Every New Brunswicker will have an elected mayor and council within six years of the NDP forming government, according to Dominic Cardy.
The NDP leader unveiled a series of municipal reforms on Friday that will see a major democratic shift within New Brunswick communities.
Various governments have spent decades ruminating over how to restructure the local governance system, particularly the patchwork of local service districts spread across the province.
Cardy said he understands this policy could be a contentious issue with some people in unincorporated communities but he believes bringing an elected mayor and council to these areas is important.
“If you vote for the new NDP on Sept. 22 you are voting for a platform of fully-elected local councils in New Brunswick,” he said.
“This isn’t something we are going to study or review … we are saying, ‘We will do this.’”
The NDP leader outlined a series of municipal governance reforms that will ease for the transition to elected local councils.
Local service districts do not have elected councils but have administrative bodies that report to the Department of Environment and Local Government.
The local government minister is essentially the mayor for these communities and has the power to approve or block requests from the communities.
Cardy said the political power held by provincial cabinet ministers is one of the reasons why the system has not changed over the years.
“The reason it hasn’t happened is because of the Liberals and Tories, there are a lot of reasons for them to keep the old rules in place. That is a big part of the reason why we haven’t seen action on Finn and other [reports],” Cardy said.
New municipal equalization formula
The policy would usher in a new, simplified equalization program for municipalities. Cardy slammed the existing equalization formula used by the provincial government as incomprehensible.
Instead, the new financial system will encourage local service districts to co-operate with neighbouring communities but it will not force amalgamations.
“If you co-operate with other communities nearby,” Cardy said, “the province will give you extra support to reward that behaviour.”
The NDP leader pointed to the Dec. 2, 2013, referendum in Grand Tracadie-Sheila that saw the town merge with 18 local service districts. He said communities, in that case, would have a “measurable amount of extra money” to overcome the costs of setting up the new structure.
The transition to elected councils would take place over two municipal election cycles. The next municipal election is slated for 2016 and the following will be held in 2020.
Details on the revamped equalization program have not been outlined in the NDP platform. Cardy said it is a complex formula, but he said there would be additional money infused into that budget.
Once the overall provincial budget is balanced, he said funds saved from shutting down the Department of Economic Development would be redirected to helping municipalities in the revised equalization fund.
Previous local governance reform attempts
The former Liberal government commissioned Jean-Guy Finn, a retired clerk of the executive council, to write a comprehensive report on reforming local governance
The Finn report called for the number of local governing bodies must be cut to between 50 and 55 from the 421 that existed when he wrote the report in 2008.
The Liberals shelved the report before the 2010 election, saying it would too expensive to implement.
The Progressive Conservative government picked up on the local governance reform theme and has promoted the merger of small communities, but the success has been mixed.
There have been communities, such as Grand Tracadie-Sheila, that have agreed to merge, but there have also been communities, like Lincoln, that voted down a proposal to become a village instead of a local service district.
Cardy said he wants to move in the direction of the Finn report.
“It is not the full Finn report because we are not talking about forced amalgamation but we are talking about making it much more appealing for co-operation,” he said.
The NDP leader would not be pinned down on how many mergers he would like to see as a result of his new policy.
“As premier, the whole idea of a more perfect province is you don’t have the premier deciding those things, if every single LSD decides to maintain independence that is their choice,” he said.
He said he understands the concerns that some people in local service districts may have that this policy could add to their tax bill by imposing a political layer to their governance.
But Cardy said adding a mayor and council system would not be a huge financial burden.