The change we need is better government

Just about the time you were finally planting your garden, getting your kids ready for the big end-of-school track and field meet

Just about the time you were finally planting your garden, getting your kids ready for the big end-of-school track and field meet, and trying to squeeze yourself into your favourite summer beachwear, the Alberta government announced it wanted to hear your views on possible changes to the Local Authorities Election Act.

The what?

That’s the big, boring book that sets the rules for municipal and school board elections

There was no requirement for town councils or school trustees to hold hearings or engage their electors — and potential replacements — in discussions to change the rules. So being mindful or your tax dollar and the time they waste at meetings, most took the economical route and simply didn’t discuss the matter in a public meeting. Wolf Creek Public Schools trustees did and so did Ponoka County councillors. They didn’t agree on all issues put forward in an Alberta Municipal Affairs questionnaire, and that’s just fine.

The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA), the lobby group for cities, towns and villages, has asked the government to review the length of a term of office for a municipal council, the timing of elections, how nominations are handled; who should be eligible to vote and their residency requirements; how campaigns should be financed; and, how you should be allowed to cast your ballot.

Changes could be made as soon as this fall so they would be in place for the planned 2013 fall municipal and school board elections.

No doubt you and your neighbours have hashed out these issues sitting around the fire pit this summer. You want the privilege to serve your community to be accessible to all who are interested; you want transparency and accountability from councillors and school trustees; and you want local government to be efficient and to have a plan that reflects the community’s vision for the future.

You’ve had heated discussions about how the local government’s term of office can’t be too long or it would discourage some capable candidates from seeking office because a four-year commitment to be away from their family or their office would be too great. Really, any town council that can’t get a plan together in three years isn’t worth keeping. And you could limit the number of terms a councillor can serve to three or four but as Ponoka and Rimbey residents saw in the October 2010 elections, the electors (the minority who show up to vote) can take care of that on their own.

Our parliamentary governance systems being what they are, Albertans, since 2007, have had the pleasure of casting their ballots in two municipal elections, two provincial elections — with the added bonus of selecting senators in waiting — and two federal elections. Where Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to be concerned with losing the confidence of the House in his minority government, Mayor Sheldon Ibbotson isn’t required to call an election whenever a vote doesn’t go his way.

Would extending local authorities’ terms to four years from three avoid voter burnout? No. Would it save money? Yes, a little, maybe; eliminating one election every 12 years. But longer terms might also incur more frequent byelections as more councillors move from the community, die in office, are disqualified, or simply bail out because of the time commitment.

The provincial government that spawned municipalities, and the AUMA, Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) and the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMD&C) should provide better training for candidates before the election and support after to ensure municipalities are being governed by qualified people.

The province, in advance of this next local election, needs to state once and for all, whether volunteer firefighters — who do get paid for their service — are indeed employees of their municipality and therefore ineligible to seek office.

Although campaign fundraising is more prevalent in big city elections, local residents should know to whom their elected officials are financially beholden. Is the mayor backed by developers who want concessions in a subdivision application? Did a service club or lobby group back a candidate in the hopes of getting special consideration? Candidates, elected and failed, should be required to disclose campaign financial statements within 90 of election day.

Back in the day, in many provinces, there was a corporate vote in municipal elections. Commercial and industrial property owners, regardless of their residence, could vote twice; once in their home  jurisdiction and again for owning land elsewhere. There is no real push to revisit that notion as the “one person, one vote” principle is fairly well entrenched. It also gets into the messy discussion of who holds the corporate vote, the absentee landowner or the local businessman who rents the space?

The provincial government should consider bringing more of the local authorities election mechanism under the auspices of Elections Alberta. Town staff should not be returning officers; the opportunity for abuse and influence is too great. Would a town manager responsible for enforcing campaign spending and advertising regulations want to order the incumbent mayor to tear down illegally placed signs? Let the government hire impartial returning officers.

If Alberta Municipal Affairs and local jurisdictions are serious about improving turnout on election day, let’s move into the 21st century. Allow online voting. It’s a royal pain for commuters and a deterrent to participation these days to allow voting at only a few advance polls and on the big day itself. If you trust online banking, your vote for school trustee should be safe for tampering.

Albertans deserve fair and open elections, transparent and accountable councils, and efficient and effect local government.

It’s now up to the provincial government to ensure that’s what we get in 2013.

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