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Tense public meeting on Antigonish consolidation fails to change premier's mind

A screenshot of a video recording of a public meeting on Tuesday evening when Premier Tim Houston spoke to a crowd of hundreds of people in the Heatherton Community Centre in Antigonish County, N.S., about a proposed consolidation of the area's town and county. (Facebook/ Let Antigonish Decide - image credit)
A screenshot of a video recording of a public meeting on Tuesday evening when Premier Tim Houston spoke to a crowd of hundreds of people in the Heatherton Community Centre in Antigonish County, N.S., about a proposed consolidation of the area's town and county. (Facebook/ Let Antigonish Decide - image credit)

Premier Tim Houston faced a hostile crowd near Antigonish, N.S., on Tuesday yet stood firm on not ordering a plebiscite about consolidating the community's town and county governments because it would intrude on the authority of local officials.

About 500 people attended a noisy public meeting in the Heatherton Community Centre in Antigonish County where pubic opposition to creating a single local government has grown.

The PC government recently proposed Bill 407, which would dissolve the Town of Antigonish and join it to the Municipality of the County of Antigonish, after both local councils voted in favour of consolidation — twice.

Houston's comments were met with loud booing and yells multiple times, including when the premier said the councils voted against a plebiscite and he wouldn't overrule them.

"You can imagine that went over like a lead balloon, and people did not buy it. It got a little rowdy at times, people were very upset," said Anne-Marie Long on Wednesday, a member of Let Antigonish Decide which organized the meeting.

Anne-Marie Long urged the Houston government not to push ahead with Bill 407 until an independent study on the pros and cons of a merger can be completed and then the issue put to a plebiscite.
Anne-Marie Long urged the Houston government not to push ahead with Bill 407 until an independent study on the pros and cons of a merger can be completed and then the issue put to a plebiscite.

Anne-Marie Long speaks before a provincial legislative committee in Halifax in March. She urged the Houston government not to push ahead with Bill 407 until an independent study on a merger can be completed and the issue put to a plebiscite. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The group is calling for a plebiscite on the issue, and have challenged the councils' consolidation vote in court.

Houston said repeatedly that he had to respect the councils' decision to ask for the merger.

But, a judge ruled in December that the provincial government could choose whether or not to honour that request.

Long also said this government has had no problem stepping into municipal territory in the past.

"This whole business of respecting council is hogwash, because look what he did in Halifax. He overruled Halifax council on how they did their housing," Long said.

The recent Bill 329 gives the N.S. housing minister the power to approve any Halifax development, even if councillors have decided against it.

However, Houston said during the meeting that he has to take "issues of governance" seriously.

A screenshot from a video recording shows a large crowd of people attended a public meeting with Premier Tim Houston at the Heatherton Community Centre in Antigonish County on Tuesday evening. The topic was the proposed consolidation of town and county
A screenshot from a video recording shows a large crowd of people attended a public meeting with Premier Tim Houston at the Heatherton Community Centre in Antigonish County on Tuesday evening. The topic was the proposed consolidation of town and county

A screenshot from a video recording shows a large crowd at a public meeting with Premier Tim Houston in the Heatherton Community Centre in Antigonish County on Tuesday evening. The topic was the proposed consolidation of town and county. (Facebook/Let Antigonish Decide)

"When the municipal council comes to me and says, 'We think, as a duly elected council, that this is the best way to govern our municipality,' I will not sit in Halifax and say, 'You're wrong,'" Houston told the crowd.

Many people, including current county Coun. John Dunbar, said that neither council ran on consolidation as an election issue in 2020 so the votes to do so were undemocratic and did not represent residents' views.

Mainstreet Research conducted two polls about the proposed consolidation, showing most respondents wanted a public vote on the issue. In March 2023, 70 per cent of the respondents called for the vote. That number rose to 75.8 per cent in a February 2024 poll.

Health Minister Michelle Thompson and Greg Morrow, both PC MLAs who represent the area, stood alongside Houston during the meeting but did not address the crowd.

"If they didn't all walk out of there knowing that those two MLAs are not going to be re-elected, I don't know what they need to be more clear about that," Long said.

The amalgamation bill has been amended to have the Utility and Review Board (UARB) conduct a financial analysis on whether consolidation is in the best interests of residents. That report is due by Aug.1.

If the UARB recommends against it, the province said consolidation won't go ahead.

Although some people at the meeting asked for any final decision to come after October's municipal election, Houston said the plan is still to go ahead either way. Voters will either choose a mayor and council under a new entity, or see existing town and county positions on the ballot.

CBC asked the premier's office Wednesday whether his government would consider dropping the legislation in the face of ongoing opposition.

In a statement, Houston said it's clear that people want more information, which will come out of the UARB analysis.

"While both the town and council reaffirmed their desire to consolidate in a recent vote, I  was surprised there weren't more councillors who initiated the consolidation process at the meeting," Houston said.

"We will continue to listen to their feedback and share information as the process unfolds."

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