A community organizer calls on Saanich council to change language that asks the forum exploring “the costs, benefits and disadvantages” of amalgamating Saanich and Victoria to render an affirmative or negative verdict.
“The goal of the [citizen assembly] should be to help people make an informed decision, not to inform them what their decisions should be,” said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, in a letter to council as its members prepare to debate Saanich’s proposed terms of reference for the citizens’ assembly on amalgamation.
Phelps Bondaroff, a former councillor candidate involved in several local organizations, said language requiring a verdict of yes or no in favour of amalgamation is not consistent with the ballot question that voters in both Victoria and Saanich answered during the last municipal election, which read as follows: “[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?”
Bondaroff said this question does not suggest that the [assembly] created through this process would have the mandate and capacity to “advise the respective Councils on whether or not the municipalities should proceed towards amalgamation” in quoting the terms of reference.
“Rather, the question suggests an exploration of the question more generally,” said Bondaroff. “Had it been the desire of the drafters of this question that the [assembly] render a verdict on the question of amalgamation, this should have been included in the original question.”
Bondaroff said asking the assembly to both explore the costs, benefits, and disadvantages of amalgamation and render a verdict would significantly reduces its ability to do either.
“The [assembly] has been given a set and limited amount of time to fulfill its mandate, and fulsome exploration of the various costs and benefits of [amalgamation] will more than fill this time,” he said. “Adding the additional task of rendering a decision on the matter will reduce the time that could otherwise be spent in exploring the issue.”
Among other points, Bondaroff said asking the assembly to render a yes-no answer “unnecessarily constrains its freedom to fully explore the question” when the answer “may very well be somewhere in between.” To this end, council should change the terms of reference to allow the assembly to provide alternatives to amalgamation such as service integration.
He also calls for language that will give guaranteed recognition of ‘minority views’ in the assembly’s final report.
Once the full Saanich council has signed off on the proposed terms of reference, they will undergo reconciliation with Victoria’s proposed terms of reference.
Coun. Judy Brownoff, a member of the committee that drafted the terms of reference, agrees with Bondaroff. “This letter writer, in my opinion, is correct in saying the question did not ask for the [citizens assembly] to make a decision whether to amalgamate or no.”
Brownoff said the wording of the question is specific to exploring the “costs, benefits and disadvantages” of amalgamation. “Once their [the assembly’s] report is received, [council] will make the decision to what next steps to take, which may include a referendum question to Saanich voters,” she said.
The provincial government will also have to review any future referendum question, said Brownoff. “Our proposed [citizens’ assembly] is a fact finding one. It is not like [the Duncan-North Cowichan assembly] which was specifically worded for amalgamating.”
Coun. Colin Plant disagrees with Bondaroff.
“I would suggest that establishing a [citizens’ assembly] but not giving them the ability to provide a recommendation, wouldbe a significant missed opportunity to involve the very people who had been directly studying the issue,” Plant said.
The purpose of the citizens’ assembly is to re-install trust in the political process by taking ownership of decision-making, said Plant.
“I cannot envision a satisfactory outcome to the situation where the respective [councils] would be tasked with developing their own determination of whether or not to proceed with an amalgamation referendum after the assembly was concluded,” he said. “In my view the whole purpose of the proposed [citizens assembly] process is to take the perception of ‘politics’ out of the process and to allow the public to provide direction after extensively studying the issue.”
The Saanich News has also reached out to the other members of the committee — Mayor Fred Haynes and Rebecca Mersereau — for comment.