What's in a title? Mayors see hope for municipal reform
Former Dieppe city councillor named minister of local governance reform
The title made New Brunswick mayors perk up.
On Tuesday, Premier Blaine Higgs named former Dieppe councillor Daniel Allain as minister of local government and local governance reform. It's a new title for a department that had included environment before the election.
"I think it's terrific," Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold said shortly after Allain was sworn in.
It's unclear exactly what the new government will implement. There was little discussion of specific reforms, and no mention in the Progressive Conservative platform, during the campaign beyond looking at the tax system.
But the title alone has mayors and groups representing municipalities cheering.
Reforms sought by municipalities have been eyed apprehensively or outright opposed by people living in rural areas fearing tax increases or changes to what can be done with their land.
Calls for reform
Jean-Guy Finn, a former senior New Brunswick civil servant, led a commission on reforming local governance whose 2008 report called the province's system unsustainable.
Finn called on the province to slash New Brunswick's municipalities and local service districts to 53 from 371.
Over more than a decade, little has changed.
Higgs told reporters Tuesday there's already been a lot of talk and study of the province's municipal governance and he's serious about reform.
Reform was part of the party's platform in 2018 but much of the focus has been on Saint John and its finances.
Dieppe Mayor Yvon Lapierre said Allain would have had a front row seat to the challenges municipalities face and how the province can influence those issues during his four years as a city councillor.
"It will help us," Michel Soucy, mayor of Atholville and president of the francophone municipalities association, said of Allain's experience.
Lapierre said mayors quickly sent messages to each other when the title was announced Tuesday.
"That's great news for the municipalities that have been pushing this for quite some time," Margot Cragg, executive director of the Union of the Municipalities of New Brunswick,
"As they say, buckle up. We're ready to go."
Mayors and municipal groups already have a honed wish list for legislative or regulatory changes. Allain said in an interview his task will be to try to take all of those ideas and find common ground for reforms.
"It's been a long time coming, and we have to work on it," Allain said.
He suggested some legislation may be introduced as soon as this fall or spring, though declined to discuss specifics.
Mayors want the government to reintroduce a bill killed when the election was called that dealt with arbitration for municipal police and fire contracts.
Unions opposed the legislation that would force arbitrators to consider a community's ability to pay for wage increases.
Lapierre says he wants his former council colleague to implement "municipalization" of the province. That would end the current system with municipalities represented by elected council and local service districts managed by the province that Finn called unsustainable.
Allain, asked about Lapierre's comments, said it's one idea and that consultation will need to take place.
"I don't think everybody in New Brunswick would be aligned with that at this time," Allain said.
Asked what happens when various sides can't agree, he said they'll try to find consensus.
"We've been talking about this for a long time," Allain said. "I think our government pushed a little bit … I just want to bring it to fruition and to make sure that we can move forward as a society because they think we can keep the status quo, as the premier has indicated, is maybe not acceptable this time."
Moncton's mayor agreed with Lapierre's comments that an overhaul is required, saying New Brunswick with 770,000 people has 353 local government units, a figure that includes LSDs. Nova Scotia with its 920,000 people has 52 municipal units.
"We need to kind of get over ourselves, I think, as a province," Arnold said. "And, yeah, we need to rethink the whole structure."
Cities have repeatedly pointed out that tax rates in their communities are higher than in the LSDs in the surrounding areas, despite residents of those LSDs often using municipal services such as roads and recreation facilities that are costly to build and maintain.
But neither mayors or the minister mentioned the 'a' word — amalgamation.
Forced amalgamation has been controversial. Previous governments have tended to let LSDs and municipalities bring forward plans for amalgamation, but many have been defeated by voters when asked to approve the change.
Incremental changes have included introduction of 13 regional service commissions to perform garbage and land planning.
The Liberals passed the Local Governance Act, which changed some of the powers of municipalities, in 2017. But mayors have said it didn't go far enough.
For instance, Arnold wants the province to give cities the power to mandate that new housing developments include a portion of units considered affordable housing.