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UCP able to remove councillors and axe city bylaws in new sweeping bill aimed at municipal politics

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The Government of Alberta wants to change how municipalities handle elections and local politics.

Thursday, the province tabled Bill 20, the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act.

If passed, it would give the Alberta government more control over local elections and locally elected officials, introduce political parties on municipal ballots and ban automated voting machines. 

The province said the bill aims to strengthen accountability and reduce "red tape," but critics called it "shocking" and "heavy-handed."

The proposed changes would give ministers the power to remove elected municipal councillors "if it is in the public interest," whether directly or by ordering a referendum.

Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver said current law only allows the removal of a sitting councillor through the municipal inspection process under "very specific circumstances."

He did not offer specific situations that would warrant the removal of a councillor under the new legislation, saying "what's in the public interest would be a case-by-case basis."

McIver did not say if there were any safeguards planned to prevent that legislation from being abused, apart from public backlash.

"Let's say it's an unreasonable partisan, selfish decision, I think that the cabinet would be at great risk of being held accountable at the next general provincial election," McIver said. "So I would say that's a pretty big guardrail."

Tyler Gandam, mayor of Wetaskiwin and president of Alberta Municipalities, said it's worrying that cabinet would have the power to remove elected officials with no explanation needed.

"When cabinet makes these decisions, it's done so privately, so we wouldn't know why a member was removed or why a recall would have been called against that member," he added. "I don't feel like that's being very transparent."

Bylaws

Bill 20 would also give the Alberta government more power to repeal or amend municipal bylaws beyond the current ability to intervene in land-use bylaws or statutory plans.

"We often remind the federal government and municipal governments to stay in their lane," McIver said, pointing to Edmonton as an example of municipal overstepping.

"At the end of COVID, when we took away the public masking bylaws, the municipality of Edmonton, for some reason, decided that they would step in and be the provincial government and put in place a masking bylaw.

"We had to put a piece of legislation in the House to actually reverse that … now we would not have to go to that extraordinary step."

Political analyst John Brennan said he was astounded by the scope of the bill, calling it "heavy handed."

"Danielle Smith and the UCP government are always complaining about the heavy-handed tactics of Justin Trudeau and the federal liberal government, and here they are in Alberta, turning around and doing the same kind of thing with local municipalities."

Brennan believes the amendments will shock municipalities and further strain the already tense relationship between Alberta's government and its two largest cities.

"I can't see that relationship improving with this kind of legislation, and especially if there's been no consultation," he added. "And my guess is, if there had been consultation, we would have heard about it before today."

It the bill passes, McIver said the supporting regulations would be developed in partnership with municipalities and other stakeholders in the late spring and summer of 2025.

Local elections

The new legislation includes the addition of local political parties to municipal ballots, an idea that has received strong pushback from municipal politicians. 

At a fall convention, 95 per cent of Alberta Municipalities members voted against political parties on local ballots, and Gandam said several surveys – including the province's own – show there is little desire for the change.

"Unless they are listening to special interest groups or others, they certainly weren't in-line with what Albertans were telling the province," said Gandam. "We're frustrated to see it, and it feels like Edmonton and Calgary are being singled out."

McIver acknowledged public consultation on local political parties showed a majority of Albertans were against the idea, but a four-year pilot project will still go ahead in Edmonton and Calgary if the bill passes.

"Seventy per cent of the public don't want political parties, and now over 98 per cent of municipalities won't have one," McIver said. "It will only happen in the two largest municipalities."

McIver said the province would work with municipalities to create the framework to define the local political parties, which will be independent of federal or political bodies.

Municipalities would then be required to include a candidate's political party on a local election ballot.

"But let me be clear, the changes we are making would not require anyone running for local office to join a political party or to register as a political party candidate," McIver said.

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi told CTV News Edmonton on Thursday evening he believes Bill 20 "is an attack on local democracy."

He said the province intervening in municipal government and introducing political parties into local elections are moves Edmontonians neither want nor support.

Sohi will "engage with" the province on Bill 20, "but we have many other pressing issues the provincial government should be taking action on," he said.

"I don't know why the province is focused on issues that are not a priority for Edmontonians and aren't focused on issues that are a priority of Edmontonians, such as health care, such as education, such as providing necessary support to municipalities to build the necessary infrastructure and deal with the drug poisoning crisis, deal with houselessness, deal with many other pressing issues that are hurting our communities."

The Alberta government hopes to have the new regulations in place by the end of the year to give local parties a chance to form and register before the next municipal election in 2025.

McIver did not say how the pilot's success will be measured, only that it would be reviewed after the next municipal election.

"We will decide how well it worked based on what actually happens," he added. "And I can't say what's actually going to happen till it does."

Ballots and other changes

Electronic tabulators and other automated voting machines would be banned in the new bill, something McIver said will help give Albertans more confidence in the outcomes of elections.

"If you talk to Albertans, you will find a number of them that don't have faith in machines counting ballots," McIver said. "The most important point, if you don't mind my saying, is not whether the machines are good or not.

"The most important point is whether people believe the machines are okay or not."

McIver did not say if local elections would be given additional funding or staff to deal with added work of hand-counting ballots.

Other amendments in Bill 20 include changes to election financing, recounts and the use of special ballots. Municipalities would be given the option to require criminal record checks for candidates and disqualified councillors would be legally required to vacate their seats.

The province said the bill will also "unlock new tools " to help municipalities build more affordable housing, but that those details would be announced in detail at a later date.

If passed, the legislation would come into effect in early 2025.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Chelan Skulski and Brandon Lynch