The Association of Manitoba Municipalities says a provincial government minister overstepped his legal authority in a series of letters last fall to 42 small municipalities that pressed them to amalgamate with neighbouring jurisdictions.
The AMM said Municipal Government Minister Stan Struthers was offside with the government's newly passed Municipal Modernization Act (Bill 33) when he started dictating to municipalities who their dance partner should be before a Dec. 1 deadline for proposals.
On Monday, the AMM asked Court of Queen's Bench Justice Robert Dewar to remedy the situation by declaring the 42 not be required to amalgamate.
Association lawyer Greg Tramley said when Struthers issued the letters in October and November, some municipalities were already in negotiations with their neighbours. The letters poisoned some of these discussions, he said.
Municipalities weighing their merger options were suddenly told by government which jurisdiction or jurisdictions they should join. While the minister left the door open to municipalities to amend his solution, it could only be done under certain conditions, Tramley said.
Bill 33, passed in September, requires 85 municipalities with populations under 1,000 to amalgamate with neighbouring jurisdictions.
The government has contended the letters were intended merely to move the process along.
But Tramley said the minister went much further in the letters, dictating amalgamation partners in advance of the government's deadline for proposals. He said that usurped a process prescribed in Bill 33 and failed to take into account the impact of the mergers on affected municipalities.
"The minister said basically this is what we're doing, this is how we're going to do it and did it in such a fashion that threw all the... rules of procedure and fairness out the door," he said.
Emerson Mayor Wayne Arseny, who attended Monday's court hearing, said his border town had been contemplating merger with either the RM of Montcalm to the west or RM of Franklin to the east. It sought to have discussions with Franklin first.
"Before we even met -- a week earlier -- the letter came out from the minister saying 'Your partner will be Montcalm,' " Arseny said in an interview. "So he predetermined who our dance partner would be... When we met with Franklin a week later they said, 'We don't even know why we're talking because (Struthers has) already said you're going with them (Montcalm).' "
The AMM is asking Dewar to provide a new deadline for merger proposals for municipalities receiving the letters who wish to merge. That would allow more consultation with voters, the group said.
But those who received prescriptive letters from Struthers before the Dec. 1 proposal deadline should not be required to amalgamate at all, the group argues. The province will present its arguments today.