Friday, June 21, 2013

TC Editorial on Amalgamation

This is from June 20th 2013 in the Victoria Times Colonist

Editorial: Let’s get real on amalgamation

 It’s time to stop dabbling around the edges of amalgamation and dive right in. This is not a call to rush into unifying 13 municipal governments into one regional entity by the end of the year, but a plea for research and analysis as the basis for constructive conversation on what to do about the hodgepodge of local governments.

Amalgamation Yes, a group formed to advocate for change in regional governance, held its inaugural meeting last weekend. Let’s hope the group can move the issue forward. We’ve been talking about amalgamation for decades — let’s get serious about asking questions and formulating answers.

What would it cost? What would change and what would stay the same? How would more centralized government balance rural and urban issues? Would the solution be one government, or three, or six?

The subject won’t fade away. Ten years ago, a poll by the Times Colonist and CHEK News found 53 per cent support for amalgamation, a level of support that has probably grown, as newcomers are more likely to view the region as a whole, rather than as a cluster of separate communities.

And as more people encounter the confusing array of municipal borders, varying bylaws and overlapping services, more will ask why Greater Victoria is so fragmented.

Just merge them all together into one entity, right?

Not necessarily. That might look good on the surface, but we should know what issues might lurk beneath.

Looking at a map, it might seem logical simply to erase boundaries, but the map doesn’t tell each community’s story. Langford and Metchosin are next-door neighbours, but not identical twins. Langford is gung ho about growth and development; Metchosin is aggressively rural. Drive from one community to the other, and you’ll quickly sense they have two different personalities. Can they find enough common ground to be governed together?

What do residents of Brentwood Bay have in common with those in Oak Bay? Do the people who live in the forested hills of Highlands really want their concerns to compete with those of downtown Victoria?

Merging municipalities would entail harmonization of collective agreements, which would raise costs. Not every municipality pays the same, and the higher pay scale would undoubtedly prevail.

People fear loss of local control. A community now governed by a mayor and six councillors might have only one representative on a post-amalgamation council. That would likely mean the formation of community advisory councils, which raises the question: Why bother amalgamating?

If the amalgamation proponents want the discussion to be meaningful, they need to address these and other valid issues. People need to be assured they won’t lose more than they will gain.

And that won’t come through speculation or wishful thinking, but by solid research, preferably a study funded and directed by the provincial government so that it can be free of any bias, real or perceived.

Amalgamation is not a magic answer; neither is it a horrible fate to be avoided at all costs. It holds great potential and certain risks — we should work together to determine what those are.

We’ve lived too long with a head-in-the-sand refusal to ask questions. Dispel the myths, crunch the numbers, air the concerns. Whatever the outcome, let it be the result of a serious conversation, backed by intelligent research.

Ultimately, the question should be put on the ballot. Amalgamation should not be imposed, nor should we simply accept the status quo. Give people the information and let them make up their own minds.

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