Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Minister announces amendments to Antigonish consolidation bill

Calls continue for plebiscite

  • March 27 2024
  • By Corey LeBlanc    

HALIFAX — Although changes have been made to Bill 407 – the Antigonish Consolidation Act – detractors of the proposed provincial legislation argue that key concerns remain.

“The amendments fail to address the most fundamental concern of residents; that the voice of the people needs to be considered through a plebiscite vote,” Terry Penny told The Journal in an email interview on Monday evening (March 25), while offering that she was “pleased” with the response to some issues raised by residents during a pair of law amendments committee sessions earlier this month.

Penny, of Lakevale, Antigonish County, offered that the lack of an amendment recognizing a phone poll in which 75.8 per cent of town and county residents indicated that they wanted a vote before any consolidation as “most disappointing.”

Several speakers, including Penny – who gave testimony during provincial law amendments committee sessions, which took place on March 4 and 7 – championed the call for a plebiscite, including members of Let Antigonish Decide, a community group that formed to air concerns regarding the consolidation process, including what they perceived as a lack of information on the potential merger and limited ability for residents to have their say on such a crucial decision.

Anne-Marie Long, who also presented to the law amendments committee, said that Lohr “ignored” her call – one echoed by other speakers – to “allow due process in law by first allowing our appeal to be decided before prematurely passing legislation.”

The appeal the Tracadie, Antigonish County resident refers to relates to a court challenge made questioning the legality of the Municipality of the County of Antigonish’s application to the province for special legislation to accommodate consolidation.

“His [Lohr’s] press release speaks to the councils voting twice to ask for special legislation to consolidate. The issue still before the courts is whether the councils had the legal right to ask the government for special legislation. Is the government afraid of what the appeal will decide?” Long, one of the claimants, offered in an email interview with The Journal.

They are appealing a Dec. 5 decision from Justice Timothy Gabriel that ruled in favour of the municipality.

Long said the amendments do not lessen the need for a plebiscite.

“Public trust in this process is so low that it’s on life support. A first step in rebuilding trust is to listen to the people and provide for a vote after the study is completed. In the past, except in forced amalgamations, where the UARB wanted to gauge the wishes of the people, they would order a plebiscite that was non-binding under Part XVI of the MGA (Municipal Government Act). If the plebiscite is under Part XVII for a regional municipality, it is binding,” she explained.

“We have asked repeatedly for a study and then a vote. If a merger is actually in our best interests, I would expect that the voters would choose a merger. Why is this government afraid to allow the people to vote?”

Penny, who is also a member of the community group, wrote that Lohr’s “lack of recognition for the fight for democracy at its most fundamental level, his failure to amend Bill 407 to include the plebiscite, leaves many members of Let Antigonish Decide wanting.”

In a phone interview on Monday afternoon, a couple of hours after he released a statement outlining the amendments his department was making to Bill 407, Nova Scotia Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing John Lohr was asked if making a plebiscite a part of the process was considered.

Noting that both Antigonish councils – town and county – had voted twice in favour of making an application to the province for legislation to allow the municipalities to consolidate, he offered that they had to “respect” those decisions.

Lohr said the process is one that has been used previously; the councils having followed a “well-respected path.”

“Local municipal councils are a voice for the people, and they shouldn’t be ignored,” he said. “As the provincial government, we do our best to respect their authority,” Lohr wrote.

In response received on Tuesday to a follow-up email asking for clarification for further comment on not considering the plebiscite option, the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing indicated, “Mayors, wardens, and councillors are elected to make decisions on behalf of their constituents. In Antigonish, councils for the town and county determined that a plebiscite was not the best mechanism for engaging with residents in this matter, and we respect their decision in this regard.

The statement added, “A plebiscite has not been undertaken in the vast majority of recent examples of municipal reorganization. However, we are offering a path forward to address community concerns.”

What has changed

Nevertheless, during testimony given to the law amendments committee, he said that there were “reasonable concerns” raised about Bill 407, ones that “cannot be ignored.”

The first of two amendments Lohr outlined focuses on dollars and cents.

“The most common feedback was that many residents didn’t feel they had enough information about the financial impact of consolidation on their tax rate. We agree that residents should have confidence this consolidation is in their financial best interest,” he said.

