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Province's push on amalgamation valid, judge says

No breach in province's pressure

The Selinger government did nothing legally wrong in pressing the province's smaller communities to join with their neighbours, a judge has ruled.

Court of Queen's Bench Judge Robert Dewar said he found no breach of fairness in how the government rolled out its new municipal-amalgamation law.

Dewar's findings are in a 29-page decision released Monday and signal the end of what's been a bitter feud between some municipalities and the NDP to amalgamate municipalities with less than 1,000 population before October's municipal elections. The legislation was signalled in the 2012 throne speech, but it didn't come into effect until last September.


"The (government) has been trying for a considerable time to engage municipalities in the process. Some have responded sooner than others and may well have been rewarded for early co-operation. It remains to be seen whether the minister will find a way to address the amalgamation plan put forward by the named applicants, but it would be presumptuous of this court to sanction the minister for something he has not yet done."


-- Court of Queen's Bench Judge Robert Dewar

The Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM), representing five municipalities, took the government to court last year claiming Municipal Government Minister Stan Struthers overstepped his legal authority last fall when he wrote letters to 42 communities pressing them to merge with their neighbours in advance of a Dec. 1 deadline for submitting amalgamation plans to the province.

They also argued amalgamations should be voluntary and delayed at least until the 2018 municipal elections.

But Dewar said Struthers and his letters neither skirted the law nor "telegraphed" who he wanted the five municipalities to partner with.

"In my view, it is better for the municipalities to know the minister's thinking on the matter so they have the opportunity to address his concerns," Dewar said. "The letters indicate that the proposed solution is by no means the only solution."

AMM president Doug Dobrowolski was unavailable for comment.

Dewar said the government has the final say in which community amalgamates with its neighbour or neighbours. To date, 50 municipalities have amalgamated out of the 85 required to merge. More are to be approved by cabinet soon.

He said he found no evidence from the five municipalities -- the RMs of Harrison and Grandview and towns of Plum Coulee, Emerson and Gilbert Plains -- that indicates Struthers is not willing to listen to their concerns.

"It seems to me that their loss is more attributable to the lack of commitment to the amalgamation initiative at an earlier stage," he said.

The province has pushed amalgamation to reduce the cost of local government and take advantage of upcoming infrastructure money under Ottawa's new Building Canada Fund.

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It is unfortunate that we must keep restating the facts concerning amalgamation. We may never know "why" this government choose to splinter the working relationships that rural municipalities have forged over decades, however what we DO know is completely clear. This "initiative" has promised no money will be saved, and there are an abundance of examples to show the opposite is true. In fact, both Ministers Lemieux and Struthers have stated that it will not save money.
And please, lets be clear about the infrastructure money. There is not more money coming to Manitoba in the Building Canada Fund - it just means that projects will be over a much larger area. All granting for Gas Tax or VLT grants are paid per capita, and rural municipalities will not receive one thin dime more the day after amalgamation than they did prior. It will just mean controversy about where to apply it - and in an infrastructure desperate Manitoba it will be like throwing table scraps to the starving hordes.
Amalgamation can be a good thing - when it is voluntary and when it serves the ratepayers. This forced amalgamation was governmental tyranny at a time when our provincial economy is in tatters - but it kept us talking about amalgamation rather than asking the hard questions of Selinger's government, didn't it?

It would seem that the judge in this matter perceived/distinguished that Minister Stan Struthers was only "thinking" a very strong suggestion of amalgamation while the AMM, in support of municipalities, recognized a forceful direction from the tone of the Ministers letter. Apparently municipalities have very few choices (called lack of commitment) when it comes to who your shotgun marriage partner will be, or become. The hobnail boots of government have the final say. Democracy, it seems, has been absent,on an extended sabbatical.

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