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Forum on amalgamation attracts healthy turnout

Feb 08 2012

Nearly 200 people showed up at a forum to discuss the amalgamation of councils and services in Greater Victoria Tuesday, thanks to the efforts of a group that formed on Twitter.

Victoria Coun. Shellie Gudgeon, acting independently of her elected role, was joined by the likes of businesspeople Rod Phillips and Tamara Hernandez in organizing the Greater Victoria Amalgamation Conversation at the S. J. Willis Education Centre.

Their intent was to spur debate on a topic that has percolated in the region for years.

Amalgamation also emerged during last November's municipal elections, which saw 126 mayors and councillors chosen in 13 municipalities.

A sampling of Times Colonist readers at the time found that amalgamation was a key issue, with police amalgamation at the forefront.

Greater Victoria, home to 350,000 people, has seven municipal police forces and RCMP detachments. A 2003 poll conducted for the Times Colonist and CHEK News found 53 per cent support for the amalgamation of municipalities and 70 per cent support for establishing a regional police force.

Mat Wright, one of the organizers of Tuesday's forum, said the public session was meant to have all aspects of amalgamation on the table.

"We're coming at it from a very open standpoint," he said.

He said the group's association began last December when Gudgeon brought together people who had been using Twitter to talk about amalgamation. Gudgeon said the impetus was a Times Colonist article that said amalgamation and working together weren't priorities among newly elected mayors.

She said the result is an ad hoc committee that does not lean toward or away from amalgamation.

"We all weighed in and said this would be a great topic to bring up," Wright said. "If we're talking about regionalization of police and transit authority and various other things, maybe it's time to go right back to the basics and talk about overall government."

Tuesday's meeting brought out a number of local politicians, including Gudgeon's council colleagues Geoff Young and Chris Coleman, and Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming. Former Central Saanich mayor Jack Mar was also in the crowd.

Gudgeon said she is hearing that people are eager to find "middle ground" in the debate. "We don't need another polarized us-versus-them."

Peter Ryan, who attended the meeting along with other members of the Esquimalt Residents Association, said he went without having made up his mind about amalgamation. He said Esquimalt is in a unique position in the region.

"We're surrounded, we're small, we're only 17,000 people. We already amalgamated the police, and that has not worked as well as it could. It's not that it's a bad thing, it just needs tweaking to make it better."

Ryan said a lot of things can change through the amalgamation process.

"We can amalgamate police and we can amalgamate fire so we can share resources. That's one of the big things that we do right now. But do we want to amalgamate councils? Do we want to amalgamate mayors?"

Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, who did not attend, said amalgamation was not necessarily the best starting point for discussion.

"Rather than amalgamation we should be looking at ways to share services," said Jensen.

"It's much like we've done with water and sewage and we're planning to do with the transportation initiative, the LRT [light rail transit]. I think that's a much better way to proceed rather than jump right to the idea of amalgamation."

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard had similar comments, saying he favours "integration" of services around the region.

Jensen said amalgamation can lead to a number of challenges.

"Broad amalgamation doesn't necessarily make a community more efficient and easier to govern."

A report from the meeting will be posted on victoriawave.ca.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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