St. Albert city council voted Monday against a bylaw that would have enabled the city to select the method it uses to publish legal advertisements.
Currently, the city is legally required to publish advertisements — including notice of council meetings, bylaws, resolutions, and public hearings — in at least one local newspaper, as per the Municipal Government Act (MGA). In St. Albert’s case, this is The Gazette.
In 2017, the MGA was amended to allow councils to create their own ad bylaws outlining their chosen rules for notifying the public through advertisements.
The bylaw up for debate Monday night would have allowed the city's chief administrative officer to choose between one or more of the following options for publishing legal advertisements: on the City of St. Albert website, on the city's official social media sites, and on local media outlets’ official websites or social media sites.
When the public hearing on the bylaw opened, councillors said they were unclear on the purpose of the bylaw, citing a 2021 city survey where 67 per cent of St. Albert residents indicated The Gazette as their preferred method of receiving information.
“I’m still trying to figure out what problem we’re trying to solve,” Coun. Mike Killick said.
Bill Fletcher, St. Albert's chief administrative officer, said the bylaw is designed to increase the city’s options in reaching the most St. Albertans possible.
Additionally, Fletcher noted publishing legal ads online would save the city money. The city has a total advertising budget of around $200,000 per year, with Cory Sinclair, the city’s manager of corporate communications, telling council that legal advertising composes around 23 to 25 per cent of that budget.
“The bylaw was not written with the intent to save money,” Fletcher noted. “But numerous small amounts can add up to a lot over time.”
According to an administrative backgrounder accompanying the council motion, having the requirement for legal advertisements met online — as opposed to in a local publication such as The Gazette — would expedite council's processes, including those that apply to public hearings.
Kerry Hilts, deputy chief administrative officer, noted the current delays in publishing legal advertisements due to The Gazette's weekly publishing schedule can increase development timelines by a week or two weeks.
“Some developers, they get very antsy, because that’s dollars in their pocket,” Hilts said.
Speakers raise concerns
Rosalynn Thompson, a St. Albert resident, addressed council in opposition to the bylaw. Thompson said she is one of the 67 per cent of St. Albertans that prefers to get their information in the paper.
“I want to read it in the paper and get my information that way,” Thompson said. “I think our paper is very important.”
Thompson said she’s originally from Moose Jaw, Sask., which had a longstanding community newspaper that eventually folded.
“In St. Albert, we are and should be proud to have a paper [of] the quality that The Gazette is,” Thompson said. “It is the place that many people go to read, to seek information, and to get our knowledge about what is happening it St. Albert.”
Duff Jamison, the owner of Great West Media — the company that publishes The Gazette — also addressed council during the public hearing.
“I didn’t come here today to talk on behalf of my business,” Jamison said. “I came here today to talk on behalf of the residents of St. Albert who rely on The Gazette to keep them informed of the goings on in their city.”
Jamison argued the ad bylaw would negatively impact citizens of St. Albert, noting that though the city reaffirmed the bylaw would not preclude them from advertising in The Gazette in the future, it also would not obligate them to.
“That option is a slippery slope,” he said. “If council truly wants to communicate with as many residents as possible it must use all communication methods at its disposal, including The Gazette.”
Jamison noted the city has already significantly reduced the ads it takes out in the local paper.
“Residents no longer see the regular four-page reports in The Gazette on everything from the budget for the capital plan to progress on environmental goals,” Jamison said.
Ninety-three per cent of St. Albert homes receive The Gazette, he said.
“Our weekly publishing frequency may be a minor inconvenience for administration or a developer, but that’s a small price to pay to avoid creating major inconvenience for residents,” Jamison said.
Councillor supports bylaw
Coun. Natalie Joly put forward an amendment to the bylaw that would have listed a local publication among the options available for publishing legal advertisements, in addition to the three already included (the city's website, the city's official social media sites, and on local media outlets’ official websites or social media sites.)
“This change gives our administration the flexibility to get the attention of our residents,” Joly said. “I don’t think this conversation has to do with supporting a local business … that’s a completely separate conversation … this is about how we advertise, how we reach residents.”
Joly noted publishing ads online would mean the city could attach videos and other materials to explain in more depth what is being advertised.
She also highlighted the potential cost savings of publishing online, in addition to the time it would save developers.
“We want to be an investment-friendly city, and if we can save our developers two weeks in a short construction season, I really think it’s important that we do that,” Joly said.
Coun. Sheena Hughes argued the amendment didn’t constitute a real change to the original bylaw, and that it still leaves the public to guess where an advertisement might end up.
“I don’t feel like playing a treasure hunt game where we’re digging in various yards trying to figure out where the information is,” Hughes said. "The reality is this entire advertising bylaw as it's being brought forward is unnecessary, and we're cutting out communication with the public."
Coun. Shelley Biermanski seconded Hughes, arguing that she doesn’t see it as a “quality bylaw, by any means.”
“The fact is we just aren’t listening to the public,” Biermanski said. “We’re trying to force their hand.”
Coun. Ken MacKay said he still has yet to hear a suitable example of a legal requirement council would “need to rush.”
The amended motion narrowly failed 4-3, with Coun. Wes Brodhead, Joly, and Heron in favour.
MacKay asked administration whether it would be possible to put forward an amendment that would require the city to publish legal advertisements both online and in The Gazette, but ultimately withdrew the amendment after hearing it would increase the risk of bylaws being challenged for issues with the advertising process.
Ultimately, MacKay put forward the original ad-bylaw motion, though noted he would not be supporting it.
“This amendment to the MGA has been around since 2017, and we haven’t seen any need until now to identify it,” MacKay said, adding that he does agree with the benefits of becoming “more nimble,” and thinks these should be considered by council in the future.
“We can always bring it back in a year’s time or six months’ time,” MacKay said.
Killick noted that during St. Albert’s 2021 municipal election, candidates ran on a platform of improving communication with residents, and advertised in the local paper to get the word out about their campaigns.
“Why? Because it reached the vast majority of our residents,” Killick said. "That's where I'm coming from."
The motion to approve the ad bylaw failed 6-1, with only Joly in favour.