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Moral bylaw goes too far

Cities have no shortage of bylaws to establish common goals and protect the public good.

Cities have no shortage of bylaws to establish common goals and protect the public good. Some outline visions for the community and guide development, some establish fees for services like garbage collection, others oversee development appeals, while some rules protect quality of life by minimizing noise and unsightly premises.

A more recent trend has seen cities adopt bylaws designed to reinforce among the public emerging popular values. Banning the use of plastic bags in retail stores is an increasingly common example, with Wood Buffalo joining the cause this week. St. Albert has employed its share of well-meaning restrictions, including the four-year-old bicycle helmet bylaw where anyone caught riding without head protection is subject to a $100 fine. Even more recent is the anti-idling bylaw that, although largely unenforceable, aims to educate the public to help “clear the air” or risk another $100 fine.

Critics of these bylaws often cite them as examples of government social engineering efforts to ensure the population conforms to popular points of view. That argument is countered by those who say these rules responsibly serve the public good by promoting environmental responsibility or public safety, all of which if successful can positively impact our community, and the public purse.

The same cannot be said of city council’s latest attempt to foist values on the public. A proposed land-use bylaw change, initiated by Mayor Nolan Crouse, would have banned adult entertainment facilities from opening their doors in St. Albert, specifically strip clubs, swingers’ clubs and adult video stores. These businesses are technically allowed to operate in the Campbell and Riel business parks, however current rules are so restrictive they effectively send the message, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to prospective owners. The mayor’s proposed changes would have left no doubts about council’s stance, but not without opening the city to possible court challenges for unfairly discriminating against a specific type of business.

Crouse initiated the bylaw review several months ago after learning a swingers’ club operates in St. Albert, a proposition that apparently did not sit well with his personal values. In defending his motion, Crouse said he didn’t want to see a strip club open next to places where children gather, like Servus Credit Union Place, and plans to pursue a ban again next term if re-elected. It’s an argument that in all likelihood many St. Albert residents share, but just because a view is popular, doesn’t make it correct.

Unlike idling or plastic bag bans, there are few arguments to support a ban on adult entertainment serving the public good. Such a ban is ideological in nature and clearly infringes on the rights of others who, as is their right, may choose to frequent establishments that are legally allowed to operate under tight restrictions.

Such a bylaw is simply a smokescreen to keep St. Albert in a bubble and ban ‘unsavoury’ behaviours that happen out of view of the public and minors. That’s a precarious line for any government to cross and begs the question, where does it stop? Liquor stores, casinos and tobacconists are allowed to operate in St. Albert despite offering products and services that, although legal and controlled, pose a real health or financial risk to the population. Should council target those businesses next? Of course not. Adult citizens are fully capable of making their own reasoned choices and those who cannot, like minors, are protected by restrictions. It might not insulate everyone but it strikes a balance between protecting the public interest and individual choice. It’s a balance no government should cross.