Despite some mixed messages, it appears as though the provincial government is taking the concerns of municipalities to heart, reopening consultations on the local election act and moving forward with negotiations on a big-city charter for Calgary and Edmonton. City council’s intergovernmental affairs committee will consider city administration’s recommendations on the local election act on July 5.
The announcement regarding consultations, which are open to the public in the form of an online survey, comes just over two years after the provincial government introduced Bill 9, an amendment to the act that was criticized by municipal governments and the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association.
“There were a number of concerns,” says Linda Sloan, president of the AUMA. “Municipalities and the AUMA had not been consulted prior to the introduction to that bill and we saw some of the amendments as potentially cumbersome. And also, there was really a lack of clarity about why they were needed.”
According to Jerry Ward, a spokesperson for the ministry of municipal affairs, the reason for the consultation stems from those concerns and “reflects this government’s commitment to listen and consult.” He won’t say if there will be changes, insisting that the process will determine what needs to be done.
When Bill 9 became law, the provisions governing campaign financing set a provincewide standard, overruling Calgary’s own bylaws. These bylaws themselves were criticized for not going far enough, but removing local control meant the city was unable to change the regulations or punish breaches. Administration is recommending that standard in the provincial act be scrapped so that the city can establish its own rules and enforce them.
“The major, major parts of the legislation were still dictated by the province. So, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association has long advocated that municipalities should be able to set their own rules. I am not yet decided on this myself,” says Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
“I would like to see some consistency provincewide, but if the province is not willing to enforce the tough new legislation we need, then I’d be happy to take it to city council and get them to do it.”
As it stands, the act sets limits on donations, including a $10,000 cap on self-financing by a candidate and $5,000 per year caps on donations from individuals and organizations. If a candidate breaches the rules, they are “liable to a fine of not more than $1,000.”
The act does not deal with spending limits, something both Nenshi and Ward 11 Ald. Brian Pincott would like to see addressed, alongside donation limits. Both men self-imposed spending limits during their municipal campaigns.
“If you just set a campaign spend cap like that, it’s scaleable to different sized wards, it’s scaleable between councillor races and mayoral races,” says Pincott. “A cap like that is completely scaleable. At the end of the day, if you needed to change one thing, that would be it.”
The discussion around campaign finance reform ties into the larger issue of allowing municipalities more freedom in their decision-making. Not every municipality needs heavy regulations surrounding financing, with Nenshi suggesting population size could determine which regulations apply to a certain municipality.
Parallel to this discussion is the negotiations on a big-city charter for Calgary and Edmonton, devolving greater decision-making and monetary power to the large centres.
“The big-city charter for Calgary and Edmonton conversation has the potential of having more impact than anything else the city and the province can do,” says Nenshi. “And it really is about better outlining the powers and the funding for everything it is that cities do, and I’m very, very optimistic that the province understands that the system is broken and that this is probably the best way to fix it.”
Ward won’t go so far as to say the charter would give the cities more power, but says it would better streamline government services through co-ordination to use “taxpayer dollars effectively.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced that these discussions and the consultations mean a shift in the priority of the provincial government towards the needs of urban centres. Pincott is concerned that the Redford government released a list of its priorities, which included things such as early childhood development and expanding market access for Alberta products, but made no mention of urban centres and their needs.
Sloan agrees that the omission of municipalities in the government’s priorities is a concern, but she’s cautiously optimistic. The government appears to be receptive to municipal concerns and has had several meetings with AUMA since the last provincial election, and the organization will continue to push its own priorities.
“I think there’s mixed messages, but what we’ve said, what we said during the local matters campaign, and are continuing to say, is that we need a new relationship that respects municipalities as an autonomous order of government,” she says. “That includes notification, meaningful consultation and input into the changes made to laws that affect us.”