UCP MLA Ric McIver was appointed was appointed interim Minister of Municipal Affairs on January 4, 2021. Photo: Government of Alberta/Chris Schwarz

Dr. No’ returns to city hall — this time as minister

Will Ric McIver let go of power and control?

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For the past 20 months, the relationship between Alberta’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and the municipalities it’s supposed to serve has been strained.

In a rare move, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) in June issued a rebuke to then-minister Kaycee Madu, saying the province’s Local Authorities Election Act—which expressly prohibits municipalities from requiring pre-election disclosure from donors to candidates and PACs—was rammed through without their input.

Two months later, in August, Tracy Allard was shuffled to the municipal affairs portfolio, replacing Madu as minister, but resigned in disgrace on January 4 after her now-infamous winter vacation to Hawaii was revealed.

Ric McIver, minister of transportation and a former Calgary councillor, has taken Allard’s place as the interim minister of municipal affairs, making him the 10th person to hold that portfolio in the past decade.

Municipal affairs ministers should be finding ways to help cities thrive.

Coun. Druh Farrell,

Ward 7

Interestingly, on Allard’s form that she filled out to say she was taking “personal time” from December 19 to January 10, McIver was listed as her temporary replacement.

Now McIver’s role is a bit less temporary, but it’s unclear how long he will be in this position. Still, it’s worth looking at what his municipal counterparts expect from him.

Power and control

Ward 7 Councillor Druh Farrell served on council with McIver from 2001 to 2010, after which McIver ran for mayor, losing to Naheed Nenshi.

Farrell says she was “particularly impressed” with Allard, whom she described as a vast improvement over Madu, compounding her disappointment with Allard’s decision to travel mid-pandemic.

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However, Farrell acknowledges that Allard wasn’t in the role long enough to see whether this positive relationship with municipalities translated into concrete policy.

She says she hopes McIver will continue this improvement, but that his tenure on council—where he earned the moniker “Dr. No” for his often-oppositional stance—provides reason for caution.

“I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt until I see how he builds relationships with municipalities,” Farrell said. “But Ric tends to be a bit more of a power and control politician.”

“Municipal affairs ministers should be finding ways to help cities thrive and we certainly didn’t see that with Minister Madu, who with very little background information tried to control municipalities.”

[McIver] certainly should understand what we’re trying to accomplish.

Barry Morishita,

AUMA President

McIver’s dithering on provincial funding for the Green Line is also cause for concern, she added.

“The response with the Green Line from Minister McIver has been very little listening and sharing of information, and more of an autocratic relationship,” said Farrell. “That won’t work.”

AUMA wants more consultation

AUMA president and Brooks Mayor Barry Morishita shares Farrell’s characterization of the contrast between Madu and Allard’s relations with municipal governments, but struck a more optimistic tone regarding McIver’s potential as minister.

McIver sat on the AUMA board for most of his tenure as a city councillor.

“He certainly should understand what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Morishita, who identified two broad priorities for enhanced municipal-provincial relations in 2021—hashing out a funding model for the upcoming provincial budget, and addressing the recovery from COVID-19 on a local level.

This necessitates a level of consultation that takes municipalities’ concerns seriously, which he says was absent from Madu’s approach.

The municipalities listen to what the province has to say and the province reciprocates to hear “about unintended consequences and ways to make legislation or initiatives being better, and those being thoroughly considered,” said Morishita.

It really is an important post, in that you’re working with municipalities and local governments across the province to make sure local services are provided and paid for.

Jacqueline Peterson,

Political scientist, U of C

To the province’s credit, Morishita says the government’s $436-million Municipal Operating Support Transfer implemented under Allard was instrumental in helping municipalities weather COVID-19’s impact on their 2020 finances.

“Now that’s going to continue into 2021 and I hope the province will be active participant in whatever adjustments have to be made to deal with this second wave,” he said.

McIver’s experience could be a blessing—or a curse

McIver was sworn in as minister on Tuesday. “I’m getting briefed on a number of files,” said McIver at a press conference afterward. “But our government recognizes the critical work this department is doing.”

University of Calgary political scientist Jacqueline Peterson says the municipal affairs ministry often “gets the shaft,” as evidenced by its inordinately high turnover rate.

“It’s not seen as one of the more prestigious positions,” said Peterson. “I don’t think that it’s necessarily treated with the respect that it deserves.”

“It really is an important post, in that you’re working with municipalities and local governments across the province to make sure local services are provided and paid for.”

It’s unclear whether McIver’s municipal governance experience will hurt or help him in his relations with local governments.

She says it’s unclear whether McIver’s municipal governance experience will hurt or help him in his relations with local governments.

“It’s tricky, because on one hand he was on Calgary City Council for a good amount of time, so he does have a good sense of how cities work, and the different dynamics and people involved. But he did often play an obstructionist role on council,” Peterson said.

McIver losing to Nenshi in 2010 could be a dynamic that ends up putting strain on his relationship with the city, she adds, but concludes that overall having someone with municipal experience in this cabinet portfolio is a net positive.

“It really remains an open question whether or not he chooses to view himself as a city builder with a background in local policy making, or primarily a provincial policy maker,” said Peterson. “We’ll see how long he’s actually in this position.”

Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl.

Now more than ever, Albertans need strong independent journalism.

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