Municipal restructuring as a good marriage

Valentine’s Day has got me in a soppy, romantic mood, and it is in this spirit that I offer these thoughts.

I got married almost 30 years ago. I’m a lucky man: I chose the kindest person I’ve ever met to be my wife, and though none of us can predict the future, it looks like we’ll be good for at least a few more years. If Ann were writing this blog, I hope she would say something similar. The years of courtship were special, and the energy and naivety of youth propelled us towards a memorable wedding in St. John’s where the Scottish and Newfoundland families met (and sang, danced, ate and drank together) for the first time. The whole episode from our first encounter (in a dental chair – hold the romance – “do you floss?”…. “I do”) to the wedding (in a spectacular Newfoundland church – bring on the romance - “do you take this woman”……”I do”) was a rollicking delight.

We were lucky: we became partners slowly, checking each other out carefully, and really getting to understand each other’s needs before we made the momentous decision to spend the rest of our lives (or at least until February 20th 2016) together. In our culture it is traditional for young (and not-so-young) people to choose their partners, while in others, arranged marriages are more the norm. I can’t imagine what it feels like to have someone else find your partner and dictate the timing, terms and nature of your betrothal, and although I know some cultures manage very nicely with such traditions, let me just say that I’m glad I got to choose.

I’d like to imagine that the process by which Prince Edward Island is going to restructure local government will be more one of mutual courtship, less arranged marriage.

Islanders from tip to tip are chatting about municipal restructuring, and there’s a lot of concern and fear about the process. Government to this point has been fairly tight-lipped about the details, so consequently, Islanders are left to guess what might happen, and how the various scenarios for their communities will play out. Recently a couple of regions of PEI have tried out the dance of courtship, but none has managed to get much further than the first few dates before they split up, usually leaving with some pretty hard feelings. There are anxieties about communities cannibalising their neighbours, and of a chaotic and dictatorial centralised process squashing local input and desires.

How we move from the current, clearly deficient situation to a more sustainable, consistent pattern of local governance will be a delicate, complex and highly charged affair. I don’t envy Minister Mitchell’s job, but I do want to offer him a few suggestions.

  1. In applying some of the recommendations of the Thompson report (a long-overdue and welcome endeavour) make sure you aren’t too tightly bound by the various numbers that define the minimum size of municipality. I think a boundaries commission would be the best way to wade through this thorny process, with lots of opportunity for local input, and ultimately a democratic decision being taken by those involved as to whether or not to tie the knot.
  2. Establish a pilot project in an area (perhaps the three rivers region) with lots of support and guidance, and allow them to try it out and report back on successes, failures, pitfalls and opportunities. I’d do this with the option to divorce if the relationship is untenable.
  3. Although an overall vision is needed (which requires some form of central leadership) the government must create a framework that is flexible, and does not create the impression of a top-down, heavy-handed approach.
  4. What we need is an Island-wide mosaic of local governance where the boundaries of the various regional units make sense. Those boundaries might be defined by physical characteristics (i.e watersheds), or culture (i.e. an Evangeline district), or by existing economic groupings (i.e. a “south-shore” region).

Whatever the end product looks like, my biggest hope is that the process is respectful, inclusive and unhurried – just like a good courtship. Maybe then we will all live together happily ever after.