End of an era as Higgs government drops voter veto on municipal mergers
Not everyone will miss plebiscites that slowed reforms for two decades
In one of New Brunswick's most scenic and tranquil municipalities, village leaders and residents are wondering what happened to the strong message they sent to Fredericton — twice in recent years — about amalgamation.
In 2015, residents of Lac Baker voted decisively against being part of the new rural community of Haut-Madawaska.
A year later, they elected a new village council with a mandate to keep the community out.
"We are very different. Here it's nature, it's ecology," says Mayor Roseline Pelletier. "We don't want to become an industrial and commercial village. We want to stay as we are."
But Lac Baker, population 750, will become part of Haut-Madawaska in January 2023, as part of the Higgs government's sweeping local governance reforms announced this week.
The reform plan is stuffed with major changes, but one in particular represents a watershed political moment for the province and for the Progressive Conservative Party in particular.
It's been an article of faith for four successive governments, PC and Liberal, that local government amalgamations had to have the direct approval of voters through a plebiscite.
The reform plan says the government will amend the Local Governance Act to remove the requirement, created two decades ago by the PC government of Premier Bernard Lord.
"It's a denial of democracy, not being able to have a say in our future," Pelletier said.
"We are elected officials representing a population that voted us in to protect their assets and their investment in the local government they voted for. It was clear they wanted to keep what they have now."
That sentiment is shared in other communities that will be merged under the reform.
"I'm quite surprised and shocked that the government is going this route and dictating the restructuring of municipalities," said Minto Mayor Erica Barnett, whose village will be amalgamated with nearby Chipman and some neighbouring rural areas.
She said she's heard from residents expecting a plebiscite and has had to explain that the province won't allow one.
"I think you need to have a vote on something that large," she says.
The Lord government brought in the requirement in the wake of controversial amalgamations in Miramichi and Edmundston imposed by the previous Liberal government.
It was part of the PC effort to limit what they considered top-down decision-making. And it worked: no amalgamations were imposed by the Lord, Graham, Alward or Gallant governments.
While some towns, villages and local service districts managed to merge following 'Yes" votes, many other mergers were either defeated at the ballot box or abandoned after opposition made it clear a "No" vote was inevitable.
"It was an enormous mountain to climb, and we weren't going to get there," said business owner David Shipley, part of a group that hoped to turn the local service district of Rusagonis-Waasis into a rural community with an elected council and taxation powers.
As those defeats piled up, the plebiscite requirement came to be seen as an obstacle to needed reforms.
A report recommending major reforms in 2008 said that "voluntary changes, if and when they happen, are painfully slow and don't always occur where they are the most necessary." That report was promptly shelved by the Liberal government of the day.
"The whole reason for the plebiscite was to act as a political firewall for the government at the time," Shipley said.
"It wasn't seen as imposing incorporation or creating a municipality, it was the 'will of the people.' It was all about creating that buffer for politicians who didn't want to spend the political capital to make unpopular decisions."
Political scientist Tom Bateman of St. Thomas University said that while federal and provincial plebiscites and referendums happen from time to time, "they are not really an integral part of our political culture" and they tend to be driven by opposition to an idea.
"The beauty but also the bane of a referendum is the question is reduced to a yes or a no, as it must be," he said. "That often belies the complexity of the issue."
With the Higgs reforms, Shipley will get the rural municipality he was hoping for back in 2013. But in the meantime, another Fredericton-area rural community came into being in 2014 and has been booming.
"We lost that decade. Look at all the good things that happened in Hanwell with their development. Rusagonis didn't get any of those things."
Local Government Reform Minister Daniel Allain said Thursday the new map reflected extensive consultations he has already held.
"There are no big surprises in some of the entities proposed here today, and I hope that we can move forward in discussions," he said.
A spokesperson said Friday that the move to an independent commission that will study and make recommendations on future restructurings is similar to what other provinces do.
Opposition Liberal critic for local government Keith Chiasson said Thursday he wasn't opposed to the end of plebiscites.
"I don't think so, because I think a lot of communities actually wanted to work together, so I don't think we need a plebiscite to confirm what they've been asking for for years."
But his Liberal colleague Francine Landry, whose Madawaska Les Lacs-Edmundston riding includes Lac Baker, said voter approval may be warranted in its case because of the strong mandate against amalgamation there.
Turnout in the 2015 plebiscite was 77 per cent, and the No side won comfortably with 57 per cent.
"I have to respect the wishes of the citizens," she said. "I think there's a case there [for a plebiscite]. I would like the citizens to be heard."
Lac Baker falls below the threshold of viability that the Higgs government has established for stand-alone municipalities: a population of 4,000 people and a $200 million tax base.
But the villages of Fredericton Junction, Tracy, Petitcodiac and McAdam also fall below the threshold and are not being forced to merge, Pelletier pointed out.
At Thursday's news conference, the deputy minister of local government, Ryan Donaghy, said officials also looked at whether there was a "community of interest" that made sense for merging those smaller communities.
"Those local governments in the future will have to look at whether they remain as they are [or] whether they combine with larger areas," he said.
Pelletier said Lac Baker should be allowed the same latitude.
Residents voted in 2007 to have the village annex a neighbouring local service district as part of an effort to extend zoning powers to protect lakes and streams in the area and create an environmentally sustainable community.
"We got the size that we were looking for," she said.
But Shipley said while plebiscites have their value, they should not serve as a veto to reforms that are clearly needed.
"I am not a huge fan of direct-democracy plebiscites for decision-making," he said. "We don't do that to set our riding boundaries. We don't do that to set the number of MLAs we have, to decide the model of government we have.
"Sometimes you need experts and people and policy-makers who understand the full context and don't have biases or vested interests in it, to make the decisions that are in the interest of the community as a whole.
"The most powerful force in New Brunswick politics is inertia and doing nothing."