Monday, March 11, 2013

The Process to Amalgamate Victoria's Municipalities


Amalgamation has been in the local news of late and I have heard too many people say the government could just impose amalgamation or that the Minister could just impose a referendum to create a new amalgamated Greater Victoria municipality.   This is not the process in BC   .I am writing this posting so that people understand the process of what it would take to get amalgamation in Victoria.

BC has a long history no forced amalgamations of local governments.  The last time a forced amalgamation happened in BC was in 1974 by the NDP in the case of Kamloops and Kelowna.  The current government has gone as far as to make it clear in the Community Charter that amalgamations can not be forced by the province.  One result of voluntary amalgamations in BC has been that when amalgamations have happened they have been community supported positive successes , as opposed to the experience in Ontario, Quebec or Nova Scotia.

Here is the run down of the process as it is outlined in the Local Government Restructure Program:
  1. Local governments express an interest in the idea and tells the provincial government they want to consider amalgamation
  2. Local governments create a committee to prepare an amalgamation study.  The committee overseas the preperation of the amalgamation study and conducts public consultation.
  3. Amalgamation study is done – BC government provides all the funding for the study as well as ministry staff to help.
  4. Committee recommends to the Minister if a vote is to go forward on amalgamation or not. Minister provides offer of funds for the newly amalgamated local government.
  5. The vote is held, if it is voted in favour of by a majority in each municipality the province creates the new amalgamated municipality.
What is most important understand here is that there is no formal way for the public or the province to start the process.  Legally in BC it is entirely an issue for local government to start the road to an amalgamated local government.

It also important to understand the fifth step.  The formal vote creating the new municipality has to pass in each of the existing municipalities.  If Saanich, Victoria, Oak Bay, Esquimalt and View Royal were all to be a new proposed municipality the vote would have to pass in all five.  If the vote was 90% in favour in the first four but 51% against in View Royal, the whole thing fails.

Could the province force step five immediately?   In theory they have the power to force a vote on a new municipality that would encompass two or more existing municipalities, but this is unrealistic for a number of reasons:
  • The vote would have to be for a defined new municipality.  This would have been developed by the province without the cooperation of the existing local governments.   The new municipality would have too little buy in to have any chance of success in a vote.
  • Local governments are elected and not including them in a major decision on change to their structure is undemocratic and arrogant.  
  • It goes against existing government policy of not forcing amalgamations.
  • No government or Minister of the Crown is going to burn all their political capital on an approach to the issue that is more or less guaranteed to be a political shit storm.
  • Many MLAs are former municipal councilors so they are unlikely to go out of their way to antagonize their former colleagues.   Municipal councils are also the farm team leagues for provincial politics.   Any party that forced a vote on amalgamation could ruin the chances of them getting a new corp of candidates for future elections.
The government could in theory remove the restriction in the Community Charter that stops the province from forcing amalgamations and not have any vote at all but the reasons above would apply even more so if this were done.

It is also important to remember that local governments are creatures of the provincial Crown and not fully self governing.  Local governments need formal approval of the provincial government to make any change to their structure and this formal role of the Minister leads people to think that the Minister has the right to mess with local governments.  Policy, tradition and precedence make it clear that the Minister is restricted in how far they can interfere with local governments.

So how do we move forward?

Ideal would be if local governments in the CRD would agree to start the process of looking at amalgamation.   All it takes is two or more councils writing to the Ministry and asking for it to happen.   Realistically this is not going to happen because local governments tend to be very resistant to change away from the status quo.   Municipal councilors were elected under the current structure and are much more invested in it than most of the public is.

So how does the public get some say?
  • A petition of enough electors in a municipality that it gives the council the sense that enough people are in favour that they feel the pressure of public will to ask for the process to start.    I think that this number would have to be at least 20% to 30% of the electors in a municipality.  To get the attention of the councils I would aim for 50% of voters.
  • Request that the council hold an advisory referendum on the issue during the next municipal election.   Municipalities can put questions to the public to get their input.   There is little or no cost do to this if it is done at the same time as the next municipal election.   No council should be opposed to this, but I suspect without a strong lobby for putting the question on the ballot it will not happen.
  • Elect a pro-amalgamation council in the next municipal elections.
I think the ideal situation for this region would be for all the local councils to agree to put the following question to the public in November 2014:

"Should the next council seek to move forward with investigating possible amalgamation with one or more other local governments in the CRD?"

It should give us a clear answer if there is an appetite to have amalgamation in this region or not.  If the answer is Yes is I would hope the councils would approach it seriously and try to quickly come up with a new model.  If the answer is No, the time has come for those of us that want amalgamation to accept the will of the people.
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