EDMONTON — Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths has apologized publicly to rural politicians for the fiasco around his bill to reorganize regional planning.
“There has been so much misinformation about Bill 28, and I take full responsibility for that,” Griffiths said Wednesday in a speech to the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties.
“I owe all of you an apology for not communicating well enough what our intentions were.
“I let it get away from me.”
Griffiths made the comments two weeks after he put the brakes on the bill, announcing it would not proceed without further consultation from municipal and county leaders.
The bill, the Modernizing Regional Governance Act, is designed to set up new growth boards to address the shared needs of municipalities and districts clustered close together.
Opposition parties, however, have labelled it a naked power grab by the province. The bill gives Premier Alison Redford’s cabinet the power to set up the boards, decide the boundaries, pick the mandates, select the board members and sign off on all decisions.
The bill also directs that elected leaders who don’t follow the wishes of the boards and submit all requested paperwork can be fined or jailed up to a year.
The key concern for municipal leaders is whether municipalities and districts can be ordered to join the growth boards under Bill 28 or have the option to opt out.
Critics say the bill makes it mandatory. The government says it’s optional.
Griffiths said regardless the revised bill will make it clear that joining a growth board is optional.
That announcement didn’t go over as expected.
“We’re going to make changes that will make it explicit that it is your instigation and your desire to form the (growth) board, not mine,” said Griffiths.
The line was met with dead silence from the hundreds of members in the room.
“I thought you guys would be happy about that,” said Griffiths.
“I’ll say it one more time. We’re going to explicitly say in the bill that it’s voluntary and it’s your initiative not mine. So it will be a tool you’ll get to use if you want.”
This time there was a smattering of applause.
Griffiths also promised that while it was never the government’s intention to put elected local leaders behind bars, that clause will be struck from the revised bill.
“Nobody wants to put you in jail. Especially me,” said Griffiths, trying to lighten the mood with a little humour.
“That means I (would) have to help with your job, and I don’t have enough hours in the day.”
After the speech, Bob Barss, the president of the AAMDC, said they haven’t lost faith in Griffiths, but said his group wants to see the changes to Bill 28 in black and white before endorsing the legislation.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a trust issue,” said Barss. “(But) it’s too soon to start cheering about what we’ve been told.”
Wildrose critic Joe Anglin said, “I’m glad he apologized, but there was no misinformation out there. Really what he’s done is actually acknowledge the information was correct.
“Hopefully when he presents the bill again, he corrects all these provisions that we had major concerns about.”
It has been a confusing legislature journey for Bill 28.
It was introduced on the night of Oct. 29 and immediately fast-tracked. Thirty hours later it passed second reading, after government members worked to almost 2 a.m. to get it through.
Griffiths said at the time he had not consulted with municipal politicians and didn’t plan to because the bill was a housekeeping matter, simply putting into law for the province regulations already being used for planning in the Edmonton region.
However, as criticism mounted, Griffiths put the bill on hold on Oct. 31, now saying that since it was before the house, it was a good time to consult with stakeholders.
He also acknowledged the bill was more that housekeeping, saying it was a chance to get a handle on growth pressures in a rapidly growing province.
On Wednesday, Griffiths denied the bill was being rammed through the legislature prior to it being halted. He also added a new twist on the consultation, now saying the government had planned to consult all along.