Amalgamation makes sense

I have commented on this before but it is well worth revisiting in light of attempts to merge a few communities in southeastern New Brunswick.

New Brunswick has 256 distinct municipalities ranging from the Alma Parish with five residents and the Parish of Huskisson with 49 residents up to the City of Saint John’s 68,043 (all figures from the 2006 Census and not including Indian Reservations which have a different government structure).

Over 120 of these municipalities do not even have 1,000 residents.

How do we compare with the rest of Canada?

Take a look.

A few comments on this:

The biggest problem – by far – with this is the lack of local government. Almost half of New Brunswick residents live in municipalities that are too small to have a real municipal layer of government (with a paid team of staff, etc.). Effectively, the local government functions in these communities are being run by the provincial government. I am a big believer in the importance of municipal government – effective and professional municipal government – as the layer of government that should be uniquely and exclusively focused on the development of the local community. If you cross reference these small communities and the population data – you will see a direct correlation between population decline and no real municipal government.

That’s not to say that having a municipal government ensures success – far from it – but it’s a baseline starting point. With Fredericton ‘running’ all these small communities, I fear for their survival (if the political structure of Shediac Cape becomes part of Shediac it doesn’t mean that the community of Shediac Cape disappears).

This is why I was disappointed when I saw that Premier Graham was quoted saying he will not ‘force’ amalgamation on municipalities.

That’s too bad.

Cripes. These’s a Moncton Parish with 8,000 people and no local government. What is that? Who’s looking out for its development? Who is ensuring the residents are adequately serviced? Who stands up to the province and defends the interest of these folks? The Moncton Parish is bigger (by population) than Campbellton, Grand Falls/Grand-Sault, Sackville, Shippagan, Hampton, Sussex, New Maryland, Shediac, St. Stephen, Tracadie-Sheila and Shediac – all that have functioning local government.

Change your mind, Premier.

Fix this nonsense. We are not even talking about amalgamating Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe here. While some advocate this – at least these three communities have well functioning local government.

7 thoughts on “Amalgamation makes sense

  1. Here’s a better idea. Namely, let people decide. You have your views, however, thats based on your view living in Moncton. IF, as you say, they have no local representation and everything gets resolved far away in Fredericton then they would vote to amalgamate.

    However, as in all cases there is more to the story than just one side. Whether these people would want to form into larger municipalities which may then result in higher taxes should be up to them- not Premier Graham, not you, and not me. That’s democracy.

    Many of these villages may have informal forms of government where things are resolved in a more democratic way than in larger centers where a tiny council makes all decisions with little input from citizens. That may not be true, but there is a reason why democracy is said to done ‘close to the people’.

    I’ve lived rurally, and I don’t buy your argument. When things need to ‘get done’ in a small village, people get together and do them. In larger areas, we get that ‘dependance’ on government officials to do everything and we see government co-opted by developers.

    That’s more of that “we know best” city thinking that natives, the poor, and rural areas complain about, and why people like Scott are always advancing ‘small’ government. Because many think governments should be empires dictating to others whats in their own interest without even talking to them.

    From my above arguments the only thing that I think follows is that in SOME cases amalgamation MAY be a good option, but in others not. Again, that’s why I say, let the people decide for themselves.

  2. It’s funny how one person’s ‘democracy’ is another person’s ‘mob rule’.

    We elect people to govern. It is human nature to resist change – even if the status quo is killing us. I don’t think you have to get rid of the best attributes of the ‘small town’ by providing a miminum critical mass for municipal governance. Maybe we need to think about – dread and tarnation – some form of county government for areas where there is no large municipality. That way individual towns could still have their own elected mayor and local action but they would at least benefit from some scale. Nova Scotia has moved much in this direction and I think it has been overall a good move. I am not a local governance expert but I do know this. The buck stops in the community. Companies don’t set up in a province or country – they set up in a community. People don’t move to a province – they move to a community. Having 40% of people with the province more or less running their local affairs would be similar to the Canadian government directly running New Brunswick.

  3. Democracy by definition IS ‘mob rule’. However, some people, have a dim view of the ‘mob’ (even the word is meant to sound bad)

    Not to be to indelicate, but you are simply making an imperialist statement that is no different than what the US says of every country they get involved in, what the feds say about natives and Quebec, what the romans said of everybody they conquered, what the british said of the Indians and Irish, and on and on. In a different setting of course.

    But to tone down the ideology a little, I agree that municipal government doesn’t NECESSARILY mean a specific structure. However, it does mean it when virtually every amalgamation in Canada has been done in exactly the same way.

    Municipalities are creations of provincial governments who can do with them what they want, the idea that the province is suddenly going to renounce almost two centuries of how it operates is being a little optimistic.

    However, what I am suggesting is exactly how democracies all over the world are ‘evolving’. More and more people and organizations are looking for devolution of authority and less governance by small, often unaccountable, elected magistrates.

    So in fact I could just as easily state that that idea is the “status quo that is killing us”. I’m going to put it on my blog, but I recently found an example of New Brunswick getting some international attention. But its not the kind of attention you’d like. As you may know, Ontario is having a referendum in October on proportional representation, in fact the NDP leader has come out and simply said they will bring it in regardless of the referendum if they are elected. This is the referendum that New Brunswick was SUPPOSED to have til it got cancelled by Graham.

