WHEREAS the Government of Alberta has established a number of arms-length quasi-independent agencies, including Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Utilities Commission and the Natural Resources Conservation Board; and
WHEREAS the administration and regulation of core public services pertaining to health, utilities and the environment has resulted in a framework of unelected officials with little accountability to the public making decisions which impact the lives, property and environment of Albertans; and
WHEREAS the lack of accountability and responsiveness by Alberta Health Services to repeated and widespread concerns regarding the efficient and effective delivery of emergency medical services have resulted in service delays creating serious public safety concerns; and
WHEREAS the lack of accountability and responsiveness by the Natural Resource Conservation Board to municipal concerns regarding the approval of confined feeding operations prior to Water Act approvals being issued by Alberta Environment and Parks is a failure of fundamental planning practice; and
WHEREAS the lack of accountability and responsiveness by the Alberta Utilities Commission to the community planning and environmental sustainability concerns repeatedly expressed by municipalities and citizens pertaining to the approval of large renewable energy projects on prime agricultural land does not align with good planning practice; and
WHEREAS the implementation of arms-length quasi-independent agencies to administer critical public services, regulations and policy is becoming increasingly common; and
WHEREAS these types of agencies do not provide the level of public accountability for their decisions that is required of public bodies;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Rural Municipalities of Alberta request that the Government of Alberta review the continued use of unelected, quasi-independent agencies for the administration and delivery of essential public services, with the results of the review published for public examination.
“It is so easy to be wrong – and to persist in being wrong – when the costs of being wrong are paid by others.” – Thomas Sowell.
The establishment of quasi-independent agencies has been described by detractors as an ability for government officials to opt out of the myriad of legal requirements that constrain public administration especially where public oversight may constrain decision making. Such agencies allow government officials to bypass public accountability requirements which typically apply to decision making within government. To supporters, the use of these types of organizations have been described as a way to reduce bureaucratic ‘red tape’ and to make decisions based upon independently derived criteria outside of any real or perceived political bias. Based upon the recent decisions being made by these organizations in Alberta, the characterization of quasi-independent agencies made by detractors appears to be the most correct.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) was established on May 15, 2008 under the Regional Health Authorities Act and is an arms-length quasi-independent agency of the Government of Alberta with a mandate to deliver public health services throughout the province. AHS is administered by the Alberta Health Services Board reporting to the Alberta Minister of Health.
Escalating challenges with Alberta’s AHS-managed emergency medical services (EMS) system, including increased event volume, prolonged hospital wait times, EMS staffing issues and substandard dispatching are resulting in extended ambulance wait times, service shortages and outages which have combined to create pubic safety concerns. Plans developed by AHS to address these issues have not been adequately outlined to municipalities.
The Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) is an arms-length quasi-independent agency of the Government of Alberta reporting to the Minister of Environment and Parks. The NRCB was established in 1991 under the Natural Resources Conservation Act to determine the public interest of proposed natural resource projects. In 2002, the NRCB was given additional responsibility for regulating Alberta’s confined feeding operations under the Agricultural Operations Practices Act.
The Alberta Utilities Commission Act was passed in 2008, dissolving the Energy and Utilities Board (AEUB) to create two separate regulatory agencies: the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) which regulates the utilities industry and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) (now known as the Alberta Energy Regulator [AER]) which regulates the oil and gas industry.
Section 619 of the Municipal Government Act allows a license, permit, approval or other authorization granted by the NRCB, the ERCB, the AER, the AEUB or the AUC to supersede municipal authority over land use planning, including any statutory plan, land use bylaw, subdivision decision or development decision by a subdivision authority, development authority, subdivision and development appeal board or the Municipal Government Board.
When these provincial agencies consider the issuance of licenses, permits, approvals and other authorizations, they have few statutory requirements to consider municipal planning documents which outline land use priorities and plans – particularly those which include the protection of agricultural land including fragmentation and conversion to non-agricultural uses.
Resolution 7-20F was passed by the Rural Municipalities of Alberta in 2020. This resolution was intended to initiate a discussion on the amendment of the Municipal Government Act to require the consideration of municipal planning documents with respect to the protection of agricultural land when considering applications for licenses, permits, approvals or other authorizations by the NRCB, ERCB, AER, AEUB or AUC. The RMA has determined that the response from the province has not met the intent of the resolution.
This resolution requests a review of the use of quasi-independent agencies for decision making and delivery of essential public land use planning and the provision of emergency service delivery.
7-20F: Amendments to Municipal Government Act Section 619
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Rural Municipalities of Alberta urge the Government of Alberta to amend Section 619 of the Municipal Government Act to clearly state that the Natural Resources Conservation Board, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, the Alberta Energy Regulator, the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board or the Alberta Utilities Commission must consider municipal statutory land use planning related to the protection of productive agricultural lands when making decisions on licenses, permits, approvals and other authorizations under their jurisdiction.
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Alberta Municipal Affairs
Alberta has robust legislation and policies to ensure public agencies have clear roles and responsibilities, and that the are provided the level of autonomy required to fulfil their mandates while being accountable to the government and Albertans. Furthermore, beginning in 2019, Alberta’s government has conducted a multi-year review of all public agencies to identify opportunities for efficiencies and increased service delivery for Albertans, to ensure agencies are meeting their mandates, and are aligned with the government’s direction.
During meetings with RMA members at the convention last fall, I heard concerns from several councils regarding Section 619 of the Municipal Government Act. The concerns aligned with Resolution 6-22S – that there needs to be further discussion about how to balance municipal land-use decisions with decisions of provincial regulators. I recognize the importance of protecting valuable agricultural land and respecting local decision making; however, the Government of Alberta also has a role in considering larger provincial outcomes.
As you may know, the role of provincial regulators, and how that can be balanced with local decision making, goes beyond the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. That said, I believe this is a conversation worth having, and I will connect with Cabinet colleagues later this year to explore how best to begin this discussion with our municipal partners.
The Government of Alberta response acknowledges municipal concerns with the role of provincial regulators in making decisions with local impacts without adequately considering local land use plans. RMA and its members generally recognize the fact that the Government of Alberta has a responsibility in considering larger provincial outcomes when approving certain types of development. The issue lies with the lack of recognition for and balance with the municipal role in considering local outcomes. Both are similarly important but, in most cases, only the provincial scope is included within the formal approval process.
RMA has formed a member committee to examine the relationship between quasi-judicial agencies and municipalities in relation to approving provincially-regulated developments. The intent of the committee is to gather municipal examples and perspectives related to the local impacts of provincially-regulated developments, the lack of consideration of municipal plans and perspectives in the approval process, and how this lack of a local lens impacts the ability of quasi-judicial agencies to make decisions in the public interest. RMA also plans to develop a research report with recommendations as to how quasi-judicial agencies can better integrate a municipal lens into decision-making.
RMA appreciates the Minister of Municipal Affairs plan to connect with other Cabinet members to consider the possibility of a review of provincial approval bodies. However, until more information on this review becomes available, this resolution is assigned a status of Intent Not Met.