Presentation to the Committee of the Whole - May 23, 2017, 6pm
Peter MacLeod, Chair, Duncan-North Cowichan Citizens' Assembly
Your worships, members of Council, I'm pleased to join you this evening on the traditional territory of the Coast Salish and Cowichan Peoples to present to you the report and recommendations of the Duncan-North Cowichan Citizens' Assembly on Municipal Amalgamation.
In my time, I hope to provide you with an overview of our process and deliberations, as well as to introduce our recommendations. I will then invite two representatives of the Citizens' Assembly, Mona Kaiser and Richard Matthews, to share their perspectives.
I also want to call attention to the many members of the Citizens' Assembly who are here this evening, and to begin by acknowledging their diligence and generosity. Serving on the Assembly was no easy task. Each member contributed at least fifty hours of time and cumulatively, they invested some 1800 hours at your behest to work on behalf of all Duncan and North Cowichan residents. Regardless of your views of their recommendation, I hope you will agree that their public service is a very commendable demonstration of the contribution citizens can make to creating a stronger and more vibrant local democracy.
As you will recall my firm was awarded a competitive contract to design and chair the Citizens' Assembly. In this capacity, I am to remain impartial and above all, to ensure the integrity of the Assembly process. My role this evening is not to advocate for the Assembly's recommendations, but as the Assembly's spokesperson to the convey to the best of my ability their views and preferences.
I should also point out that you are receiving two reports tonight and I believe they deserve equal scrutiny. The Citizens' Assembly report documents our process and, in their own words, the Assembly's recommendations. The technical report prepared by Urban Systems of Victoria provides detailed information concerning their analysis of the two municipalities and the implications of amalgamation.
Like each of the Assembly members, I have closely read and considered the contents of the technical report. However, any questions concerning its contents — and specifically local taxation and service integration — should be directed to the very capable team which authored the report, led by Dan Huang.
As you are aware, the Citizens’ Assembly was comprised of thirty-six members who were randomly selected following a civic lottery. 10,000 invitation packages were mailed to randomly selected households in December 2016. 144 recipients volunteered to serve and, as you will see on page 10 of the report, we were able to fully satisfy our demographic criteria — ensuring that the Assembly was broadly representative of the two communities.
Together members of the Assembly were asked to learn about the needs and interests of residents; examine the implications of creating a new, amalgamated municipal structure; and advise local Councillors and their administrations on the conditions under which the municipalities should proceed.
Specifically, the Citizens’ Assembly was asked to develop:
- A set of values which describe their aspirations for good local governance;
- A list of issues which they believe need to be satisfactorily resolved for municipal amalgamation to merit consideration; and
- A detailed recommendation concerning municipal amalgamation, including any conditions to be satisfied if a merger was to proceed.
To assist the members in their work, my team developed a curriculum which provided an orientation first to municipal government, then to the factors relevant to amalgamation, and lastly to the perspectives of various stakeholders and service providers.
In all, 22 guests spoke with or made presentations to the Assembly, a list of which can be found on page 9.
The Assembly met over six Saturdays beginning January 21st.
These were very full days — running from 9 until 4, usually with no more than a thirty minute break at lunch. We spent our time in plenary and small group discussions and broadly speaking, the time was divided evenly between receiving presentations — and energetically questioning the presenters — and conducting our deliberations.
Following our third session in February, the Assembly took a month-long recess while the technical team at Urban Systems prepared their report. The Assembly reconvened in April to receive this report and ask further questions of the analysts. Our deliberations concluded following our sixth meeting on April 22nd.
The Assembly also hosted two public roundtable meetings which any local resident could attend, and we were gratified that more than 140 people chose to do so. Summaries of these public sessions can be found in the Appendix of the report.
I should also point out that, Gus Williams, a member of the Assembly and I, at the direction of the Assembly, also contacted seven local First Nations and we were able to meet with three of them. We saw this as an important gesture of respect and we were especially grateful that Maureen Tommy and Chief William Seymour from Cowichan Tribes accepted our invitation to speak to the Assembly.
Before evaluating the case for amalgamation, it was important that the Assembly could define its vision for municipal government. To do so, it settled on six values:
- Efficiency and cost-effectiveness
- Quality services and infrastructure
- Public engagement
- Environmental stewardship
- Accessibility, Approachability and Accountability
The Assembly also identified eight issues or lenses through which to examine the case for amalgamation.
