KENTVILLE, NS - Kings County's mayor wants people to realize that when they wake up the morning after municipal unification takes place, the uniqueness of their communities remains unchanged.
Peter Muttart makes no bones about it, and made his position clear when he ran for office: he wants to get municipal unification conversations started during his term. He’d like to see people open their minds to the potential of the idea.
It might not work for all areas of the province, Muttart says, adding that there needs to be a "commonality of interests" among neighbours for it to work.
“Not just because they’re close, not just because it would be – perhaps – financially beneficial and more efficient in terms of governance, but whether, from a social capital point of view, it might also be a smart thing to do,” Muttart said.
There are many potential projects that would benefit the entire region, he says. While the leaders of Kings County's individual communities would probably all say that projects like capitalizing on agri-tourism opportunities, rolling out wind and solar energy and providing broadband Internet, for instance, would be good things to do, he believes the convolution of governance structures keeps this type of work from getting off the ground.
“We need, at some point in time, to all reflect on what it would look like if we pursued all of these things as one, unified region. That hasn’t happened,” Muttart said.
Time for conversation is now
Kings County council has approved motions to explore regional governance twice in the past 12 years - once in February 2006 and again in October 2015. That effort has fallen off the table each time because of some perceived detriment, a lack of opportunity or a generalized fear of loss of identity or community by one of the potential partners.
Muttart said there is currently a sense of goodwill amongst Kings County municipal units but this hasn’t always been the case. He would like to see a unification conversation begin now, and believes that if each municipal unit within Kings was approached at this point, some - but not all - would agree to participate in a governance study or create a new cooperative arrangement.
“I’ve lived a long time in this area and, during that period of time, I’ve seen municipal units within this region suing one another. I’ve seen them extremely suspicious of one another. I’ve seen them always concerned that one area is getting something that the other area is not getting or questioning the motives of their neighbours, all of which is not just bad for progress or the potential for progress but it’s socially bad. We have wonderful people and wonderful communities if we could just all get in the same ark."
Muttart isn’t delusional; he knows there won't be a total revamp of the system during his four-year term. But, he says, the conversation has to begin somewhere. People have to understand they won't lose anything.
"It’s only a question of, once we harness ourselves together, how much more potential for gain have we created for everybody within the region," Muttart said.
It comes down to the people in the various communities empowering their councils, village commissions or community committees and sharing a desire to move forward.
Amalgamation still a dirty word
The Valley, Muttart points out, is a region made up of unique communities, and separate municipal governments aren't needed to carry community identity with them. That uniqueness, he believes, is intrinsic in the very fabric of the community.
“People seem to have a fear that they’re going to lose that uniqueness by a regionalized municipal government or a unification of our governments. The examples are already out there, that’s wrong,” Muttart said.
Muttart prefers to use the term “unification” in describing municipal units coming together. The word “amalgamation” has taken on a meaning of its own in this province, he says, and the next Oxford Dictionary will likely define it differently than it used to.
“It smacks of a term that says I’m being forced to do something, I’m being forced to become something I don’t want to be,” Muttart said.
“People have to get over the fear that there seems to be that the morning I wake up after a unified region takes place, somehow I’ll be different. You won’t be different. You’ll simply be more efficient."
But before anything can move forward, the homework must be done and the people who make up Kings County communities need to be part of the process. People have to be shown, he believes, that potential partners deliberately looked at a model of unification that will actually provide benefits for us all - and that's the only reason it should move forward.
Not an easy job
But, it won't be easy, he acknowledges. Municipalities are creatures of the provincial government, which “doesn’t have legislation that makes this easy.” Because of its own fear of fall-out from the voting base, Muttart said the provincial government is “extremely reluctant to take any position on this.”
Now, it’s up to municipalities to take a position.
“If we can get some licence from the provincial government to move forward with this, then we'd better do it. I know that some of us are ready. The question is, who is going to come to the table?" Muttart said.
If one or more incorporated communities aren’t prepared to enter the discussion at this time, Muttart is OK with that. He has hope that perhaps it will happen at some later time after other communities have shown it’s the right path to follow.
Muttart said municipalities in the Annapolis Valley region are cooperating in many ways now. But he sees so much duplication now that he believes there are many areas of efficiencies that could be capitalized on, without ever having done a study.
“Why we don’t get on with it is beyond me and why there is any fear associated with it is not beyond me, but it does frustrate me," he said.
"I understand people’s fear of change but this isn’t going to change who you are the day after. In fact, you’ll have – personally - an investment in the social capital of the entire region so that you’ll want your neighbour to succeed."
What form municipal unification would take in Kings County is still up in the air. Muttart wouldn't want a "huge" unified council, but he would want an efficient one.
That, he admits, does lead to some concerns among the public, who fear they'll lose their voice or that it will become diluted. Making sure that doesn't happen, he said, needs to be a priority because he doesn’t want to see communities without a voice.
There's no cookie-cutter model for what he's proposing. Rather, it’s something that’s open for discussion, debate and cooperation.
“We have such a community of interest within this region. There are no competing interests in this region. But people cannot feel left out," Muttart said.
"They have to be included and it’s important that any study takes into consideration that there be no disconnect between the people’s government and the people themselves."
In a recent social media statement on the topic, Muttart said he would happily stand aside in favour of another leader of a unified region.
“There are great potential leaders amongst us. One day, we will be able to recognize and encourage them to sit on a unified council with a wage that will allow them to consider municipal politics as a calling,” he wrote.