Premier Alison Redford has since backpeddled significantly on Bill 28, the Modernizing Regional Governance Act, following a barrage of highly-charged criticism from the opposition that suggested the province was attempting to crush local autonomy and place absolute power in the hands of the provincial government.
After an all-night debate forced by the opposition last Wednesday, Redford announced Bill 28 would not proceed until more thorough consultation with municipalities and municipal leaders could be completed.
“We’re very concerned about that, and we actually still were debating that until about 1:30 this morning (Oct. 30),” said Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Gary Bikman.
“There appears to have been little consultation, they’re trying to take what they’ve done in Edmonton, with the powers that Edmonton has over surrounding jurisdictions, and provide that opportunity to other areas with provincial cabinet-appointed people in charge, with penalties reaching as much as $10,000 or a year in jail for councillors, or jurisdictions that don’t provide the information when they want it.”
Claimed to be for the benefit of all municipalities, Bill 28 would give the provincial cabinet authority to create “growth boards” to tackle the mutual needs of municipalities in close proximity to one another. Powers would include the right to decide the geographical boundaries of the growth boards, appointment of membership, who governs them, what the voting process will be, as well as their overall mandates.
Bylaw decisions made by the growth boards would be subject to approval by the municipal affairs minister.
“There’s just some heavy-handed issues with it,” said Bikman.
“We’ve got lots of amendments — we feel like it’s draconian. I don’t like to use the word to describe this government, but nevertheless, it’s still very applicable. It’s very heavy-handed, and it’s top down. None of the people that we’ve talked to in our area have had any opportunity to consult on it, and to suggest how it would work for them. It has a clause in it that actually gives the provincial government the ability to override any bylaw, or any planning that communities, counties and M.D.s would try and do. We think that’s not in the spirit of respecting each jurisdiction’s ability to represent the people that voted them in.”
Decisions of the bodies would be binding, and would prevent any municipality from passing laws or making planning decisions that violate the board’s pronouncements. Perhaps most shocking, elected officials who fail to cooperate or provide requisite information could face a fine of up to $10,000 or one year in prison.
“It certainly isn’t the way that we would recommend doing business,” said Bikman. “We encourage cooperation, but we need to respect the rights of smaller jurisdictions. It seems to be legislation that’s designed to curry favour with the two major centres in Alberta, at the expense, and with little regard for the smaller communities around them, or for the other parts of the province where these kinds of agencies or boards.”
Municipalities and their elected officials should be allowed to make free decisions for the constituents of their communities, not shackled by provincial ham-handedness, added Bikman.
“They’re management areas, and the cabinet appoints the people that are involved, and gives great power over the lives of citizens who have maybe chosen to live in smaller towns and cities. They might be choosing to have more land for their kids or their families, and commuting to the cities. I think they should be allowed to do that without having the major centres, or anybody, stepping in with the power to override the decisions of their own locally-elected represenatives — that level of government that is the most accountable and does the best job, in my opinion, is the one that is closest to the people impacted by the decisions.”
Bikman views Bill 28 as a continuing example of a provincial government that has lost touch with the people of Alberta.
“I know as a former mayor and village councillor in Stirling, I was very aware that my neighbour might be struggling to pay his taxes. I wanted to make sure I didn’t waste any of his hard-earned money — I felt more accountable to him. But it’s just more of the central planning approach, and the heavy-handedness, that seems to be typical of a government that’s been in power for 42 years. They just lose touch with the little guy.”
Bill 28 has already passed first and second reading in the legislature, but is currently on hold for the time being pending further consultation with municipalities.