Monday, May 30, 2016
Why I dream of amalgamation - We see things differently
Anyone who knows me knows that I have no love for big anything. If you want to witness the transformation of a happy hat maker into a raving, miserable and bitter ranter, take me to a fast food restaurant, shopping mall or a big box store. I have never been to Costco and I have no plans to go. Yet, I dream of amalgamation in rural Nova Scotia. I love the idea of small government, but I don't love the reality. Here's why.
Before bringing the challenges I was facing as a home based business owner to the public, I brought my concerns to the mayor and CAO of our town and I did it privately. I brought with me the man whose job it is to oversee everything to do with the building code and planning in Halifax. He came with me as a friend on his own time, but brought with him thirty years of experience. After a two hour meeting, our CAO said, "We see things differently." and that was the end of the meeting.
This was the beginning of what was to become an epic undertaking. I began by phoning building inspectors in many different municipalities in rural Nova Scotia and I learned two things. Firstly, people want to help and secondly, they all saw things differently. Every municipality had a different interpretation of the same rule. I also learned that communication between departments was non-existent and communication between municipalities was non-existent. Officials were operating in silos and no one dared to step on anyone's toes. I also learned that the province does not wish to step on a municipality's toes. As far as many rural municipalities were concerned, this was a provincial issue, but as far as the province was concerned this was a municipal issue. It is the business owners that pay the price for this lack of communication and the words, we see things differently.
Now, over in HRM there is a Manager of Municipal Compliance and there is a Manager of Development approvals. They work side by side. These two people work together to oversee every permit that comes into the city. Every planner and every building inspector needs to have the same understanding and there is constant communication between the building and planning departments. That's not to say that mistakes won't happen, but when they do there is a chain of responsibility that can be followed back to the top. So, like the rules or don't like the rules, the rules are understood.
Right now I know of two home-based businesses in Lunenburg that still cannot move forward. A few months waiting for clarification might seem like no big deal for a municipal employee who is receiving a pay check, but for a small business owner, a few months can be the difference between success and failure. These people will not come forward because in a small town, things like rules are taken personally. They know that they can be targeted for speaking up.
Even as I write this blog, I am aware that such a seemingly innocuous thing as talking about amalgamation can have a personal effect on me and my family. When your government is also your neighbour things that should not be personal become personal.
Over and over, I hear the argument against amalgamation. The larger the bureaucracy the less efficient it becomes. O.K. I can buy that. But at what point does that statement become true? Is a government for 100 people more efficient than a government for 200 people? In rural Nova Scotia, we are not talking about amalgamating five small governments into one large government. We are talking about amalgamating five tiny governments into one small government. It will be easier for the province to communicate with an amalgamated government. It will be easier for a citizen to communicate with an amalgamated government. Real communication and engagement breaks down when things become personal and in tiny governments everything is personal.
It will be easier for entrepreneurs to establish businesses when they do not have to confront the words, 'We see things differently.' Those words are beautiful when applied to visions of community or business or art, but when applied to rules, they are just plain ugly.