Saanich council has agreed to hold off on addressing a possible amalgamation with the City of Victoria until a citizens’ assembly can take place safely in-person.
On March 1, council unanimously approved a staff report with a series of recommendations for moving forward with the citizens’ assembly on amalgamation – including that both Saanich and Victoria agree to wait until pandemic restrictions permit members to meet in person and that the number of participants be reduced to 48.
With current COVID-19 restrictions, an in-person meeting with a large number of members would not be permitted, Mayor Fred Haynes explained. This left council to choose between hosting a virtual citizens’ assembly or waiting until it’s safe to meet in the same room. Staff from both municipalities consulted a Canadian firm with experience running similar assemblies, and they were advised against a virtual citizens’ assembly as it would pose many challenges for participating. Saanich council agreed.
Now, the aim is for the assembly to begin discussing possible amalgamation this fall when, hopefully, most people will be vaccinated against COVID-19, Haynes said.
Council also had a lengthy discussion about changing the number of assembly participants. In January 2020, Saanich endorsed the citizens’ assembly terms of reference which stipulated that the assembly would include 75 members – 43 from Saanich and 32 from Victoria. However, based on the consultant’s advice, district staff recommended that the total number of participants be reduced to 48.
An amendment from Coun. Colin Plant to instead look at 50-60 members was considered, but council eventually agreed to move forward with the recommended 48 – a potential ratio of 27 members from Saanich and 21 from Victoria, Haynes explained.
“We want to go full-steam ahead,” he said, adding that pending the will of Victoria council – which will consider a similar report – the next step will be to obtain approval from the province as well as a $250,000 funding contribution.
Once the province has weighed in, Saanich and Victoria would hire a consultant to provide a technical analysis of both municipalities to inform the citizens’ assembly. The assembly members will eventually come to a conclusion and either recommend the status quo or amalgamating Victoria and Saanich.
The process of establishing a citizens’ assembly began following the 2018 municipal election, when nearly 67 per cent of Victoria voters and 57 per cent of Saanich voters agreed to a non-binding referendum question asking if they were in favour of spending up to $250,000 to establish a citizens’ assembly to explore possible amalgamation.