A report recommends a fall referendum to test public support for future amalgamation talks with Victoria. Black Press File.

Saanich mayor recommends fall referendum on future amalgamation talks

A Saanich councillor applauds the possibility of a referedum on whether Saanich should pursue amalgamation talks — not amalgamation itself — with Victoria.

”This is exactly what I had hoped for,” said Coun. Colin Plant, who had raised this very idea earlier this month.

He made the comment as a Mayor Richard Atwell will recommend such a move in a report to council. Specifically, it recommends a joint meeting with Victoria city council to “determine which question both local governments” would place on the Oct. 20, 2018 municipal election ballot to measure support to “explore the costs and benefits” of amalgamation.

“Regardless of my personal opinions on the topic, this issue is so important that it merits a full public response in the form of a referendum,” said Plant, who predicts a referendum question on future amalgamation talks would benefit turnout, because the subject generates diverse and passionate views.

Plant first floated the idea of a referendum as Atwell and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps were preparing to meet with staff from the ministry of municipal affairs and housing to discuss next steps including the formation of a citizens’ assembly that would look into the subject of amalgamation.

If council approves the recommendation from Atwell, a citizens’ assembly would not come into existence until after the fall of 2018, assuming Saanich and Victoria voters both approve of future amalgamation talks between the two communities.

“The province made it clear that there has to be a mandate from the citizens from beginning to end,” said Atwell. “I think this is a good first step.”

Atwell said he now hopes councillors will endorse the recommendation for a joint meeting with their Victoria counterparts during the up-coming ccouncil meeting Monday.

This said, the idea of a referendum to test public support for future amalgamation talks has already generated some push back. 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 during the same meeting that Plant had first raised the idea.

“It’s premature for us to answer some of the questions that you have raised, Coun. Plant,” she said. 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.

Shellie Gudgeon, president of Amalgamation Yes, said her group supports the idea of referendum to test public support for future talks. “We look forward to the discussion at the council tables,” she said. This said, she had earlier said a future citizens’ assembly should “be struck and established before the 2018 municipal election.” This time line would no longer be possible if Saanich and Victoria hold referenda that coincide with their respective municipal elections.

The prospect of a referendum testing public support for future amalgamation talks also raises another question: what was the point of the referendum held in the fall of 2014 that asked the following question:

“Do you support Council initiating a community-based review of the governance structure and policies within Saanich and our partnerships within the Region?” Almost nine out of 10 voters answered this question in the affirmative and supporters of amalgamation have interpreted this result as evidence in favour of their cause. But others have pointed out the 2014 referendum question did not directly address amalgamation.

Members of the public can learn more about the subject next week as Amalgamation Yes will hold a town hall. The event scheduled for Wednesday, April 25 at Victoria High School will include both Atwell and Helps. Other scheduled speakers include Peter MacLeod, moderator of the Duncan-North Cowichan Citizens’ Assembly on Municipal Amalgamation and Patricia Ross, an Abbotsford councillor, who will discuss the amalgamation of Abbotsford and Matsqui.

CBC Radio host Gregor Craigie will moderate the evening, which runs from 6 to 9 p.m.

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