To paraphrase Churchill: This is not the end of the amalgamation debate. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Which, in truth, is overstating things a fair bit, seeing as we’re just getting tiny hints that municipal politicians are willing to discuss the subject. But gosh, after 25 years of hearing elected officials mention the A-word only in the same fearful, hushed tones in which Harry Potter wizards speak of Volde. … er, He Who Must Not Be Named, it feels like a major breakthrough when some acknowledge it’s worth talking about whether there’s a better way of running things.
Intriguingly, the discussion is being driven not by Greater Victoria’s core communities, but those on its edges.
A joint gathering of the three northernmost Saanich Peninsula councils on Wednesday resulted in a decision to have the mayors and administrators of Sidney, North Saanich and Central Saanich meet again to explore issues of amalgamation and amalgamation of services.
In Colwood, Coun. Shari Lukens this week approached that municipality’s chief administrative officer to talk about what it would take to get a question on the ballot in the November 2014 civic election. Voters would be asked not whether they favour amalgamation, but whether they favour doing the analysis needed to make an informed choice.
We had already heard from Metchosin Mayor John Ranns, who floated the idea of redrawing the map in a way that would cut the number of capital region municipalities from 13 to six.
Meanwhile, the fledgling Amalgamation Yes group has registered as a non-profit society. It has secured office space at the corner of Government and Pembroke, hopes to open its doors to the public in April. It also plans to have its amalgamationyes.ca website live in a few days. The grassroots organization also intends to pose an amalgamation-related question to each of the local candidates in the May 14 provincial election. Its longer-term goal is to give Greater Victoria residents a chance to vote on the matter in November 2014.
The rekindled governance debate has even drawn a bit of interest from afar. The National Post ran a piece that included a map of what it called “Victoria’s 13 Kingdoms” along with photos of half a dozen of the signs found at the entrances to many of our municipalities: Welcome to Oak Bay, Welcome to Langford, Welcome to Highlands. …
The newspaper had a bit of fun with the notion that a medium-sized city of 340,000 should need “seven police forces and 13 fire departments, all controlled by a small army of city councillors working in 13 different city halls.” The story also pointed to the tragic, disjointed handling of the 2007 Peter Lee murders as an example of the weaknesses in the system.
It’s important to note that a willingness to talk about amalgamation doesn’t necessarily mean support for amalgamation itself. Rather, it’s about doing the homework before making the choice. “You cannot make an informed decision without the analysis,” says Lukens, who intends to approach counterparts from neighbouring councils about her initiative.
Her sentiments were echoed by Coun. Carl Jensen of Central Saanich. “At this point, we don’t have sufficient information to say yes or no.”
Unlike Lukens’s plan, which would ask voters whether they want to dedicate resources to investigating municipal marriage, the Peninsula councils might go looking for answers before putting a question on a ballot. Seeing as how smaller municipalities have traditionally fretted about losing their voices within a larger city, that question might well differ from one posed by, say, Victoria, which has long been the keenest to kick down the borders.
Conceivably, this process could still descend into a typical Greater Victoria political fire drill, with each of the 13 councils presenting its residents with a different ballot question — or not giving them a chance to choose at all.
That’s all for down the road. Right now, it’s just good to hear people getting over their nerves and talking about talking.
“This isn’t a fear-based process,” says Victoria Coun. Shellie Gudgeon, an Amalgamation Yes member, about the push to put the issue directly to voters. “This is about democracy.”
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