Amalgamation: Public good must trump personal interest
Are we appropriately governed at the municipal level? We in Queens came to the conclusion 17 years ago that there had to be a better model. Prior to choosing amalgamation, we had 19 council members attending the business of some 12,400 residents, one elected person for every 653 people. (In addition, the Village of Milton and the Village of Brooklyn had eight and 12 elected commissioners, respectively.)
There were tensions between the two municipal governments that were not always conducive to creating a greater unity of purpose for the Queens community. Parochialism was too often an underlying factor. There was the threat that the Queens units might well be forced by the then provincial government into some kind of super-amalgamation with units located in another county. The future was uncertain.
Wise heads prevailed and those who were in positions of municipal leadership, with support from provincial officials, determined to find a local solution. The happy result is the Region of Queens Municipality.
The process established by the two councils was simple and effective. Each agreed to the creation of an arm’s-length committee that would seek public advice, crunch the numbers and determine if amalgamation was in the interest of the two units. This was a completely effective way of ensuring that political considerations were absent from the process.
The independent committee heard concerns about the impact of amalgamation on the 50-some communities in Queens. Loss of community identity, fear of Liverpool dominating the former county, fear of the former county dominating Liverpool, creation of a bloated bureaucracy, fear that the rural municipality would have to pick up the Liverpool debt — these and other issues were put forward in various quarters as stumbling blocks.
At the end of the day, they turned out to be red herrings. Interestingly, in the public meetings co-chaired by the independent Dobson-Sapp committee, these questions were effectively dealt with, and experience has borne out that these concerns were illusory, not real. The key question put by citizens was: How will amalgamation affect my property taxes? That was successfully answered by the committee working with its professional accountant adviser.
Upon receiving a positive recommendation from the committee, the two councils set in motion a series of events that would lead to amalgamation. Sandy Jolly, who was the minister at Service Nova Scotia, agreed to support the process of creating the new municipal unit; and a commissioner was appointed to chair a committee of equal numbers of representatives from the two councils. The committee members routinely reported back to their respective councils. The only time the commissioner voted was in the event of a tie vote, which encouraged the politicians to come to agreement on all but a few occasions.
The councils voted in favour of the committee’s recommendation; the committee hired the chief administrative officer and he, in conjunction with the commissioner, fleshed out the public administration for the new municipality which came into existence on April 1, 1996.
Since then, Region of Queens Municipality has been governed by a mayor and nine councillors. In 2011, RQM successfully applied to the Utility and Review Board to have the size of council reduced to a mayor and seven councillors, effective the election of 2012.
The size of the municipal public service has grown as the consequence of RQM hosting one of the province’s six solid waste sites, with adoption of a RQM-wide municipal planning strategy and land-use bylaw, and the recent opening of our new community facility, Queens Place Emera Centre. Even with these additions, there are fewer employees than the combined workforces of the two former units.
Liverpool residents have paid off the old Town of Liverpool debt; there is one RCMP detachment serving the municipality; and water and sewage infrastructure continues to be expanded into the former county. The undeveloped lands in the provincial industrial park in Liverpool have been purchased by RQM and all lots are sold; all but two are developed. And there is no duplication of services as existed when the two former municipalities each had their own clerk, CAO, directors of various departments, and so on.
There has also been an interesting evolution in council’s mindset. It is clearly understood that while individually, councillors are elected to represent their respective districts, collectively council is the government for all of Queens. So importantly, amalgamation has strengthened and solidly entrenched the “CAO manager” concept. And of course, there has been no loss of community identity: Milton is still Milton, East Port Medway is still East Port Medway, Greenfield is still Greenfield, East Port L’Hebert is still East Port L’Hebert, Kempt is still Kempt and so on.
Amalgamation has worked for RQM. It has worked because it is the result of all interested parties rising to the occasion, with leadership at the local level and support from the provincial level. It has made RQM stronger internally and externally; it is accepted as a decision wisely taken and effectively implemented.
The bottom line, however, is this: Had the councillors of the Municipality of Queens and the Town of Liverpool put their personal interests ahead of the public good, there would have been no amalgamation. Every one of them knew that creation of the amalgamated unit would mean that many of them would not be elected to the new council. Selflessly, they opted for what was best for the community. Public interest trumped personal interest and those men and women deserve to be remembered and applauded for that.
When invited to put pen to paper, I was asked how our community was able to create a new amalgamated municipality without acrimony. I hope the foregoing is a clear answer to that question.
John Leefe is mayor of the Region of Queens Municipality. He is not reoffering in the October municipal elections.