Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Municipal Government Amendment Act changes advertising rules

Chris Davis, Editor/Publisher, Pincher Creek Voice

On March 24, 2015 Bill 20, The Municipal Government Amendment Act, passed third reading. Included is an amendment to section 606, regarding municipal advertisement bylaws.

Municipalities were formerly required to notify their residents of proposed bylaw changes, "resolution, meeting, public hearing or other thing" in print form, through local newspapers and/or by mail, "published at least once a week for 2 consecutive weeks in at least one newspaper or other publication circulating in the area to which the proposed bylaw, resolution or other thing relates, or in which the meeting or hearing is to be held, or mailed or delivered to every residence in the area to which the proposed bylaw, resolution or other thing relates, or in which the meeting or hearing is to be held". Under the amended act, a municipality can pass a bylaw that removes those requirements, provided "the document is sent to the municipality by electronic means in accordance with a bylaw made by the municipality".

Municipalities can now publish such notices on their own website (or via other websites or digital media) if they pass a bylaw to that effect.

"A council may by bylaw provide for one or more methods, which may include electronic means, for advertising proposed bylaws, resolutions, meetings, public hearings and other things referred to in section 606." - excerpt from Bill 20
There has been some criticism of the amendments from print media representatives, including the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association (AWNA).  That's quite understandable, as the amendments pose a threat to a traditionally significant revenue source for print news publications. "The sketchy legislation, which was quickly given First and Second reading last week, will essentially allow local municipal governments to hide public business from residents," according to an April 2, 2015 editorial from Consort Enterprise Editor Dave Bruha titled "Transparent - Like A Brick".

"Are Albertans supposed to check their local municipal website every day and randomly seek out information that may or not be there, pertaining to a subject they have no knowledge of?" asks Bruha. You can read his full editorial here (click).  .


It is of course impossible for me to be completely unbiased about the advertising bylaw amendments. There's a chance that the amendments will result in more revenue for this enterprise.  There's a chance that revenue from municipality announcements will disappear entirely.

I believe amending the MGA was a necessary (albeit flawed) reaction to the escalating decline of print as the chosen medium for citizens to get their news. As newspapers adapt to the web or disappear, the old rules are becoming difficult for municipalities to work with effectively.

I have little respect for AWNA, which doesn't represent publications like this one (and reality in general) because they aren't in print, and aren't "weekly". AWNA's "Blanket Classifieds" provide revenue and some group oversight and rudimentary circulation auditing for their print partners, and little else.  The Alberta Press Council is also print-centric, and losing members fast.  Both are hidebound and essentially toothless, currently without the direction, strength, or will to truly challenge threats to freedom of the press or the public's access to information.  AWNA and the Alberta Press Council need to get up to speed fast, or else digital news services in Alberta need to establish their own oversight body, with a handle on the present and an eye on the future.

There are some valid arguments against the MGA amendments as worded. Because we are a digital only publication, and because we spend a great deal of time "on the ground" in this community, I am made aware constantly that there are those in our community who will never use the internet, who will never read this publication. They tend to be older, certainly, or just uninterested in news. Those who are uninterested in news probably can't be reached effectively by any means. However, those who are older and uninterested in adapting to the internet age should, in my opinion, still have access to information from their local governments in print of some kind. There's no guarantee that any print publication will survive the current "print apocalypse", but Canada Post at least seems likely to survive at least as long as those who predate the digital information age.

That sound you just heard might be a digital publisher shooting himself in the foot.

There is a real risk that municipalities will be able to pick and choose what relevant information is made readily available to their citizens, regardless of medium.  A transparency that was hard won can be much more easily lost.

I also argue that publications like this one have been unfairly frozen out of the potential revenue stream of municipal announcements under the old rules. A change to the legislation was long overdue. Things change, and the change in the way the average citizen gets their information has been drastic and relatively swift, particularly in rural communities like this one that didn't really notice the birth of the internet (October 1969) or its rapid rise in the mid-1990s. In the present, most area citizens younger than retirement age are online to some degree via computer, tablet, or cellphone.  Many seniors have adapted reluctantly or wholeheartedly to the digital information revolution.  The old methods and rules for distributing information no longer properly serve the purpose for which they were intended. The way many (if not most) people get their information has changed, irrevocably. The rules needed changing to reflect that. In my opinion, the amendments will need further amending to reflect the true intentions of the original Act - transparency and accountability of government.  

The medium is NOT the message.  The message is the message.

Related links:

Bill 20: Municipal Government Amendment Act 

Transparent - Like a Brick

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