Antigonish town and county councils vote in favour of consolidation

Municipality of the County of Antigonish Warden Owen McCarron with Town of Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher in August 2023. (Jane Sponagle/CBC - image credit)
Municipality of the County of Antigonish Warden Owen McCarron with Town of Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher in August 2023. (Jane Sponagle/CBC - image credit)

Both Antigonish town and county have confirmed plans to consolidate with a final vote in favour.

The votes cast on Tuesday night at emergency meetings were 4-3 in favour for the town and 5-4 in favour in the county.

The merger won't be finalized until the province passes special legislation. That could happen as soon as the next session of the legislature starting Feb. 27, according to a letter sent to the town and county from Municipal Affairs and Housing Minster John Lohr.

"It is a relief to see that the province does have an appetite to see this move forward," Town of Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher told reporters following the vote.

The process has been more than two years in the making. During a tense meeting on consolidation in October 2022, part of the argument in favour of the merger was to pool resources because the town and county were often competing for the same grant money.

That meeting ended with nearly identical votes in favour of asking the province to proceed with special legislation to consolidate the town and county.

Before the votes on Tuesday, some councillors raised concerns about the merger and suggested a public vote or to at least wait until the next municipal election.

'We felt we did a strong public engagement piece'

"I was elected to represent the people and I've heard from over 100 people over the last two days and most of these residents were mostly not against consolidation, but they were against the process," said Coun. Mary MacLellan of Municipality of the County of Antigonish.

County Warden Owen McCarron told reporters there were more than two dozen public sessions in person and online about consolidation.

"We felt we did a strong public engagement piece," McCarron said.

Boucher pointed out a plebiscite isn't binding. It would still need to come back to council, she said.

Others councillors said consolidation would be a benefit.

"This is the right way forward for the long-term interest of the town and the community," said Coun. Mary Farrell from the town.

Appeal on the horizon

In December, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge ruled the town and county of Antigonish had the legal right to ask the province for permission to amalgamate. A group of residents is appealing that decision.

"There continues to be tremendous opposition from the residents of Antigonish town and county, to the request for special legislation from the provincial government without a consenting vote from the people," Anne-Marie Long, who is part of the group of residents appealing the decision, said in a news release.

Long said the group against amalgamation feels the municipal affairs minister is rushing to seal the deal. She said the last date to register an appeal for the December ruling is Jan. 31, 2024.

"At the beginning of the fall session of the legislature the government position was that they were refraining from considering special legislation for Antigonish and allowing 'due process' before the courts," Long said. "The appeal of the trial judge's decision is part of that process and the time has not expired."

It's not clear how an appeal could impact the move to consolidate.

"We followed the rules around the court case and and I think the province was watching that very closely and so therefore the province would ultimately have to make that decision. But at the end of the day, the province has the ultimate authority on this,"  McCarron said.