Council has agreed to give residents more time to petition on future borrowing bylaws.
On Monday Coun. Sheena Hughes presented a motion to extend the timeframe under which a petition on a borrowing bylaw can be submitted. She said the current 15-day period “cuts residents off at the knees.”
“If residents become so engaged as to speak out in this manner it needs to be respected and not discouraged or set up to fail,” said Hughes.
In April, residents who were unhappy about the tax increase associated with a new branch library organized a petition opposing a bylaw that would allow council to borrow up to $21.9 million for its construction.
Petitioners collected 6,696 signatures in 21 days, but problems with the affidavits led to the disqualification of 588 entries making the petition invalid.
Hughes believes that if petitioners had been given more time they not only would have collected more signatures, but also could have avoided the errors in the affidavits.
At the time of the petition, she asked council to amend the dates the borrowing bylaw would be advertised in an effort to increase the time residents had to collect the nearly 6,500 signatures needed to force a plebiscite on the issue. Her motion was defeated 4-3, with councillors Bob Russell and Cam MacKay supporting Hughes. Other council members felt that residents had adequate time to organize after first reading occurred April 3.
Monday’s motion was more successful. It passed with a 5-2 margin, with Mayor Nolan Crouse and Coun. Tim Osborne voting against it.
Carrie Blouin the St. Albert resident who organized the petition said there would “absolutely” have been enough signatures if timelines had been extended.
“But at the end of the day, the point isn’t to stop the borrowing or the library,” she said. “They’re talking about ice rinks and building other things and I don’t think residents can afford tax increases for all of them, so let’s figure out the best use of our money.”
The Municipal Government Act requires the city to advertise a notice of bylaw “at least once a week for two consecutive weeks” prior to second reading. Residents have 15 days from the day the last advertisement appears to present a petition on a borrowing bylaw.
Petitions on other bylaws and resolutions are allotted a 60-day submission period, beginning after the last advertisement. Hughes said residents should be given the same amount of time when opposing a borrowing bylaw.
In a report to council, chief legislative officer Chris Belke said the discrepancy presumably exists “in recognition of the compressed timelines under which large-scale projects often proceed.”
The report indicates that a more challenging standard for electors to successfully petition on projects requiring a borrowing bylaw “may be appropriate,” given that residents don’t always understand the benefits or urgency of these projects and that the additional time required to hold a vote on borrowing bylaws could result in a delay of a year or more on a large-scale capital project and ultimately result in increased construction costs.
According to municipal politics expert Jim Lightbody, the most common use of a petition is to oppose a borrowing for the construction of a community facility.
That’s because “you can’t have a referendum on an entire council budget,” pointed out the University of Alberta political science professor. When a borrowing bylaw is presented for first reading, this is often the first opportunity residents get to challenge a project in a legally binding way.
Administration is expected to return with recommendations for next council’s approval at the end of January. Belke said council could direct the city to put out additional advertisings beyond the required minimum set out by the MGA.