Local Governance in Alberta: Principles, Options and Recommendations
Municipalities in Alberta have faced challenges for some time. Many of these challenges have emerged at both local and regional scales, and include slower growth and aging populations, constrained finances, a shifting economic base and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (AUMA 2020). In response, Alberta Municipalities, an organization that advocates on behalf of more than 250 urban municipalities in the province, has commissioned several reports to address these concerns. We were tasked to assess the current state of Alberta’s local governance model and investigate if changes to government structure might offer some remedy to the deficiencies uncovered in our assessment. Accordingly, the report aims to do the following: 1) provide conceptual
tools to understand local government structure; 2) impart a set of principles to guide strategic efforts; 3) evaluate existing regional governance in Alberta; and 4) offer several restructuring suggestions for Alberta Municipalities to consider in consultation with municipalities and to advocate for the province to act on those they wish to pursue.
The key governance concepts of viability and legitimacy underlie this report. A government becomes viable when a critical mass of population and other antecedents are present to catalyze development. Local governments become legitimate when they can take justifiable actions in a legal manner and have active support from their citizens. To improve the viability and legitimacy of local governance, structural reforms must be guided by a set of principles. This report proposes five such principles: efficiency, capacity, accountability, accessibility and responsiveness.
To supplement viability and legitimacy, we also invoked the additional concepts of fragmentation and its counterpart, consolidation. Together, these latter two concepts support a tiered, spatial and authority structure, which can work as an analytical tool to discuss and evaluate the local government models in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada. Collectively, these concepts enable us to identify and compare the number of local government units within regions to better understand how the spatial distribution of governance may uphold the five principles of good governance. The tiered structure of a municipal government, whether it is horizontal or vertical, reveals the extent of spatial geography it serves and the distribution of authority and service responsibility between and among tiered units.
We find that Alberta’s primarily horizontally fragmented governance arrangement, which includes over three hundred urban and rural municipalities, provides an accountable, accessible and responsive system. Such a system, however, lacks efficiency and capacity. Our analysis suggests that no one-size-fits-all model will work for Alberta. However, strengthening the current fragmented governance model in Alberta through intermunicipal collaboration frameworks, growth management boards and regional service commissions can bring about meaningful improvements. More disruptive options — such as amalgamation, regional districts or a two-tiered governance structure — also offer some benefits, but they should be scrutinized against the particular context of the area for which they are considered.
The report presents a series of recommendations that Alberta Municipalities can pursue with the Government of Alberta. The overarching suggestion is that the province mandate dispute-resolution mechanisms to resolve all intermunicipal challenges, including annexations. This would minimize intermunicipal frictions and foster cooperation to improve municipal viability, while also improving the fairness and the legitimacy of the governance system. To achieve this, the current dispute resolution mechanisms must be strengthened and expanded. The other recommendations are divided into three categories, as they pertain to three distinct geographies of the province: metropolitan regions, regions outside of census metropolitan areas and small and remote urban municipalities.
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