Posts Tagged ‘Local Government Charter’

Alberta’s current election is about local government as well as provincial government

April 11, 2012

In many circumstances, and on many occasions, local government is more important to citizens than is the provincial government. EXCEPT..

The provincial government frames everything that local government can or cannot do.

Between now and April 23rd, Alberta’s voters should spend a lot of time thinking about their property tax bill, the condition of streets and cul-de-sacs, appropriate policing, municipal parks, local infra-structure to support a strong local economy, and the list goes on… What your municipal council is able to do depends a lot on the largess of the provincial government.

The relationship between the provincial government and local government is outmoded and dysfunctional. Citizens bear the brunt of this reality, in terms of: service limitations; taxes that pay for questionable supervision and layers of management, instead of service; the cost of lost opportunities; and, (dis-)satisfaction. Whether the service is provided locally or provincially, the same taxpayer pays for it all. Whether the elected representative serves locally or provincially, they are servant of the same citizen. The citizen is no richer or smarter on the day s/he votes for a provincial representative than on the day s/he votes for a local representative.

For the good of us all, the relationship between our local government (community) and our provincial government (community) needs to be re-framed. We won’t get specific programs or policies right until we have the framework right.

There is a good argument to be made that local government is more important to our well-being than is the provincial or federal government. It is certainly true that local government has more seniority (it’s been around longer), is closer to citizens, and operates in a more organic (natural) way than does the provincial or federal government. Local government appears to have an advantage, as well, in operating without the oppressive conformity of the party system.

It is not helpful to have a provincial government that approaches its relationship with local government in a patronizing way.

Voters should go to (here) for some thoughtful discussion starters about the relationship between local government and the provincial government. Mayor Nenshi offers a city perspective. Almost everything on the site is just as relevant to towns, villages, and rural municipalities (perhaps with slight modification). The relevant party positions are consolidated and provide a good basis for voters to start a conversation with candidates. Party positions should be read with a watchful eye for patronizing language, a predisposition to the provincial agenda rather than local agendas, and a fixation on quantities and means rather than quality and ends.

Full disclosure. I think the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta had the most comprehensive and modern take on the relationship, about five years ago. I worked with the public school trustees who developed the ideas, so I have a vested interest in the model they adopted.

1. Local government is (at least) as important to citizens as is the provincial government. Ask your candidates if s/he believes this.

2. The relationship between the provincial government and local government should be treated as a respectful partnership. When such a partnership works well, individual citizens benefit: so does the local community and the provincial community. Each partner has something vital to contribute, and it is not for the provincial government alone to decide, or change, the terms of the partnership. Ask your candidates if they believe the respectful partnership should be embodied in a written covenant — a local government charter?

3. A local government charter should structure the relationship of every municipality with the provincial government. There may be different provisions differently applied, to recognize very different circumstances but, Mayor Nenshi, while I love Calgary and Edmonton, I think Lethbridge, and Hinton and Provost — and all other municipalities — are just as entitled to certainty in their relationship with the provincial government as are the two big cities.) Ask your candidates is they believe every municipality should have the benefit — and the responsibility — of a local government charter.

4. The terms of the partnership should be determined, and amended, by Albertans (who are citizens of both the province and the local municipality). Citizens might reasonably be concerned, even if the provincial government agrees to a local government charter, that such a charter might be developed unilaterally, even after ‘consultations” with local government. (How many times have we heard citizens say, “The government invited us to talk, but they sure didn’t listen.”) Perhaps the wise government would make a commitment that a local government charter will be jointly developed, and will not be enacted unless a) the AUMA and the AAMD&C formally agree to it; or, b) the people of Alberta decide, in a referendum where they have a choice between the local government charter preferred by the provincial government and the one preferred by locally elected representatives. Perhaps citizens should put the politicians on a strict deadline. For example, perhaps if there isn’t agreement on a local government charter within three years, the citizens will choose one or the other. Ask your candidates is they agree with the idea of joint development of a local government charter, and citizen endorsement.

5. Thereafter, a conventional piece of provincial legislation can be easily and unilaterally amended at any time in the future. In other words, even a local government charter could evolve over time to embody a provincial government’s very patronizing outlook. Perhaps a wise provincial government would make a commitment that a local government charter, once adopted, would not be amended except with the agreement of Albertans, in a referendum. Ask your candidates is the agree that the provincial government should not be able to amend a local government charter unilaterally.

On a visit to Claresholm a few years ago I passed a big billboard alongside the highway. The message was: “Less Ottawa, more Alberta.” The sponsor was mixing apples and oranges, rejecting the distant politicians and mandarins in favour of the nearer community. Today the message might well read: Less Edmonton more Claresholm”. I believe in Alberta. Alongside many Albertans, I worked for 40 years to make a success of our province. I believe that, in the past 20 years, we have weakened local communities and weakened Alberta at the same time. There are ways to make our communities stronger and thereby make our community of communities stronger. This election is about the future of villages, towns, and cities — it is about the future of local communities, as much as it is about the future of Alberta.

