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Canada Opinion: Garcea's work 20 years ago on rural municipalities warrants discussion today

16:30  30 november  2020
16:30  30 november  2020 Source:   leaderpost.com

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The recent news and tributes after the Nov. 12 death of University of Saskatchewan political studies professor Joe Garcea noted that some of his research commissioned by the provincial government on municipal reform options was not well received by rural municipalities. In fact, his many policy recommendations were also of immense ongoing interest to the cities, towns and villages represented by the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA).

a man wearing a suit and tie: Joe Garcea is remembered for his wide range of expertise. © Provided by Leader Post Joe Garcea is remembered for his wide range of expertise.

Garcea’s approach was more wide-ranging than several other attempts to make changes in how municipal governments are limited in their power and financing ability, but the questions of whether and how to restructure these local councils remain unresolved today. The following excerpts tell the story, drawn from SUMA’s own history book, The New Urban Age.

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Professor Joe Garcea spoke to SUMA convention delegates in 2000 about several problems with the municipal system that the Task Force on Municipal Legislative Renewal had identified after almost 18 months of consultations with local governments and other stakeholder groups. Because municipal governments were ‘too frag­mented’ and there were too many inequities among them, he argued, it was very difficult to sustain an effective system of serv­ice delivery and to plan economic and social development.

Garcea said that he was not going to champion the prospect of substantial cost savings from municipal reorganization. Instead, he said that the Task Force wanted to focus on the ‘lost opportu­nities’ resulting from the mismatch between the limited capaci­ties of smaller municipalities and the regional nature of our ‘economic communities.’

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The Task Force was looking toward a package of improve­ments, Garcea said, including: recognition of municipalities as an order of government; more local authority and power within an appropriate set of responsibilities; increased access to ‘secure and substantial’ revenue sources; and consolidation into some form of regional structure. This would have to be considered as a ‘pack­age deal,’ Garcea emphasized. We needed to adopt either ‘all of it or none of it,’ he said, because ‘cherry-picking’ would not work.

Many SUMA members, however, became more concerned with the call to reduce the number of urban and rural municipal­ities from more than 800 to ‘less than 125.’ The Task Force recom­mendations looked toward organizing these new units into municipal districts with local community advisory councils. After a month of usually respectful but sometimes heated hearings, including one report of a group parading an effigy of the Task Force Chair outside the meeting hall, the SUMA Board responded.

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’The benefits of municipal restructuring will have to be demonstrated through pilot projects rather than imposed from any master plan,’ President (and Regina City Councillor) Mike Badham said. The broader concern of the Board was the risk of letting the restructuring issue overtake other important items in the proposed package of reforms.

By the time of the Final Report, however, Garcea softened the approach to acknowledge a ‘continuum’ of possible responses ranging from ‘voluntary amalgamation’ to ‘mandated amalga­mation.’ The Final Report also declined to recommend any preferred ‘model’ for regional reorganization and left out the Interim Report’s call for 125 units. SUMA regional meetings in June had reported that town and village representatives were more interested in seeing (voluntary) urban-urban and rural-rural amalgamations rather than the consolidation of urban with rural municipalities.

Urban government leaders were not quite ready that year to adopt the picture of the future presented by the Garcea Task Force and other investigators, at least not the part aimed at municipal restructuring or the process recommended for getting there.

Some significant changes have been made over the last 20 years in revising provincial legislation governing municipalities and in securing greater revenues to fund municipal services. But the restructuring issue keeps resurfacing every decade because of the hope that regional integration might offer more than just cooperation among councils.

Mervyn Norton is a retired manager of policy and communications for SUMA and author of The New Urban Age: Bridging to Our Future as Urban Government in Saskatchewan.

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