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Bulletin No. 36, April 2003
April, 2003 -
LOCAL GOVERNMENT BULLETIN – No. 36, April 2003 – The Dance Issue
The purpose of this bulletin is to focus debate on the need to increase local self-government in Canada and to help local communities achieve more autonomy. The local self-government web site is http://www.localgovernment.ca
In this issue:
1. A De-Merger Rumba
2. Slow-Dancing in New Brunswick
3. The Downloading Two-Step in Nova Scotia
4. The Federal Waltz
5. Subscribe to the Bulletin
1. A De-Merger Rumba
As mayor of Westmount, Peter Trent led the fight against the merger of Montreal area municipalities into one big megacity in 2000. He pulled out all the familiar information about amalgamations being more costly than a looser, more decentralized city structure, about the decline in local democracy that was bound to result, and he marshaled constitutional arguments about the protection of culture and the status of the city he led.
The arguments attracted much attention among leaders in the other 27 municipalities being forcefully swept up in this amalgamation and among some of the business organizations on the island of Montreal. But the politicians representing the City of Montreal saw a chance for an enlarged power base, and strongly supported the merger. The provincial government of Lucien Bouchard paid little heed to the objections and went even further, creating a handful of megacities in virtually all of the urbanized areas of the province.
Trent didn’t run in the first megacity election, refusing to give it that kind of legitimacy, but led the court challenge to the legislation. That too proved frustrating. As in Ontario, the Quebec courts proved unwilling to intervene.
Then, last December, Trent came up with a new idea: he would commission a report on the feasibility of a de-merger, unravelling the whole megacity and returning to the structures that existed before it occurred. He approached the retired chief justice of the Quebec Supreme Court, the Honourable Lawrence Poitras, who agreed to take on the task. The retired judge provided a report that showed the negative economic impacts of amalgamation – costs everywhere have risen - that de-mergers could be achieved for about $2 per person, and they would have positive economic consequences.
His report was completed in early March, and Trent released it on March 17, just as the Quebec election was getting underway. The media generally treated the proposal with disdain but Jean Charest, leader of the Liberal Party then in a neck-and-neck fight with the Parti Quebecois, immediately confirmed that if elected, within twelve months he would pass the necessary legislation permitting referendums to effect de-mergers. He re-iterated his proposal that if 10 per cent of the population signed a petition against amalgamation, that would trigger a referendum on the subject, returning to the previous municipal structures. Several media commentators felt Charest was on dangerous ground.
On April 17, Charest won a convincing election victory. Those who have been combing the entrails of election detail are now suggesting that Charest’s support for the de-merger legislation gained him up to ten seats, all off the Island of Montreal – that is francophone seats, not allophone. That analysis pricks the balloon of those who had argued that opposition to municipal amalgamations was largely confined to English speaking members of Quebec society.
Already the mayors of the megacities are voicing arguments about what a mistake it would be to return to the past, and since several are leading members of Charest’s Liberal Party, they are exerting considerable pressure. Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay is now proposing decentralization as a better option, but some are saying that does not go far enough. A few days after being elected, Charest suggested legislation authorizing de-merger referendums would be introduced in June, but that may be delayed given the pressures of megacity politicians who didn’t realize they were in such a precarious position.
Trent makes no apologies about the proposal to regain, as he puts it ‘status quo anti’ rather than using this as an occasion to review a range of models for local governance. In his opinion, it’s worth considering better governance structure once the previous structure is restored since that at least offers the security of a local government system providing local democracy. That’s the best place from which to consider alternatives.
Mr. Poitras’ report is available only in French and is posted on the citizen’s de-merger site in Quebec, http://www.democracite.org (scroll to `Rapport Poitras Report.) A summary of the report in English is expected to be available by May 5, when it will be posted on our localgovernment.ca site.
2. Slow-dancing in New Brunswick
The provincial government in New Brunswick has taken a cautious approach to municipal law amendments. The proposals introduced on April 8 and passed April 10 are all of the housekeeping variety, making minor changes to an Act originally passed in 1967 rather than addressing the larger issues already fleshed out by municipalities in the province.
The amendments include minor changes to municipal procedures (municiaplities will now be allowed to have more than one bank account, for instance) and to municipal powers. Thus municipalities will now be able to use ‘pay and display machines’ rather than the old-style parking meter; they will be able to offer ‘sporting’ programs as well as ‘recreational’ programs and will be clearly entitled to levy fees; they will be relieved of duties about processing and selling meat and the pasteurization and sale of milk, since these are issues now within the provincial bailiwick. The amendments might be necessary, and they might be the result of a review which began seven years ago, but they are pretty dull.
The bigger issues waiting to be addressed were raised by a Round Table on Local Governance established in 2000. Its proposals were reviewed by an all-party Select Committee which unanimously recommended regional structures for planning and for some services (such as sewage) so that a two tiered system of local government would be created, as well as a ‘comprehensive and integrated Provincial Planning Policy’ at the provincial level. It asked for legislative changes that permitted local elections to control the districts and to permit them to take on additional powers. It proposed that the process implementing these changes be inclusive and transparent.
These changes, sadly, are not part of the Municipal Act amendments. Instead, the government has issued a formal response to the Select Committee report, stating it generally agrees with recommendations and will be developing an implementation plan over the next few months. Premier Bernard Lord is expected to call an election later this year, but it seems a very remote possibility for increased municipal powers to become an important election issue or for the changes to be adopted before the election.
New Brunswick’s decision follows closely what seems to be a Canada-wide premise: When it comes to empowering municipalities, provincial governments move slowly, if at all.
3. The Downloading Two-step in Nova Scotia
Provincial governments are always inventive when it comes to downloading costs onto municipalities, and the government in Nova Scotia is no slouch, as was apparent when the government released its budget in early April.
In 2000 the province established District School Boards and thereby cut local government off from accountability or responsibility for an educational system that had hitherto been local in nature. But the province still required local property tax payers to contribute to education expenses, thereby grabbing a portion of the property tax collected by municipalities. (Nova Scotia was simply following the bad example set by provincial governments in Alberta, New Brunswick and Ontario.) The anger at that move led a joint provincial-municipal committee to recommend that municipal contributions for education be phased out over ten years and that the funding required from municipalities be frozen at $132.6 million a year.
Provincial officials haven’t really had time in the past two years to respond directly to that joint recommendation, but the province did managed to increase the municipal burden last year to $138.1 million. And the recent provincial budget continues that response, again increasing the mandatory municipal contribution, this time to $144.7 million. Don Zwicker, president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities summed up the plot-line of this story: “The provincial government continues to increase the burden on municipalities without consultation. Municipalities are being squeezed to fund a provincially run program, frequently at the expense of municipal services and improvements."
A provincial election is scheduled for Nova Scotia this year. Will Premier John Hamm’s government be challenged on the way it treats local governments? Can the plight of local government become a serious issue in this campaign?
4. The Federal Waltz
Debate among the three contenders for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada is about to begin in earnest. Will the relationship of the federal government to cities become an issue in this campaign?
Paul Martin has said there should be a ‘new deal for cities’, but it’s unclear what that means. John Manley has said that municipalities are not a federal government responsibility, and has implied that any government led by him will not change this situation in any way. Sheila Copps, whose father Vic Copps was the mayor of Hamilton, has yet to be heard from on the issue.
Can city politicians finds ways of putting the big questions about local government – access to tax sources and access to more power – on the dance card? Can others learn from the apparent experience of Jean Charest, that recognizing and empowering local government is a good way to waltz a way to victory?
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