Smaller council might do nothing for CBRM except further thin the ice
We’ve been here before. In June 2007 the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board opened hearings to consider the size of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality council.
But the antics of then councillor Vince Hall, who chaired the boundary review committee, led to widespread criticism of the process that Hall favoured for reviewing the size of council.
Hall and his committee refused to hold a plebiscite, which scuttled public consultation on the important question of whether the council should be made smaller or kept about its current size of 16 members.
The UARB decided Hall’s approach lacked credibility and called for using a better process which would directly consult local public opinion on this important question. Therefore, public consultation will have to take place as part of council’s application before the UARB, which has set its deadline for Dec. 31, 2010.
Revised districts and size recommendations for council should be in place by October 2012, the date of the next municipal elections. But we can expect to know what CBRM will decide in its recommendations to the UARB by late April of this year.
There is likely to be an advisory committee of residents and experts struck to review the viability of our current boundaries and recommend the preferred size of the council.
This advisory committee will have much to consider. There are some groups (and Mayor John Morgan was among them three years ago) who want to reduce the size of the 16-seat council by as much as half.
Most political conservatives are inclined to cut the size of all governments. This consultation process on the size of council gives them an opportunity to apply their logic to CBRM. They see the legislative character of council somewhat like corporate governance – for example, a board of governors legislative model and a mayor, used in other Canadian cities.
But is CBRM a city like others? Can it be governed like a so-called city with a small, corporate decision-making body as its legislature?
In all of this, the reasons for cutting the size of council and thus the boundaries in CBRM are not clearly stated by those who take this position. So what is the motivation to cut? Who benefits from a smaller council? Would a smaller council significantly reduce the cost of governing CBRM?
Other questions need to be asked. Are we to believe that a smaller council will be less divided? Are smaller municipal councils more ethical, more productive, more responsible and more representative? Should we believe that a smaller council would better fit the size of our local economy?
More than 10 years after amalgamation of our eight municipalities, should we ask: Has the current size of our council been the reason that we are losing our population, that our taxes are higher than in Halifax Regional Municipality, that CBRM is carrying a debt of more than $100 million?
In my view, reducing the size of the council will be as significant an adjustment as amalgamation itself was. Before amalgamation, the more than 100 mostly rural communities that now comprise CBRM had sufficient representation. People in the various towns around industrial Cape Breton could contact their mayors, aldermen or councillors to have their issues at least heard.
While it is true that there were inefficiencies in having a large number of municipalities providing the same services, people living within the boundaries of their towns could and did get their issues on the municipal agenda. However, it became a lot more difficult to do this when the size of the regional council was struck, even at the current 16 members.
At the time of amalgamation, CBRM was newly organized as an urban decision-making system, even though there are well over 100 rural communities seeking representation from the 16 boundaries carved out in our council.
People who live in Leitches Creek, Little Bras d’Or and Castle Bay regard their lifestyles and the problems they face to be rural, not urban. They want a council that understands environmental problems in a rural community and one that can grapple with issues like snow removal in Boularderie or Northside East Bay. Those of us living in Sydney may not be fully aware of the complexities of living in the many more rural communities across CBRM.
For us to assume that we can superimpose a tighter municipal legislative structure on CBRM because it may function as in Canadian cities may fail to understand the unique character of our many communities. CBRM is far from being a city in the Canadian traditional urban definition.
If anything, we lack an urban identity. We are not greater than the sum of our parts. And we can barely govern ourselves with the fledgling structures imposed on us by the province.
A smaller council will thin the ice we are walking on and give us even less ability to solve our own problems.