The rationale behind the provinces’ decision to enforce the Municipal Government Act and hold a by-election in Lethbridge couldn’t be any less clear

Mr. Bob Babki was always a consummate professional, and his absence on council leaves a vacancy greater than just a body in a sit. His vacancy on council has also served to highlight some troubling disconnect between the provincial legislation governing municipal centres and the actual political operations of the city.

The situation Lethbridge faces as of now, with the vacant position on council becoming vacant 48 hours before swearing in puts the city, and more notably, the province in an interesting quandary.

Municipalities are children of the province. So much so, the province doles out allowance; and sets the ground rules for everything from available grants, allowable debt loads, infrastructure maintenance standards, available social programs, and the contentious issue today: election rules.

Municipal elections are governed under two acts through the Minister of Municipal Affairs, the first being the Municipal Government Act, and the second being The Local Authorities Election Act (formerly known as the Municipal Election Act).

When this story originally broke in daily news outlets, and social media networks, it was section 162 of the MGA, “vacancy in the position of a councilor”, that was originally cited by the Ministry as the reason to hold a by-election. However, under the act it specifies a vacancy to mean before an election is held, or if, “the council consists of 6 or more councilors and the vacancy occurs.”

Thus, we come upon the crux of the issue, and the question that will surely be up for debate come the 15th of November. Was Mr. Babki a council person once elected, or was he in limbo prior to the swearing in process?

In speaking with several Alderman, the Journal discovered that they were all under the impression that they were not Alderman, and did not have council position until they were officially sworn in, which did not occur until the 1st of October. This understanding amongst council signals that the unfortunate circumstances of the vacancy occurred post-election but pre-swearing in, meaning a vacancy was present before council became council.

In further conversation with the Minister Of Municipal Affairs, Alison Keppler from the Public Affairs office of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs sent me this information on the decision to go to a by-election.

“The councilor was declared elected as of October 22nd, all the provisions do apply in this case. The City of Lethbridge will be required to hold a by-election to fill the Alderman position under the legislation. As the councilor was declared elected, the provisions of the Municipal Government Act apply.  Section 174 (1)(d), states that a councilor is disqualified from council if he or she is absent (willingly or unwillingly) from regular council meetings for 8 consecutive weeks. Section 165 of the Municipal Government Act requires the City to hold the by-election within 90 days of the vacancy.”

The provinces decision was confirmed by Lethbridge’s two members of the Legislative Assembly, Lethbridge West PC MLA Greg Weadick and Lethbridge East Liberal MLA, Bridget Pastoor. Both members said they were aware of the decision, and well understood the city’s deference to the provinces power – neither seemed to be overwhelmingly in favour of going to by-election though.

Weadick expressed that in his conversations with citizens, “Most people would have liked to not go through a by-election right away,” and Bridget Pastoor said of the decision to go to by-election, “it is what it is, unfortunately.”

Section 174 relies on the assumed understanding that all Aldermen inherited their council powers on October 22nd, the day the election results became official. Leaving a gap of knowledge between the province and the city, which became every more apparent when the Journal spoke to Mayor Dodic and various Alderman.

For the most part, the Alderman the Journal spoke to: Jeff Carlson, Tom Wickersham, Bridget Mearns and Joe Mauro, were uninformed of the most recent decision made by the province, and wanted to wait to speak to the rest of council and city administration, however they all understood the power the province had over the city.

Mearns told the Journal that, “it is my understanding under the MGA there are guidelines with what you must do.”

Carlson and Wickersham echoed Mearns’ statements, stating they would not be forming a position themselves until they heard from the city solicitor and the city manager on the 15th.

When the Journal spoke to Mayor Dodic, it was clear that much of the information the province was going by had yet to reach the Mayor’s office and his reaction was one of surprise. Though the province is treating Mr. Babki as a councilor, Mayor Dodic understood the act to read that without the swearing in process, there is no official induction process.

Mayor Dodic, being in the unique position of being both a lawyer and a political figure, gives him considerable insight into the legislation, and the interpretive process behind the decision, yet even he still doesn’t 100 per cent understand the provinces rationale behind the use of section 174 of the MGA.

“My understanding is that the province was saying there was no option, and that we had to have a by-election. I have been deferring to our city solicitor and the provincial government in terms of what needs to be done.”

Dodic told the Journal that until he could speak to the provinces lawyers on Monday, he couldn’t give a city position on the future proceedings, especially regarding the use of section 174 in these circumstances.

For many, the reason the swearing in process is key in this, is because it legitimizes council and gives them the official title of Alderman, not Alderman-Elect.

Alderman Mauro told the Journal, “to me in seems like there is this time in between Election Day when candidates become Alderman elect, and then up until swearing day, to me there is that are there that is maybe not covered by the act. I find it odd that we waited two weeks until swearing in day.”

Further, Mauro relayed that, “I was told that the existing council is council until rest of the new council gets sworn in, there never was a vacancy.”

This is a situation with little precedence, which puts the city in a situation where they can do little but hand it over the Ministry to decide, which they have done. There is time before the council meets on the 15th for citizens to relay their preference to the Ministry and to the city before an official announcement is made regarding the by-election.

Originally ran in the Lethbridge Journal on November 11th, 2010.


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