What is on the horizon for the proposed amalgamation of Saanich and Victoria? That is the looming question after voters in Duncan rejected amalgamation with North Cowichan. Wolf Depner/News Staff

Saanich to test public support for future amalgamation talks

A referendum this fall will ask residents whether they support the creation of a regional forum that will study the pros and cons of amalgamation.

The referendum will not ask residents whether they support amalgamation itself — merely test public support for a citizens’ assembly to study the issue.

But the wording of the question approved Tuesday currently leaves out a crucial detail — the cost of such a forum.

However, the pending addition of the figure to the question will cause the referendum to fail, says Shellie Gudgeon, a former Victoria councillor and currently the chair of Amalgamation Yes.

“Very disappointed,” she said, when asked about an estimated cost being included in the question. “It [the referendum] is destined to fail unless there is a massive effort launched to inform the public that this is tiny fraction of their respective budgets,” she said. “The cost of this effort is negligible but it will not appear so to the public concerned about their taxes.”

Saanich and Victoria councils drafted the question at their historic meeting Tuesday, approving the following words for a referendum this fall: “Are you in favour of spending [an amount to be determined] 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?”

Saanich council approved the wording by a margin of 7-2 with Couns. Judy Brownoff and Vicki Sanders opposed. Victoria approved the motion by a vote of 8-1 with Coun. Ben Isitt opposed.

This wording include a small but crucial change to the wording that Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell and City of Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps had previouslyl drafted. It read as follows: “Are you in favour of establishing a Citizens’ Assembly to explore the costs, benefits and disadvantages of the amalgamation between the District of Saanich and the City of Victoria?”

The newest version — which still remains subject to public input and final ratification — links the referendum with a yet-to-be-determined cost.

Gudgeon predicts that the referendum will fail in Saanich, but pass in Victoria.

“Politics 101 – you want something to fail, talk money,” she said.

The revised wording in turn marks a victory for critics of the process, who have questioned its rationale and costs, because they will now be able to link the referendum with a figure.

Brownoff, for example, has consistently questioned the legitimacy of the process. She said last month that 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.

Opportunities for participating in a referendum may only come around once in a decade, Atwell said.

“I encourage people of all ages who are eligible to vote to vote to have their say on the ballot question,” he added.

Atwell also acknowledged the revised wording could change the dynamic of the vote.

“The changed wording will no doubt invigorate the debate and that is healthy,” he said. Coun. Colin Plant said the new wording is going to give residents greater clarity about the costs of a citizens’ assembly.

“While I would have preferred to see it included in the [educational and informational material] provided to residents, I respect the will of the majority of council that wanted it in the referendum question itself,” he said.

Estimates of what a citizens’ assembly might cost vary, and the most recent citizens’ assembly on amalgamation is likely unreliable.

The citizens’ assembly that had preceded the failed amalgamation vote in Duncan and North Cowichan had a total price tag of $145,000, with the two municipalities responsible for just under $96,000.

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) — the unstated implication being that a citizens’ assembly looking into the potential amalgamation of Saanich and Victoria could cost six times as much.

Yet supporters of amalgamation have noted that the Duncan-North Cowichan process offers some, but not complete guidance.

This uncertainty, coupled with questions about the level of provincial support for a future citizens’ assembly, looms in the background as staff try to attach a figure to any future citizens’ assembly.

“The amount [at this stage] is likely to be a guesstimate and staff will report their findings back to council,” said Atwell.

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