After a long and sometimes heated debate as to whether to even place a question regarding municipal amalgamation on the November 15 municipal election ballots, it now seems that the process to even study the issue has hit another delay.
The District of North Saanich, along with Sidney, Central Saanich, Colwood, Victoria, Esquimalt and Metchosin, have all written to Coralee Oakes, the Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development requesting a meeting to discuss where the process needs to go from here.
“We sent a letter over 8 months ago in which we requested funding for a study to review the question, with each area to develop its own terms of reference for such a study,” said Alice Finall, Mayor of North Saanich. “We’ve received no reply and are now sending out a second request. But really, we’ve heard nothing back.”
Finall was not a supporter of placing the issue on the ballot last fall, but finally agreed to support a unanimous motion to do so at the October council meeting. At the time, Finall was quoted as saying that while it was not against her principles to ask the question, she did not anticipate that it would result in a positive vote favoring a review of the amalgamation concept.
In fact, the question met with an overwhelmingly positive vote.
Yet, according to John Vickers, the Vice Chair of the group known as Amalgamation Yes, despite the 75% level of support for the review of amalgamation by the 80,000 people who voted on the question, the provincial government is dragging its feet on the next steps, not just in North Saanich but in all the municipalities where the vote took place.
“While caution is understandable, given the importance of governance for the region, our provincial government needs to take a less nuanced and a more proactive approach,” said Vickers.
“Simply put, it’s time for provincial government to lead as it was called upon to lead by the majority of citizens in the region and by a growing list of their elected municipal governments.”
Vickers said that the provincial government seems to be unable to develop a plan for where to go next and is throwing the ball back to municipalities when it is really a provincial responsibility to lead in this initiative.
“This is about seizing the opportunity, not fearing the opportunity.”
A request for an interview with Minister Oakes was declined but, in a written response from her communications staff, the Peninsula News Review was sent the following statement from the Minister’s office.
“This is an important and complex process involving 13 local governments and it will take time and careful consideration to determine the appropriate steps and process.
“Hearing from and consulting with local voices must be a cornerstone of Government’s approach and the Province will not impose a particular approach or solution on the Capital region.
“To date, the Minister has heard from some mayors and councils — but it is important to hear from others to gauge interest and better understand how to collaborate on this goal. The province is also interested in the outcomes of community conversations happening in the region and hearing the results of discussions among local governments.
“Decisions about potential next steps will come once there is a better understanding of how local leaders believe they can collaborate in this conversation on governance and service.”
It’s an approach and attitude that drives Vickers to distraction.
“Here’s an analogy for you. Seventy-five per cent of our citizens and a growing list of municipalities have all boarded the ferry called the Amalgamation Study. We’re all waiting for departure but instead of departure announcements, all we hear from the bridge are the muffled and confused voices.
“Meanwhile we sit and wait … wondering if anyone up there has the leadership or skill to get us to our destination.”
For her part, Mayor Finall has ceeded to the will of the electorate and is willing to participate in a study, but remains dubious of the benefits of any amalgamation.
“Here on the Peninsula, we already have co-operated with our neighbouring municipalities in services like policing, our volunteer fire department, the funding of the Panorama Recreation Centre, funding for the Mary Winspear Centre, and a host of other services,” said Finall.
“I’m not sure what the study will achieve at any rate. We’ve already achieved most of the economies of scale that are available to us.”
“That’s the sort of attitude that we’ve had to deal with from the beginning,” said Vickers, “and it seems to reflect the fact that some politicians are still out of step with the will of their electorate.”
Amalgamation, he said, has the potential to replace the “patchwork of so-called co-operative economies of scale with a new and vibrant approach for the future.”
— by Tim Collins/News contributor