The Selinger government is taking its fight to amalgamate smaller municipalities to the people.
Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux encouraged residents in these municipalities to get more involved in a debate that’s dominated local politics since the fall.
"There is someone missing in this picture, quite frankly," Lemieux said Tuesday. "Those ratepayers should certainly be able to express their views."
Instead, many local municipal reeves and councils decided to oppose amalgamation without input from their constituents, he said.
"Every level of government now is looking at how they do business," he said. "What kind of services are they providing for their ratepayers?"
Manitoba is made up of 196 municipalities, 92 of which do not meet the province’s threshold of 1,000 persons.
A law setting 1,000 as the minimum population for a municipality has been in place since 1997, but it’s never been enforced until now. The NDP wants amalgamations to be done before the 2014 municipal elections, but roughly 45 municipalities have said they don’t want to join up with their neighbours.
"Nobody in Dunnottar has been told anything about this," cottager Craig Derenchuk said, referring to Dunnottar council’s position it does not want to merge with St. Andrews. "They haven’t had any public consultation on this. How can they make a decision so quickly? Obviously, Dunnottar council wants to protect its little fiefdom."
Lemieux also said the province’s sole goal is for rural residents to be better represented by more efficient local government — in some smaller communities now, local councillors only represent about 35 people each — so that all municipalities see more equal distribution of services and funding. The province also wants amalgamations complete in advance of the Harper government’s launch of the next phase of the Building Canada Fund.
"Get on the train before you miss it, because the train is going," Lemieux said.
Lemieux also met with Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM) Doug Dobrowolski late Tuesday to explain the province’s position on the matter. AMM wanted an extension to the 2014 deadline for amalgamation, but didn’t get it.
"We’re going to keep discussing this," Dobrowolski said, pointing out that Lemieux committed to attend a series of AMM meetings in March with mayors and reeves. "Just because we had one meeting doesn’t mean we’re going to give up."
RM of Armstrong Reeve Garry Wasylowski said he supports amalgamation as a way for communities to deal with larger, regional issues such as watershed management, economic development, and integrated fire protection.
"This needs to be discussed," the Interlake reeve said. "I think it’s wrong for us to not to dismiss it and where municipalities are going in the future.
"Boundaries that were set maybe a 100-plus years ago maybe should be looked at. If everybody was together, it would make things a lot simpler."
Lemieux said the province is putting together a guidebook to help municipal governments go through the step-by-step process of amalgamation. Provincial field consultants will also go out to the various communities to work with local governments on the merger process.
"The field consultants are going to go out there and have face-to-face discussions with these municipalities and working with them through the issues they’ve got," Lemieux said. "We’re not just phoning people and we’re not just saying, "You’re out there on your own, you figure it out.’"