Residents of Victoria and Saanich will not just elect their respective mayor and councillors on Saturday. They will also decide whether their two communities will strike a citizens assembly to study the pros and cons of amalgamation.
So Saturday’s election could be one of, if not the last general municipal election that would feature the City of Victoria and the District of Saanich as separate municipalities.
It is this prospect that looms in the background as voters in both communities face the following question on their respective ballot.
“Are you in favour of spending up to $250,000 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?”
To be clear: the question itself does not ask whether the two communities should amalgamate, a point several speakers including Coun. Colin Plant stressed during Saanich’s sixth and final all-candidates event.
It instead asks residents to approve or reject the creation of a format to study the issue with an open outcome. In short, it could recommend amalgamation, warn against it, or any measure between those two poles.
So the stakes appear high. But if the stakes are high, it is not entirely clear which way voters are leaning.
Shellie Gudgeon, spokesperson for Worth The Study, a third-party group, whose self-stated purpose is to get the “facts” on amalgamation, and president of Amalgamation Yes, a “grass roots movement of residents who seek to reduce the number of municipalities within Greater Victoria, said she is positive about the outcome. “We have worked hard and either way the citizens will have had their say,” she said.
This said, Gudgeon acknowledges “lots of angst amongst electorate”in the absence of reliable polling that makes the outcome difficult to gauge. The educational material for the non-binding referendum also differs across both communities.
Gudgeon, a former Victoria city councillor, expects the referendum will pass in Victoria. “However as Saanich takes on more and more of the regional issues [like the tent city that has moved in and out of Saanich], they may be at a tipping point and see that better governance is critical.”
If the referendum fails in Saanich, it won’t be because of incumbent Mayor Richard Atwell. He has not only asked voters to vote for the citizens’ assembly, but also expressed support for a different governance structure. Two of his rivals — Coun. Fred Haynes and Rob Wickson — have been less explicit, saying only that the pros and cons of amalgamation will emerge out of the assembly, if approved. A fourth mayoral candidate — David Shebib — supports amalgamation, but his voice is unlikely to matter.
The run-up to Saturday’s referendum certainly suggests that opposition to the citizens’ assembly is higher in Saanich than in Victoria.
Coun. Judy Brownoff — who has been on council for 22 years and is running for re-election — voted against approving the question in wondering why the issue appears before voters, pointing to surveys that do not identify regional governance as a major priority.
Coun. Susan Brice, another powerful voice, who is also running for re-election, voted for the question, but warned against the emergence of an all-powerful ‘Metro’ government during the final all-candidates’ forum. Both promised though that they would abide by the outcome.
Among incumbents, only Coun. Karen Harper has openly expressed support for the citizens’ assembly and amalgamation itself. As for non-incumbents, many have chosen a let-us-wait-and-see approach when it comes to amalgamation. But many also expressed concerns that Saanich, despite being the larger community, could end up on the losing end of amalgamation because of Victoria’s debt, environmental concerns and loss of planning control in Saanich’s rural areas.
This said, voices on all sides agree that a no-vote in Saturday’s referendum will take the issue of amalgamation off the table for the foreseeable future.
“If it fails, it will be at least a decade before it is reconsidered,” said Gudgeon.