Bigger councils are not necessarily better

Letters to the editor

I just got off the phone to the general manager, Mr Yves Demarais, of Morin Heights, a town an hour north of Montreal in Quebec, Canada.

Morin Heights is a pretty place in low mountain terrain with a permanent population of 4,000, swelling by 1,500 in summer. The town is very small with about the same number shops as our Avoca Beach. I was phoning Yves because I used to own property there and had remembered one curious fact.

Morin Heights, the same size as Avoca, has its own mayor and council. This is not an exceptional situation in Québec where, with 1,200 municipalities, many mayors and councils are presiding over communities of a similar size. How can they afford to have such an intimate level of local government? It’s an interesting question for us here as local government becomes less and less local. Before the recent amalgamation of Gosford and Wyong Councils, we had 10 councillors for 180,000 people.

Now, with the Central Coast Council, we will have 15 councillors representing 330,000 people. Crunching the numbers, that’s just one councillor for every 22,000, compared with Morin Heights where the ratio is one councillor for 650 people. Having lived in Morin Heights, ever since the amalgamation here, I’ve been wondering how they manage such a ratio and wondering if they are absurdly over-governed. Morin Heights Council, with 28 full time employees, delivers an array of services for so small a body. It looks after local roads, removes snow with its own snow truck, has a fire truck, a library, and delivers all sorts of other services. As you would expect, there is a regional authority allowing municipalities to delegate maintenance of big infrastructures or major dossiers, such as regional planning, municipal court, regional recreation infrastructures, garbage, and highways, etc. The municipality is a member of the county of Pays d’en Haut, the MRC.

This regional authority is run by a Prefect who presides over regular meetings, bringing together the municipal mayors of all the councils in the MRC. A regional authority may contain 10 councils. Whilst it all sounds expensive, and the local rates are high at around $3,000-$4,000 on average, Yves says people value the intimate contact that they have with local government and are prepared to pay for it. They also appreciate the lack of community confl icts which intimate connection helps deliver. Yves tells me that a few years ago, there was an attempted amalgamation, as has happened in Ontario, but according to him, there was almost a revolution, and the amalgamation was stopped in its tracks.

One of the reasons for doing my research is the matter of the Avoca Theatre, an unresolved confl ict which has been dragging on since 2003. I’ve begun to realise how ineffective our large council has been in resolving the differences between the developers and the community over this matter. Such a festering situation just could not happen with Morin Heights, it seems. Community life here is typifi ed by a never ending series of confl icts with local government, many over development issues, but also including the possible sale of green space. Most recently, council has been trying to impose new neoliberal regulations on the management of community halls, trying to turn them into money makers.

We see this incessant confl ict as just part of life, but in many other places in the developed world, the confl ict we accept as normal either doesn’t happen or is far less. Yves told me remuneration is not high. The six councillors, elected for four years, get around $10,000 a year, whilst the mayor is on $23,000. Some of the councillors are retired people who take great pride in helping the community, whilst others are still working.

Morin Heights has a strong environmental character which has been set down in their long-term planning. Whilst they are probusiness, any new business has to fi t the character of the place, and people are generally happy with the town scale as it is. Everyone is aware that if you bring in more development, rates can go down, but it’s not a trade-off the locals want to make. Unemployment is low. The main business of the town is providing outdoor leisure opportunities, a key business in Avoca Beach as well.

Email, Nov 15, 2016 Mike Rubbo, Avoca Continued in the next edition

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