Would a Halifax-Style Amalgamation Work in Victoria?
Halifax and Victoria have much in common. They are provincial capitals of similar size and both are coastal cities historically associated with the navy and shipbuilding. Unlike Victoria, however, Halifax underwent a government imposed amalgamation some 20 years ago. Although it was not an overwhelmingly popular decision at the time, and certainly costlier than anticipated to implement, amalgamated Halifax today appears to be thriving. It is growing, its economy is booming with a GDP growth second only to Vancouver, its services from police to planning to waste collection are all fully integrated, it is financially healthy and it is rapidly paying off its debt.
Although the topic has been debated for decades in the Capital Region, the Government of British Columbia won’t even contemplate amalgamation unless it is requested by all the municipalities involved. Recently, however, in response to public demand expressed at the last municipal elections, Minister Peter Fassbender has appointed consultants to explore ways of better integrating municipal services and governance in our region. It seems timely, therefore, to compare our governance structure with that of present-day Halifax.
Halifax Region Council comprises 16 councillors, each representing one of 16 districts into which the region is divided, plus a mayor elected at large. Neighbouring districts are grouped together to form 3 Community Councils composed of those councillors representing the 5 or 6 districts involved. It is the Community Councils that receive public input, consider local issues and make recommendations to the Regional Council which then has final authority and accountability on all decisions made and legislation enacted.
Two striking differences from our model of governance are immediately apparent. First, even though Halifax region has the larger population by about 50,000, just 17 elected representatives successfully manage its affairs compared with 91 mayors and councillors governing the various parts of Greater Victoria. Second, ultimate authority and accountability rests with the regional council in Halifax unlike the CRD where Board members are primarily representing their own municipalities rather than the region, as we have seen with the failure of the Board to reach a decision on sewage treatment and the disintegration of integrated services when some municipalities deem their contributions too costly.
Could the Halifax model be transplanted to the Capital Region? Certainly electing a regional mayor and one district councillor to represent one’s locality is an attractive alternative to choosing half a dozen or more councillors from a long list of candidates, sometimes more by name recognition than knowledge of their qualifications. It is arguable that the sheer number of elected officials in this region dilutes the level of fiscal expertise, planning knowledge and management skills available to councils which are often dealing with ‘big city’ rather than ‘small town’ projects and problems.
Moreover, it should not be too difficult to divide the region into 4 or 5 Community Council areas that reflect modern reality rather than irrational municipal boundaries. A possible division is: Westshore (Colwood, Langford, Metchosin, Highlands, Sooke, Juan de Fuca); Victoria West (Vic West, Esquimalt, View Royal, Burnside and Tillicum); Victoria Centre (James Bay,
Downtown, and west of the Moss/Begbie/Shelbourne corridor to McKenzie Avenue); Victoria East (Fairfield east of Moss St., Jubilee east of Shelbourne St., Oak Bay, Gordon Head); Peninsula (north of McKenzie/Blenkinsop/Mount Douglas). If each ‘Community’ were then subdivided into 5 Districts on average, Victoria Regional Council would consist of 25 councillors and an elected mayor, somewhat more than Halifax but a huge reduction in present numbers.
Some neighbourhood associations are concerned they would lose accessibility to local councils under amalgamation. But with each District covering just two or three of those neighbourhoods, they would have direct contact with their district councillor and through him or her to the local Community Council which would take neighbourhood plans and proposals to the Regional Council for a final decision based on a regional perspective.
And Victoria would finally have a mayor to represent us on the national stage where we should be staking our claims alongside other Canadian cities of similar size rather than competing among ourselves.
- John Weaver, August 28, 2016