Voters will have their say on amalgamation

Saturday's municipal election will see the question of amalgamation put to voters in eight of the 13 Greater Victoria municipalities

This is what a sign could look like at Swartz Bay if it were to note all of Greater Victoria’s 13 municipalities.

Thanks to the efforts of a citizen group, amalgamation is on the ballot in eight of the 13 municipalities in the Capital Region.

“We have no position on amalgamation. We’re just trying to take it to the next level rather than have local innuendo about why it’s such a bad thing,” said John Vickers, spokesperson for the Amalgamation Yes group that sought the non-binding referendum questions. “We’re simply trying to have a formal provincially run study to examine ways as to what level of amalgamation might be best for the region. If we can’t have a study … how can we ever even get to talk about it?”

In Oak Bay, Coun. John Herbert is well-known for saying no one even knows what amalgamation means. Yet all of Oak Bay council reluctantly agreed to join the ranks of seven other municipalities to ask their residents about amalgamation this municipal election. Here the ballots will ask: Are you in favour of The District of Oak Bay being amalgamated into a larger regional municipality?

“Are you OK for the whale to swallow you? That’s going to get a resounding ‘no’,” said Dr. Janni Aragon, assistant teaching professor at the department of political science at the University of Victoria. “The fear is probably a loss in the quality of services and a fear in the loss of autonomy because Oak Bay is a hamlet.”

Incumbent mayoral candidate Nils Jensen sees the question as straight-shooting.

“We wanted to be very direct with our residents, when you look around the other questions in the region they’re very fuzzy,” Jensen said. “We wanted to take it on much more straight forward so people knew what they were getting into.”

Vickers says Amalgamation Yes is less than happy with the Oak Bay wording.

“We’re a little disappointed with the way it was presented. We have some work to do to make sure people know what the real message is and hope we’ll have a positive result,” Vickers said. “Any community that has a question is better than a community that doesn’t. My real beef has to do with to be so against it, without any opportunity for engagement. It gets very frustrating.”

The public must show they want to pursue a study because the province can’t demand amalgamation.

“The best we can do is … send a clear indication that we’d like to have a formal regional study, then have it come back for a binding question,” Vickers said.

Odds are whoever fills the seat the retiring Herbert leaves behind will agree with his perspective as only one councillor candidate and one mayoral candidate have shown interest in researching amalgamation.

David Shebib, a Saanich resident running for the mayor’s seat in all 13 municipalities of the CRD, is a proponent. Beyond that, his ideas include declaring autonomy from government.

“One just has to think whole body theory,” he said. “There is nothing dumber than the 13 divisions. The Highland(s) only has 2,200 people and has its own city hall. This is the waste of affluence and no longer, or never was, necessary.”

In a follow-up phone call to the Oak Bay News he stated: “I am totally opposed to amalgamation. I need the salary and I just can’t afford to drop any of the 13 salaries which I’m hoping to garner from a win in this election.”

Jensen clearly takes the hardest line opposing amalgamation, but supporting integrated services.

“I think that our experience is that larger bureaucracies tend to be more inefficient. We have a very efficient municipality here,” Jensen said. “More importantly it would really affect the character of Oak Bay. Right now our stringent bylaws in terms of street scopes [etc.]  protect the character of Oak Bay. Those bylaws would be standardized across a larger city.”

In other words, fear of loss of autonomy in the small municipality, as Aragon said.

“There are so many elected officials for a small population, but people don’t want to change the look and feel of Victoria,” Aragon said. “I think if it’s done right, there could be some efficiencies and centralization of services… and the people need to have a say. It needs to be democratic.”

Though non-supportive of amalgamation in general, mayoral candidate Cairine Green agrees a study is needed.

“It will be the residents and taxpayers of the region that will make the decision once they’re well informed, and I don’t think they’re well informed right now,” Green said. “It will be the residents across the region who will decide this issue. It won’t be the politicians. … I don’t think amalgamation is a panacea, but I do think it requires study by the province.”

 

cvanreeuwyk@oakbaynews.com