By Trevor Busch
Despite public promises to the contrary, Taber town council has voted to deny a review of the town’s controversial Community Standards Bylaw, which focused international attention on the community in early 2015.
At their Oct. 26 meeting, council voted 4-3 to decline requesting a review of Community Standards Bylaw 4-2015. Coun.(s) Andrew Prokop, Laura Ross-Giroux and Mayor Henk DeVlieger voted in opposition to the motion. Coun.(s) Rick Popadynetz, Randy Sparks, Jack Brewin and Joe Strojwas voted in favour.
“There were conversations at that time, public statements made that we would look at it in six months,” said CAO Greg Birch, prior to the vote. “Talking with the mayor a while back, we wanted to look at that promise. We would start that initiative if you wanted to do that.”
Taber town council passed Community Standards Bylaw 4-2015 in late February by a 6-1 margin. The only dissenting vote was cast by Coun. Joe Strojwas, who at the time objected to the vagueness of certain articles in the bylaw, as well as other inclusions which could be more properly enforced under the Criminal Code of Canada.
“I feel there should be no need for a review of this. It’s a waste of time,” said Coun. Jack Brewin. “I haven’t heard anyone complain about it since we installed it or instigated it. We made a decision, and it’s working.”
Since its passing, the bylaw inflamed a passionate response from Canadians on both sides of the issue from across the country, including provincial, national, and international media, as well as lighting up the online world through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
Objections centered primarily on articles prohibiting an assembly of more than three persons under certain circumstances, as well as yelling, screaming, swearing or spitting in a public place. At the time, legal and constitutional experts roundly attacked both articles as clear violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux’s view of the bylaw was less charitable than Brewin’s, acknowledging some of the public outcry that occurred at its passing.
“I’d like to see how it’s working myself, personally. I’d like to see some numbers if this really has made a difference. And it might need tweaking.”
Ross-Giroux indicated she had concerns regarding inclusions targeting assemblies of more than three persons.
“The gathering of two or more, I think is not great. But I’d like to see the results.”
Administration’s recommendation, which was declined, was for council to request the Taber Municipal Police Commission consult with the Taber Police Service, and other parties as necessary, to review the wording and effectiveness of Bylaw 4-2015 (Community Standards Bylaw) and make any recommendations for change that the commission believes is necessary.
“Do we not have some kind of report or breakdown from the police service as to just what they’ve encountered as difficulties or any numbers attached to this that are problematic, or any recommendations they may have as a result?” questioned Coun. Andrew Prokop. “As Laura (Coun. Ross-Giroux) said, I think it’s key to know all the pieces before we make any kind of decision.”
Any review of the bylaw would likely be led by the Taber Municipal Police Commission and the Taber Police Service, the organizations that were primarily responsible for the bylaw’s original formulation and wording.
“I agree with my fellow councillors here on statistics,” said Coun. Rick Popadynetz. “I’d like to see the statistics come back to us, to see how much teeth this bylaw actually has, and what to do with it as we go forward.”
Although bearing similarities to bylaws already adopted in other Alberta municipalities, the adoption of Bylaw 4-2015 received international attention, even being referenced in pop culture on comedy programs such as the CBC’s “This Hour Has 22 Minutes”.
At the time, Mayor Henk DeVlieger conducted numerous media interviews as a result of the attention, stating publicly that council would review the bylaw’s effectiveness after a period of six months, a promise that was confirmed publicly by DeVlieger on several occasions since the spring of 2015.
“It has been quite a commotion, and comments were made, including myself, that we would look at this after some time and see how it works. Let’s get back to the public,” said DeVlieger.
According to administration, at the time of its implementation the intention of the bylaw was to establish “general regulations for citizen conduct” in the Town of Taber, and to create a system of enforcement “that was easier — for both the police and public — than using the court system”.
“The recommendation is asking us to proceed with it. We don’t have those statistics,” said Coun. Joe Strojwas, who was alone among council in suggesting the idea of a review could be revisited in 2016. “I’m agreeing with Councillor Brewin here, we’re spinning our wheels here on an issue that will eat up valuable time going into budget season. We’ve got more important things to deal with than this. Let’s just have them bring some statistics to it, leave to the spring until we have more time to address this.”
Historically, attempts to legislate some behaviours or morality in Canada have often been met with failure, such as various inclusions in the Criminal Code of Canada governing sexual acts that were famously removed under Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s watch as federal justice minister in the late 1960s.
Similarly, the prohibition of alcohol in Canada is perhaps the most familiar example of morality-based legislation that later proved to be an abject failure, while changing attitudes and opinions today about the current prohibition of marijuana is leading to successful legalization efforts in various U.S. states, as well as a rising political awareness among Canadian legislators.
“This says nothing about administration doing anything. Nothing,” said Coun. Randy Sparks. “It’s putting it all back on the police commission and the police service. And so I think the police commission and the police service should be asked if they’re willing to do anything about all this, before we force them into it. I, for one, agree with Councillor Brewin and Councillor Strojwas — I don’t need numbers, because I don’t hear anything on the police commission end of it or anything like that, that there’s been any issues — nothing. Nothing’s come back saying ‘Oh boy, we’ve got a huge issue here’. I don’t want to open this up because of the all the crap we went through the first time, and I don’t think it’s necessary to open that up again, because obviously it’s been doing just fine, because if it’s not we’d be receiving reports from the police service.”
According to the Taber Police Service, the Community Standards Bylaw has been an effective tool for law enforcement since its implementation, although it wasn’t exactly specified how many bylaw investigations in a six month period pertained to the Community Standards Bylaw itself — an outcome which was readily admitted by the service.
“TPS conducted 342 bylaw investigations to the end of September 2015,” said Chief Alf Rudd in a statement last week. “Charges have not been required in most incidents, as corrective actions were taken, these matters largely related to traffic and property maintenance issues. TPS used sections in the Community Standards Bylaw in relation to neighborhood noise and fighting in public issues when called upon to do so or when such behaviours were observed by officers patrolling. Again, in these instances charges were not required as the authority granted under the bylaw allowed the officers to step in and take actions to resolve the matter. In terms of dealing with large gatherings of people the bylaw has been an effective tool to permit officers to disperse those who have engaged in activities that are likely to alarm or disturb the public.”
Rudd went on to suggest that the opinion or objections of law enforcement to various legislation should never be viewed as an attempt to override the decisions of elected municipal bodies.
“It is the role of the police to respect the boundary between us and the town council. That being said the police do have a role to advise and provide the benefit of our statistics, analysis and experience when called upon to do so. In the event we become aware of shortcomings in a bylaw our input through proper channels has always been welcomed and receives due consideration.”