Officials are probing conflict of interest allegations at another Manitoba municipality, and calls for the province to crack down on dysfunctional councils are getting louder.
The Rural Municipality of St. Laurent is under investigation by Manitoba's auditor general after allegations surfaced last year that councillors, including one with a contracting business, were improperly tendering construction-related projects. And, there was outcry over how the town decided to tear down a local bowling alley and build a new municipal office.
St. Laurent Reeve Earl Zotter, who is an isolated minority on council, says he has appealed repeatedly to the province's local government ministry for help, but to no avail.
"It's just touchy-feely. They try to smooth you over so you're not ruffled and smooth the other side over," he said. "They don't want to take action."
Critics say the turmoil in St. Laurent mirrors similar troubles in La Broquerie, where the RCMP and the Manitoba ombudsman are investigating allegations of corrup--tion, secret surveillance and harassment.
"There is really no effective enforcement of the (Municipal) Act," said Tory MLA Stu Briese, the critic for local government and past-president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities. "What happens when things go sideways?"
But situations like La Broquerie and St. Laurent put the Selinger government in a tricky position. It can't autocratically micro-manage all 198 municipalities and must respect the will of democratically elected officials. On the other hand, municipalities are created and empowered by provincial legislation and if they are dysfunctional, critics say there is no place to go to ensure the legislation is followed.
The province's Municipal Act is a behemoth that outlines how taxes should be collected, how council meetings ought to be run, how budgets should be prepared and hundreds of other rules. The act was overhauled in 1997 under then-premier Gary Filmon's government and gave towns and RMs more autonomy and more openness than they ever had.
The Municipal Act doesn't allow the province to fine rogue towns and municipalities or even investigate potential wrongdoing. But, the province can appoint a supervisor when an annual audit points to severe financial difficulty.
There are many other checks and balances built into the act to ensure good government, said Laurie Davidson, the assistant deputy minister for provincial-municipal support services. There is new conflict of interest legislation and the province does frequent monitoring and training to ensure municipalities are in compliance.
And, said Davidson, ratepayers can complain to the ombudsman, the auditor general or even to the courts if they believe wrongs have been done.
But those options aren't very effective, said Lac du Bonnet ratepayer Cindy Kellendonk.
Late last month, the RM of Lac du Bonnet's council barred a retired cattle farmer from recording council meetings on a digital device, a move widely condemned as an affront to openness and transparency.