12/11/2013 12:24 EST | Updated 02/10/2014 05:59 EST

Municipalities take Manitoba government to court over forced amalgamation

WINNIPEG - The Association of Manitoba Municipalities filed legal action Wednesday against the provincial government for its plans to force communities with fewer than 1,000 residents to amalgamate.

The government is trying to dictate details of the mergers over the wishes of residents and, in some cases, is trying to pick a community's new partner, association president Doug Dobrowolski said.

Dobrowolski pointed to letters sent by Municipal Government Minister Stan Struthers's office to 32 communities last month — one month before a deadline for small municipalities to submit their merger plans.

"He's already named who they're going to amalgamate with, in some cases. He's named what the municipality is going to be and where the location of the municipal office is going to be," Dobrowolski said.

The government announced in November 2012 that it would require 87 municipalities to merge with neighbouring communities to save money, improve administration and qualify for government economic development programs.

Many agreed with the move and co-operated with a government demand that merger plans be submitted by Dec. 1. But a few dozen have held out. Some were given an extension to Feb. 1.

Struthers sent letters and suggested merger plans to the holdouts last month.

"We put out a letter that said, 'Here's a plan. If you're going to do nothing and just float by another deadline, this is what will happen as of Feb. 1,'" Struthers said.

"That gives a lot of time for municipalities to make sure that they submit to me a plan that is different."

The association's court application alleges the government is breaking its own merger law, which was approved by the legislature in September.

"In making a recommendation, the minister is to have regard to the (municipality's) amalgamation plan, including the public comments obtained in preparation of the plan," the court document states.

The association is asking Court of Queen's Bench to order the province to take into account municipalities' wishes, to quash plans outlined in Struthers's letters and to allow some municipalities to forgo a merger.

A court date has not been set. Struthers appeared confident Wednesday that the legal action would not delay any mergers beyond the next municipal elections set for next October.