WENTWORTH CREEK, N.S. — As the consolidation efforts get underway to see Windsor and West Hants join together as one municipality, plenty of questions loom.
One of those questions is about the public engagement process.
At this point, citizens won't have a chance to vote on whether the two municipalities unite, but there will be public meetings held.
At the joint council meeting July 26, councillors learned of the progress made to date and aired concerns, with most stressing that the public needs to have a say.
Councillors Tanya Leopold, Debbie Francis and David Keith all stepped up to ask a number of questions.
Francis was absent from the in camera (private) joint council meeting on July 19 where council voted in favour of amalgamating.
“For me, we've had more information as an individual council for chickens and livestock than we have about this to let our residents know, and I think they should be informed,” said Francis.
She said it's puzzling how fast they've moved forward with amalgamation without having much information.
“I go back to a letter that I read from April 12 and the province did not support amalgamation. It was costly and contentious and everything else and three months later, we're asking for special legislation for this,” she said, asking for someone to explain what happened.
Martin Laycock, the chief administrative officer for West Hants, said since this is a union, not a forced amalgamation, it's viewed differently.
Mayor Anna Allen told joint council that she's only received positive feedback since the announcement was made and that this will be beneficial to both regions. That didn't sit well with Keith.
“It's not roses; far from it,” said Keith, indicating he's heard from many constituents who are unhappy that they haven't had a say.
“Someone tell me — where are the voices that want to be heard? Are we shutting them off?”
What about a plebiscite?
A man sitting in the public gallery interjected, asking council to hold a plebiscite.
“We're all elected to represent our respective districts and our residents,” said West Hants Warden Abraham Zebian, noting that unification may not be a popular decision at this point in time but will be in the future.
He said everybody sitting around the council table is trying to do the best possible job for constituents.
While public engagement is a necessary component, Coun. Kathy Monroe said they're moving forward with joining the two municipalities.
“This was voted 12-2 to move forward with it. It isn't in question anymore. We aren't going out to ask permission to do this. We have come to council as representatives of the people; we have looked at the options before us, and we voted for the action we wanted to go forward with,” said Monroe.
“I have no doubt that we will have plenty of community meetings, information meetings. I don't doubt that we will hear from our constituents and be guided by their thoughts on how we work this. But, it isn't a matter of working through this and getting their permission; we voted to do this.”
Four options were presented at the private council meeting where they sought legal advice. The other options included extending the memorandum of understanding between councils, continuing the discussions on municipal modernization with the province, or allowing the UARB process to determine the future outcome of the municipal units. Since the meeting was in camera, the reasons why the other options weren't selected remain unknown.
“Although I've always opposed amalgamation, I recognize when our legal option to oppose the process has been exhausted,” said Coun. Rupert Jannasch, who voted in favour of amalgamation at the last joint council meeting.
“I'd also like to add though that negotiations are tough and they don't always get resolved. It could be — it could be — at the end of this, in the fall, that the UARB may still be our best option. That's still a possibility and it can't be ruled out from this whole process,” he said.
An application for amalgamation is currently before the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board. The application was presented by the Avon Region Citizens Coalition after getting enough signatures on a petition to get the UARB involved in the process. The application was supported by the Town of Windsor. The UARB is set to deal with the issue in October 2018.
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- West Hants to appeal UARB's amalgamation cost sharing ruling
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Leopold said she wanted the public to have a say and suggested a plebiscite be held before a permanent merger.
But Windsor's mayor said they've been advised by the province to steer clear of that option.
A plebiscite held in Pictou County in 2016 backfired, when the residents overwhelmingly rejected the planned merger between the county and the towns of New Glasgow, Pictou and Stellarton.
Monroe noted that that plebiscite was “ill-advised” and the public wasn't properly educated on the matter. Leopold countered, noting if they keep the public informed throughout the entire process, they should be able to have an informed vote.
The province has committed to providing the municipalities with a transitional coordinator and a communications officer to help as they navigate through the process.
While council didn't agree to hold a plebiscite on the issue, they haven't ruled it out.
During the meeting, West Hants' CAO stressed that they're at the very beginning of the process so there are naturally many unknowns.
“It's challenging to know the specifics because I think we're at the very first step of what is a marathon not a sprint,” said Laycock.