson, The Canadian Press

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