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 citiesmatter.ca (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.)