As New Brunswick moves further away from democratic decision-making in health and education, the minister of local government is defending proposed legislation that could override the powers of municipal councils.
“It’s important that people understand that we’re not eroding any people’s democracy,” Daniel Allain told a committee of the provincial legislature Friday.
“It’s the reverse. We’re actually investing in New Brunswickers by having a new, independent local governance commission.”
The minister was responding to widespread criticism from members of the opposition parties as well as the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick (UMNB) and two associations that represent cities and francophone municipalities.
A news release issued by all three municipal organizations Tuesday expresses “serious concerns” about Bill 45 because it would, among other things, give the minister of local government the power to repeal or amend any municipal bylaw.
“If adopted, this would be a significant erosion of municipal autonomy that would give unprecedented power to the minister,” the release quotes Andrew Black, president of the UMNB, as saying.
Black, who is also mayor of Tantramar, added that municipalities are concerned that “this provision undermines the legitimate roles of councillors duly elected by their citizens.”
‘Disappointed’ & ‘disrespected’
During five hours of committee hearings on Friday, Allain said he was not only “disappointed,” but also felt “disrespected” by the criticisms. He suggested that municipal representatives were spreading disinformation about Bill 45.
“This piece of legislation does not deserve to go in the gutter like this,” he said.
The minister defended the bill by referring to the government’s original commitment to establish an independent commission as part of municipal reforms in which former local service districts were merged with surrounding cities, towns and villages.
In its 2021 White Paper on municipal reform, the government suggested the commission would handle such matters as municipal conflict of interest complaints and review local cost sharing arrangements as well as requests for boundary changes.
But when Bill 45 was introduced on May 9th, it became clear the commission would be given unspecified powers that included reviewing complaints from property owners opposed to bylaw changes and that the minister of local government would be given the power to repeal or amend any municipal bylaw.
During Friday’s committee hearings, Allain described the five member commission, that the government hopes will be in place by January 1st, as “a new tool for municipal governments [and] for property owners to have an appeal process.”
He said property owners would no longer need to launch expensive and time consuming appeals to the courts when seeking to overturn municipal bylaws that interfere with the reasonable or traditional use of their land.
Allain went on to refer, for example, to Maple Hills, Irishtown and what he called “wealthy subdivisions” built because of poor planning in a former LSD in his own riding next to a working farm.
“If the new municipality [passes] a bylaw on hours of operation, noise and the spreading of manure, that individual, that farmer’s been doing that for 100 years and then that bylaw comes in and says ‘whoof,’ can’t spread any manure anymore…a bylaw like that can have a consequence.”
A Mount Allison University politics professor says he agrees with the municipal organizations that Bill 45 would undermine local democracy.
“We need to assume that the powers granted to the commission will be used,” Geoff Martin writes in an e-mail to Warktimes, “and in the NB context likely to be used to back economic development against the will of local people.”
Martin, who served on Sackville Town Council from 1998 to 2004, adds that local governments won’t have much choice but to give the province what it wants on such issues as new school locations and nearby development proposals.
“Developers with influence will be able to get their own way,” he writes.
Martin points to the 12 rural districts covering 70% of New Brunswick’s land mass where residents can only elect advisory councils while the province continues to provide local services.
He writes that the rural districts are like “sacrifice zones” where local residents have no municipal representatives to oppose resource extraction and industrial development.
“This new legislation [Bill 45] has the power to turn existing municipal territory selectively into sacrifice zones even if this is opposed by citizens and their local council,” he concludes.
To view the news release from the NB municipal organizations, click here.
To read CHMA coverage of this story and to listen to comments by Andrew Black, click here.
To read Bill 45, click here.