Antigonish residents call for plebiscite on merger of town, county
Councils will vote on consolidation this spring, but some residents think the issue is being rushed
The Town of Antigonish and the Municipality of the County of Antigonish, N.S., are considering merging into a new municipality.
Political leaders from the town and county support the proposed consolidation, but some locals think the issue should be decided by a public vote.
Chad Brazier is one of the roughly 4,300 town residents.
He doesn't have a strong opinion about a possible merger with the 20,000 residents of the county, but he does think people should have their say.
"Looking for and not seeing any sort of community meeting, any public town hall, or space for the community to hear from each other, it was very concerning for me," he said. "It seems like that's been replaced by these consultant-led sessions."
He said he and others at the many public engagement sessions felt like the consultants had been hired to sell consolidation, rather than to find out if people supported a merger.
He was also concerned that the website people are sent to, Antigonish.ca, is partially operated by the third-party consultants along with staff.
Brazier wants to vote on it through a plebiscite, or as an issue in the next election. The idea of a merger did go to a public vote nearly 20 years ago. The town voted strongly against it and the county voted strongly for it.
"That's a very important issue," Brazier said. "This isn't plowing the roads or taking out the garbage. It's something that should have been put to a direct vote of the people."
A Facebook group calling for a plebiscite has more than 1,000 members.
Sarah Armstrong, who is married to Brazier, said she has questions about the proposed merger, but the town isn't providing many answers.
"There are all kinds of people all over the county and the town who are also questioning why this process is running so quickly, why there isn't a public vote, and questions of if we really did have a say," she said.
She and others have organized their own town halls to debate the issue. One last week drew about 100 people. They urge people to write directly to their town or county councillors to express their views, rather than through the consultant's website.
Laurie Boucher, mayor of the town, and Owen McCarron, warden of the county, have both spoken in support of the merger, though they've not said how they intend to vote.
They said the engagement sessions have reached about 800 people, and the consultants are listening and taking notes.
Boucher and McCarron are not in favour of a plebiscite, arguing it would be expensive and that they were elected to make this kind of decision.
'We both have a lot to offer'
"I think we both come to this with a lot of assets," McCarron said. "It's not we versus them. We both have a lot to offer.
"We looked at a couple of other examples — Windsor/West Hants — and I think the most compelling for me is Queens/Liverpool. They came together 25 years ago. We've seen a lot of benefits of what they've done as a community. It's smaller than us, but significant when they took down those boundaries between two communities."
He said merging policing contracts could be tricky, increasing the cost for county residents without a change in service. He said much of the county's recent growth has come right on the border with the town, tying their situations closer together.
Boucher said there are many issues the town and county could work on together.
"Those bigger issues like climate change, affordable housing, infrastructure, accessibility. Things like that, those are issues that we're dealing with and it's things that could be dealt with much more efficiently and thoroughly with a bigger voice," she said.
The two councils will vote on the consolidation in June or July. If both vote in favour, they would approach the provincial government to seek permission to create a new municipality.