The newly appointed minister of municipal government says the province will help with the amalgamation process
The room was pin-drop quiet as Stan Struthers, Manitoba’s new minister of municipal government, addressed the Association of Manitoba Municipalities convention here last week. His speech largely focused on fence mending after a year of tension between the province and municipalities over forced amalgamation.
Most of his 40-minute talk was spent defending the province’s decision to push for mergers, but Struthers also said things could have been handled better.
“I regret that you were taken by surprise,” he told a room of about 800 local leaders. The 2012 throne speech announcement, made without prior consultation, said all municipalities with populations under 1,000 must begin an amalgamation process in time for 2014 elections.
Struthers, a former provincial finance and agriculture minister who took over the municipal government file in a cabinet shuffle in October, said his government also knows how unpopular the idea is.
“A few of you thought it was about time and you’ve told me that,” he said. “But I’m under no illusion that that’s a majority here. The majority of you have expressed your displeasure. You’ve all been honest telling me that you don’t like it.”
Struthers said he recognizesthe toll the deadlines have taken on both elected officials and municipal staff.
“I understand that when you put deadlines in place and we ask you to, without consulting with you beforehand, meet those deadlines that we are asking a lot of you,” he said.
“You have CAOs who have taken this on the chin as well,” he continued. “They are very talented people who work hard, who have shouldered a good chunk of the burden of our ask to move toward amalgamated municipalities.”
Will work with RMs
December 1 was the deadline for municipalities to submit merger plans, and Struthers said “the vast majority” of leaders he’s been working with will meet it.
His job now is to work with AMM executive and find ways to ease implementation, he said.
“I want to be very clear that we’ve got you into this mess and we’re not going to just walk away now,” he said. “I’m looking forward to talking with (AMM president) Doug (Dobrowolski) about ideas about how we can be helpful in the next stage which is implementation of the plans before us. “
Struthers also said he wants to see the province rebuild a relationship with municipal leaders.
“Most importantly, I am looking to rebuild the kind of relationship that I think is necessary between our government and your AMM executive,” he told delegates.
In an speech prior to Struthers’, AMM president Doug Dobrowolski said the relationship between the province and municipalities has deteriorated.
“Last year I said I know the province wants to see municipalities grow and prosper,” he said. “It angers me that I can no longer make that statement one short year later. The relationship has eroded over the past year and trust has been lost.”
Dobrowolski told delegates they’ve tried, without success, to convince the province there were other ways to approach amalgamation, including highlighting successes of voluntary mergers while providing more assistance to those that wanted go forward.
“That would light the path for others,” he said.
What AMM wants at this point is to “get fair treatment through the rest of this amalgamation process,” he later told reporters.
Municipalities say they’re going to need more resources if they’re going to get this job done, including more help answering difficult technical and financial questions that have arisen.
“We need better resources,” he said. “This shouldn’t be an unfunded mandate.”