Winnipeg’s mayor and other municipal leaders have warned that democracy in Manitoba is about to take a hit.
Bill 37, the controversial Planning Amendment and City of Winnipeg Charter Amendment Act, cleared the committee stage with few amendments and is set to become law.
"As currently constructed, Bill 37 represents an attack on local democracy," Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman told a legislative committee. "The bill provides greater right of appeal to developers than residents," he said.
The bill was slammed by Bowman and the head of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities because it gives provincial Municipal Board appointees the power to override planning decisions made by elected municipal councils. The City of Selkirk, the municipalities of West St. Paul, Headingley, Macdonald, East St. Paul, and Cartier, and the Association of Manitoba Bilingual Municipalities also made presentations to the committee.
"Ultimately, we wish they’d push this back and redo it," said Kam Blight, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities. "There’s been plenty of time to get this right. Unfortunately, they’ve missed the mark thus far," he said Thursday.
Giving the Municipal Board the power to override local decisions undermines the authority and autonomy of municipal officials, Blight said. Municipalities fuel Manitoba’s economy and local councils know their communities best, so democratically elected local officials should decide how development happens — not provincially appointed, unaccountable individuals, Blight said.
He called some amendments to the bill positive. That includes the requirement that it be reviewed in three years, a reduction to the deadline for filing an appeal on municipal land-use decisions to 14 days from 30 days, and the requirement the minister consult with municipalities before additional regional planning regions are created, Blight said.
But big problems remain, say Bowman and Blight.
"The mayor is deeply concerned that the vast majority of serious issues he and others raised about Bill 37 appear to have been ignored," a spokesman for Bowman said Thursday.
No safeguards are built into the legislation to prevent "frivolous or vexatious appeals," Blight said. Manitoba could end up like Ontario with more red tape and a backlog of 1,000 appeals because it didn’t have clear parameters related to the appeals process, he told a legislature committee Monday.
Bowman said there’s a worrisome "theme" with the Pallister government transferring decision-making authority from locally elected representatives to provincial cabinet appointees.
"Local democracy will be eroded further if Bill 37 follows in the footstep of Bill 64 (the Education Modernization Act) where Winnipeg’s representation on provincial education matters won’t be proportional to its population," Bowman said. The bill would replace Manitoba’s 37 elected English school boards with 15 regions run by appointees — including just one for all of Winnipeg.
"We see a dangerous and reckless theme emerging," Bowman said, "taking final decision-making authority away from local democracy and shifting it to unelected, less accountable bodies."
A statement from Municipal Relations Minister Derek Johnson defended Bill 37 while saying the government is open to what it heard from stakeholders.
"Bill 37 sets out a solid framework for economic growth by creating a mechanism for ensuring that development decisions are timely and consistent across Manitoba," it said.
"Planning appeals are fundamental to open and fair planning systems, and are necessary for upholding transparent and accountable planning decisions. If municipalities undertake effective decision-making processes, with up-to-date development plans and zoning bylaws, fewer appeals will result."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.