Paul MacNeill

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PEI’s Minister of Communities, Land and Environment has undercut years of work aimed at bringing common sense and sustainability to municipal governance by seemingly walking away from much needed change found within the new Municipalities Act.

Robert Mitchell, who championed the act through passage in the provincial legislature, now says he is willing to look at amalgamated communities smaller than the legislated minimum of 4,000 citizens with a taxable land base of more than $200 million.

It is a mind-boggling reversal that will only empower those who fail to see the necessity of change and confuse those who are championing change on the local level.

The act sets out specific size requirements for a reason. We are over governed. Robert Mitchell knows it. Premier Wade MacLauchlan knows it. It is an impediment to growth. There are 73 municipal governments across PEI, each a silo of decision making and in many cases unsustainable operation. On top of that are the massive swaths of land that are unincorporated, meaning an abattoir can open across the street and a homeowner can do nothing to stop it. Layered above it all is our aging demographic, especially in rural areas. Who will be around to pay the bills in 10, 15 or 20 years in communities that already struggle, let alone have the resources to invest in infrastructure or reduce the tax burden?

It’s a question that demands leadership, which until last week Mitchell has displayed. But by ceding ground on a cornerstone of the act that has yet to receive royal assent, Robert Mitchell is showing he is not interested in the heavy lifting of municipal amalgamation. Now the minister says he understands the difficulty of meeting legal size requirements in a ‘single leap’ so he is willing to look at communities a fraction of the size.

The minister is wrong.

The question is not about meeting minimum size requirements in a single leap. Four thousand is a doable benchmark. The issue is twofold: the unwillingness of local leaders to change and a provincial government that fears forcing change upon them.

Incremental change will not build the sustainable municipal structure our province requires. Nor does the minister explain how his new attitude is even possible within parameters of the new act. Is Mitchell suggesting a community can ride along based on some arbitrary ministerial decision until local leadership says somewhere down the line it will play ball?

Or is Mitchell going to gut the act to allow smaller communities? If so, based on what? The new act is based on research, public consultation and sustainability. Robert Mitchell’s public utterance is based on political timidity and fear. Appeasement is not leadership.

For more than two years seven communities (now six with Georgetown’s departure) worked cooperatively toward the building of a single, new community. It has been a painstaking and often frustrating task for those involved. Both the premier and his minister told these communities to trust them. Build your community, they said, and government will have your back, while promoting the logic that being first to change would bring the greatest benefit.

Now the minister is ready to reward those who snub their nose at the legislation while creating a disincentive to finish the Three Rivers deal.

The new Municipalities Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation put forward by Premier MacLauchlan. Now there is a real question of whether government has developed cold feet.

Is the minister scared of the political fallout or are his words representative of an administration that wants amalgamation but doesn’t have the courage to deliver it? If Minister Mitchell is promoting an unapproved path forward then he must walk back his statement or find another seat in cabinet. His credibility is damaged.

Regardless, Island communities will lose because the partner that supposedly has their back now appears to be playing politics with their future.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

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