With that in mind, Bill 407 now includes the requirement that the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (NSUARB) carry out “an independent analysis and report back on whether consolidation is in the best interests of residents in both town and county.”

The NSUARB must submit a final report to Lohr no later than Thursday, Aug. 1.

Lohr noted that, if the board doesn’t find consolidation to be in the “best financial interests of residents,” it won’t proceed.

When asked if the NSUARB has the power to call for a plebiscite, he told The Journal that the focus of their report is “solely” on exploring if consolidation is in residents’ “best financial interests.” Essentially, according to Lohr, how they would be affected from a “tax perspective.”

As for the NSUARB’s role, specifically, Penny offered, “Passing a bill that contains within it language to vacate the bill, if the very study ordered by the amendment itself does not support the enactment of the bill, is indeed putting the cart before the horse.”

She offered that she has “great hope” that the NSUARB undertakes “an independent analysis and report back on whether consolidation is in the best interests of residents in both town and county [and] be a robust and thorough analysis, providing the answers to the many ignored questions of residents.”

Penny added, “I trust and anticipate that the results of the UARB study will be shared with residents prior to any recommendation for or against consolidation.”

Eliminating potential conflict of interest

Lohr, in his statement, addressed the concern raised by some presenters regarding the make-up of the transition committee that would be tasked with carrying out the consolidation process. If elected municipal officials – the mayor, warden, deputy mayor and deputy warden were earmarked for positions initially – were part of the committee, and then decided to run for office in a consolidated Antigonish, it was suggested that it could create a conflict of interest.

“We agree that, at the very least, there was a perception of conflict and the individual leading any transition should be neutral. We are therefore amending the bill to exclude local elected members from the transition committee and, instead, appointing a UARB liaison and co-ordinator for transition, should the transition go forward,” the provincial minister wrote.

When, and if, an appointment is required, former provincial Liberal cabinet minister and Richmond MLA Michel Samson will be appointed to the role. Once a government house leader, his is now counsel with the Halifax-based law firm Cox & Palmer.

Appointing an “independent third party,” Lohr told The Journal, would eliminate any “perceived conflict of interest.”

When it comes to this amendment, Penny said, “To see Minister Lohr recognize that the participation of elected officials on any transition committee presents a conflict of interest, and for him to take the step to eliminate this conflict, was most welcomed.”

While Long offered, “Unless I’ve missed something in the amendments presented today [March 25], it seems that one person, the board liaison and co-ordinator, will have all the power. I can’t help but wonder if this will be any different from a forced amalgamation.”

‘Crucial step’

In a joint statement, also released on Monday afternoon, Mayor Laurie Boucher and Warden Owen McCarron said, “While we don’t have more details than what was shared, the amendments signify a crucial step toward consolidation as the bill continues through the legislative process.”

They added, “Although the transition period will look different than we originally expected, we still firmly believe that consolidation is in the best interest of our community.”

Boucher and McCarron noted that their municipalities “look forward to working with Michel Samson.”

They concluded, “We remain committed to the decision of our respective councils and will be looking to the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing to guide us through these changes and our transition, once the bill passes.”

Call for more changes

When it comes to what she has started to hear from residents, including Let Antigonish Decide members, Long said that they are “generally pleased” that the bill has been paused.

“We sincerely hope that this government agrees to make more changes,” she added.

Long noted that they are encouraging Lohr not to “cherry pick” concerns offered by presenters to the law amendments committee.

“[Don’t] stop at just allowing a study and agreeing to remove the current mayor and warden, and their deputies from the [transition] committee,” she said.

What’s next

During the house sitting later on Monday, Bill 407 – with its changes – reached the committee of the whole stage for debate as part of the legislative process.

The proposed legislation will move on to House of Assembly for third reading.

If approved there, which is expected considering the majority Progressive Conservatives introduced it, Bill 407 will be granted royal assent.

Lohr expects the process to be completed before the 2024 municipal elections in October, with voters either casting their ballots for a mayor and council in a consolidated Antigonish or for town and county representatives under their existing electoral structures.

The target date for consolidation to take effect, under the measures found in Bill 407, is Friday, Nov. 1.