By Heather Killen
A conversation about the future of Annapolis County and the question of regional governance has been raised.
The Bridgetown Lions Hall was filled to capacity as residents from Annapolis County’s four municipal units turned out on August 29 to participate in a discussion about the future of the county and three towns. The meeting was organised by Heather LeBlanc, of Granville Ferry, and Anna Crossman, of Centrelea.
Dr. Peter Nicholson moderated the evening, with Stephen Hawboldt, Ian Thompson, and Lawrence Garner sitting on the panel. Current, former, and possibly future councillors from the county and towns attended and got an earful from residents after the panellists had their say.
“What would you like our region to look like at the end of the next four years?” was the main question raised at the meeting. People were asked whether they felt the current modes of governance are still effective and functional, or whether it’s time to begin thinking in more regional terms.
Ian Thompson, associate publisher of The Chronicle Herald, suggested that shifting from many small municipal units into regional governance is not a new idea and that while there are fewer municipal units than before, the idea of regional governance has not yet taken hold in Nova Scotia.
“The world has changed and there are new opportunities, but we will only profit from this if we are organised in a way that we can make the most of it,” he said. “Do we have the right people in the right systems managing things in the new reality?”
Lawrence Garner, co-owner of Foamworx, said in his discussion statement that, “We live in a remote rural area of declining population; less cannot continue to supply more. It is imperative that the region’s municipal units learn how to collaborate and use what resources exist in the most cost-effective manner to deliver value added services. We need to promote immigration and encourage retention. To achieve the basic services and recreation, infrastructure must be available and sustainable. The units must drop the parochial view and look for the maximum impact to as many residents as possible.”
He told the group he became concerned about the state of local governance after decisions the Municipality of the County of Annapolis made regarding contract negotiations with King Transit threatened to negatively impact his employees.
He added that he has serious concerns about the ‘combative nature of council’ and that he believes the taxpayers deserve sensible, responsible government that reduces government waste and works to ensure the region is competitive, offering a good quality of life for people. He suggested that the lack of jobs here isn’t as problematic as the declining population.
Stephen Hawboldt, former executive director of Clean Annapolis River Project and long-time Spectator columnist, said in his discussion statement that, “Rural Nova Scotians are facing an economic and social crisis. Rural population is in sharp decline... Many community services are under extreme pressure to meet the needs of their citizens. In response, municipal governments have a duty to seek innovations to improve services and economic opportunities. Sharing of municipal services on a regional scale may be one way to meet these challenges.”
He told the group he believes one of the best ways forward is to develop a new vision for the region. If people can agree on a vision, they will work together to achieve common goals.
He talked about the declining state of the Town of Annapolis Royal in the 1970s and how the rest of the county is now facing similar challenges. The town was able to overcome many of its immediate problems and turn things around after people were able to focus their energy on a shared vision.
He suggested getting rid of the boundaries and moving towards a regional model of government resting on shared and co-ordinated service delivery and a common vision. The first step towards this could be an independent study that is endorsed by the towns and county.
Hawboldt referred to two examples of counties that switched to regional governance, Queens County and the Halifax Regional Municipality. While it’s been suggested the switch in HRM serves to model a poor transition, others point to Queens County as a successful transition.
“The difference between the two experiments was that one came from the ground up, people decided it was in their best interest to change their vision, “ he said. “Anything is possible when people’s creativity is unleashed.”
From The Floor
The panel then invited comments from the floor. Several residents took the opportunity to discuss their intentions to run in the next municipal election and promised that they would raise this question as part of their election platform.
Other people spoke about their frustrations with the existing governments and why they would like to see a change. People pointed to areas of overlap, where four different governments require four times the administration and public works staff as a regional government.
Others complained about a lack of engagement with their councillors and municipal unit and at least one person pointed out that part of the problem is a lack of co-operation within and between councils. That “fiefdoms” have arisen within administrations and councils that bog down effective representation and service delivery.
Many agreed that in order to address the common problems facing the area, a common vision and co-operative approach is needed. A few people pointed out that this common vision doesn’t need to be at the expense of the local communities, that people will still identify with their neighbourhoods and communities under a regional government.
For example one person pointed out that while it all now belongs in HRM, people will still identify as being from Westphal, or Woodlawn, or Colby Village rather than Halifax.
Reg Ritchie, warden of Annapolis, spoke at length about the various shared agreements and co-operative service delivery arrangements the county is now involved with. He told the group that some of the shared services include: solid waste management, fire service, education, library, animal control, the Fundy YMCA, economic development initiatives, Kings Transit, and engineering. This information and the answers to many common questions can be found on the county’s website.
Former and present councillors also talked about the co-operative ventures the county and three towns have undertaken at various times.
Steve Raftery, of Bridgetown, said he became interested in the idea of regional government a few years ago, when he was working on a plan for the town. All the municipalities were required to prepare this report, so there were four Annapolis County reports all talking about the importance of collaboration.
Raftery said that despite each local community talking about the importance of working together, they had a history of ‘coming together to break apart.’ So he began looking at examples of successful collaboration such as Queens County.
He suggested that prior to amalgamation, all involved endorsed an independent study to look at the communities and provide that vital information to help decide the best approach. One of the concerns was that a regional government would swallow the identity of smaller communities, but this was not the case.
Raftery said the biggest change brought about by the amalgamation was a change in attitude, where a gain for one community was perceived as a gain for the region. The move towards a unified government also resulted in savings that vastly exceeded the projected figures within the first year.
The meeting ended with the group suggesting a follow-up meeting should held after the October municipal election to discuss the matter further.