By Cal Braid
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Alberta Municipalities (ABmunis) held an online media event on Nov. 16 to promote participation in two short surveys that are currently open to Albertans. The surveys offer Albertans a chance to weigh in on potential changes to the Local Authorities Elections Act (LAEA) and Municipal Government Act (MGA). ABmunis Director Andrew Knack introduced the two surveys that focus on the legislation of local elections and councillor accountability.
The first survey targets local elections, and Albertans are asked to answer questions by selecting a rank for each question or statement (ie. strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree). The questions are meant to inform decisions regarding advance voting, making voter lists available to candidates, election postponements, the use of runoff elections and others. The second survey asks Albertans to rate their opinions about the standards of accountability that municipal councillors should be held to. The questions aim to clarify the public consensus on mandatory training for the MGA, allowing council to meet in private, requirements to disclose conflicts of interest, removing or disqualifying an individual from council and several others.
Knack addressed the media by saying, “Albertans usually only hear about these acts when Municipal elections are conducted, generally once every four years. These two seemingly innocuous acts are vitally important to how local politics are practiced in communities across the province.” He said the LAEA “provides the legislative framework for municipal and school board elections. It pertains to municipalities of all sizes and locations, as well as to school boards, Metis settlements, and irrigation ports.”
On the other hand, the MGA provides the legislative framework to ensure accountability once councillors, reeves, and mayors are elected. Last time the province conducted similar surveys, it received about 4,000 responses, which Knack called a “very low response rate,” given that the population at the time was at about $4.4 million.
In a news release from the provincial government, Municipal Affairs Minister Rick McIver encouraged all eligible Albertans to complete these surveys to help strengthen local democracy in Alberta. Knack also emphasized participation. “To some extent the future of municipal government in Alberta will be shaped by these results,” he said.
Knack responded to a media question about a vote at the AB Munis conference that favoured keeping local elections local. The media member wanted to know if ABmunis would be agreeable if the surveys come back with Albertans wanting party politics municipally. “Remember Alberta municipalities already did a survey on this. This is a topic that’s come up numerous times over the years. When we did the survey we found that 68 per cent of respondents indicated they would prefer to see municipal candidates run as individuals. Only 24 per cent indicated that they would like to see candidates run as members of a political party. More than 80 per cent agree that municipal officials who are part of the political party would vote along party lines and not necessarily in the best interest of the community. And 69 per cent of respondents think that political parties would make municipal governments more divisive and less effective.”
“I think it’s again worth really stressing (…) Albertans do not want this. I often challenge people to think, if you’re looking the provincial and federal system right now and the partisan system that’s set up, how many Albertans would really look at that and say ‘Yeah, I want more of that municipally right now?’ I think the answer is very, very few.”
Knack also addressed the concern that a vocal minority driving the push to list parties on the local ballot might overwhelm the feedback the government receives through the surveys. “I think that there’s always that concern that a small group can disproportionately affect the outcomes of these types of surveys, which is part of why we’re doing these events. We want all Albertans to be involved, not just those who are hyper-focused on certain local elections,” he said.
The two surveys are accessible through a portal in the Government of Alberta website, and were launched on Nov. 7. They close on Dec. 6.