Saanich accused of setting up amalgamation referendum for failure

Residents in Saanich and Victoria will answer the same question, but receive different background information about the upcoming referendum on striking a citizens assembly to study the pros and cons of amalgamation – not amalgamation itself – between the two communities.

For Shellie Gudgeon of Amalgamation Yes, that small difference could have huge consequences.

“I am a little discouraged that it appeared that both Saanich council and the bureaucracy of Saanich are trying to doom the question from the outset,” she said.

Voters in both communities will answer the following question Oct. 20: “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?”

But voters in Victoria will receive a different set of material about the referendum after Victoria council altered the document that Saanich and Victoria staff had previously developed. Saanich did not adopt those changes, a choice that could be fatal, according to Gudgeon.

“We, the voters, need something to vote for and Victoria council understood that,” she said, in expressing a preference for the Victoria material. “Saanich, on the other hand, seems, perhaps unwittingly, to be setting it (the question) up for failure.”

The difference is symbolic of a larger problem across the Greater Victoria region with its 13 distinct municipalities, said Gudgeon.

“It does clearly illustrate the dysfunction of two councils and two bureaucracies trying to work together.” If two communities find it almost impossible to be concise decisions, imagine 13, she said.

The Victoria document is not only longer, but also contains substantive differences.

Victoria explicitly spells out the referendum is not a referendum on amalgamation, a reference missing from Saanich. The documents also differ in describing the assembly’s purpose.

“The scope of the Citizens’ Assembly mandate has not yet been defined and would not be established until the District of Saanich has heard from its electors,” reads Saanich’s document.

Victoria’s document claims the Citizens’ Assembly members will develop a “set of values” that describe their aspirations for local governance and “a list of issues” which “they believe need to be satisfactorily resolved for municipal amalgamation to be considered.”

Victoria also claims the assembly members would “advise local councillors and their administrations on the conditions under which the [municipalities] should proceed” if the assembly recommends amalgamation.

Coun. Judy Brownoff touched on this difference in expressing concerns about the Victoria material.

“Those types of processes won’t happen until the choice of the voters to move forward,” she said.

The documents also differ in other details.

Victoria’s material suggests (without confirming) the assembly could consist out of 36 randomly selected individuals in citing the Duncan-North Cowichan Citizens’ Assembly. Saanich’s document includes no such reference. This said, the public heard that figure during recent council deliberations.

Councillors last month unanimously approved Saanich’s material after making two minor amendments, but not before commenting on Victoria’s document.

“This is the first time we have diverged a little,” said Coun. Colin Plant, adding he respects Victoria’s decision to deviate from the language that the two respective staffs had mutually agreed upon.

“They [Victoria] have the opportunity to do,” he said. “The statement that we have is a strong statement that I think the public will have the information [to make a decision].”

wolfgang.depner@saanichnews.com

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