Editorial: Amalgamation a local issue

All municipalities should put a non-binding amalgamation question on the ballot for the fall election. The data produced would bring more clarity to an issue that has been too much clouded by emotion, speculation and municipal rivalry for nearly a century. But that decision should be voluntary. The province should not force municipalities to put the question on the ballot.

Amalgamation Yes, a group advocating for a vote on amalgamation, wants the province to require that a non-binding referendum on the issue be included in the November municipal election for the capital region. The group doesn’t favour a particular form of amalgamation, but contends that “the current fragmented local governance model, consisting of 13 separate municipalities, is not the most effective means of governing the region.”

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Trying to get municipal buy-in has been frustrating for Amalgamation Yes. It has gathered thousands of signatures in favour of reducing the number of municipalities, but so far, only one — Victoria — has agreed to allow its citizens to have a say on the issue at election time. Colwood had been persuaded to put the issue on the ballot, but backed out after a call for residents to participate in a focus group brought out only three people.

Most of the municipalities have no plans for a referendum. Langford, Esquimalt and View Royal are still undecided, according to Amalgamation Yes. Most mayors say their constituents haven’t expressed interest in the issue.

We agree with Amalgamation Yes that the current system is cumbersome. Each municipality maintains a separate bureaucracy. That means 13 chief administrators, each making between $112,000 and $240,000 (the average is about $165,000). There are also multiple fire chiefs, police chiefs, city solicitors, head planners and senior inspectors. The cheek-by-jowl geography results in considerable overlap of services and confusion for the public.

The Capital Regional District addresses some of the overlap by approaching some services co-operatively, and services such as regional parks and water distribution show how that co-operative approach can work. But there is still plenty of duplication, and where there is duplication, there is waste.

Amalgamation isn’t a magic answer, and it comes with pitfalls. Few advocate rushing pell-mell into turning 13 entities into one massive municipality. But surely, the region’s fractured governance can be made more rational, less cumbersome, and the conversation on how to do that could be enhanced by knowing where the citizens stand on the issue.

We agree with Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, who says: “Why would we not take the opportunity to consult with our citizens and residents? I’m not sure why the rest of the region is reluctant. You don’t need to be for or against it, but it’s an opportunity for a direct democratic response.”

In 2003, a poll by the Times Colonist and CHEK News found 53 per cent of respondents supported amalgamation. A group whose very name proclaims where it stands has gathered thousands of signatures. Useful information, perhaps, but neither method produces solid data. The hard numbers gathered in a referendum could either put the issue to rest (for a while, at least — it will never go away) or facilitate studies and discussion on how to streamline government in the region.

Nevertheless, if citizens want to have their say — and we believe they should — they should let their municipal governments know what they think.

The decision on whether to put the question to the voters should be up to each municipality. Involving the provincial government — which doesn’t want to get involved in any case — would bring an element of coercion and heavy-handedness into an issue that requires a spirit of co-operation and a light touch.

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