A Saanich councillor has floated the idea of holding a referendum this October on whether Saanich should pursue amalgamation talk as the public heard from both supporters and critics.
Coun. Colin Plant raised this possibility Monday night less than two days before Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell and Victoria Mayor Lisa Help were preparing to meet with a senior provincial official to discuss the process around creating a citizens’ assembly on amalgamation with interested municipalities. The meeting emerged out of a letter that Atwell and Helps had sent to Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing.
“Do we feel, that if the minister has a satisfactory meeting with Mr. Mayor and Ms. Helps from the City of Victoria, that we have the license from our population to do this?” said Plant. “We did ask a question [during the last municipal election], which some people have interpreted in a variety of ways. However, we also did have our [governance review citizen advisory committee] suggest this very language.” Plant, however, questioned whether the committee was able to attract a broad audience on many topics, including amalgamation.
“I’m not so sure that we have the license,” he said. “So I’m curious what my colleagues think is the right step such as — and I’m not putting this as a motion, but just the idea — is this something that should be on a referendum [ballot] in the fall or do we have the license to do it?”
Coun. Karen Harper, who actively served on the board of Amalgamation Yes before winning election, questioned the idea of testing public support for future talks around amalgamation.
“It’s premature for us to answer some of the questions that you have raised, Coun. Plant,” she said in describing the up-coming meeting as a “promising first step” that will yield some useful information. Saanich should not be having “any referendum on anything” because it is just taking “baby-steps” in collecting information. “And information is what is key here,” she said.
Saanich residents certainly heard competing narratives Monday. Shellie Gudgeon, president of Amalgamation Yes, praised Saanich’s leadership in presenting various principles that her organization believes should guide the process around what she called “the possible reunification” of Saanich and Victoria.
She said this process should include meaningful consultations with First Nations and follow the process used in proposed amalgamation of Duncan-North Cowichan. The province should also foot the entire bill, because Saanich and Victoria are the largest municipalities in the region, she said. “If that is refused, then the cost is shared equally among the two municipalities and the [province],” she said. Any future citizens’ assembly should “be struck and established before the 2018 municipal election” and include citizens from both Saanich and Victoria, with a variety of backgrounds, interests, skills and abilities, with the numerical composition of the assembly balanced by gender and generations, and proportional to the populations of both municipalities.
Saanich resident Katherine Whitworth said Saanich should not take any steps until staff have finalized costs. The public heard earlier the cost of the Duncan-North Cowichan citizens’ assembly was $145,000. This budget would be “way too low” for Victoria and Saanich, whose combined populations approach 200,000. Duncan and North Cowichan have a combined population of about 35,000.
“I would also like to remind council that the 2014 [referendum] question was not about amalgamation,” she said. “It was about local governance and shared services. It was council that changed the [governance review citizen advisory committee]’s terms of references after the fact.”