Election 2014: A-word makes the November ballot

District of Oak Bay: Five municipalities in the Capital Regional District are committed to adding a question on amalgamation

Amalgamation will be on the ballot come Nov. 15.

Oak Bay council deliberated a question, already crafted by Coun. Kevin Murdoch prior to the official council meeting Monday night, and approved asking the population what they think about folding into other municipalities.

“It’s an important question for the region. There has been interest shown by the Angus Reid poll,” said  Murdoch, who first broached the subject and crafted the motion. “If people have an opinion, we shouldn’t be afraid to hear it.”

A staff report to council noted that five municipalities in the Capital Regional District are committed to adding a question on amalgamation of some sort to their ballot: Central Saanich, Esquimalt, Langford, Sidney and Victoria. Those communities adding a question was, in part, a response to the organization Amalgamation Yes that is encouraging all municipalities in the region to put an amalgamation question on the ballot.

“We are pleased that Oak Bay has chosen to join other municipalities to survey community interest on amalgamation with a non-binding ballot question this November. Oak Bay council has shown leadership on this issue and we now look forward to hearing what the views of Oak Bay residents are on a tremendously important regional matter,” said John Vickers spokesperson for AmalgamationYes. “We urge Saanich, Colwood, View Royal, Metchosin, Highlands, North Saanich and Sooke to follow suit and let their citizens join the conversation on amalgamation.”

While the motion to add the non-binding question to the ballot passed unanimously, the discussion surrounding the motion, and concept of asking the question, was primarily negative.

With inconsistent questions across the region, and fewer than half the municipalities asking a question about amalgamation “the data will be inconsistent and skewed,” said Coun. Cairine Green.

What it will provide, Coun. Tara Ney believes, is a gauge of how residents see the community in context of the region. “I view it more like exploratory research,” she said. “It will start a discussion.”

“We don’t have the resources to educate our residents before asking them to answer with a simple yes or no,” Ney said, outlining the roller coaster of emotions council appeared to feel. “It’s about direct democracy.”

They agreed to ask the question: Are you in favour of the District of Oak Bay being amalgamated into a larger regional municipality? With options to answer yes or no. There is no opportunity for preamble, as originally considered, but the question is preceded by a series of whereas in the motion, to outline the intent. Those caveats, however, will not appear on the ballot.

Coun. John Herbert reiterated his concern that “nobody knows what amalgamation means.” And he pointed out again he’d like to see people asked about dissolving Oak Bay.

“I think it highlights the issue people may miss,” he said. “My preference would be to follow Saanich and not ask the question.”

Mayor Nils Jensen noted that good decisions come from good information and good debate. Ensuring the public has good information at this late stage, without looking biased, would be extremely difficult. He too questioned the need to put an amalgamation question on the ballot at all.

“We’ve heard very little desire to do this,” Jensen said.

Another reiterated concern, by council and a resident who spoke during the public presentation portion of the meeting, was where the information might land Oak Bay in the future.

“We have to ensure that whatever the result, it will be non-binding,” Coun. Pam Copley said.

Ney and Copley shared the opinion that asking about amalgamation of municipalities should be a provincial issue but perhaps this would be a step toward that end. “Later we can press the province to take responsibility,” Copley said.

Amalgamation Yes believes a positive result would motivate the province to commission a study to compare various municipal amalgamation models against the status quo and trigger community engagement about how we wish to be governed.

Murdoch said a study could be a necessity later, but not without a clear indication of need from residents.

“Is there a groundswell of support? I’d like to know that.”

Inquiring minds want to know

The average increase in costs to add an opinion question to the municipal election ballot would be minimal if advertising were kept to a small addition to the statutory Notice of Election, according to a staff report prepared by municipal clerk Loranne Hilton. Seeking public opinion on a non-binding question outside of the upcoming general election process would cost in the neighbourhood of $35,000 (the same as the 2014 election budget) if conducted similarly. However, she wrote, there is no specific requirement and council could choose a less extensive process to reduce costs.

WHEREAS in the last year two years a community group has actively promoted the awareness

of amalgamation within Greater Victoria;

WHEREAS that community group has requested a clear question be asked of residents as to their support of amalgamation;

WHEREAS Council may seek community opinion on a question that it believes affects the municipality;

WHEREAS Amalgamation affects the municipality, as by definition amalgamation requires the dissolution of Oak Bay Municipality to have city services and regulations provided through some larger amalgamated local government;

WHEREAS seeking community opinion may inform Council funding and staff resource allocation priorities; and

WHEREAS placing a non-binding opinion question on a local election ballot is considerably less expensive than a stand-alone process,

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the following non-binding opinion question be placed on the November 15, 2014 General Local Election ballot: “Are you in favour of The District of Oak Bay being amalgamated into a larger regional municipality?”