Moments after the minister of local government made his pitch for forced amalgamation, the majority of 650 rural municipal leaders in his audience rose to their feet to signal their opposition.
Ron Lemieux was addressing delegates at the Municipal Officials Seminar, who made clear their unhappiness with the province’s bid to force the merger of small municipalities in a “standing vote.”
“We’re all trying to wrap our heads around this — on how to make it work,” said Lemieux.
“But to be clear, amalgamations are going to happen.”
The standing vote was instigated by the southwestern municipality of Cameron, one of 92 municipalities with fewer than 1,000 people that has been told to begin merger talks with its neighbours.
“I’ve not seen the right reasons to do it, let alone the time frame to do it in,” said Cameron Reeve Wayne Drummond.
The tight timeline, the 1,000-person threshold, and the province’s hard-line approach top the list of concerns of municipal leaders.
Whitewater Reeve Blair Woods said he has no mandate from his ratepayers to hold such talks, nor is there time to meet the provincial deadline of completing the mergers before civic elections in 2014.
Whitewater is bordered by the RMs of Souris, Deloraine, Hartney and Boissevain, and Wood said he has no idea which one he should talk to or how to go about the process.
“I’ll be all spring and summer at meetings trying to figure this thing out,” said Woods. “To meet this timeline, and do this municipality justice, I literally won’t farm this year.”
There’s a huge range of items that need careful consideration, such as the communities’ trading partners, geographic constraints, and how communities intersect, said Rhineland Reeve Don Wiebe.
“We need to create some dialogue first,” he said.
Woodworth Reeve Denis Carter was more blunt.
“They need to slow down and give us more time and stop bullying us,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s doing anyone any good by forcing these amalgamations. In fact, it may be turning it back the other direction, where people thinking of amalgamating won’t consider it because it’s being forced on them.”
However, Lac du Bonnet Reeve Gus Wruck said there’s lack of trust and communication between local councils, and said some local government leaders aren’t doing enough to inform themselves.
He’d hoped merger talks might begin with the town of Lac Du Bonnet this spring, but his council was split over the matter and has voted to not pursue it further. They don’t want to gather more information on the subject either, he said.
“I have to respect the decision of the council not to participate at this time,” he said. “But probably the biggest issue I have is this refusal to go forward and even collect that information.”
Ninety-two of the province’s 197 municipalities have fewer than 1,000 residents. They’ve been told they can pick their partners for amalgamation, but don’t have the option to do nothing at all.
Legislation will be introduced this spring to make that the law, said Lemieux.
“It’s decision time, quite frankly,” Lemieux said. “The legislation will make it quite clear that people have to work and consult with their neighbours, and develop a plan.”
Lemieux said local leaders should also be talking to their ratepayers about this, and he doesn’t buy the argument that the process is eliminating public input.
“You should be engaging them and getting out there and talking to them and finding out what they think,” he said.
But it’s a difficult time, said Doug Dobrowolski, president of the Association of Manitoba. Municipalities, and amalgamation has become “a distraction” from all the other issues.
“Everything else going on has been overshadowed by the contentious issue of amalgamation,” he said. “It’s actually tearing communities apart.”
His association continues to tell the minister that his ‘hurry up, sign here’ approach is divisive and won’t produce good results, he said.