It’s being called a last resort, but delegates at last week’s annual municipal convention have voted in favour of taking the province to court over forced amalgamation.
Sixty per cent of delegates voted yes to a late resolution calling for legal action now that the AMM has failed every other attempt to prevent the province from forcing the issue.
The Modernization of Municipalities Act, which became law in October, requires municipalities with less than 1,000 to submit a plan for amalgamation by December 1. The boundaries are to be redrawn in time for municipal elections in October 2014.
Most municipalities have drawn up plans, but remain vehemently opposed to the top-down approach the province is taking for boundary reform.
Archie Heinrichs, mayor of Plum Coulee, whose council brought forward the resolution calling for court action, said they’re left with no other choice.
The province has “very unreasonable timelines” in place and the 1,000 threshold is unfair, he said.
“It should be our residents who make that decision, and they have had no input into the decision,” Heinrichs said. “There’s been no listening by the province.”
“The province has shown no respect to us at all,” added RM of Glenwood councillor, Walter Findlay who was in favour of taking court action. “What is the next thing on their agenda that they are going to try to jam down our throats when they know they can get away with this? Challenge them, it’s the only way they’re going to learn.”
An amendment put forward asking AMM to first find out if the challenge had any merit was resoundingly defeated.
But Doug Dobrowolski, AMM president said later the association’s board must first seek legal advice before moving forward. They’ll know shortly if it’s feasible, he later told reporters.
“This is clearly a last resort,” Dobrowolski said. “We are under no illusions that this action will prevent amalgamation from happening. We’re going to be consulting with our lawyers to see what is appropriate.”
Sixty per cent of 700 delegates at the convention supported the action, but those opposed to the idea were equally passionate — and not just because a court challenge could become a costly undertaking.
“I think this is a very, very slippery slope,” said Rick Pauls, mayor of Killarney-Turtle Mountain Municipality who called it “a sad day” and “American politics coming to Manitoba.” Pauls said the AMM board needs reminding it’s supposed to represent all municipalities, and there are others who agree boundary reform is necessary.
“If they’re going to fight things like this then they have to take a look at the entire structure of the AMM right now,” said Pauls. “I am in an amalgamated municipality. And I don’t want my municipality named in a lawsuit suing the province for something that we think is the best thing to happen for Manitoba.”
Pauls said this matter will only further divide leaders on what’s already a deeply divisive issue.
“I really think this is the beginning of the end of the AMM,” he said.
Dobrowolski acknowledged the dissension among AMM members. AMM has repeatedly said it is not against amalgamation, but wants the province to back off and let amalgamation occur at a slower pace and by community choice, he said.
They’ve tried to convince the province to do so without success, he said.
“I firmly believe our members would not have come to this decision if they had any other options,” he later told reporters. “The province has left us with no choice. We have tried many, many times to make suggestions and offer compromises which would allow municpalities and their citizens to follow a smoother path toward amaglamation.”
Garry Wasylowski, reeve of the RM of Armstrong is among those who say the province has botched the transition with a top-down approach. But he doesn’t think AMM is right to take the matter to court either.
“Municipalities are a creature of the province,” he said. “We are there by provincial legislation and the province has the right to do what it’s doing. I truly believe they (the province) have made some mistakes in this, and I think consultation is something we need to do. But legal action is not going to bring on consultation. It’s going to have two parties drawing lines in the sand.”
Reeve of the RM of Brenda, Duncan Stewart called the prospect of court action “ridiculous.”
In a scathing opinion piece recently published in the Winnipeg Free Press Stewart takes his colleagues to task for submitting plans that comply with the province’s Dec. 1 deadline, redrawing the map and enlarging municipalities — but not eliminating existing wards or council positions.
He thinks the root of resistance to amalgamation is turf protection. Leaders don’t want to lose their jobs.
“That’s what an awful lot of this boils down to,” he said. “Rather than look at what is best for the municipality, and what is best for the southwest, and we do need a lot of improvements out here, they’re thinking of what’s good for themselves and being able to keep their positions.”