The tiny Nova Scotia towns with lots of politicians, but not many people

In Annapolis Royal, the historic Nova Scotia community that proudly calls itself a “tiny town,” there are just 98 residents for every elected official.

That’s fewer than the number of tenants in many downtown Halifax apartment buildings.

In Clark’s Harbour, a fishing community of 758 people on Cape Sable Island, off the province’s southern coast, it costs $114 per resident to pay the annual honorariums of the mayor and six councillors.

While the winds of amalgamation have swept through Nova Scotia several times over the last two decades, the province is still dotted with small towns and sparsely populated counties that remain stubbornly separate.

CBC News has tallied up the number of mayors, wardens and councillors, and the cost of governing 50 separate towns and municipalities — an analysis that found large disparities in how many constituents elected officials represent and how much they cost.

Annapolis Royal Mayor Bill MacDonald said there’s no appetite in his town to amalgamate with the surrounding county, even though his residents pay higher taxes than those just across the Annapolis River, in Granville Ferry.

“There are those who are concerned that the character and control and preservation and protection of this tiny, perfect town might be lost if this town wasn’t in control of it,” he said, noting Annapolis Royal does partner with Annapolis County on things like water infrastructure.

Annapolis Royal

(Robert Short/CBC)

While municipalities themselves determine how many councillors there should be, every eight years they must also make their case before the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.

And the board isn’t shy about intervening. Two years ago, it ordered the Municipality of the County of Richmond to cut its council in half, from 10 to five members.

It is also soon set to rule on a two-year campaign by a citizens group in the Municipality of the District of Clare to shrink its council size from eight to five.

Gérard Thériault, who leads the Clare Civic Association, said he believes a smaller council would be more effective “because the more people at the table, the more arguing you’re going to have.”

A smaller council might also encourage more candidates to put their names forward, he said. Right now, the districts are so small that people are reluctant to run against an incumbent.

“They’re close to their people where they are and no one wants to run against them,” he said.

Councils for small populations

Twice since 2015, the UARB has ruled that Clare failed to properly consult residents on what they think council should look like. This time, they’ve been ordered to hire an independent consultant to survey residents.

Warden Ronnie LeBlanc isn’t convinced shrinking council will make it more effective.

“With an eight-person council, you need to convince five people for a vote — so you have to make a good argument,” said LeBlanc. “We are making big decisions that cost a lot of money.”

Gerard Theriault

Gerard Theriault leads the Clare Civic Association. (CBC)

In Clark’s Harbour, council recently voted 4-3 in favour of shrinking its size from six to four, plus the mayor, and an application has been made to the Utility and Review Board.

Coun. Trudy Quinlan was one of those who voted in favour of the cut. But the part-time waitress said a smaller council will mean more work for elected officials, who will have to sit on more boards and associations.

But there will only be so much change: amalgamating with the much larger Municipality of the District of Barrington is something Quinlan doubts will happen in her lifetime.

For one thing, Clark’s Harbour is “prosperous,” she said.

“We maintain our roads, maintain our garbage pickup, it’s neat, it’s clean, it’s a real nice place to grow up and live in.”

Most expensive NS councils per constituent

For Kings County Mayor Peter Muttart, the answer isn’t fewer councillors, but fewer councils.

“We are over-governed,” he said. “We still maintain the same governance structure as we had when we travelled on dirt roads by horse and buggy and it took three or four days to get to Halifax from the Annapolis Valley.”

Muttart said debate within the Kings County council has improved since the number of members went from 12 to 10. And he maintains constituents are still getting good representation.

Ultimately, he said he would like to see towns, villages and counties replaced by regional governments.

“We should be sharing the taxes and paying our representatives a decent wage so they can work full time for our benefit, instead of part time.”

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