Transparent — Like a Brick
Albertans had high hopes that things would operate differently under saviour Prentice who campaigned for the job of Tory leader with promises of "transparency" and "accountability". Now, only six months into his reign, the facade is crumbling and these apparently empty promises are being exposed.
In just the first few days of the new premier's first session in the Alberta Legislature, the Tory team, including Municipal Affairs Minister Diana McQueen, has proudly tabled the first round of amendments to the Municipal Government Act (MGA). This includes lessening the burden of accountability and also removes the requirement for municipal councils to be effectively transparent in their business. In fact, what is being proposed all but eliminates oversight of municipal governments by the provincial body, and to a large extent by the public.
Presented by PC MLA Greg Weadick, Bill 20 seems like a huge step backwards for a government trying to promote a new era of openness and accountability. The sketchy legislation, which was quickly given First and Second reading last week, will essentially allow local municipal governments to hide public business from residents.
Currently, the MGA requires that residents be notified of certain municipal matters, and specifies that the information is transmitted to the public via direct mailing, or through newspaper advertising. The responsibility is put on municipal governments to transmit pertinent information they have out to residents before a decision is made.
Several sweeping changes are proposed, including giving much authority to municipalities to determine what information they share and the methods they will use to notify the public, which could be a poster hung up in the washroom of the local gas station, or a notice obscurely hidden away on a page of the municipality's website... or some other option that negates the responsibility of a local government to push information out to the residents - acting transparent and accountable.
The biggest drawback to the growing trend of relying on websites to transmit important information is that people don't know it is there... so how are they going to find something they aren't looking for? Are Albertans supposed to check their local municipal website every day and randomly seek out information that may or not be there, pertaining to a subject they have no knowledge of? It's stupid!
And just as ridiculous is the explanation given by Municipal Affairs Minister Diana McQueen to rationalize this idiotic legislation: "Albertans have observed that traditional notification methods may no longer be effective in communicating with the public due to increasing costs and limited accessibility in smaller communities..."
Both of the reasons she offers are false. Every community in Alberta that is large enough to have a municipal government, has a post office. And the cost of mailing, compared to the rate of inflation for other services, has not dramatically increased. There is also the option of directly emailing information to residents, which isn't even considered in the legislation. The cost of newspaper advertising — a medium that reaches over 80% of adults in rural Alberta (where most municipalities are) — has also not substantially increased in many years. By "may no longer be effective", she must mean, "not free", because both traditional methods are highly effective in reaching people.
What the PCs are really saying through Bill 20 is that they don't care if the public is informed of initiatives that they have a right to know about: saving money is what matters. The punchline is that it isn't their money, or the municipality's money, it is the resident's money and it is there to be used for the good of the public. Like for informing them of important changes that may impact their lives or business.
Allowing local governments to not only decide what business the public has a right to know about, but also choosing the method of transmitting that information, is a huge blow to democracy and to the principles of transparency and accountability that Prentice says are important. Apparently not as important as saving a few bucks... which is the entire premise of Bill 20 — saving some money, not informing the public.
Dave Bruha, Editor