    Anyway, in countries like ours and britain and the states which are stuck in the ‘single member plurality’ system of governance, there are a multitude of organizations pushing for proportional representation. In the states many are quite big, in fact the Center for Voter Responsibility, which is an objective government organization, they take it as given that PR is at least the foundation of any government that proposes to call itself ‘democratic’.

    Anyway, New Brunswick is being touted as the POSTER CHILD of the failing of the current representation, just as it was in 1987 when McKenna won every seat with only 60% of the vote. However, this time its the fact that the current Premier wasn’t even elected by the majority of New Brunswickers, and this in essentially a TWO party system. In fact, Fairvote canada has researched and found that New Brunswick is the MOST unrepresentative government in Canada. So there’s some free publicity, do you think that’s making ANYBODY say “wouldn’t that be a great place to do business”

    It was lack of referenda that got St.John stuck at half a million dollars from Irving, when a referendum in Quebec got that city twenty times that amount for its LNG terminal.

    Democracy has far more reach than just economic development, but again, most of your ideas sound pretty reasonable, yet for two years now and with two different governments you’ve seen virtually no change towards advancing any kind of ED plan. In Maine, you could be getting signatures right now that would FORCE the government to either make that an agenda or at least have a referendum.

    As for ‘mob rule’, Maine is hardly the beacon of anarchy. In fact there’s good reason that New Brunswickers know absolutely nothing about Maine’s political system.

    You have your opinion, but by your own admission, they are ‘elected to govern’ and are not pushing your idea, so therefore shouldn’t you ‘shut up about it’? Of course not. Your ideas are as valid as anyone elses, however,they are not MORE valid just because you have them.

    That’s exactly what a referendum accomplishes. In a small area all sides make their ‘pitch’, and look at what could be best. Then the people who are affected should decide. People are not stupid and now what is in their best interest. You are saying that a group of people who don’t even live in the area should be able to force them how to make decisions.

    If its your contention that the single reason for NB’s ED demise is the structure of its municipalities then I think we have to disagree. What about the fact they cut the budget in half? What about the fact they spent all their money on a single stretch of highway? And on and on.

    If what you said was true and it was municipalities where businesses look to, then you’d be crazy to be lecturing the Provincial government and BNB. But municipalities haven’t the money to provide the goods for corporate investment, only the province can do that.

    And of course since the province itself can hardly get any international investment, it seems a bit strange to be arguing that these remote little areas should be amalgamated because thats what can deal with investment opportunities. Campbellton is a municipality but has been shrinking all the time, its not like forming into a municipality will have any payoff. For any kind of investment the provincial government is going to be involved anyway at some level. So NOT having a local one could actually be a benefit-its one less level of government to get agreement on.

    In a small area they may choose to make their decisions all together, namely ‘democratically’. You are saying they shouldn’t be allowed to do that, that ALL those rights should be taken away and decisions made in the way WE make ours.

    That’s a BIG step and a huge issue. Thats exactly why amalgamation is always a big issue and why the smaller party often does not agree. You put the cart before the horse….IF you can make the system of government sweet enough so that the majority of people will vote for it, then so be it. However, our governments tend to take power AWAY from people. First propose the system of amalgamation, then let people (or ‘mob’ if you prefer) decide.

  4. Collapsing a number of existing municipalities and unincorporated areas whose boundaries are contiguous into one municipal government is a great idea.

    As you mentioned, there have been a few successful examples of almagamation in Nova Scotia as well as in Newfoundland where towns like Conception Bay South, Grand Falls-Windsor, New-Wes-Valley, and the City of Corner Brook all have merged successfully.

    However, judging from the public reaction in Newfoundland to this initiative back in ’99, it is very unlikely that a government like New Brunswick will move forward with this task force proposal. In other words, it would be a bad political move for Graham’s government.

  5. Didn’t mean to get you agitated. Let me reiterate my broad thinking on a few of your issues:

    1. I think the PR system should be seriously considered by the NB government. This is not mob rule because you are still electing people to make community decisions on your behalf (if you don’t like them you turf the MLA after four years). I wasn’t aware that Graham had scrapped the PR idea.

    2. I like the concept of referenda but I have seen so much lobbying by all sides that the resident does not get the real picture. If citizens were provided with at least relatively unbiased information and they took the time to study it and casted an informed vote, I think it might be a good idea. In fact, I only hold that standard to big ticket items. For things like casinos, heck even industrial revenue bonds, I say referendums are fine and the various lobbies should just fight it out (with ground rules of course).

    3. I deeply want to see the rural areas of New Brunswick succeed. I am not one of these closet economic developers that believes that we need to force urbanization on New Brunswick. I think we need strong urban areas – they need to furnish the bulk of the economic growth – by their nature – but there is no reason why small communities can’t prosper – linked into the larger urban areas. In the U.S. more and more people are choosing the rural (or at least micropolitan) areas to live – tired of the fast pace. I think – and this is actually my mantra – that governments have an obligation to support economic development – at least as much as its other priorities. Without an economy, no one will live in your community. And without residents you don’t need health care, education, police, roads or anything else governments claim to do.

