What is the direction of regional governance? Shellie Gudgeon, president of Amalgamation Yes, says she would like to see a “thoughtful process” that could realistically produce a new form of governance within 12 years. Wolf Depner/News Staff

Group continues push for streamlined government for Greater Victoria

Shellie Gudgeon, president of Amalgamation Yes, strikes a realistic tone when asked when the Greater Victoria region might see a different form of governance than the current arrangement of 13 separate municipalities.

Optimistically, the region could see something different in six years, realistically, in 12 years, she said.

“We want to have a thoughtful process,” she said. “This isn’t a shotgun [wedding]. We want to hear the dialogue and we want to see the discourse occur to find a better form of governance.”

Colin Nielsen, vice-president, offered a similar assessment in suggesting that any changes in regional governance might have to take place in steps.

While underway for some time, efforts to streamline regional governance have gained momentum in recent weeks, when a public forum held in Sidney heard from representatives of the citizens’ assembly that has recommended the amalgamation of Duncan and North Cowichan.

Both Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps attended the forum.

Atwell said he found the forum “[very] informative, well presented and organized.”

“We have no process yet but the experience of those two communities [North Cowichan and Duncan] should be studied further to ensure we fully benefit from their experience,” he said.

Gudgeon said the presence of Atwell and Helps speaks to the momentum around the subject. Late last year, Saanich called on the province to establish and fund a citizens’ assembly on amalgamation with interested municipalities in the Capital Regional District.

A citizens’ assembly is a deliberative forum, which the provincial government defines as an “independent assembly of randomly selected individuals with a mandate to examine an issue over an extended period of time and make a recommendation to the Legislative Assembly.”

Building on these recent developments, Amalgamation Yes is now planning to host an educational forum in co-operation with a local post-secondary institution — be it the University of Victoria or Camosun College — to help the public learn more about the citizens’ assembly process.

“That is what we feel is our next move for us to achieve more effective, efficient governance in the area,” said Gudgeon. “Ultimately, that is our end goal — how do we do things better? Rather than be black and white [against or for amalgamation], may be there are changes that a citizens’ assembly can uncover.”

Amalgamation Yes’ preferred concept calls for a tripartite division centred on three future municipalities — a Victoria-area core that would include Saanich, the West Shore and the Peninsula. But Gudgeon warned against too much specificity at this stage.

“We are at a very theoretical, brain-storming [level] right now,” she said. “Right now, we are talking about a citizens’ assembly between Victoria and Saanich.”

The timing for such a forum — which the provincial government would have to initiate — could be tight, but achievable, said Gudgeon.

“If they get moving on it, they could have a citizens’ assembly process in place, at least with terms of references, and may be an application process in place, before the election deadline,” she said.

This said, Gudgeon readily acknowledges that any changes in governance will not occur happen overnight. She also readily acknowledges that more needs to be done to educate the public about this issue, a process that also requires a different vocabulary.

“We move away from ‘Amalgamation Yes, Amalgamation No,’ and we talk about good governance,” she said. “Is this the best we can do on how we govern the [ region]?”

Citing research from the Capital Integrated Services and Governance Initiative (CISGI), Gudgeon said better governance models are available, adding that the public also favours improvements, based on past referenda. The electorate, she said, still favours reforms. What that might look like remains to be determined, she said. For example, a future outcome could be a directly elected board for the Capital Regional District.

“But I think when you bring the public together and you discuss it and you focus on it, sometimes miraculous outcomes occur, where everybody goes, ‘Oh, my God, why didn’t we think of this?’”

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