As urban areas grow, they typically do so within the confines of decades old or centuries old municipal boundaries and structures. Towns, villages and cities grow up to the edges of one another, cities sometimes sweep around bedroom community suburbs, and the result is something that says a lot about history but can be a confusing mishmash for elected officials, administrators and citizens.
A case in point is the Greater Victoria urban area on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The area that most people just call Victoria is in fact a collection of 13 municipalities and three ‘electoral areas.’ At the core lies the City of Victoria (the capital of British Columbia) itself, surrounded by other urban extensions like Oak Bay, Saanich and Esquimalt as well as further-flung ‘rurban’ communities. The municipalities participate in a regional governance entity called Capital Regional District (CRD).
Yet even with the CRD partnership umbrella, people wonder about the oddities of a disjointed urban area and debate the advantages and disadvantages of more formal amalgamation. Recently, a citizen-led group called Amalgamation Yes was formed to push the discussion onto the open public agenda. We recently caught up with one of the group’s founders, Susan Jones, for a Q&A session.
Here in Greater Victoria, services and infrastructure are currently laid out in accordance with political boundaries, rather than need. This includes important emergency services. For example, in the northern tip of Oak Bay, the nearest Fire Hall is in Saanich, on MacKenzie Ave near the University of Victoria. If these two municipalities amalgamated, residents on both sides of the political boundary could take advantage of the same services. 9-1-1 dispatch times could also be improved, as they wouldn’t have to establish which fire hall is in your municipality, only which one is closest to you. Larger cities have ‘3-1-1’ programs, where you call one number and can access all of the services you need. Instead of calling each department separately if you have issues with garbage collection, bylaw enforcement, or your local park, you just call 3-1-1 and they solve the problem for you.
A second reason is to promote better transportation planning and mass transit. Stuck in the Colwood crawl? Ferry traffic messing up your commute to Sidney? There is currently little integrated regional transit planning and less funding to make any plans happen. Amalgamated municipalities with large residential and business tax bases would feel the pressure and have the capacity to get goods and people moving more efficiently. Bike lanes which currently are inconsistently rolled out between municipalities would be better planned and connected, making commutes safer for riders and drivers alike.
Third, we want to leave the best possible local governance model to the next generation. For a moment lets look forward 10, 20, 50 years and imagine if we have the current system of 13 municipalities (possibly more?) and the Central Regional District, what kind of community we will be a part of? Will it be efficient? Will it be effective? We have demonstrated just in the past two years the issues we cannot resolve: policing, transportation and sewage. We need a governing system that can evolve, that can sustain 50 years from now; forward thinking, innovative, even visionary local government that has the capacity to sustain a strong local economy, the best parks and environmental planning, and is able to tap into the potential of our local assets (including our colleges and university).
Each municipality makes their own Official Community Plan, and in theory these comply with the CRD’s Regional Growth Strategy but the approach is piecemeal, consisting of “let’s make a deal” planning on a number of issues. Is this the best possible Victoria we can have for our lifetimes, for our children and grand-children’s lifetimes?
We can work together, we can solve our challenges, but today the 13 municipality system prevents us from doing so.
2. When you talk to opponents of amalgamation, what reasons do they give for their opposition or hesitation?
Amalgamations in Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario are often held up as the reason we should not amalgamate. Those amalgamations were forced, costly and some communities that were swept up feel they have poorer services, deeper debt and higher taxes. Our Amalgamation is not their amalgamation. How we amalgamate is up to us — how we are governed, by who, and what procedures and policies. It is ours to create and this ability to create our own is enshrined in the BC Community Charter and the Elections Act.
3. What’s the history of “Amalgamation Yes” in Greater Victoria?
Prior to the 2011 Municipal Election, some candidates for Council in various municipalities had indicated that they would make Amalgamation a priority if they were placed in office. After the election and 6 months into the job of being ‘the peoples voice’, The Times Colonist reported on ‘top priorities’ of some of the 13 Mayor’s & 76 councillors, not one noted amalgamation. I tweeted this point and my disappointment.
Elected City of Victoria Councillor Shellie Gudgeon tweeted back ‘lets go for coffee’. We met and decided to host a community event around the issue of Amalgamation. Shellie very generously footed the bill for the room rental, food, flip chart paper, markers, all the tools needed to have a great community engagement event. With one small ad in the Times Colonist and the weekly paper, Vic News, 150 people showed up to our meeting, Shellie and I were stunned. A number of people from that gathering formed an informal group, we held another community event, another large gathering ensued. It was clear that people were wanting to talk about Amalgamation, to explore it as an option to our current system of governance.
This isn’t new. Amalgamation has been a topic of discussion for over 40 years, but how could we move it further than it had been in the past? Unknown to us at the time, other groups like ours were meeting in coffee shops and borrowed offices. Shellie reached out to them, amalgamating the amalgamate-rs. One of the groups was headed up by John Vickers, who is now our Vice President and official spokesperson. Today we are a registered society with 12 board members and over 100 volunteers and deep community support.
What is different now than previous efforts? We are striving for community engagement, and in-depth studies on what would be the best form moving forward. To support and provide confidence to Mayor’s, Council and the Provincial Government in moving forward with Amalgamation exploration we are asking that a non-binding question be placed on the ballot of the 2014 Municipal Election so that the people can democratically demonstrate their will. That’s the difference from previous efforts, community engagement and a non-binding question on the ballot.
4. The current “Amalgamation Yes” initiative in Greater Victoria started as a citizens’ initiative. Is that important to you? Do you think a grass roots initiative has a greater chance of success than one led by a political body?
If a political body were leading this charge, fostering community engagement and putting the will of the people first and foremost I personally would have jumped on their bandwagon at the get-go. The catalyst for our group was a City Councillor, an elected official. To take a page from that City Councillor, Shellie Gudgeon, ‘we are stronger working together’ and she is right. We’ve had many elected officials encourage us and we in turn encourage them. The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce has a policy statement on their website regarding Amalgamation – they are advocating on behalf of their business membership for a forced Amalgamation. Our research indicates the most successful amalgamations are those that were not forced, but we regularly have discussions and update them on our efforts. We wish to work with all Chambers, individuals, business owners, organizations, political parties and elected municipal officials to move forward, with our community, to achieve accountable, cost effective governance in our region that reflects the will of the people.
5. In a larger, amalgamated city, how do you go about ensuring that citizens still have local influence over their neighbourhoods and communities?
Amalgamation can be any form we choose, we can look to several cities and their amalgamation, adopt best practises, we can look to those communities who wish theirs was different and learn from them. Amalgamation in our region is not defined, it could be 6, 3 or one city, it could include the CRD in its current form, or, some other form or not exist at all. This is the exciting aspect of where we are headed, it is up to us to decide. We have to get that first non-binding question on the 2014 ballot and we have to have a strong voter turnout and a stronger ‘Yes’ before we can move forward.
6. What are the next steps and how can citizens in Greater Victoria get involved?
You can sign the petition in person Wednesday or Saturday afternoons at our Amalgamation Yes Information Centre 577 Pembroke St. Victoria BC, or you can sign online at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/amalgamationyes/
If you would like further information please email firstname.lastname@example.org