There’s growing pressure for the New Brunswick government to change the law governing regional service commissions.
Several members of the commissions have complained that the existing voting structure is unworkable.
Budgets and spending require the approval of commissioners representing two-thirds of the total population in the region.
In the Acadian Peninsula, that amounts to a veto for the newly amalgamated Regional Municipality of Tracadie-Sheila, which has 33.5 per cent of the population covered by the commission.
“Right now with the way the law is set up, it's not a wall, but it's a brake on the work of the commission,” says commission member Mathieu Chayer, the mayor of St-Leolin.
The commissions came into being in January 2013, an initiative of the Progressive Conservative government of David Alward.
They were designed to administer regional services, to eliminate overlap and to encourage cooperation between municipalities and surrounding local service districts.
It was a more politically palatable way to re-organize local government than forced amalgamations, which had been recommended by a major 2008 study on the issue by retired civil servant Jean-Guy Finn.
But the creation of regional commissions has itself become contentious.
The commission in the Acadian Peninsula recently looked at hiring a consultant to study coming up with a common construction permit bylaw for all 14 municipalities and local service districts.
As it is, the inspector who works for the commission has to juggle several different rules, depending on where the construction is.
Chayer says a single bylaw would speed up the process.
"Our construction permit part is really, really slow,” he says.
“It takes up to four weeks."
But despite 13 of the 14 commissioners voting to move ahead, the proposal was blocked by Tracadie-Sheila.
The regional services commission in Saint John has faced similar issues. It was recently stalemated after two competing recycling proposals both failed to get the two-thirds approval required by the law.
Larger municipalities have complained as well: last year, councillors in Bathurst weren’t happy with the city’s contribution to its regional commission budget, feeling they weren’t getting much in return.
That’s indicative of another issue: bigger municipalities with more resources often feel they’re forced by the commissioners to carry the financial burden for neighbouring local service districts.
Municipalities withdrawing from planning
In northwest New Brunswick, commissioners are worried by the impending withdrawal of five municipalities, including Edmundston and Grand Falls, from that commission’s planning services.
“That contributes 55 per cent of the budget, so imagine, our structure for delivering that service took a very big hit,” says Pierre Michaud, the mayor of Clair.
Edmundston Mayor Cyrille Simard says the city is withdrawing for cost reasons and to focus its planning services on economic development within the municipality.
While he understands that some smaller communities feel outnumbered by the population-based weighted voting system, Simard says larger municipalities need to protect their interests as well.
Still, he adds, “there are certainly things that can be improved” with the commission model.
Michaud, Chayer, and other mayors recently persuaded the Association francophone des municipalites du Nouveau-Brunswick to lobby the province to change the law.
“The main goal of that [structure] is not working,” Michaud says. “It’s creating a division between members.”
Local Government Minister Brian Kenny did not respond to an interview request, but the Liberals promised during the recent provincial election campaign to review the law.