Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Community group conducts phone poll regarding consolidation

No word if request for special legislation is on agenda for spring sitting

  • March 22 2023
  • By Corey LeBlanc    

ANTIGONISH – Anne-Marie Long says the results of a recent phone poll indicate it is “pretty clear” that residents want to vote on the potential consolidation of the Municipality of the County of Antigonish and Town of Antigonish.

Long – who represents Let Antigonish Decide, the community group that commissioned the survey – spoke to The Journal about the findings.

When asked why the group decided to conduct the poll, she says that they wanted to dispel the idea – one that they contend is being conveyed by some municipal representatives – that those opposing consolidation is “very small,” a movement led by maybe 15 to 25 people.

“That’s absolutely not the truth,” Long offers of the level of support for the group.

And, she stresses, the group has never opposed the idea of consolidation; their focus has been on the path followed by the municipalities in reaching that possibility.

Long reiterates their position that residents have never received enough information regarding the “merits of consolidation.”

Noting that consolidation wasn’t on the radar during the municipal election in 2020, she offers that the group wonders, “Who is really pushing [for consolidation]?”

In Sept. 2021, both municipal councils decided to further explore the idea of consolidation – a more than year-long process that included a public engagement process conducted by a consultant. Last October, in special meetings conducted simultaneously, each council voted – not unanimously – to request special legislation from the provincial municipal affairs department to move forward with the municipal marriage.

During this timeframe, Let Antigonish Decide – which boasts more than 1,600 members in its Facebook group – formed around mutual concern with the consolidation process not including a plebiscite or, in their mind, providing enough information on such an important decision.

Let Antigonish Decide has hosted a series of public meetings geared towards getting community feedback regarding the proposed consolidation. They have put up signs across Antigonish town and county calling for a vote on the issue.

And, most recently, the group financed the aforementioned opinion poll.

“These numbers demonstrate that the people of Antigonish care deeply about their community and want to have a say in its future. The government should take notice of this and allow residents to have a vote before any decision is made about a merger,” Quito Maggi, president of Mainstreet Research – the company commissioned to carry out the poll, says in a March 14 press release issued by Let Antigonish Decide.

“It would be very risky for them to force this without allowing residents to have a say.”

Let Antigonish Decide offers that the findings “reveal overwhelming opposition to forced merger.”

In the press release, they share some of the numbers, including 70.4 per cent that think they should have an opportunity to vote before any consolidation is considered, while 14.9 per cent think a merger doesn’t required a vote by residents and 14.7 per cent had ‘no opinion.’

As for the town and county councillors who voted in favour of making application to the province for special legislation to move forward with consolidation, the poll indicates that their political futures could be affected; 75.5 per cent of residents polled said they would be ‘less likely’ to vote for them in the next municipal election, 62.7 per cent ‘much less likely’ and 12.8 per cent ‘somewhat less likely.’

If the provincial government approves consolidation – without a plebiscite – the poll showed that 71.9 per cent of respondents said they would be ‘less likely’ to vote (53.9 per cent ‘much less likely’ and 18 per cent ‘somewhat less likely’) for the governing Progressive Conservatives, their MLAs and Premier Tim Houston.

Mayor Laurie Boucher and Warden Owen McCarron – in an email with a series of questions from The Journal – were asked about the survey and its findings.

“It’s hard to comment on the poll, as we haven’t seen all the data. We have seen the news release that was issued; however, very specific details are missing in that release. For example, what was the sample size, the response rate, the overall age of those who responded, etc?” they wrote in a joint response.

When asked for further information on the poll – such as the number of respondents – not outlined in the press release, Long provided several items under the heading ‘methodology,’ including that the survey was conducted on March 12 and 13, amongst a sample of 344 adults – 18 years and older – living in Antigonish town and county. The survey is intended to represent the population in Antigonish by weighing by gender, age and educational attainment from the 2021 census.

She explained that the survey was carried out using automated telephone interviews (Smart IVR). Respondents were interviewed on landlines and cellular phones.

The margin of error for the poll is +/- 5.3% at the 95 per cent confidence level.

Along with the poll, Let Antigonish Decide is financing court action challenging the legality of the consolidation process.

The Nova Scotia Supreme Court will decide if the request for special legislation should be thrown out during a hearing on Friday, July 7. That date comes after the close of the upcoming spring sitting of the provincial legislation, which was scheduled for Tuesday (March 21); those sittings usually last five weeks. Provincial municipal affairs minister John Lohr is expected to present consolidation related legislation during this spring session.

“The application before the Court does not touch upon the Province’s authority to pass legislation with respect to municipal matters,” writes municipal affairs spokesperson Krista Higdon in an email to The Journal.

In a March 15 follow-up message, when asked if the consolidation request is on the agenda for the session, Higdon indicates, “The government has not yet finalized its legislative agenda for the spring sitting of the legislature.”

Boucher and McCarron say, “We are hoping the special legislation to consolidate the Town and the County will be on the government’s agenda, as we are excited to build a stronger Antigonish for our citizens.”

When asked if the group is concerned that the province would agree to the request for special legislation before the court case is heard, Long says, “We certainly are.”

She adds, “It would show the ultimate disrespect for the court process.”

Long notes that Let Antigonish Decide and their lawyer have written to Brad Johns – the provincial justice minister – asking if his department would step in and not permit the province to override the court system. They haven’t received any response.

Boucher and McCarron say their councils have not considered asking municipal affairs to wait until after the court date to introduce the requested special legislation.

“Town and county councils remain confident in their decision to request consolidation of the town and county of Antigonish. We look forward to working together to move this forward,” they write.

As for what’s next, Long says Let Antigonish Decide is “going to continue to put on pressure,” including reiterating to the province the desire of residents to have the chance to vote on the possibility of consolidation.

Describing it as a “state of the union,” she explains that the community group will continue to seek more information on the condition of each municipality; not only financially, but also the state of infrastructure, assets and liabilities and so forth. They argue people need more comprehensive answers on what will happen with items – such as the future of the town-owned electric utility – if the town and county become one municipality.

Although the goal is to have the province give the request for special legislation “another look,” if it happens, Long says the group’s fight “will not end.”

Noting that Let Antigonish Decide is concerned this approach will become a template for similar mergers across Nova Scotia, she adds that the province will have to decide if it is a “fight that they want to have.”

“We will let the whole province know what is happening.”