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Bring Manitoba's RMs into 21st century

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The provincial government's edict that small rural municipalities must amalgamate has caused great consternation, but there is reason to examine resistance to the idea.

Manitoba RMs have been operating under the same policies for more than 100 years -- since the days horse and buggy were the preferred mode of transportation to our meetings. It seems to me, after a century, only the most incorrigible Luddite will argue some tweaking of our policies is not necessary, and this is all the province was suggesting. Their imposition of a requirement that we must do it was necessary as well.

The directors of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities have insisted they are not opposed to amalgamation, but it should be voluntary. This, as they had to know, would happen only on a similar timeline to the second coming of Christ.

Dissenters insist municipalities were "forced to confront ideas with which we don't agree" and "we were having unpalatable policies rammed down our throats."

What ideas? What policies? We were told we must choose partners and formulate an amalgamation plan, but the content of this plan was left entirely to us. We were given the chance and we blew it.

There are many reasons for this. One is the reluctance of a conservative population to accept change. This becomes most evident if one examines the content of the plans submitted to date: most, if not all, adhere very closely to policies in place before amalgamation -- same number of wards, same number of councillors. In other words, they stick so closely to the past that the future appears identical. Some progress.

The fact that this "change" makes it more likely incumbent councillors will retain their seats can't be a reason for it -- or can it?

My own RM of Brenda amalgamated with the town of Waskada; this eliminated one council, but made no change to the municipal map or to efficiency. I've seen the same happen with other RMs.

The process was further complicated by the inappropriate involvement of some chief administrative officers. A minority took an active part in their council's policy discussions, a role way beyond their job description.

Many councils wanted ratepayers involved in the deliberations. Ratepayers' wishes have to be considered, but at the end of the day the buck stops with us.

We were elected to make the right decision when thorny issues arise. If it turns out the decisions are wrong, well, that is what the next election is for.

Amalgamation should result in municipal government best-suited for the 21st century. Not some warmed-up rehash of 100-year-old policies.

And we have -- right under our noses -- a template for a much better system of municipal government.

In the early 1900s, North Dakota and Manitoba were roughly at the same stage of political development. But the state and province chose radically different systems to open up their local governments. Manitoba chose the method that has resulted in what we see today -- 116 RMs of varying shapes and sizes, with no apparent rhyme nor reason for their boundaries. They have, as of 2011, a population of 259,000.

North Dakota has 53 counties, with borders appearing to be symmetrical and designed to fit the topography of the state. Their population is 672,591.

Each N.D. county has an elected government of not more than five commissioners, including a chairperson. Each county has a county seat, in which there is an office housing their auditor (equivalent to our CAO), and several staff.

North Dakota's system is not perfect. They have divided their counties into a large number of townships for which they are having difficulty finding volunteers.

It seems to me a combination of our two systems could result in a much improved municipal government which uses the good elements and discards the weak.

This letter may seem intemperate to some, and for that I apologize. It is written in frustration at the fact we had an offer -- unique I believe in the annals of provincial legislation -- to manage our own local municipalities in a way that could have been a major improvement over our antiquated system of government. We failed to take advantage of this offer.

No future provincial government is going to allow our present chaotic and inefficient system of municipal government to continue for much longer. They will certainly change it, and this time they are not likely to ask for our advice.

Duncan Stewart is the reeve of the RM of Brenda. The views expressed here are his own.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 A17

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