In November 2014 the City of Victoria, along with many others in the region, put a question on the election ballot asking residents about amalgamation. Victoria asked, “Are you in favour of reducing the number of municipalities in Greater Victoria through amalgamation?” The overwhelming response was “Yes.”
After the election we waited for the provincial government to take some kind of action. It was a long time coming; it resulted in a study and report that looked at the current state of regional services. Nothing on amalgamation.
Interestingly, it was the District of Saanich’s citizen-led governance review that has moved us a little bit closer towards an actual exploration of the topic, at least for their municipality and ours. The citizen panel recommended that Saanich invite all willing municipalities to participate in a provincially-funded citizens assembly on amalgamation. So far, only Victoria has expressed an interest.
A citizens assembly brings together a randomly selected group of people in a process facilitated by a neutral “process expert” to explore a difficult topic. Duncan and North Cowichan recently convened one to explore the costs and benefits of amalgamation. A citizens assembly process in Victoria and Saanich is a good way to address the advantages and disadvantages of amalgamation.
Citizens assemblies are a good way to work together in a deep and meaningful way. Peter McLeod, the consultant who led the Duncan-North Cowichan process said, “The problem isn’t that we ask too much of people, it’s that we ask too little.” A citizens assembly that explores the costs, advantages and disadvantages of the amalgamation of Victoria and Saanich will create a genuine opportunity to harness the intelligence, energy and goodwill of the community.
But it will do more than this. The larger benefit of a citizens assembly is that while it will contribute to settling the amalgamation question – at least between Saanich and Victoria – it will also give us a new tool for citizens and governments to work together to solve complex problems in an efficient and effective way; these processes never last more than a year at the very most.
Finally, a citizens assembly is an chance to practice more civil public dialogue when discussing heated issues. It’s a true opportunity for deliberation. It requires listening to other points of view, putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. A citizens assembly is an opportunity to remind ourselves as a community that compromise does not mean capitulation and that changing one’s mind after listening to another perspective is not a sign of weakness.
The next step in the process is for Saanich and Victoria to meet together and determine a clear ballot question that will be asked by both on Oct. 20. My hope is that we’ll get an overwhelming “Yes” and that the citizens of our two communities can begin a rich, deliberative, thoughtful process and make some recommendations on the topic of the amalgamation of Victoria and Saanich, one way or another.
Lisa Helps is Mayor of the City of Victoria.