Saanich councillor says amalgamation motion has ‘failed’

Coun. Judy Brownoff wonders whether amalgamation is high on the agenda of Saanich residents.

Coun. Judy Brownoff wonders whether amalgamation is high on the agenda of Saanich residents.

A Saanich councillor has questioned ongoing amalgamation talks with the City of Victoria over the issue of funding.

Coun. Judy Brownoff said a unanimous council motion passed on Jan. 8 has “failed” because the provincial government has yet to “establish and fund” a citizens’ assembly on amalgamation with interested municipalities.

Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, told Saanich and Victoria earlier this year that the provincial government would cover one-third of the costs of convening a citizens’ assembly on the basis of its previous support for the citizens’ assembly that has proposed the amalgamation of Duncan-North Cowichan.

It had a total price tag of $145,000, with the two municipalities responsible for just under $96,000.

It is not clear how much a citizens’ assembly looking into the amalgamation of Saanich and Victoria would cost. Critics have pointed out that Saanich (114,148) and Victoria (85,792) have a combined population (199,940) that is roughly six times higher than the populations of North Cowichan (29,676) and Duncan (4,944) combined (34,620). So the Duncan-North Cowichan process offers some, but not complete guidance, about the costs of a future citizens’ assembly.

While any future Saanich-Victoria citizens’ assembly would likely not cost six times as much as the Duncan-North Cowichan citizens’ assembly, it would undoubtedly be more expensive, because the issues facing Saanich and Victoria likely require more lengthy analysis by virtue of their higher complexities, when compared to Duncan-North Cowichan.

For Brownoff though, the issue goes beyond any specific figures. She wants the province to cover 100 per cent of any future costs, something it has not said yet that it would do.

She also wondered whether Saanich residents truly care about the issue of amalgamation.

Brownoff is not the only voice who has called on the provincial government to pay for the full fare of a future citizens’ assembly.

Amalgamation Yes, a pro-amalgation group, has also called on the provincial government to fully fund a future citizens’ assembly.

This discussion is taking place as Saanich and Victoria council prepare to hold a joint session on June 26 to develop a question that would test public support for future amalgamation talks, not amalgamation itself, when voters head to the polls during the municipal election Oct. 20.

Brownoff said no draft language around a potential question exists yet. “I expect to hear from Saanich residents first,” she said. Ultimately, support for amalgamation is up to the voters of Saanich, she said.

During the 2014 municipal election, almost nine out of 10 voters answered the following non-binding question in the affirmative: “Do you support Council initiating a community-based review of the governance structure and policies within Saanich and our partnerships within the Region?”

While that outcome triggered a governance review, whose final report calls for the establishment of a citizens’ assembly on amalgamation with interested municipalities, the public has also heard from voices, who have questioned whether the 2014 referendum outcome amounts to an endorsement of amalgamation, especially in light of the question (which does not mention amalgamation) and relatively low turnout.

Even the committee that had produced the recommendation acknowledged uncertainty around the level of support for amalgamation. “There wasn’t consensus on the [committee] about whether Saanich should pursue an amalgamation of some kind,” it read.

“However, there does seem to be a consensus that discussion on this topic shouldn’t be shied away from. We feel this is probably consistent with the views of the general population of Saanich, based on our consultations and community feedback.”