Alberta’s Recall Act came into effect in April 2022, and we have our first instance of a sitting elected official being recalled using the Act. Citizens of the Village of Ryley, which is located about an hour southeast of Edmonton, have successfully recalled former mayor and councillor Nik Lee. A by-election has now been scheduled.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that provincial legislation has cost Mr. Lee his seat on village council. In 2021, Mr. Lee, also a sitting councillor at that time, he was disqualified, and his seat declared vacant, though not until a provincial judge made that declaration. The village was close enough to the next municipal election that no byelection was required.
Recall is a very big stick for any elected official, and I am of two minds about it. In the case of Mr. Lee, Recall was used by a group of citizens to remove an official who citizens didn’t believe was acting in their best interests. This is a slippery slope. It is not uncommon for difficult and unpopular decisions to have to be made to support the long-term sustainability of a community. If officials fear recall, their courage to make difficult decisions may be less than it needs to be.
I am generally not in favour of Recall. In Alberta, the bar for Recall is very high. It requires signatures of eligible voters, with the number of signatures representing at least 40% of the population. The two numbers (voters and population) are very different because a lot of the population can’t vote for reasons of age, citizenship, residence longevity, etc. In reality, the 40% requirement is much higher than it seems. I’d imagine that conflating voters with population is confusing to many people.
The Village of Ryley has had a tumultuous two terms, where the business of municipal sustainability and the well-being of citizens has too often taken a back seat to the political interactions on village council. That distraction is expensive in terms of real dollars and opportunity cost.
Even though Mr. Lee’s seat was declared vacant in 2021, he was eligible to run in the fall 2021 Alberta municipal election. He got nominated, ran, and won a seat back on Village Council, becoming the Village’s latest mayor.
In Saskatchewan, this would not have been possible. In that province, a disqualified elected official remains ineligible to stand for local office for 12 years – or three electoral terms. This sort of stick would be useful in Alberta too. If an elected official can’t uphold the basic tenets of remaining eligible to hold office, should they really be able to reapply for the job once they’ve been removed? I like Saskatchewan’s rule, though if it was one or two terms rather than three, I think it would still be a significant enough penalty to dissuade elected officials from running afoul of the law.
The population of the Village of Ryley is an order of magnitude less than many Alberta municipalities. With a smaller population, the effort of gathering signatures during the petition period is much easier than it would be even in a small city, much less a large one, where a recall could require hundreds of thousands of signatures.
In this case, Ryley and its council are an example of what can happen if a group of citizens see that they are being poorly governed. I suspect this might embolden people in some other municipalities in Alberta to consider embarking on a recall petition.
If you’re an elected official, an administrator, or just someone who believes in their community, what is your take on the concept of recall and what happened in Ryley in particular?
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