Saanich council will consider a request to halt the study of amalgamation with Victoria indefinitely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
During an electronic meeting on April 20, Saanich council will discuss a report from Mayor Fred Haynes advising that the District call for a “cease and desist” on the Citizen’s Assembly exploring amalgamating Saanich and Victoria. In the report, Haynes asks that council agree to step away from talks of amalgamation, write a letter informing both the City of Victoria and the province of the District’s decision to cease all further action regarding the Citizens’ Assembly “until further notice,” and reallocate the $250,000 assembly budget.
During the 2018 municipal election, 57 per cent of Saanich and 67 per cent of Victoria voters responded positively to a non-binding referendum question on the ballot: “Are you in favour of spending up to $250,000 for establishing a Citizens’ Assembly to explore the costs, benefits, and disadvantages of the amalgamation between the District of Saanich and the City of Victoria?”
After more than a year of discussion, in January 2020 both municipalities agreed to joint terms of reference for the Citizens’ Assembly. However, with all the uncertainty created by the current pandemic, Haynes is concerned that the municipalities would not be stable enough for the assembly to proceed until after the health crisis has ended and recovery has taken place. He added that it could take 24 to 36 months to recover from the health and financial impacts of the virus.
Haynes explained that when considering amalgamation, it’s also important to look beyond Saanich and Victoria.
“I don’t think it’s in the region’s best interest right now” as it could lead to a referendum requiring provincial funding followed by several years of adjusting, he said.
He added that the Citizens’ Assembly would require 75 residents and other facilitators to work closely for six months, and with the current orders from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry regarding large gatherings of more than 50 people, Haynes isn’t certain the group could even meet.
This is not the appropriate environment to go forward with discussions, he emphasized.
Haynes pointed out that halting the Citizens’ Assembly and closing the door to amalgamation for the time being would also “free up important resources internally” that could be reallocated to the 2020 budget to relieve the financial strain on residents. He explained that the funds allocated for the assembly could be redirected to address financial issues within the 2020 Saanich budget – which council will also be re-examining during the April 20 meeting.
Haynes also noted that he feels it would be irresponsible to assign extra work relating to the Citizens’ Assembly to municipal staff who are already busy with additional duties due to the pandemic.
Amalgamation has been a controversial topic in the region for many years, he said, pointing out that he understands it has been the “ambition” of many residents for a long time. However, Haynes emphasized that “the world looks different now” and likely will for some time.
If the interest resurfaces in a few years, amalgamation could be reassessed by council, he said. For now, Haynes feels the Citizens’ Assembly isn’t Saanich’s top priority.
“It’s uncertainty we don’t need,” he said.
–With files from Wolfgang Depner