Municipal Act changes raise bar for city referenda

The Yukon government has tabled its amendments to the Yukon Municipal Act after a lengthy review process that began back in 2012.

The Yukon government has tabled its amendments to the Yukon Municipal Act after a lengthy review process that began back in 2012.

Most of the 11 changes proposed by the government last year have made their way into the legislation. That includes one that will make it more difficult for Whitehorse residents to initiate a referendum.

Under the current legislation, residents can trigger a referendum by gathering the signatures of 2,000 electors or 25 per cent of the total municipal electorate. In communities with no list of electors, the petition must be signed by 15 per cent of the total population.

Now, the government has introduced an amendment that would change the threshold to 15 per cent of the population across the board.

Kirsti Muller, director of community affairs, said the change will make the rules “much clearer” for every municipality. She said most communities won’t be affected by the change, since many don’t keep lists of electors and were already using the 15 per cent threshold.

“It’s very consistent with jurisdictions across Canada,” she said.

But in Whitehorse, the change means residents will need to collect over 4,100 signatures to launch a referendum, up from 2,000. And all of those signatures must come from eligible voters, of which there were 18,675 for the recent municipal election.

Muller said the higher threshold is fair for such a large community.

But Marianne Darragh, who collected 2,654 signatures in support of building a park around McLean Lake in 2008, said 4,000 signatures would be “a lot for anybody to get.”

She pointed out that Mayor Dan Curtis won the recent election by just over 4,100 votes, which was considered a landslide victory. No councillor received more than 2,900 votes.

When Darragh tried to trigger a referendum in 2008, the city took her to court, arguing that it was unfair for residents to meddle with the Official Community Plan. The Yukon Supreme Court sided with Darragh, but the Court of Appeal later overturned the decision.

She said raising the threshold will make it that much more difficult for residents to make their voices heard in an environment that’s already hostile to participatory democracy.

“Historically, the city has shown a real aversion to this referendum bylaw,” she said. “You can’t assume that you can cross the ‘T’s and dot the ‘I’s and you’re not going to have problems.”

The government also decided to leave out an amendment that would have allowed voters to petition against and overturn new bylaws tabled by council.

Muller said none of the municipalities wanted the counter-petition.

“We already have two very good processes by which the public can… affect municipal decision-making,” she said, referring to plebiscites and referenda. “So to include another one was likely going to cause a lot of confusion.”

Another amendment removes the requirement for lists of eligible voters to be posted publicly before municipal elections, due to privacy concerns. Voters and candidates will still be able to view the list at municipal offices.

The new legislation also eliminates the requirement for municipalities to submit their Official Community Plans to the Yukon Municipal Board. Muller said the requirement existed largely so that the board could make decisions based on the community plans. But now that the plans are available online, that step seemed redundant.

Many of the other changes were designed to clarify the language in the act. One sets out a process for unincorporated communities to form local advisory areas and councils, which would allow them to advise the territorial government on local concerns.

Another states that municipalities can levy local improvement taxes and fees for any services provided by the municipality. Muller said the current legislation is very unclear about when municipalities can charge these fees.

“I think municipalities are excited about new ways of generating revenue,” she said.

She said the amendment will make it easier for municipalities to charge fees for recreation facilities and possibly to create a tourism levy.

Wayne Potoroka, president of the Association of Yukon Communities, said he’s pleased with the new legislation and the collaboration between municipal councils and the territorial government.

“It showed that municipalities, we’re growing up,” he said. “We’re a legitimate level of government. It made me feel good that it worked out as well as it did.”

He also noted that the government has now eliminated the requirement to review the Municipal Act every 10 years. He said that makes sense, since the review process takes such a long time.

But he hopes the requirement will be replaced with a new protocol. “We want a clear and established and transparent evaluation process for future reviews.”

NDP Opposition Leader Liz Hanson said she believes the changes will bring more clarity to the act, but she’s concerned that the amendments don’t appear to address a conflict with the Quartz Mining Act, which currently allows miners to stake claims right up to the edge of people’s backyards in many communities.

“This is a critical issue not just for municipal and local area councils, but for home owners whose most significant single investment is threatened by the anachronism of allowing mining or mining-related activity adjacent to residential properties,” she said in the legislative assembly on Thursday.

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