Premier Greg Selinger chose wisely in his cabinet shuffle last week in selecting Stan Struthers as his municipal "cleanup man" in the wake of the government's clumsy handling of the municipal amalgamation bill. The Association of Manitoba Municipalities has always enjoyed a convivial working relationship with the newly appointed minister of municipal government. Struthers often attends AMM events in his Parkland-area riding, and is well-known among municipal elected officials.
Now, the question is, what will Struthers do with this opportunity?
First, if anyone, including Struthers, thinks municipalities have rolled over and grudgingly accepted their duty to amalgamate, they would be wise to think again. The AMM has taken a clear position from the onset: We are not against amalgamation, as long as it is a choice of the municipality and its citizens.
Yet the province's mantra since last year's throne speech when the premier dropped this bomb has been "just do what we say by Dec. 1, 2013, and worry about the details later." The deadline is quickly closing in on municipalities to, ready or not, submit a plan for amalgamation.
The problem is, municipalities don't operate like that. Of the three orders of government -- municipal, provincial and federal -- only municipal government is challenged to balance its budget each year. Those elected live and work in the communities they serve and are often described as being "closest to the people." This also makes them the most accountable.
When these mayors, reeves and councillors stand up for or against something, they are thinking about their legacies and what future generations will remember about their communities. Perhaps RM of Cameron Reeve Wayne Drummond says it best: "I didn't run on the promise to become the last reeve of Cameron."
Municipal leaders haven't just sat back and waited for the AMM to fight their battles. Dozens spoke out against forced amalgamation during committee hearings on Bill 33. They did their homework and presented comprehensive, detailed and accurate reasons why amalgamation is simply not the best choice for their particular municipality. Even those willing to pursue a merger pleaded for more time to ensure it is done right.
Some, such as Debbie McMechan, a councillor for the RM of Edward, have worked very hard over the past several years to encourage growth and development. Their citizens have expended, McMechan says, "heroic efforts to maintain community viability." And it is working. Young people have begun to move to the area with their families, and retirees are deciding to make the RM of Edward their home. The RM is even finding itself having to zone and build a new street in town. But, "just as we are beginning to really experience a momentum of growth, our provincial government pronounced us 'dysfunctional,' we were advised to find partners and pick a name that fit comfortably inside an envelope window."
The AMM annual convention is coming up next month. Delegates will debate a number of resolutions on forced amalgamation. Clearly, the province has underestimated the resolve of Manitobans who care deeply about the future of their communities. Clearly, this is not an issue that is going away.
So the new minister of local government, Stan Struthers, has a challenge before him, but it is not insurmountable. It is quite simple, really: just listen to the people. Give them the time they need. Reconsider that Dec. 1 deadline, which has always been unattainable, and allow for some flexibility. Work with us, not against us.
It's not too late for your department to redeem itself in the eyes of municipalities, who want the very same thing that you do -- a stronger Manitoba.
Doug Dobrowolski is president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.