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Controversial Pride flag and crosswalk plebiscite being held in Westlock tomorrow

Proponents of a bylaw to have only standard crosswalks in Westlock have raised concerns about whether it is legal or ethical for members of council to campaign for or against an upcoming plebiscite.
Town of Westlock will vote in a plebiscite on Feb. 22 over removing the Pride crosswalk and limiting what flags can be flown on municipal property.

Westlock residents will go to the polls tomorrow to vote on the future of the town's Pride crosswalk. If approved, the plebiscite would force the removal of the rainbow crosswalk, painted between the town hall and Westlock Legion in 2023, and limit flags flown on municipal property to those of municipal, provincial, or federal government.

Members of the Westlock Town Council have been vocal in the opposition to the plebiscite, saying the bylaw would be a step backward for the community and create an image of the town as being discriminatory. Groups in favour of the bylaw have raised concerns about whether it is legal or ethical for members of council to campaign for or against an upcoming plebiscite.

Though uncertainty about appropriate council conduct may have generated doubt and confusion around the issue, the law is unambiguous.

"The Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA), not the Municipal Government Act (MGA), governs the rules around plebiscites. The LAEA does not address advertising for a vote on a bylaw, meaning there is nothing in this legislation to prevent a municipality from spending money on campaigning in relation to a citizen plebiscite," Scott Johnston, press secretary to the Minister of Municipal Affairs, said in an e-mail.

"However, municipal councils and councillors must ensure they adhere to the provisions of their Code of Conduct bylaw," Johnson said.

Westlock Mayor Jon Kramer said that while he and other councillors have been active in the Vote No campaign on the plebiscite, no municipal funds have been spent, even if legally allowable.

"You can't sit on the sideline" for important decisions

The MGA doesn't govern the rules around plebiscites, but it does charge council to stand for "a safe and viable community," Kramer said. 

"All the data says this is a bad bylaw, and one that we think puts our municipality at risk," he said. The controversy over the Pride crosswalk and the flagpole bylaw is already the first thing that pops up if you Google the town, and "when you look at attracting investment, attracting key professionals like physicians, this moves the needle in the wrong direction."

With decisions like this that affect community safety and viability "you can't sit on the sideline," he said.

"That's why we've taken the stand we've we've taken. We know it's upset a few people. They think there's maybe bias involved, but again, when you look at procedural bylaw and code of conduct, bias is about coming to the council table for decisions to be made with with an open mind. And so that doesn't pertain to any of this stuff, when you talk about a Vote No campaign."

Plebiscites often arise precisely because council is dealing with a contentious issue, and elicits strong support or opposition from elected officials.

"You're not doing anything right or wrong as an individual to voice your opinion. That's politics. You can try to influence the outcome of the vote or not," said former St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse.

When the Town of Manning voted in a plebiscite on whether to stay as a municipality or merge with the county, the mayor and council came out in support of maintaining their status as a town, Crouse said. A similar choice was put to the residents of Grande Cache, but in that case the mayor and council supported the position of dissolving the town and joining the municipal district.

As public officials, councillors opinions hold sway in the community and can influence the results of a vote, "and I think council members, individually and collectively, need to be careful that they are overly influencing the results," Crouse said.

While Crouse was in office, St. Albert also went through a plebiscite over library and recreational centre funding. Crouse said he avoided taking a side on the issue, but other councillors did not.

"I tried to stay in the middle. I think it's an individual choice. I know not every member of my council in 2016 stayed in the middle. Some went one way, some went the other."

About the Author: Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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