Could these signs become relics? Saanich and Victoria councillors will meet Tuesday to discuss a referendum that could lead to amalgamation, if voters in the fall approve plans for a citizens assembly. (Black Press File)

Saanich and Victoria councils set to weigh in on amalgamation question

Question in Oct. 20 referendum will ask residents if they are in favour of expolring amalgmation

As Saanich councillors prepare to meet their Victorian counterparts in what could be a historic meeting, residents of Saanich and Victoria could find the following question on their election ballots in October.

“Are you in favour of establishing a Citizens’ Assembly to explore the costs, benefits and disadvantages of the amalgamation between the District of Saanich and the City of Victoria?”

Mayor Richard Atwell said he drafted the ballot question with City of Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. Their respective councils will discuss it when they meet for a joint committee-of-the-whole meeting Tuesday, June 26 in the boardroom of the Capital Regional District.

“We have put this forward to get the discussion going,” he said. “As a question, it’s clear and concise and it is easy to understand.”

The question will not ask residents to decide whether they favour amalgamation, but rather whether they favour pushing ahead with the creation of a forum that would consider issues around amalgamation in additional detail.

Atwell said the question had undergone one revision before appearing in the report that the meeting will consider. Naturally, it is not certain at this stage that the question will survive in its current form.

“I can’t predict what will happen at the meeting with 18 councillors,” said Atwell.

The report detailing the question also recommends the development dissemination of educational information about the non-binding referendum as an “inclusive election expense.” The cost and substance of this educational information remain unknown. The two communities also plan to inform the province that they will hold a referendum.

Reaction to the question appears positive.

“In answer to your question we are satisfied with the proposed wording,” said Shellie Gudgeon, who chairs Amalgamation Yes. “We are looking forward to the joint meeting where I know there will be a robust discussion.”

The upcoming meeting marks the climax of a series of developments that date back to December 2017, when council meeting as committee-of-the-whole passed a resolution that calls on the province to establish a citizens’ assembly on “amalgamation with interested municipalities.” Council ratified that decision on Jan. 8, 2018.

On Jan. 11, Victoria’s council reciprocated and passed the same motion. So far though, Victoria remains the only community that has responded to Saanich’s overture.

This process continued in April 2018 when both Saanich and Victoria agreed to hold a joint meeting for the purpose of placing a question on the ballot for the Oct. 20 general municipal election.

But the process has also faced questions from inside and outside of council. Coun. Colin Plant has previously raised questions about the financial effects of amalgamation. It was also Plant, who raised the idea of a referendum to test public support for future talks.

Coun. Judy Brownoff has also questioned the legitimacy of the process. She said last month that an unanimous council motion passed on Jan. 8 has “failed” because the provincial government has yet to “establish and fund” a citizens’ assembly on amalgamation with interested municipalities.

According to the report for Tuesday’s meeting, Saanich and Victoria would call on Victoria to “co-fund” a citizens’ assembly, language that runs counter to the Jan. 8 motion.

It is not clear how much a citizens’ assembly looking into the amalgamation of Saanich and Victoria would cost. Critics have pointed out that Saanich (114,148) and Victoria (85,792) have a combined population (199,940) that is roughly six times higher than the populations of North Cowichan (29,676) and Duncan (4,944) combined (34,620). So the Duncan-North Cowichan process offers some, but not complete guidance, about the costs of a future citizens’ assembly.

Brownoff also publicly wondered whether Saanich residents truly care about the issue of amalgamation.

Should both councils agree to place some version of the proposed amalgamation question on the ballot, Saanich residents would find themselves on a path that could lead to the first referendum on amalgamation since Dec. 7, 1962, when 55 per cent voted against amalgamation.

While residents of the Mount Tolmie area, Cadboro Bay and Gordon Head favoured amalgamation, residents of western and northern Saanich “strongly opposed” it, according to local author Ross Crockford, who has compiled a history of referenda in the Greater Victoria area.


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