(Next, revenue sharing.)

A Local Government Charter for Alberta

February 3, 2011

Calgary’s new mayor, Naheed Nenshi, has called for a charter for Edmonton and Calgary.

The idea is a good one, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.  Across the province, all local (municipal and public school) government should enjoy the benefits of a “charter” relationship with the provincial government.

Until about 20 years ago, the relationship between the provincial government and local governments was generally characterized as a (more or less) “respectful partnership”.  Among other features, local government had access to a broader range of taxes, with two benefits.  They could respond to local mandates; and, they could tax more generally or more pointedly, whichever represented good public policy.

“Local mandates” are the things desired locally that local people have the capacity to do for themselves.  It is another way of saying, “self-government”.  It is another way of saying that the people who are closest to the issue and most likely to live with the issue are the people who should make a decision about the issue, act on their decision, and live with the consequences.

Broadly speaking, local government has had its capacity and its worked sucked up, by (and to) the provincial government, in the past 20 years.  School boards have had no general right to tax since 1994:  very often, they can’t keep community schools open in the evening if they want to.  For municipal government, general taxation is narrower now than it was 20 years ago, and the result is a heavier and heavier burden on residential properties.  For both school boards and municipal governments, more and more funding comes to them in envelopes, with conditions attached.

Many Albertans would be surprised to know that, according to the provincial government, locally elected representatives are not accountable to their electorate:  they are accountable to the provincial government.  In Calgary, Mayor Nenshi could not be removed by an unhappy electorate, at least not between elections:  he could be removed by the Minister of Municipal Affairs.

Local elections, according to the provincial government, are a useful means by which the public advises the provincial government who should be part of local government, subject to the will of the Provincial Government.

No wonder people in rural Alberta fight so tenaciously to hang on to electoral dominance of the Legislative Assembly.  They are sophisticated citizens and they are under no delusions about the flow of decision-making and resources.  In the context of the current provincial political culture, local government is being marginalized, trivialized, and disrespected.  And this has nothing to do with demographics.  Calgary and Edmonton are feeling the pinch as much as is any town or village.

One possible response would be to reconsider local government (both small and large), and give it more responsibility and more resources.  We can grow the capacity of local government.  We can restore meaningful local self-government.  We can do more to ensure that decisions are made, as close as possible, to the grassroots.

In September, 2007 the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta met with Premier Stelmach and made just such a proposal.  A copy of the Local Government Charter they proposed can be found at:

The Charter proposed by the PSBAA took the form of an amendment to the Alberta Act, with the proviso that subsequent amendments could only be made following a majority vote by Albertans in a referendum.

The principles embodied in the Local Government Charter included:

1. Local elected government (including counties and municipal districts, cities, towns, and villages, and public school divisions and districts) are an enduring feature of civil democracy in Alberta and cannot be abolished by unilateral action of the legislature. (Separate school systems have independent and pre-existing constitutional protection.)

2. Locally elected government is not a third order of government, independent of the provincial government. Local government is an integral part of the provincial order of government but, like some other “branches” of government, it enjoys some constitutional protection. Local government is, therefore, an agent of the Crown in Right of Alberta.

3. The Government of Alberta may make laws relating to the organization and operation of locally elected governments, subject to two general limitations. They may not disestablish or remove any locally elected government, or unilaterally change the boundaries of any local jurisdiction; and, any provincial laws affecting locally elected governments must be reasonably justified in a free and democratic society and conducive to effective local government and the promotion of civil democracy.

4. Locally elected governments are accorded reasonable local autonomy, including the right to adopt bylaws strictly of local application and the right to borrow money.

5. Local elections must be determined by local voters and locally elected representatives may only be removed by the local electorate or by a court: the number and compensation of local representatives is solely a matter of local determination.

6. Employees of locally elected representatives are accountable solely to the local community as represented by the locally elected representatives.

7. Locally elected governments may levy taxes within their jurisdiction. As well, or alternately, they may enter into a revenue-sharing agreement with the Government of Alberta and/or with adjacent local governments.

8. Alberta may delegate any matter which it considers to be a provincial jurisdiction to locally elected governments, in which case the government of Alberta is obliged to ensure that appropriate resources are also provided to accomplish the delegated matter.

9. Locally elected governments are entitled to own property and to enjoy all the associated rights, without interference by the provincial government (except by a process of expropriation including due process and just compensation).

10. Comprehensive revenue sharing (between locally elected governments and the government of Alberta) will be implemented.

11. No amendment to the Local Government Charter is effective unless and until the substance of the amendment(s) is approved of by a majority of Albertans voting in a plebiscite. (This follows the model of the Constitution of Alberta Act, 1990, enacted by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.)

The idea of a Local Government Charter certainly merits discussion across the province.  The principles put forward by the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta may be a good place to start.