Bylaws more headache than help?

Dear Editor,
After attending a public hearing on a bylaw I found it odd that the county reeve spoke to the public saying that council would not receive anymore information and that the hearing was now adjourned.

In the Municipal Government Act there is no prohibition on councillors receiving information. When it comes to public hearings, the MGA states:

(5) After considering the representations made to it about a proposed bylaw or resolution at the public hearing and after considering any other matter it considers appropriate, the council may

(a) pass the bylaw or resolution,

(b) make any amendment to the bylaw or resolution it considers necessary and proceed to pass it without further advertisement or hearing, or

(c) defeat the bylaw or resolution.

The MGA allows council to consider “any other matter it considers appropriate” and so the MGA does not prohibit councillors from receiving information but rather it instructs them to use their own judgment in ascertaining what other information may be relevant and to consider that in addition to the information at the public hearing.

The difficulty with the county procedural bylaw is the statement “once the public hearing is adjourned, the chair shall advise that no further information shall be received by council.”

This isn’t really an issue if council proceeds to vote immediately after a public hearing, however it puts councillors in an untenable situation if the second and third reading don’t happen immediately following the public hearing. Councillors do not exist in a vacuum and are (hopefully) always receiving feedback from their constituents.

What if new and important information comes to light? Their job of listening to residents does not cease after a public hearing and before vote.

Council should amend the bylaw for a number of reasons. Firstly, most obvious, a practical accommodation recognizing the responsibility of councillors to continue to hear from and listen to residents is in order.

Secondly, the reason the bylaw should be amended is fairness. It was highlighted in the public hearing that an applicant should have a chance to rebut. By not voting after the public hearing councillors are likely to continue to receive information, even though they may be unwilling to do so. By not voting immediately after the public hearing council creates a liability rather than avoiding one because of its own procedure that prohibits the addition of new information.

Thirdly, the reason the bylaw should be amended is one of clarity. The bylaw doesn’t technically state that the council cannot receive more information at the end of the public hearing. It merely instructs the chair to “…advise that no further information on the matter shall be received by council.” The bylaw isn’t a restriction on receiving information. It’s simply procedural instruction the chair must follow, (making a statement at the conclusion of the public hearing).

Lastly, the reason the procedural bylaw should be amended is because council is not permitted to receive information in the event of a postponement or recess. Why would anyone suggest continuing to hear information in the interim is a bad or unethical practice?

Another bylaw, the code of conduct bylaw, also puts a cloud over councillor discussions with residents. Councillors have said that they don’t want to attend open houses hosted by any organization with an application before council such as a land use redesignation.

The point of the open house is community engagement and so it’s ironic that the county has a bylaw prohibiting councillors from attending.

Attending such an event may be a violation of a county bylaw but it certainly is not a violation of the MGA.

This is a self-imposed liability that could be remedied if council chose not to over-regulate itself by prohibiting councillors from attending specific events. Possessing knowledge does not create unfair bias and uninformed perspective does not make for a more ethical council.

There are a couple ways these procedural issues could be resolved. Council could be compelled in a bylaw to vote immediately after the closing of the public hearing. Another way to resolve the issue could be to allow written submissions to council after the public hearing and give the applicant a chance to review and rebut in writing when there is a delay in the conclusion of a public hearing, although this is less practical. The most efficient solution may simply be that a public hearing should never take place unless councillors are ready to vote on the issue immediately following the public hearing.

Council should closely examine whether it wants to perform its duties with these regulations around information and interactions with ratepayers. To administrators such rules may seem like a shield, but to councillors they are a liability and to ratepayers they are senseless.

Christopher Morton
Swalwell, Alta.

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