Antigonish town and county rule out public vote on proposed merger
Political scientist says province should ask 'hard questions' about amalgamating without plebiscite
Citizens in the town and county of Antigonish, N.S., will not be allowed to vote in a plebiscite on a potential merger this summer, civic officials have confirmed.
Instead, councils representing the two municipalities plan to bypass the Municipal Government Act and ask the province for special legislation to create a new municipality — if the idea goes ahead.
"If councils were to vote in favour of consolidation, I expect the process would be similar to the process used to consolidate the District of West Hants and the Town of Windsor, reflected in the Region of Windsor and West Hants Municipality Act," said county Warden Owen McCarron.
A spokesperson for town Mayor Laurie Boucher confirmed that to CBC News. "If the decision is made to move forward with consolidation, the town and county would follow a consolidation process that involves special legislation, which is done outside the Municipal Government Act," said Kate Gorman.
Both councils intend to vote on merging this summer.
Tom Urbaniak, professor of political science at Cape Breton University, said avoiding the existing act as Windsor-West Hants did means the municipalities aren't required to hold a plebiscite or conduct a study to see if the merger is in the public interest.
"So in some ways they bypassed the process, or parts of the process, spelled out in the Municipal Government Act," he said.
"The term consolidation, that's a political term. We heard this in Windsor and West Hants and we're hearing it from the proponents in Antigonish, town and county. I guess they think that consolidation is a more marketable, salable term, but what they're really talking about is amalgamation or merger."
Antigonish did apply to merge under the act in 2006. The Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board rejected that application because residents of the town voted against it. Asked if they wanted to merge town and county into one municipality, 74 per cent of town residents said no. County residents went the opposite way, with 84 per cent in favour of a merger.
The utility and review board found some potential merits to the merger, but rejected it because people voted against it.
Urbaniak said the previous government created a special Bill 55 to merge Windsor and West Hants, and the current government could do the same thing for Antigonish.
"But from the point of view of democratic legitimacy, and if I were the province, I would be asking some hard questions," he said.
"Amalgamation wasn't the dominant issue in the last municipal election campaign in these municipalities. The argument that I've heard from some local politicians — well, we're elected to make decisions and we've been entrusted to put our reputations on the line for what we judge to be the good of the community — that applies in the case of many issues and decisions. But here, they're advocating a fundamental, very difficult to reverse, decision."
The 'occupied' Town of Louisbourg
He pointed to 1995, when the province merged eight municipalities into the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. He said the former Town of Louisbourg strongly opposed the merger, and that still today some locals call it the "occupied Town of Louisbourg."
Urbaniak said merging can improve governance, but it can also make it worse.
"History teaches us to be very cautious about assuming that merger, consolidation, will solve a whole range of problems. Let's remember that the transitions are hard, even where the municipalities that are coming together are natural and historic partners, the transitions are still sometimes expensive," he said.
"After the newness of it all wears off, these merged municipalities do sometimes become a little bit clunky and tired and less responsive, less nimble, when it comes to taking creative ideas that might sprout up from the grassroots."
Town and county councils have said they will vote on merging this summer. If the councils both vote in favour, they would approach the province and ask it to create the new municipality.