Forced amalgamation for Greater Victoria not in cards: premier

Premier Christy Clark has weighed into the amalgamation debate in Greater Victoria, saying she wants to see more integration or amalgamation of services but can’t force full-scale amalgamation on the capital region.

“Citizens have told [municipal politicians] they want more integration of services and so do I,” Clark said in an interview. “You can’t run policing and all of the other services that the public relies on as efficiently or as effectively without … some level of amalgamation.”

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Clark said Community Minister Coralee Oakes will work with the municipalities “to reach their goals on amalgamation.”

But it’s not entirely clear what those goals are.

Eight of the 13 municipalities included a question around amalgamation on the election ballot. While each question was different — for example, Central Saanich, North Saanich and Sidney asked about amalgamating just those three municipalities, while Saanich refused to use the “A” word at all — the majority of voters favoured some kind of study or movement toward amalgamation.

“No matter which way the question was asked, everyone knew what they were voting for, and really the question was not ‘Do you want to amalgamate? It was ‘Do you want to explore this idea further?’ ” said Victoria mayor-elect Lisa Helps.

Helps said the seven municipalities that got a “yes” vote should request a meeting with Oakes to lay out the terms of reference for an amalgamation study.

Helps said leadership changes in the November election “ushered in a new era of regional governance,” far from the stalemates at the Capital Regional District that stalled major projects such as the sewage treatment plant.

“I think the provincial government will find a very new working relationship with [municipalities in Greater Victoria] where they’re working with a true partnership.”

Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell said the next logical step is for CRD board members to vote on sending a formal request for the province to lead an amalgamation study in Greater Victoria. The study should include input from all 13 municipalities and strong engagement with the public, he said.

Once a study is complete, a binding, uniform referendum question about whether to amalgamate the region should be put on the 2018 ballot so that voters can have their say, said Tony Heemskerk, acting president of Amalgamation Yes, a group that fought for an amalgamation question to be on ballots.

David Screech, mayor of View Royal, which did not have an amalgamation question on the ballot, said any study around regional governance should be done by a “completely neutral third party.”

“You’d need to set out terms of reference of exactly what it is we’re trying to accomplish,” Screech said. “What is the end goal that we’re hoping to accomplish and, to me, that question has not been answered.”

The B.C. government recently introduced amendments to the Police Act that would force municipalities to participate in integrated policing units. The change is in response to recommendations made by commissioner Wally Oppal in the Missing Women Inquiry regarding better co-ordination of policing across multiple jurisdictions.

Critics said the province should go a step further and force Greater Victoria’s seven police departments to merge into one regional force. Oppal had recommended a single police department for Metro Vancouver after the inquiry determined serial killer Robert Pickton was able to evade arrest for years because police departments weren’t sharing information.

But Clark has ruled out forcing police regionalization or amalgamation. “Across the country, governments who have forced amalgamation and forced decisions on local communities, I don’t think have been well regarded as a result of that,” she said.

“There’s a better way to do it and I really applaud [municipalities] for having the courage to put it on the agenda. Because not many politicians are known for going out there and asking people if they should get rid of their own job. Good for them, it’s gutsy.”

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