A professor of local government at Dalhousie University says New Brunswick’s latest municipal reforms are in keeping with past ones including the sweeping changes imposed in 1967 as part of the Equal Opportunity program.
“There tends to be a top-down, heavy-handed approach,” says Jack Novack.
He was commenting on the latest provincial plan to force the amalgamations of local governments such as Sackville, Dorchester and their surrounding communities into one municipal entity — a process that will be overseen by provincially appointed transition teams, not locally elected representatives.
Although Novack says he hasn’t studied New Brunswick’s reform plan closely, he suggests the province should probably be considering a more flexible approach.
“The heavy-handed, top-down approach tends to be less successful because you can’t start off a new marriage based upon resentment,” he says.
“What I think you need to have is something which is much more inherently flexible than simply moving boundaries or incorporating other communities or amalgamations.”
Novack says New Brunswick could model its reforms on the 27 regional districts in British Columbia that were first established in the mid-1960s.
That system, he says, allows local governments to opt-in or opt-out of shared services based on their needs.
The regional districts are governed by representatives from each municipal council as well as locally elected ones giving them accountability to voters.
The B.C. government website explains that the system allows local governments to achieve regional economies of scale while residents pay only for the services they receive.
“Regional districts are a unique form of regional government in Canada, as the member municipalities ‘lend’ authority to the regional-scale government, rather than being ‘under’ its authority,” the government website says.
Novack says he also likes the model that Alberta is implementing known as an ICF or Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework that preserves a municipality’s local autonomy while providing for regional co-operation.
“I’m always happier to see things which are inherently flexible, that are adaptive,” he says, “as opposed to a more heavy-handed approach which simply thinks that by moving boundaries that you are going to solve the issues that ought to be addressed within those boundaries by the participating [municipal] units.”
Novack says provincial governments often treat municipalities as mere service providers and not political bodies where people can come together.
“To me the real virtue of local government is not so much the fact that it delivers water and sewer and police and fire and streets and roads and sidewalks and lights and recreation and local economic development,” he says.
“The virtue lies in the fact that it’s a place where people can participate and learn about the democratic process; where people can learn to be good citizens and where you can build strong and healthy communities.”
Novack says local government can also help people understand different perspectives, engage in compromise and practise the peaceful resolution of conflict.
He says that, in the end, New Brunswick’s municipal reforms should be judged in that light.
“Does reform strengthen the political role of local government or does it weaken it?” he asks.
“I have often said that if you want to be a virtuoso violinist, you’ve got to practise; if you want to be an accomplished gymnast, you’ve got to practise; if you want to be a mathematician, you’ve got to study hard and practise,” Novack says.
“Well, if you want to be a good citizen, why do we think that happens automatically?
“You’ve got to practise and local government’s the place where people can do that.”