“Turning Around the Supertanker”

“Turning Around the Supertanker”

Municipal panel sheds light on environmental management challenges at Green Regs & Ham

Garry Appelt, Don Iveson, Bruce Beattie and Judy Stewart

L to R: Garry Appelt, Don Iveson, Bruce Beattie and Judy Stewart

Three municipal leaders walk into a hotel: the urban mayor who is said to represent a growing interest in livable cities; the cowboy boot-wearing rural reeve with years of service under his belt; and the environmental law expert who can say what she wants because she’s no longer in office. So began the Environmental Law Centre’s second annual Green Regs & Ham breakfast in Edmonton on May 15.

This year’s event featured Edmonton Mayor, Don Iveson,  Mountain View County Reeve, Bruce Beattie, and lawyer, PhD candidate and former Cochrane Mayor, Judy Stewart. An armchair setting and fine moderation by Witten LLP partner and long-time ELC supporter, Garry Appelt, saw our guests affirm their roles before a sizable morning audience.

Don Iveson

Don Iveson

So what, according to our panelists, is the biggest environmental challenge faced by municipalities? Mayor Iveson was bold enough to assert that the obvious answer is climate change. This was an economic argument, considering that water management infrastructure is outdated and that floods are becoming more frequent and more severe. There was little surprise that Reeve Beattie cited loss of agricultural land. Judy Stewart jumped straight to the universal need for better collaboration between multiple authorities – primarily where Provincial and Municipal authorities overlap.

There was some provocative humour about municipalities being faced with CAVE people (“Citizens Against Virtually Everything”). Indeed the NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) phenomenon is an ambiguous one. On one hand, the environment needs community groups and residents who care about their neighbourhood. On the other hand, local resistance is a known challenge to sustainability efforts like urban food production or high density housing.

While the panel was largely aligned concerning major issues like sprawl, Mayor Iveson gave fair warning that changing municipal growth patterns is like “turning around a supertanker,” in no small part due to a lack of municipal revenue sources. Taxation provided the liveliest debate, as one would hope given its centrality to the Municipal Government Act (MGA) Review and debate over a Big City Charter. We heard that municipalities provide an astronomical percentage of public services – including recreation centres, urban parks, utilities and police/fire service – yet receive the puniest percentage of revenue relative to other tax collectors. Further, municipalities command the greatest trust of the citizenry relative to provinces and the feds.

Judy Stewart

Judy Stewart

At one extreme, we heard that it is “simply stupid” for municipalities not to raise taxes. At the other, we heard about ratepayers who just want their roads plowed in the winter and graded in the summer, after which the municipality can shove off.

As the MGA Review is underway, I’ll note that municipal calls for reform may not align exactly with those of the environmental community. An example would be the question of public consultations. I’d definitely agree with our panel that there are a whole lot of them in Alberta and few are meaningful. The lack of a municipal role in energy decisions is another shared concern.

But where would municipalities stand on greater public participation in their own processes? We couldn’t probe every issue over breakfast, so here are the ELC’s working recommendations for the MGA Review:

  1. Make environmental protection and management a valid municipal planning purpose;
  2. Provide by-law powers specific to environmental protection and management;
  3. Expand the enforcement tools available to municipalities;
  4. Expand revenue generation options available to municipalities;
  5. Enhance opportunities for public participation in municipal planning.
Bruce Beattie

Bruce Beattie

We’ll be expanding on these issues in future posts and publications, but invite your thoughts and feedback on how the MGA can be strengthened from an environmental perspective.

All told, the event was a success: entertaining, thoughtful and respectfully provocative. In fact, one of our guests from Municipal Affairs commented that next time the ministry should participate in the dialogue to respond to the concerns we heard. Next time, perhaps, they will.

A very special thank you to our sponsors, Devon Canada and Alberta Real Estate Foundation and our other donors for helping us host the event.

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