Getting Local Government Right

 

We often hear how Prince Edward Island, with its 150,000 souls, is really just one smallish community, and that is how it feels for me as I travel from tip to tip on a fairly regular basis. However, under that appearance of unity, there remains a simmering rural/urban divide which seems to be a permanent - and to many regrettable - part of Island life.

The most recent example of this divisiveness is the proposed changes to municipal government in the Three Rivers area. After years of studies, coffee shop debate, plebiscites and public meetings, the Three Rivers amalgamation proposal went forward to IRAC two weeks ago. This in spite of vocal opposition in the areas outside the towns and villages in the area, and two town councils voting against proceeding with the proposal. Residents of the area who were previously just confused or dismayed are now fuming mad at a process that they see as undemocratic, authoritarian and fundamentally flawed. Some politicians are - unhelpfully and for partisan gain - using the situation to fuel the rift, pitting not rural against urban, but rural against more rural. What they fail to realize is that leadership is not about picking sides, but bringing people together to identify and act on their common interests.

So what would a government led by Greens do about the standoff that currently exists in Three Rivers? If the amalgamation proposal is approved by IRAC (the next stage of the process) and is handed to Executive Council for final approval, a Green government would not pass it without first going back to the communities to hear concerns and help identify areas of agreement. This would then lead to a comprehensive plebiscite run by Elections PEI involving all residents of the area, with strict criteria on what would  constitute a clear result. Of course, all the communities will have to agree on the fairness of the criteria before the plebiscite is held. And a Green government would honour the vote, regardless of the outcome.

But even when Three Rivers is finally resolved, we are still left with the thorny issue of what to do in the long term about rural governance on PEI. Some are suggesting that we should repeal the Municipal Government Act and maintain the status quo. While numerous studies, over many decades, have recommended major restructuring of how rural PEI is governed.

What is obvious to me is that we must go beyond consultation which pretends to be influenced by public input, to a collaborative and empowering process that truly accepts public feedback as worthy advice, incorporates those ideas into decisions, and feels like a partnership rather than an imbalanced relationship, with power and authority existing largely outside of the community.

In the coming legislative session, I will be bringing forward a motion that proposes a new model of consultation that will help rebalance the relationship between citizens and those who are entrusted to make decisions in the public good. I am looking forward to having the merits of my proposal debated in the legislature and to hearing from all Islanders, urban and rural, on whether we can work collaboratively on a better process to move forward together.