ANOTHER LOOK BY AL MUIR
The Town of Springhill's application to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board for the dissolution of the town, with the intent to amalgamate with the Municipality of the County of Cumberland, set the stage for the latest round in the saga of municipal amalgamation in Nova Scotia.
Not content with the perceived slow pace of the ongoing province-wide move in that direction, Conservative Party leader, Jamie Baillie jumped feet first into the fray, suggesting the province force the issue. Widespread media support for Mr. Baillie's approach followed.
A Chronicle Herald editorial titled "Bold better than nice" rejected Municipal Relations Minister Mark Furey's "nice" approach of letting Pictou County communities work through the process themselves, rather than force amalgamation on them. At the same time they embrace Baillie's "bold" solution – the threat of forced amalgamation (an approach the Herald has long advocated). Setting aside, for a moment, the democratic ramifications of that approach, it is well within the media's rights to participate in political advocacy. Where the limits of that advocacy push towards the bizarre is in comments in the same editorial related to John Leefe.
Leefe's appointment as co-ordinator for the Town of Springhill's merger with Cumberland County was described as "an inspired choice" with further gushing he "is probably our foremost expert on the political art of amicably merging municipalities." Those comments suggest the authors of the Herald editorial have detailed knowledge of Leefe's words and deeds in making their assessment. For those of us who do not a little background is necessary.
In the 1990s the short-lived Liberal government of John Savage initiated forced amalgamations in Halifax and Cape Breton – the municipalities that are held up as examples of the shortcomings of amalgamation. Leffe, a Conservative MLA at the time, was instrumental in the voluntary merger of Liverpool and Queens County in 1996 – the new Queens Regional Municipality that is held up as an example of amalgamation that works.
It is important to note that Leefe spear-headed that amalgamation out of fear Savage's government would force Queens County to merge with Lunenburg County. That fear was naturally accompanied by a belief that one should control their own destiny rather than have it forced on them. Some of Leefe's comments at an April 3, 2013, meeting hosted by the West Hants Chamber of Commerce at the Hants County War Memorial Community Centre clearly underline that philosophy. Words like "I am not here to tell you what to do. I am not here to tell you how to do what you decide to do…. The future is yours to mould, if you so choose to mould it."
While the Herald may think the bold (forced amalgamation) approach is better than the nice (avoiding forced amalgamation) approach they have missed their own point that Leefe is a model for the nice approach, in spite of their high opinion of his abilities. Leefe's comment, "If there’s not a process there that people see as independent, fair and objective it won’t work," has no place beside forced amalgamation. Leefe's entry into the position as the transition co-ordinator for the merger of Springhill with the Municipality of the County of Cumberland only occurred after the councils of both units voluntarily agreed to the merger.
Returning to the democratic ramifications of forced amalgamation, as a resident of the provincial riding of Pictou East it would be interesting to hear what Conservative MLA Tim Houston's (the voice of Pictou East in Halifax) views on provincially mandated amalgamation are. Ballie suggests county boundaries across the province as a possible alignment but a made in Pictou County model might contain two units. The Town of Pictou, geographically separated from the other four towns, might be united with the County that surrounds it and whose administrative offices are in close proximity, leaving the four geographically connected towns in another union. The point being any choices in that regard are best left to the directly affected communities, as Leefe suggests.
The sense of urgency on the amalgamation front was given new credence by the Ivany report. That report calls for a review of municipal governance but does not recommend what changes should be made. That is not surprising. The report is as short on identifying solutions as it is long on listing problems. While Baillie adopts the report as his new bible the Liberals apparently recognize the bulk of the problems listed in that report are contained in previous reports already gathering dust. Having walked the forced amalgamation path before, Liberal reluctance to retrace their steps is not suprising. It appears doubtful that Baillie spoke to Leefe before his first steps on the same rocky road.
Al Muir is a local businessman and resident of Plymouth who keeps a close eye on the political front, both local and nationally. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org