ANTIGONISH — A crucial step required to carry out the proposed consolidation of the Town of Antigonish and Municipality of the County of Antigonish could be coming in the next few weeks.
Both municipalities received a letter – one dated Jan. 24 – from Nova Scotia Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr on Jan. 26, which outlined his plan to introduce, during the spring sitting of the provincial legislature, their request for the special legislation required to move forward with the merger.
But, before doing that, the cabinet minister asked both councils to vote – once again – on the potential municipal marriage. If they reiterate their support, Lohr has requested that they make an updated application to the provincial department.
“I felt it prudent to follow up,” he wrote, considering it had been more than a year since the town and county made their application for special legislation, and much discussion and debate around the issue has taken place since then.
Town and county councils voted, in separate meetings on Oct. 20, 2022, to call on the province to approve its call for consolidation.
In a Jan. 29 email, municipal affairs spokesperson Krista Higdon confirmed that the provincial minister sent a letter requesting “an updated vote by each council.”
“If the result of the vote is that the Municipality of the County of Antigonish and the Town of Antigonish wish to pursue consolidation, the province will introduce special legislation to this effect in the spring sitting of the legislature,” she wrote.
The 2024 spring sitting of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly is scheduled to begin Tuesday, Feb. 27.
To fulfill that stipulation from Lohr, both elected bodies were to revisit the issue during separate emergency meetings that were scheduled for Tuesday evening (Jan. 30), with votes on whether to continue on with the consolidation process.
When asked if the timing of the second votes, coming only a couple of days after receiving Lohr’s letter, had anything to do with limiting the time community members had to try to raise any concerns with council members, McCarron started by noting that a series of boundary review meetings for the county were set to begin Jan. 31.
“So, rather than put the public and council through this – only to vote on consolidation in a week’s time – would be disingenuous,” he offered, stressing the timing had nothing to do with curbing public pressure.
Boucher added, “Our boundary review is completed, but the consolidation question has to be both municipalities, so our vote also affects the county’s review.”
On conducting the follow-up vote on the same day and at the same time – as they did the first time – McCarron offered, “It makes sense for both sides to be in-step on this because the outcome is equally important [for both municipalities].”
Lohr asked that his department receive the vote results no later than Friday, Feb. 23.
Each vote was to be conducted virtually, with the public able to access the sessions online but unable to attend in-person, as was the case almost a year-and-a-half ago.
Describing their special meeting in 2022 as “very contentious,” Town of Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher told The Journal that council heeded the advice of CAO Jeff Lawrence to conduct the meeting virtually, in order to ensure the safety of staff and council. She remembered councillors and staff members being hollered at and called names, while one councillor had to be escorted home. Two members of the gallery were also removed from council chambers.
“We certainly discussed it,” Warden Owen McCarron offered of the safety factor, when asked about the county’s decision not to have an in-person public meeting.
He also noted, considering the forecast, that municipal officials did not want councillor availability for the important vote affected by the weather.
Both municipal leaders noted that the vote would serve as an opportunity to re-affirm their positions, rather than re-visit the issue, with the consultations and discussions having been completed during the process.
“I am hoping so,” Boucher said, when asked if she expected council, once again, to vote to continue with the consolidation application process.
She noted that she has “never asked” any councillors how they would vote or encouraged them to vote “in a certain way.”
McCarron also expected county council to reiterate its position on consolidation, but he admitted that no one knows what the result would be until the vote took place.
In a related development, also on Monday, a group opposing the planned amalgamation without a vote by residents announced it has filed a notice of appeal regarding the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal decision rendered by Justice Timothy Gabriel on Dec. 5. That decision denied the argument that the Municipality of the County of Antigonish’s application to the province for special legislation was illegal and overstepped its powers.
“The details of the appellants’ arguments will be released after such time as council for the municipality has had the opportunity to be served and to review the notice of appeal,” Anne-Marie Long, who filed the appeal with fellow county residents J. Therese Penney and Alicia Vink, said in a press release. “The appellants believe that, with due respect to Justice Gabriel’s analysis and conclusion, there were several errors in his decision.”
In his decision, Gabriel indicated that the municipality had the authority to pass a motion asking for special legislation from the province.
The opposition court case is supported by Let Antigonish Decide – a grassroots community organization whose genesis stemmed from opposition to the process and not necessarily consolidation itself, particularly what they believe has been limited opportunities for public participation and officials ignoring the call for a plebiscite.
“With respect to the legal process, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court has dismissed the application challenging the county’s decision to consolidate, and we are moving forward accordingly,” Higdon wrote, when asked if it conflicted with the department’s previous position that nothing would move forward until the legal process was completed.
Long noted that an “outstanding issue” from the Dec. 5 decision is the amount of legal costs that the Municipality of the County of Antigonish has asked for from the three appellants.
“The court has not yet set an amount,” she said, while noting that they have been told it is the range of $60,000.
On the day of the announcement, McCarron said there has been no decision made (regarding pursuing payment of legal fees) and that county officials will be waiting until the appeal “plays out” to make a decision.
Long offered that concern has not waned regarding how the consolidation process continues to unfold.
“There continues to be tremendous opposition from the residents of Antigonish town and county, to the request for special legislation from the provincial government without a consenting vote from the people,” she said.
Ready for October?
If the consolidation process continues, and the special legislation is approved, Boucher and McCarron were asked if there would be enough time to complete the transition before Antigonish voters head to the polls in the next municipal elections, which are scheduled for Oct. 2024.
Noting that the provincial municipal affairs department would “take the lead,” when it comes to completing the merger – including deciding if there was ample time to have voters casting their ballots in one Antigonish, McCarron offered that county officials are optimistic there is enough time to make the potential transition.
“We can make it happen,” the veteran municipal politician said, while noting the town and county already share services and also cooperate on a variety of initiatives, which would narrow the timeline for completing the process.
Boucher agreed, noting that the neighbouring municipalities have “so many commonalities,” while noting crossover in areas such as IT, planning and recreation.
“We are very confident that it can be done,” she said.