ANTIGONISH: On the same night a consultant led engagement session on the potential consolidation between the Town of Antigonish and the Municipality of the County of Antigonish was held, town and county residents concerned with the process being undertaken, hosted a meeting of their own.
The meeting of concerned residents, which was held at the St. James United Church on Main Street in Antigonish on May 4, had 70 people in attendance when it started, however, the meeting grew to approximately 100 throughout the evening.
Of those in attendance to figure out how they could get their voices heard, including a strategy to push for a plebiscite, town councillor Sean Cameron and municipal councillor Harris McNamara were present.
Organizer Sarah Armstrong told the meeting there are questions whether the current consolidation process is in the best interests of communities.
“We weren’t born here, but we will die here; so this matter means a lot to us,” Armstrong said. “We feel that the current consultant-driven process is proceeding extremely quickly and that our democratic right to have our voices directly heard is being stripped, replaced by engagement sessions that provide no answers, where we question whether our voices really matter, and we are left to wonder why this is even happening.”
Armstrong explained their priority was to brainstorm ways to move forward with actionable items that can get their voices heard.
With information provided to her by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, county resident Anne-Marie Long suggested until a decision in favour of consolidation is made, there is nothing preventing either council from presenting a motion to hold a plebiscite.
“We are totally within our rights to be asking for the plebiscite,” Long said. “Right (up until) a decision is made.”
Cameron, who wasn’t there representing the town but as a concerned resident, advised there is nothing stopping a councillor from issuing a motion at an open meeting.
“I don’t believe a citizens group can request through the UARB a plebiscite,” he said, addressing some questions from the room. “Don’t be surprised if there is a motion coming at either the county meeting or at the town council meeting.”
A discussion centred on the consultant’s comment cards that are being circulated at the consultation sessions and used to track resident’s thoughts and concerns about consolidation.
“I think it’s critical we get our message across to the councillors, and I don’t know if them counting cards is the answer,” one resident said. “I think the whole system is flawed; they’re going to have a lot of problems if there is no open dialogue. It appears to me a decision has been made, they’re going to consolidate come hell or high water.”
Another resident suggested that he, along with many others, feel that it’s entirely in the hands of the councillors, and even though they have access to comment cards at the consultation sessions, their voices aren’t being heard.
“You’re going to wear this politically, if you let this go through, as much as you think that you’re going to make an impact on what I’d consider being a shotgun wedding, you’re not going to get it,” he said. “At the end of the day, I would encourage everybody here tonight to keep in mind that there’s a premier, he’s the boss, and he can tell the UARB what he’s going to accept. He’s done it with Nova Scotia Power and he can bloody well do it for the councils.”
Speaking on his personal involvement with the consolidation, Cameron advised on Sept. 13, council met with one motion on the table, to continue working with the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing to discuss the possibility of the two municipal units consolidating.
“When I as a councillor sat at the table, staff had submitted a request for proposals to hire consultants,” he said. “At our November meeting, I had one consultant report handed to me, and was told this was staff’s recommendation and we need council to endorse this.”
Cameron explained that although he was told by town staff that five consultants reports were received, Brighter Communities was the only proposal he saw.
“Now maybe I didn’t ask the question about the process,” he said. “Was the process going to be an open-forum where we were going to be able to ask and hear questions and answers or the kiosk style that we have now?”
Armstrong, advised the province is aware of what’s developing in Antigonish.
“The province is going to win, and we’re both going to lose,” she said to a round of applause.
Chad Brazier, who is married to Armstrong, advised the province is paying $150,000 towards the engagement sessions and he feels they want to make a return on their investment.
“I think they expect that to pay off for them,” he said. “And ultimately, by being a more lean, trim, single municipality, that they don’t have to pay to support as much as they’re paying to support the town and county now.”
Another resident advised some of the councillors who are supporting consolidation are indicating there can’t be a vote, because only about 30 or 40 per cent of the population would vote.
“Well that’s about the exact same amount of people who voted for them,” he said. “They’re saying we’re uninformed, in other words that we don’t have the intelligence, and I find that very paternalistic, patronizing and insulting.”
As for what the next direct steps are, Long and other concerned resident, Terry Penny addressed county council last night (May 10) during their Committee of the Whole meeting to air their concerns.
The Town of Antigonish will hold their next regular council meeting on May 16, where concerned residents will again try to get on the agenda to get their voices heard.