In Other Words: Bill 19 a solution for non-existent problem

It should be everyone’s concern when their elected officials darken the windows.

That is what is currently happening across Manitoba, as the provincial government tables a second bill in the legislature removing the requirement for municipal and provincial governments and their agencies to notify the public of important actions and events.

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Bill 19 – The Planning Amendment Act – was tabled for first reading in the Manitoba Legislature last month by Jeff Wharton, Gimli MLA and Minister of Municipal Relations.

Bill 19 states that public notice of a hearing under the Planning Act is no longer required to be published in a newspaper or posted in any location if it is simply posted on a municipality’s or planning district’s website for 27 days prior to a hearing.

This includes all manner of land use such as livestock and agricultural operations, drainage, building construction, recreational property usage, roadways and highways.

What this government fails to recognize is that making valuable information accessible online is not the same as notifying the public that information exists.

Public access is not public notice.

Under this act, if something is happening more than 330 feet away from your property line, you will no longer be notified.

Under this act, it will be up to citizens to seek out information online that they don’t even know is there.

Under this act, are Manitobans being deliberately left in the dark?

According to the Manitoba Inter-governmental Affairs Planning Act Handbook, the planning act provides a framework for land-use planning at the provincial, regional and local levels. The regulation sets out the province’s policies with respect to: General development; agriculture (including livestock); renewable resources; water and shoreland; recreational resources; natural features and heritage resources; flooding and erosion; provincial highways; mineral resources

The Government Notices Modernization Act – Bill 8 – removes the requirement to publish government notices in newspapers from 24 different provincial acts: The Environment Act; The Municipal Board Act; The Public Health Act; The Public Schools Act; The Public Utilities Board Act; The Highways and Transportation Construction Contracts Disbursement Act; The Water Protection Act; The Ecological Reserves Act; The Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act; The Cooperatives Act; The Corporations Act; The Criminal Property Forfeiture Act; The Garage Keepers Act; The Highways Protection Act; The Human Rights Code; The Insurance Act; The Naturopathic Act; The Red River Floodway Act; The Securities Act; The Suitors’ Moneys Act; The Surveys Act; The Trustee Act; The Veterinary Services Act; and City of Winnipeg Charter.

According to the Public Notice Resource Centre, public notice is information alerting citizens of government-related activities that may cause a citizen to take action. The purpose of public notice is to display information in places where the public is likely to come into notice. Traditionally and effectively, newspapers have published public notices because newspapers spark curiosity and are delivered to the interested public. Providing public notice provides the opportunity for the public to influence governing bodies and allows the public to be an active participant in a democratic society.

“There is no provision in either proposed act for mandatory publication of public notices beyond posting the information online – on their own government controlled websites. This means that Manitoba will become the first province to back away from a centuries-old tradition of democratic governments being required to use independent media to alert citizens of government-related activities that may cause citizens to take action,” stated Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.

There is little doubt this is a manoeuver that will lessen our democracy through the legislated removal of the checks and balances required for a transparent and openly accountable government.

Municipal councils will be faced with continuous challenges from residents demanding that their elected officials and staff prove a particular public notice was posted, unaltered and accessible, for the required number of days. How do they plan to do that?

According to a recently released Totem Research study, 21 per cent of Manitoba and Saskatchewan residents in non-urban settings have no access to the internet. How do they plan to respond to those voters who are entirely unaware of a significant change to local land use that will negatively affect quality of life or the value of their property?

The rights of citizens to know, and the obligation of government to notify those citizens of actions and activities that will affect their daily lives is paramount.

Premier Brian Pallister recently wrote, “Everything our government does passes through the filter of what is best for our citizens and our province. Not what is best for one group of citizens or one part of the province, but for all citizens in all parts of Manitoba. Those are our values. That is how we govern.”

How is the government-sanctioned removal of such a fundamental aspect of our democracy able to pass this government’s own filter?

Doing away with government’s requirement to notify the public of its activities, seems to be an ill-conceived solution to a problem that doesn’t exists, but that will in fact create plenty of them.

Kim MacAulay is the chairperson of the Manitoba Community Newspapers Association.

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