Rural leaders say Bill 20 ‘a hammer to undermine’ municipal autonomy

By Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Alberta’s rural leaders are joining the chorus of opposition to the provinces sweeping amendments to the Municipal Government Act (MGA).

The Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) says it is frustrated with many of the changes contained in Bill 20, the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act, and that the legislation is a serious attack on municipalities which will centralize more control in the hands of the province.

“This is not only an affront to municipalities, but also an affront to democracy in Alberta. Imagine if the federal government decided to pick and choose the provincial policies and leaders that they agreed with, and simply removed those that they didn’t like,” RMA President Paul McLauchlin said in a statement. “Something tells me the provincial response would be one of anger, so it is no surprise that ours is the same when such over-the-top control is directed to local councillors.”

Once Bill 20 comes into force, provincial cabinet would have the power to remove elected councillors if it is “in the public interest,” replacing the existing MGA process which allows for the removal of councillors if they are not in compliance with the standards out in the act.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver said the changes are needed to expedite the removal of local officials, citing the two-year long ordeal to dismiss Chestermere’s city council, and that the criterion of being “in the public interest” was kept vague so the amendment could apply to any number of possible cases.

“This government is using recent high-profile conflicts to justify the introduction of a hammer to undermine the autonomy of all of Alberta’s municipalities. Not only is that unfair to the hundreds of hard-working municipal councillors in the province, but it is also a terrible form of policy making,” McLauchlin said.

McIver has assured municipal leaders that nobody in his cabinet has “an itchy trigger finger” to use the sweeping powers the province is giving itself, McLauchlin said McIver’s word is not enough.

“We’re talking about democratically elected officials that can be removed on the whims of the current government. While this minister may not use the powers, what about the next Minister?”

Bill 20 would also rewrite sections of the MGA to give the province authority to repeal or amend municipal bylaws. These new powers are troubling on their own, but when viewed in the context of other recent developments – such as the introduction of political parties to local politics or new legislation that would require provincial approval for all federal-municipal agreements – the provincial government has amassed several tools to “keep municipalities in line politically,” RMA said in a press release.

“Bill 20 is another step in the province’s quest to exert more control over municipalities and centralize local decision-making,” McLauchlin said.

“Much of what [RMA members] do is behind the scenes and goes unnoticed by the public and the provincial government. Rural municipal leaders are okay with that, but when the province actively undermines the ability of our members to serve their communities, we will not sit back and take it.”