    But to let Fredericton run all these small communities because they are not large enough – or haven’t banded together with their neighbouring communities – makes not much sense to me.

  6. Sorry to sound agitated, of any subject ‘direct democracy’ is just the area I know most about and have been most active in. That’s not agitation, just excitement that a topic I know lots about has been mentioned.

    That you didn’t know Graham scrapped the referendum is no surprise, most people never even knew about it to begin with. Here in Ontario there is the same story, there is a referendum in October yet hardly any Ontarians know anything about it. Curiously enough, even though there is a referendum in october, if you go to the ontario homepage, there is a big link and logo to the ‘fairness campaign’, which is that whole equalization issue.

    Virtually all your points are on target regarding referenda, and all those targets are in place. It’s impossible to get enough signatures for a citizens initiative unless its a hot button issue.

    And of course once again New Brunswick is a poster child on how NOT to govern. The one example New Brunswick has for referenda was the video lottery terminal issue. This was riddled with corruption. Not only were VLT about to be regulated completely differently the following year (many people didn’t object to their existence, just how they were legislated), but the province refused to enact its OWN referendum laws. In other words, the government acted illegally.

    This meant, as you well know, ‘pro’ VLT lobbyists inundated the airwaves and newspaper with commercials, meanwhile those who opposed them had only letters to the editor and occasional call in shows. One PR company in Saint John stated proudly on their homepage that they took credit for winning the referendum, since New Brunswickers, like those in Maine, opposed VLT’s by 60-40% in almost every poll taken.

    Canada is much better in this regard because referenda are still so new at the provincial level that courts haven’t been involved, and provinces routinely break court rulings anyway (just look at abortion and minority court funding). In the states the courts have said that unlimited advertising is a corporations ‘freedom of speech’, whereas in canada there are strict spending limits, as we saw in the 93 referendum.

    Like PR, direct democracy has one added bonus that simply comes from its structure and not its practise-and that is that governments act very differently when there are citizen’s tools available. There is virtually no way the Irvings would have gotten that deal if Citizens had the means to challenge it. That’s its greatest power, that governments are more representative of its people than of its main funders.

    But that is not what municipalities are like in Canada. None of those tools are available at any level. Kudos to Levis for having the referendum on the LNG terminal-they didn’t have to. IF the people had some power over their government, I would tend to agree with you that a formal organization may be good for small areas.

    But like I said, that is a mistaken assumption that these people are ‘governed’ by Fredericton. Take Fire Rescue. These people don’t sit around waiting for a provincial fire service to save them from fires. They have volunteer fire departments, they organize and raise money for equipment and volunteer time. They do that without any formal form of government, and to my mind that is the best way to do it. It makes people community minded and more politically active, and studies have shown that. It is also cheaper for taxpayers.

    As for ‘successful’ amalgamations, again, that depends on the criteria used. What the SPECIFIC benefits are, you haven’t mentioned. If you want them to have more power, that is easily done in cheaper ways such as legislating unofficial bodies as governing structures. So you give the volunteer fire department the same resources and rights you give municipal ones.

    You also maintain that ‘success’ is defined as rural connection with URBAN areas, and again that’s an imperial notion. The fact is, there are many in rural areas that have been there for generations who don’t WANT the growth that urban areas have gotten. What you don’t get is that that is their RIGHT. However, the opposite is usually the case, and you have a point that an organized municipal structure may have more benefits in all kinds of ways, the question is, should those affected be allowed to make those decisions.

    In ontario when amalgamation was forced on Hamilton, the first thing they did in Dundas is organize their own referendum, which overwhelmingly rejected it. Of course it didn’t matter, and now the costs of running Hamilton has skyrocketed way beyond the costs that the separate municipalities incurred, and of course it resulted in the loss of power for those of Dundas, which is why they fought it in the first place. For good reason it turns out.

    So it is VERY easy to simply ASK people what they want. Democracy is very easy to do, in fact I suspect governments would LOVE it if it weren’t for the fact that they are bankrolled by wealthy people and corporations who absolutely loathe democracy, for obvious reasons.

  7. David, the ‘Alma parish’ you refer to with 6 people is not the parish but a census subdivision in the parish. There is no parish wide governance.. these areas are LSDs which are (can be) represented by a committee which even make planning statements.

    The idea of regional government for rural NB is interesting. It can, for one, offer places like Alma a localized planning and development body of oversight, as apposed to contending with the big municipalities for resources, and whose concerns are altogether different.

    But last I checked 40% of NB residents live in unincorporated areas and enjoy it.
    Say the municipalities and LSDs in a region merge for strength in numbers. What happens to the property taxes and level of services? are rural residents subsidizing the cost of municipal services in the more ‘urban’ areas, to which they see no benefit?

    Fear over property tax rate increases with Rural municipalities was the cause in rejecting the Shediac proposal, am I wrong?

    I’d be interested to know if you of how things have gone in Beaubassin since they adopted such a system. I think there is also another such municipality in the province to learn from.

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