Given the major issues on the minds Nova Scotians currently, such as access to health care and climate change, consolidation between two municipalities (Antigonish town and county) may appear to be a simple matter and of minor concern.
This is especially true when the municipalities are rated as having moderate and low financial risk, respectively. But when we look closely at how the process leading to a decision on consolidation is playing out, a very different and problematic picture emerges, one where good governance principles are being challenged. This is disrupting community harmony and causing distrust of some elected officials.
Three such challenges are described herein. First, municipal councillors, who are tasked with voting on consolidation, have not been adequately informed by those who are heading up the push for consolidation. No cost/benefit analysis has been conducted at this point and detailed short and long-term business plans have not been provided. Hence, town and county councillors have not been presented with a clear assessment of the pros and cons of consolidation. Instead, the proponents of consolidation have lauded cooperation and building a future together, with little or no hard data to back up their blue skies prophecies.
Second, planned community engagement sessions are utilizing a format that disallows a meaningful exchange of ideas among community members. The poster-board format that is being proposed is woefully inadequate to address changes in the governance structure of communities. It is incumbent on elected officials to present clear, detailed information to tax payers. They must also allow time for community members to express their points-of-view in an open discussion. This is how community consensus is built and how community divisiveness is avoided.
Third, disenfranchisement of at least two county councillors has been explored. The two councillors have received letters informing them that they are in a potential conflict-of-interest, and unless they recuse themselves from discussions and voting on the consolidation issue, could be subject to up to a $25,000 fine or a one-year jail term. The cited causes of conflict involve: being employed by the town and having an adult family member, who lives in a separate household, employed by the town in a professional capacity. It is of note that at least one of these councillors has voiced concern about the vote now and plan later strategy that has shaped consolidation discussions and processes.
The two municipal districts affected by the conflict-of-interest claims represent approximately 20 per cent of the county voters whose views will not be represented.
Considering the many shortcomings in the current consolidation process, town and county communities are exploring ways to ensure they have adequate information to take a position on the utility of consolidation and that their position will be represented in some final vote. This has led community members to propose that what they see as a flawed and overly rushed process be slowed down and that a plebiscite be held in place of councillors’ votes.
But some members of the town and county municipal councils have preemptively opposed a plebiscite because they are divisive and because people vote with their emotions. But other councillors and community members refuse to accept these views and see the process to date as flawed in the extreme.
Calls to councillors for open, informative meetings followed by a plebiscite abound. The only rational and healing path forward is for all elected officials to pause and listen to those who have elected them.