In Alberta's municipal politics, an unsettling phenomenon is unfolding that I believe demands our immediate attention. Over the last few weeks, Municipal leaders have been departing at an unprecedented rate, leaving behind a void in Alberta's political landscape that has not been witnessed in recent memory.
The question that emerges from this mass exodus, as posed by Okotoks Mayor Tanya Thorn, is whether this is normal.
So, let's examine the data: 2023 has already broken records for council vacancies, by-elections, and acclamations. According to Alberta Municipal Affairs, the province has witnessed a staggering 59 resignations and departures from municipal office in 2023 alone (as of September 22nd at 8:00 AM).
To put this into perspective, the entire year of 2022 saw 58 council vacancies.
To understand if this is an isolated issue or a recurring trend, I examined data from the last two municipal terms, spanning from 2017 to 2021 and from 2021 to the present day. The results were far from reassuring.
Following the 2017 municipal election, three municipalities – Bonnyville Beach, Longview, and Whispering Hills – held follow-up by-elections due to council vacancies. In 2018, a staggering 42 councillors or mayors left their positions as elected municipal officials. By 2019, the situation worsened with 52 more departures from municipal politics. Although 2020 saw a slight reduction with 29 new vacancies, the numbers remained a cause for concern. Even in 2021, a province-wide municipal election year, two councillors stepped down before the voting date, necessitating by-elections.
Alberta experienced a total of 128 departures from the municipal office and required the call for 128 by-elections in the 2017-2021 term. Astonishingly, the current term, which is only halfway through, has already witnessed 125 municipal leaders leaving office, leaving municipalities in need of by-elections to fill the void.
Two municipalities, in particular, stand out for all the wrong reasons. Since the 2017 municipal election, both the Village of Carbon and Berwyn have seen a staggering seven members of their councils depart from office.
It's worth noting that the months of September and October have emerged as particularly turbulent periods for municipalities. The majority of municipalities begin their budget cycle after the summer 'recess' and over the last six years, these months have witnessed a surge in by-election calls, far outstripping the activity in the remaining 10 months of the year. In fact, over the last two terms alone, 68 out of the 253 municipal by-elections were initiated during September and October. This concentrated pattern of activity in the fall months underscores the urgency of addressing the underlying factors contributing to the departures of municipal leaders. It is a trend that cannot be ignored, and it underscores the need for a closer examination of the challenges faced by Alberta's municipalities and the stability of its leadership in these crucial roles.
Now on the flip side of that problem January, during the same six-year period, recorded the lowest number of by-elections, with just 10 instances of filling council vacancies.
This certainly - in my mind - raises crucial questions about the preparedness of municipalities for the challenges that lie ahead. Do potential candidates truly understand the demands and commitments of municipal office? Is the allure of municipal politics as enticing as it once was? Most importantly, can municipalities, often referred to as the "Government of Proximity," effectively carry out their duties without stable and reliable leadership at the council table?
The future remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: for those considering involvement in municipal politics, seeking guidance from current municipal leaders regarding the pros, cons, and time commitments of the role is crucial. Municipalities in Alberta, unlike those in the Atlantic provinces, bear not only the burden of leadership departures but also the associated costs of potential by-elections.
As we navigate this unsettling era in Alberta's municipal politics, we must address these issues head-on, seeking ways to ensure that our communities continue to receive the stable, responsible, and dedicated leadership they deserve.
Only time will tell if Alberta's municipalities can weather this storm and emerge stronger on the other side.