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Alberta Municipalities say proposed provincial bill will create chill effect

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The organization representing Alberta's cities, towns and villages says a bill that would grant the province sweeping new powers over local governments is creating an atmosphere of fear.

Tyler Gandam, president of Alberta Municipalities, said Monday his members are worried about potential repercussions if they disagree openly with the provincial government.

“Alberta Municipalities is concerned that the bill will intimidate and even silence legally-elected officials who dare to criticize the provincial government,” Gandam told reporters, adding the bill sets a dangerous precedent that could undermine the power of local voters.

The proposed law, introduced last week by Premier Danielle Smith's United Conservative Party government, would give cabinet broad authority to dismiss councillors and overturn local bylaws.

Cabinet conversations are confidential and conventionally exempt from public disclosure. That means under the law, the public may not be privy to why a councillor is dismissed.

“The possibility of locally elected officials being removed at any time for any reason is deeply unsettling and likely to have a chilling effect,” Gandam said.

Earlier Monday, Smith said the aim of the proposed legislation is to ensure municipalities are not enacting policies that are out of step with provincial priorities or creep into provincial jurisdiction.

“We would use it very sparingly,” said Smith at an unrelated news conference in Calgary.

The bill would also allow political parties to run in municipal elections - for now in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta's two largest cities.

If passed, the law would also open the door to corporations and unions being able to donate in municipal elections, which was banned by the previous New Democrat government under former premier Rachel Notley.

Smith said the aim is balance, and existing rules on third-party advertisers have so far failed to bring proper oversight or discourage “big money” in local elections.

Still, Gandam said the bill proposes “almost nothing” to improve transparency over financial donations, and independent candidates risk being outspent and drowned out by party candidates who enjoy the financial backing of corporations and unions.

“Bill 20 puts local governments up for sale to the highest bidder,” said Gandam.

The bill came more than two weeks after Smith's government introduced other legislation that would give it the power to veto any deal between the federal government and provincial entities, including municipalities and post-secondary schools.

The Opposition NDP called Monday for the UCP to withdraw the municipal affairs bill from the legislature, echoing reaction last week from elected officials in Edmonton and Calgary, who called it an authoritarian overreach on local democracy.

NDP house leader Christina Gray said it would upend long-standing political norms.

“When people want change in municipal bylaws, do they - instead of talking to their city councillor - now go straight to Danielle Smith?”

Gray also disputed Smith's claim that corporate and union donations are currently flying under the radar.

“We're going to see a flood of money from corporations influencing our elections rather than what Albertans have asked for, which is to have the local voters be the ones who elect their governments,” said Gray.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2024.