Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard isn’t bowing to pressure to ask residents about amalgamation, but he hopes a made-in-Saanich ballot question will satisfy some who feel the municipality is coming up short on public engagement.
On Monday, Leonard will ask council to approve a ballot question that asks residents if they endorse “a community based review” of Saanich’s governance structure “and our partnerships within the Region.”
A yes vote would trigger a series of public town hall meetings and a citizen-led committee to address governance reform in the municipality, Leonard said. Staff would also build a “body of evidence” to inform council on how to best engage citizens, he said.
“Our way of doing government is out of date, and our council meetings are run the same way as when I showed up 27 yeas ago,” Leonard said. “And there’s an appetite in the community for a chance to have a say in how Saanich is run.”
Amalgamation proponents have been pushing Saanich to approve a non-binding ballot question that asks residents if they support studying various models of integration for the region’s 13 municipalities. The study would be funded by the province, and municipal councils would then choose how they want to proceed with those options.
So far, Victoria, Esquimalt, Sidney, Central Saanich, Langford and Oak Bay have agreed to ask residents about amalgamation at the ballot box.
Leonard acknowledged he’s “a little bit late” in putting forward the idea – “It’s something we probably should have done three or six years ago” – and he admitted council doesn’t require a public vote to review its policies and explore regional partnerships.
“We could have started and finished the process and no one would have known about it,” he said. “So I thought, ‘let’s put it together and get a mandate from electors.'”
Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, whose council approved an amalgamation ballot question last month, said she’s heard from regional residents that Saanich is “a very difficult place to provide public input,” and questioned whether Leonard’s proposal is enough to satisfy calls for public input on amalgamation.
“Only Saanich residents will be able to say, but at least they’re attempting to engage their residents and that’s important,” Desjardins said. “Coming up with the question has been extremely difficult and I think that’s why you’re getting such a diversity of questions. Esquimalt took three meetings to come up with the wording and we presented two questions in the end.”
Coun. Vic Derman said council rejected calls for an amalgamation ballot question last spring because there were too many unanswered questions about the process.
“If you’re going to have a vote on amalgamation, you start out by spending your time doing your homework with the general public. For a lot of people, it sounds inherently good because they think it will save money and streamline government. A lot of things suggest those things don’t happen,” Derman said.
Derman said there are other methods for reforming local governance, and amalgamation needs to be subjected to a much more robust public debate before the municipality puts a question – non-binding or otherwise – to its residents.
“Let’s open public debate and get people out in town halls,” he said.
Should Saanich move forward with a governance review and exploration of regional partnerships, it would open the door to criticizing longstanding policies. For example, residents aren’t permitted to address council unless they speak to a specific agenda item. Calls to regionalize emergency services like policing would also be on the table.
“We’ve been doing public hearings the same way for 20 years: everyone gets five minutes at the mic, it’s so old-fashioned,” Leonard said. “I’m not prescriptive about how we do (governance) better, but I’d really like the community to talk about how we’d like to do it better.”
Council meets Monday at 7:30 p.m. to vote on Leonard’s motion at municipal hall.