A group of residents in a local service district on the Acadian Peninsula are questioning whether the Higgs government acted in good faith when it merged their community with the new municipal entity of Île-de-Lamèque.
The residents of Chiasson-Savoy want to be part of the new Shippagan municipality, just across a bridge from where they live.
That was the original plan in the local government reform white paper released last November.
But Local Government Reform Minister Daniel Allain reversed that decision in February and attached them to Île-de-Lamèque instead.
"There's something absolutely irregular, illegitimate, abnormal in this process," says Gastien Godin, one of the residents fighting the change.
"If at the beginning we had some trust in the minister, now we have some serious, serious doubts about his good faith."
Seeking judicial review
Godin and other residents were in Fredericton on June 10, the last day the legislature sat before the summer, to present a petition opposing the plan.
They're also applying to the Court of Queen's Bench for a judicial review of Allain's decision.
At the centre of their argument is an email sent by the LSD's consultative committee chair Steven Cormier to Allain at 10:55 a.m. on Feb. 11.
It said the committee made "a four out of five majority decision" to merge with Lamèque.
Seven minutes later, Allain forwarded the email to his deputy minister, Ryan Donaghy.
"Timing is everything," Allain wrote.
Minutes of the LSD committee's Feb. 11 meeting show the meeting actually began later the same day, at 7:10 p.m. – more than eight hours after Cormier's email to the minister.
Godin says Allain has cited the email repeatedly in defending the merger with Lamèque, but the timeline revealed in the documents leaves unanswered questions.
"Something was planned between the two. The minister was expecting that decision," Godin says.
"It's obvious the letter is irregular. It's illegitimate. The minister knows it and he's doing nothing. That's why we had no choice but to go to court."
A spokesperson for Allain said he was not available for an interview Wednesday. "We will not be commenting as this is under judicial review," Vicky Lutes said.
Cormier could not be reached for comment.
Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou Liberal MLA Éric Mallet says with both new entities in his riding, he doesn't favour one option over the other.
But he says the minister should listen to the LSD residents about the flawed process.
"There were problems, so they brought that complaint to the minister and the minister hasn't done anything with that."
Chiasson-Savoy is on Lamèque Island but is closer to Shippagan than to the existing village of Lamèque.
Children in the local service district cross the bridge to go to school in Shippagan and the community has helped fund the town's fire and pool services, which residents use.
According to other documents the group obtained, officials at the Department of Local Government decided Feb. 4 Chiasson-Savoy should stay with Shippagan.
Moving it into the Lamèque entity "would be a substantial change" from Allain's original white paper, wrote Denis Roussel, a consultant with Local Government.
On Feb. 6, Cormier wrote to Allain to say he wanted to wait before taking a position.
Department staff prepared a briefing note for Allain on Feb. 7 ahead of a phone call he wanted to make to Cormier.
The briefing note again recommended Chiasson-Savoy stay with Shippagan, though it noted there was a logic to all communities on the island being in the same Île-de-Lamèque entity.
The same evening Cormier emailed Allain to say residents were "undecided" on which of the two new entities they wanted to join. He asked if it was possible to organize petitions for joining both entities "and the majority would prevail."
Four days later, Cormier sent the email to Allain saying the committee had endorsed the Lamèque option.
Godin says the meeting endorsing the option occurred without proper notice and with one committee member absent, calling into further question the credibility of the process.
The province finalized the decision Feb. 15, he says.
In March, Godin and other opponents organized their own unofficial plebiscite at which they say a majority of the 356 LSD residents of voting age chose to be part of Shippagan.
Their petition to the legislature included 182 names.
Godin says he recognizes that Allain has discretionary power to make decisions about the amalgamations, but court precedent has established that a minister "has to act reasonably" in exercising that kind of power.
The case is scheduled to be heard in Court of Queen's Bench in Bathurst on Aug. 11.