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EDITORIAL: Bylaw attempts to solve problem that doesn't exist

How a municipality passes information to its residents is among the most essential tasks for local government.
Castle Mountain lookout 1
The view from Castle Mountain lookout. RMO FILE PHOTO

How a municipality passes information to its residents is among the most essential tasks for local government.

The notification of information and how it’s provided, as well as having time to comprehend and potentially add feedback, is a basic right for residents to expect from its municipal government.

Though some people often complain about the slowness of governance, the methodical nature of such a system should be seen as a strength in coming to a conclusion that best serves the public.

Banff council will decide in the near future how its advertising for public notices and development permits shall take place. Traditionally done in newspapers, some municipalities have shifted to digital first or only after the Municipal Government Act was amended in 2017.

People have turned to digital means, but countless citizen satisfaction surveys in the Bow Valley have shown the newspaper to be the most common means of finding information.

Banff’s land use bylaw has specific guidelines for advertising for decisions made on subdivision applications and development permits. The notification either goes in a newspaper or mailed or delivered to all residents – a method rarely used – with a postcard notification mailed to area residents near potential and future developments being scrapped in 2022.

Once a public notice or development permit ad goes in the newspaper, the clock for the public to give feedback begins. However, before or after posting a public notice in a newspaper, there’s nothing to stop the digital advertising of public notices, approved development permits or public hearings, for example, on internal and external websites.

To suggest otherwise, such as the staff report to council, is a misrepresentation to elected officials.

In the 2021 Court of Queen's Bench ruling Neilson vs. County of Leduc, Justice Thomas Rothwell ruled decisively that the bylaw is "permissive" and "a municipality may pass a bylaw authorizing other methods of advertising," but is not required.

"A municipality should not be discouraged from providing notice through a variety of means or mediums for fear that it would vitiate a statutorily authorized method," stated Rothwell's legal ruling on Section 606 of the MGA.

In proposing such a bylaw, the Town of Banff attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

While starting the clock may be advantageous for some, a key role of municipal governance is providing its public as much time as possible to comment. It doesn’t mean everyone is going to get their way, but its intent is to allow public discourse to take place.

In starting the clock or attempting to ram through a potential decision, the opposite ultimately happens.

A developer may be eager to move ahead on a compressed schedule, but are residents and businesses of an impacted neighbourhood?

In many cases, municipalities or levels of government are the biggest advertiser for newspapers in smaller communities.

Healthy newspapers are a key cog in democracy in allowing residents to rely on an independent third-party source for reporting on an issue.

The Outlook has a financial incentive, with the Town of Banff spending about $3,000 on development permit notifications and between $3,000 and $4,000 on public hearing notices in 2022.

With the notices making up a minute fraction of the municipal budget and revenue for the Outlook, the question returns to transparency.

Though some may see the bylaw as quite simple, no bylaw is ever easy as every decision of council has an impact on some facet of the community.

The rules a municipality plays by are often different than that of the private sector, leading to far more scrutiny. The public demands more transparency, more information and more notice from its local government.

While saying the digital aspect adds more flexibility – which a municipality can already use – it provides the opportunity to abandon one method to connect with residents.

In Rocky View County, its council elected to add the digital option in 2019 with, claiming it addedof it adding greater flexibility.

The municipality declared it didn’t foresee how it would not publish public notifications in the newspaper.

Six months later that municipality stopped newspaper advertising, albeit some came back after residents complained of digital advertising being limiting in receiving information.

In St. Albert, a prolonged discussion on prioritizing electronic advertising led to council staying the course with newspaper advertising, with surveys showing residents largely relied on newspaper advertising for information.

The strategic plan of council highlights the priority of fostering connections by enhancing “our relationships with community groups and others to better serve and support the community” such as meaningful two-way communication.

The proposed new bylaw does little to align with those goals and ultimately takes a step back in both informing and hearing from the public.

Though not precluding newspaper advertising, it wouldn’t have the obligation to do so leading to a slippery slope of how communication to residents can take place.

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