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    Categories: Provincial News

New law allows parental leave

City councillors could soon take time off for their newborn kids under proposed changes to the law that governs Alberta’s cities.

Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson tabled a bill to amend the Municipal Government Act in the legislature Monday.

The bill, which regulates municipal governments, is a follow-up to last year’s overhaul of the 250-some page act.

Among the 50-odd proposed changes is a proposal to let municipalities pass laws allowing councillors to take parental leave and to exempt councillors from disqualification while absent under such laws.

Right now, councillors can be disqualified from office if they miss eight consecutive weeks of council meetings, even if that absence is due to giving birth or caring for a newborn. Unlike every other job in Alberta, councillors don’t get parental leave.

Just 26 per cent of Alberta’s municipal councillors are women, and about 23 per cent of Alberta’s municipal councils don’t have any women on them, Anderson said.

“It’s 2017, and we need to recognize that half the population in the province are women,” Anderson said.

“Our elected councils need to better reflect the communities they serve, including young people, new families and women.”

The parental leave is just one of several modifications on the table.

St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse said his general feeling is the new legislation lacks teeth.

“It felt soft. It didn’t feel like there was a lot of depth or strength,” he said.

For example he said the requirement for municipalities to consult with adjoining indigenous communities reads more as a suggestion than anything, as is the change allowing municipalities to offer parental leave for councillors.

“It didn’t feel like there’s anything that’s really strongly worded,” Crouse said.

When asked why he did not make these policies mandatory or impose them on municipalities, Anderson said that each community was unique, and had to tailor their parental leave policies to what worked best for them.

Morinville Mayor and Alberta Urban Municipalities Association chair Lisa Holmes said she was pleased with this change, which would be of great benefit to full-time councillors. Right now, councillors who want time off for pregnancy or to raise a new kid need council approval to do so, which council might not grant for political or personal reasons. This can be an obstacle to some youths and women who want to run for office.

“This gives them that feeling of confidence that they’re able to continue to do the job they want to do as well as being a parent,” Holmes said.

Other modifications

Crouse said he agreed with the assessment from the Alberta Urban Municipalities’ Association that the province missed the opportunity to provide a clear indication of what long-term funding might be available to municipalities. He said he was also disappointed that there was nothing tabled dealing with changes to regional growth management boards – although he said Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson is scheduled to speak to the Capital Region Board Thursday morning.

The one specific change that may have a direct impact on St. Albert, he said, is the requirement for increased consultation around issues of amalgamation and annexation. But with the positive working relationship that now exists between the councils of the city and neighbouring Sturgeon County, he said he was not worried that would hinder ongoing annexation talks.

“You just have to make sure you’re following the rules, that’s all,” Crouse said.

The bill also proposes to change the way councils create school sites. Right now, governments can claim up to 10 per cent of a development as municipal reserve. As that land is meant for parks and utilities as well as schools, this can make for an impractically small school site, especially if the development was small.

The bill proposes a catchment area contribution rule as an alternative. This rule would let councils draw a circle around a region that needs a school and take more than 10 per cent of one neighbourhood in it for use as a school site. The other developers would then compensate that neighbourhood’s developer for the lost land.

This policy would let councils be more proactive when it comes to school sites, said Holmes, who noted how her community was caught with few good options when it came to sites for its two most recent schools.

“Doing some pre-planning would definitely have saved all of us a lot of headache.”

The bill would let neighbouring governments jointly charge off-site levies for projects that benefit both regions, such as water lines or fire stations, Holmes noted.

The bill would also require municipalities to notify First Nations reserves of any new municipal development or area structure plans that could affect them, and allows councils and First Nations to collaborate on matters such as regional services.

Alexander First Nation Chief Kurt Burnstick declined to comment on these changes.

Other changes would give the province more options to discipline councils that disobeyed ministerial orders, require councils to make joint-use agreements with school boards, and exempt school boards from paying off-site levies on school buildings.

Details are available at mgareview.alberta.ca/whats-changing.

– With files from Doug Neuman

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.