By Trevor Busch
Town council has elected to maintain a selective approach to the approval of political messaging on town property rather than abdicating this power through the formulation of a policy.
On Oct. 9, council had voted 4-3 to defeat a motion from Coun. Carly Firth calling for council to address the public’s concerns regarding Taber Pro-Life benches located in the town cemetery. The benches were a renewed source of controversy in late September after more visitors to the cemetery complained about their location and messaging as inappropriate, which attracted national and provincial media attention.
On Oct. 22, Firth put forward a notice of motion which was passed unanimously by town council for discussion of a potential policy approach to political messaging located on town property, which was in turn included as part of the Nov. 13 council agenda.
“It seems that decisions regarding political statements on town property have not always been dealt with in a consistent manner,” said Firth in opening discussion of the motion on Nov. 13. “Statements of a sensitive nature often bring up our own values and beliefs, and make it difficult to make an unbiased decision. As a municipality, it is not our mandate to show support, or not, for any one cause or group, but to make fair and unbiased decisions for all residents of the town of Taber.”
A large contingent of pro-life supporters were present in council chambers during the meeting to witness the discussion on Nov. 13. Earlier complaints requesting the removal of benches promoting Taber Pro-Life in the local cemetery had been dismissed by previous town council in August 2015 following a 5-2 split vote.
On Oct. 9, Coun. Joe Strojwas had pressed for discussion of the bench issue to be dropped, while arguing that council attention would “fester” the situation rather than let it “die.”
“A consistent policy regarding making or displaying of political statements on town property will remove emotion and bias from the decision-making process,” continued Firth on Nov. 13. “This policy is not intended to target a particular bench, or flag, or cause. The intent is to ensure that we are not picking and choosing causes that align with our own personal belief system, but that the policy and message is consistent and predictable across all town properties. Again, for clarification, political statements refer to any act or non-verbal form of communication that is intended to influence a decision to be made for, or by, a political party.”
Firth’s motion came under immediate attack from Coun. Louie Tams, who argued such a policy would limit the municipality’s commitment to freedom of speech.
“I have a tough time if we’re going to put out a statement that we don’t have anything to do with political parties, because if you drive around right now in Alberta there’s billboards all over that have a picture of the premier and our prime minister, and a slogan to defeat them in the next election. So if we are not going to have any slogans from political parties, come three years from now we’re going to have an election in this town, and all of us as councillors and the mayor if we decide to run again, are going to want to put up a sign to elect so-and-so for council, elect so-and-so for mayor. Although they’re not political parties, it is politics is what we’re doing. Anytime we start doing this, picking and choosing, we’re setting guidelines of what we can and cannot do. We as a council are going to become the morality police? That we’re going to pick and choose the path of what people are supposed to think? I was never elected to tell people what to think. And I don’t think that this motion is going to help that one bit at all.”
Tams would go on to suggest that it was “terrible” for town council to even be discussing such a policy, citing national freedoms cherished by all citizens.
“As things come to councils, and councils have approved things, and then they come back to the next council and they defend it — the decisions that were made are things that are out there, whether it’s a political party, whether it’s a church. Right across the street from us right now is a billboard advertising the Catholic charities supper. If we’re going to start saying you can’t support this, you can’t support that, you can’t have this slogan, you can’t have that slogan, we are going to cause untold grief for this council and for the citizens of the town of Taber. I am not going to become the morality police. I believe what I believe, and I’m entitled to do that as a Canadian. I think this is a terrible motion for us to even be discussing, because we are not in charge of picking or choosing.”
Seizing on Tams’ own phraseology, Firth countered her motion’s intent was to do just that — protect the municipality from allegations that it supports one cause or issue to the detriment of another.
“I would agree that it is not our job to pick and choose — and that is my intent with this motion. Everybody in this country is free to make statements that they believe in on their own property, but we’re dealing with town property. If we’re choosing to support one cause, or one group, over another, I’m afraid that it would appear that the town would be supporting one group over another, and I don’t necessarily think that is our role as a municipality.”
Strojwas was adamant that political messaging on town property does not represent an endorsement of a particular cause by the municipality.
“When a political election comes, and we run for office, we put our signs up on town property all over. When political parties do that, it’s not an endorsement putting a sign on town property. It’s just a matter of how the political process works. And we should leave that political process alone.”
Coun. Garth Bekkering would side with Tams over the issue, pointing to any policy approach as an attempt to limit personal freedoms.
“It seems to me there’s a bit of confusion here. We’re talking about political statements, but we know darn well that there’s a lot of statements that are made that are not political at all. They’re either social, or moral, or personal feelings on a particular subject. So to create a policy of this nature at this time will be counterproductive I believe. Whenever you make a policy so tight, there’s no room for any movement, and you defeat the whole purpose of the freedom of this country.”
Coun. Jack Brewin attempted to draw out some of the contradictory aspects of the town’s historical approach to political messaging, but this discussion would be quickly curtailed over a procedural issue.
“I appreciate everything Councillor Firth is saying here — I think in the electoral act there’s something about that’s allowed so many for an election, the Municipal Government Act — I’m not going to support either cause, pro-life, pro-choice. But what would happen tomorrow if pro-choice wanted to put benches in the cemetery? Would we say OK? I’ll read this quote if I may: ‘A cemetery is a place of rest and a place to mourn, free from the noise and distractions of the world. It is not the stage for social or political positions’.”
Bekkering called Brewin out on a point of order referencing town council’s Oct. 9 decision to not discuss Taber Pro-Life’s benches in the town cemetery.
“Point of order, I don’t think this can be discussed as Councillor Brewin just did, because we dealt with this two meetings ago, and there’s a six month waiting period.”
CAO Cory Armfelt readily agreed with this assessment.
“What I read from the request for decision that this is a general policy to be put in place at the request of a councillor, if the rest of council supports it, to have a clear understanding of political statements, and how political statements might be made in the town, but it doesn’t specifically state anything, it’s much more of a general nature. So I would support Councillor Bekkering’s note on that.”
Ignoring this statement, Coun. Mark Garner would also attempt to centre discussion on Taber Pro-Life’s benches but was interrupted by Armfelt and Mayor Andrew Prokop.
“I hate to cut anybody off, but I believe we should keep the conversation specific to the RFD that’s in front of us, and not any specific location, or specific messages in the town of Taber, because it’s not within the context of the RFD,” said Armfelt. “Councillor Bekkering is right, the motion that was related to a specific bench and a specific location in town was defeated, and cannot be discussed by council for another six months unless there is a two-thirds majority of council that disagree with that.”
Firth’s Oct. 22 notice of motion had included the phrase “in consideration of both existing statements and proposed statements” which could be interpreted as encompassing further discussion of the Taber Pro-Life bench issue. This was certainly how Garner appeared to view the issue when asked if he had any revised statements with regard to the policy discussion.
“No. I think everybody here knows what we’re taking about.”
Taking the offensive, Prokop would push for a concession from Firth over her motion, but the councillor stood her ground.
“I don’t believe the name of an organization is considered a political statement. Is that fair to say Councillor Firth? Do you agree that just the name of an organization is not exactly a political statement?”
“It depends on the organization,” she answered. “There are certain political decisions that are not decided at a municipal level, is I think what I’m trying to get at. And so for a municipality to be taking a side on a political matter that’s not decided at a municipal level, I’m not sure that that’s appropriate on town property.”
“Taking positions on moral issues that are ultimately not decided at the municipal level puts the town at risk,” reads a statement from administration’s background to the bench decision from 2015. “Allowing the benches to stay will open the door to a court challenge that the town would likely lose.”
Following discussion, council voted unanimously to accept Firth’s motion for information only.