Jack Knox: Amalgamation process is moving, but no one's at risk of whiplash

Hey, anybody remember the municipal amalgamation debate?

The Amalgamation Yes citizens group does, and it’s not happy with how things are going.

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In essence, it is accusing politicians in Saanich and Victoria of ragging the puck, making only glacial progress on the process that could lead to a municipal merger. The group has long suspected that councillors don’t embrace the amalgamation idea with the same enthusiasm with which, say, Trudeau embraces selfies.

This week, Amalgamation Yes issued a press release that dripped with frustration — as usual — over what it sees as foot-dragging. To be specific, it is upset that more than two years after voters in Saanich and Victoria approved funding for a citizens assembly that would look at the costs, benefits and disadvantages of marrying the two communities, we haven’t even completed the preliminary steps that would allow the body to be created.

“After the referendum, it took over 11 months of tedious deliberations for both councils to finally agree on the joint terms of reference on a citizens assembly when Saanich council gave final approval on Jan. 29, 2020,” the release said. “It was not until April 20, 2020, after Mayor Fred Haynes proposed a failed motion to cancel the citizens assembly, that Saanich council finally directed senior municipal staff to meet with Victoria officials to prepare a joint application to the province. After nine months, no progress has been made to submit this work plan to either council or to the province!”

Ah, but after Amalgamation Yes issued its statement on Feb. 22, Saanich released a Feb. 19 staff report that discusses the next steps with the citizens’ assembly process. The five-page document, which will go to council Monday, says that after consulting with a firm that has run about 40 citizens assembly processes, staff in Saanich and Victoria would like direction on a range of topics. Victoria council will see a similar report Thursday.

Staff in the two communities want their councils to approve hiring a consultant (as long as the Municipal Affairs Ministry pays for it) to look at the cost of different governance models, and to analyze the implications of merging services — everything from engineering to public safety — offered by the municipalities.

They recommend asking the province to fund at least a third of the $720,000-$820,000 cost of the citizens assembly process.

They recommend reducing the number of participants in the assembly from 75 (43 from Saanich, 32 from Victoria) to a less unwieldy 48.

And they want the politicians to forget about trying to run the assembly in a virtual format during the pandemic. (“It is of note that there would be challenges for a citizens assembly to be conducted virtually due to the number of participants,” the Saanich report states, which is longhand for “Worst. Zoom. Meeting. Ever.”) The recommendation is to wait until all the participants can safely meet in person, something the report doesn’t anticipate being possible until October at the earliest. (Note that it was the pandemic that, last April, moved Haynes to suggest back-burnering the process.)

So there we have it. Things are moving, but not at a speed that will leave anyone at risk of whiplash. That’s in keeping with what Les Leyne noted in 2018 when comparing Greater Victoria’s timetable for municipal government reform with that of Ontario: “Our approach flows organically from the ‘Slow down, this ain’t the Mainland’ bumper-sticker mentality.” Remember, ours is the place that took longer to build the Johnson Street Bridge than it took to fight the Second World War.

This is not what voters had in mind in that November 2018 referendum — but then they didn’t imagine they’d be wallowing in a pandemic, either. Amalgamation Yes warns of a potential backlash when the next local elections are held in October 2022, but a lot can happen between now and then. Or not.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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