Few things are more divisive than amalgamation.
In the 20 years since the diverse communities of Halifax County were brought together by then-premier John Savage into the mega-blob of the HRM, criticisms of the amalgamated municipality—whether that’s resistance to signs that say ‘Halifax’ in a Dartmouth park, or protests of municipality-wide bylaws—have come up again and again.
The main thing to realize about amalgamation, says Jack Novack, professor and program director of the local government program at Dalhousie University, is that it isn’t logical.
“The values which drove amalgamation were political expediency and ease, as opposed to any kind of real rational basis for drawing the lines [of the HRM].”
As a result of those values, we now have a political system that is tenuously justified and widely disliked. So what do we do about it?
George Hornmoen has a suggestion.
“De-amalgamating rural areas from the urban core and the suburban districts should be looked at,” says Hornmoen. Hornmoen’s a member of Save Rural HRM, a consortium of residents that came together in opposition to the ditch tax, the large rural lot bylaw and other policies that seem to unfairly burden HRM’s rural communities. The group recently held a protest at City Hall under the flag of the old Halifax County, so it’s not surprising to hear Hornmoen bring up a conscious uncoupling from the urban core.
That’s unlikely to happen, though, says Novack, not least because even if regional council were to support it, the province would need to be involved, and getting them to care could be challenging.
“They’re probably less sensitive to [amalgamation’s] flaws than people who actually live with it,” Novack says.
The issue also runs deeper than individual councillors themselves.
“I don’t think that this council is particularly divisive,” says Novack.
In fact, Hornmoen says some of the strongest advocates for rural districts have crossed the rural-urban divide. He cites Waye Mason as an example of a councillor who’s managed to advocate for constituents within and without his own district.
But even good will between councillors can’t make up for what’s lost when municipalities amalgamate. As Novack points out, the most important characteristic of local government is that it’s the closest and most responsive level of government to the messiness of citizen’s everyday lives. Garbage collection, bus service, parks and recreation programs—all of those good things.
As an amalgamated municipality, the HRM hasn’t made that messiness go away, but it has become in many less ways less sensitive to it, especially since the Utility and Review Board reduced the number of districts in HRM four years ago. Same-size municipality (about equal in land mass to Prince Edward Island), but now with fewer councillors having to divide their time amongst more residents.
“By reducing the number of representatives, you’re not reducing the number of divergent interests that need to have expression at the level of a council,” says Novack.
Barring a return to Halifax county, Hornmoen and the other members of Save Rural HRM have a different set of suggestions for the incoming council. First, they say city-wide bylaws should be adjusted to better reflect the needs of individual districts.
Hornmoen says there should also be a mechanism to allow rural citizens to have input into bylaws affecting rural areas—before they’re voted on by council—so that “when these bylaws are being considered, all parties have input on them. What works for the urban core or the suburban commuter-shed does not work for rural areas.”
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