- Consistency of services
- Governance and leadership
- Economic development
- Culture and identity
- Land use and planning
- Efficiencies and savings
Lastly, the Assembly considered 11 questions:
- Would amalgamation be more financially viable than the status quo?
- How would amalgamation impact residential and business taxes?
- How would it affect zoning and bylaws?
- How would it change the public and protective services that residents receive?
- Would amalgamation change or dilute the identity of local communities, and how might a shared identity strengthen perceptions of the area?
- What might be the consequences of not amalgamating?
- How does it stack up against other options, including closer service integration and boundary changes?
- How could it affect environmental policies and change the focus of both municipalities’ Official Community Plans?
- How would it affect the local economy? Could it lead to more and better jobs?
- Would it affect relations with local First Nations?
- And what might the process, costs, and potential savings of amalgamation look like?
As we learned, some of these questions are difficult if not impossible to answer. Regardless of any promises made today, future councils — whether amalgamated or not — can take actions to increase or lower taxes, or strengthen or weaken competitiveness or the quality of services and infrastructure.
The Assembly also understands that amalgamation is no panacea — in either financial or political terms.
As the financial analysis bears out, there is unlikely to be significant savings which amalgamation alone can unlock. Conversely, the cost of amalgamation is itself manageable and is unlikely to significantly increase costs for local ratepayers and businesses.
Similarly, a combined council might have fewer elected representatives, but its size would still be consistent with other comparable municipalities that function very well. Whether amalgamated or not, future councils could still be more or less productive or more or less collegial.
Ultimately, then the decision to amalgamate is a question of judgement. The real question is whether the two communities want to make decisions about their future together.
And here, as you will know from the report, the Assembly reached consensus and endorsed amalgamation.
They believe that the two jurisdictions will be better able to manage future growth, afford quality public services and infrastructure, and attract outside investment as a unified municipality.
Having considered three options: First, maintaining two municipal governments, second, amalgamation, and third, closer service integration either directly or through the CVRD, they sought to endorse amalgamation and the creation of a single elected Council, the harmonizing of regulations and bylaws across the two municipalities, and the development of a new Official Commmunity Plan that would better rationalize land-use across the two jurisdictions, while still protecting and celebrating its many distinct communities as North Cowichan does today.
The Assembly is mindful that their recommendation carries significant implications; that this is a major undertaking, and that it may also spark controversy. Nevertheless, they believe the time has come and that Duncan and North Cowichan will be stronger together.
As you know, the Assembly recommendation is just that: a recommendation. It now falls to both Councils to reach its own determination. Should you decide to endorse the Assembly's recommendation, provincial legislation requires a public referendum to affirm the decision.
The Assembly includes in its report as series of steps and commitments that it hopes could help guide this process.
Specifically, they call on both Councils to establish a joint amalgamation working group to develop a clear proposal for amalgamation prior to a referendum.
They believe this is critical, so that all voters have the benefit of voting on a clear proposal and that appropriate resources are committed to ensuring that the voting public is well-informed.
This working group would:
- Consider whether an amalgamated municipality should adopt an at-large or mixed-ward system;
- Develop a multi-year transition plan to ensure equitable residential and commercial tax rates; and
- Develop universal standard of service that would apply across the proposed amalgamated municipality.
It would also:
- Propose a clear and concise referendum question that is identical in both municipalities;
- Determine whether a simple majority or a higher threshold should be met, and ensure that the same threshold applies in both municipalities;
- Ensure that the referendum occurs in conjunction with the next municipal election; and
- Allocate sufficient funds to develop a referendum communications plan to ensure that residents are well-informed. Specifically they ask that a summary of the Citizens’ Assembly and Technical Reports, as well as a clear accounting of any anticipated financial impacts, be sent to all area households.
Finally, should amalgamation proceed, the Assembly calls on its first Council to:
- Harmonize zoning regulations and develop a new official community plan and local area plans to designate and invest in the municipality’s unique features, strengthen environmental stewardship, and promote a more coordinated approach to economic and social development;
- Harmonize bylaws to ensure consistency for local businesses and industry;
- Retain independent consultants to identify staffing redundancies and inefficiencies;
- Continue to build and strengthen a respectful and cooperative relationship with local Indigenous communities; and
Work to foster a strong sense of civic responsibility and community through information campaigns that include mechanisms for on-going feedback and dialogue.
Lastly, I know I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity on behalf of the Assembly members themselves to thank both Councils for entrusting them with the responsibility to examine this important issue. It gave many of them a much stronger appreciation for the complexity of public policy decisions, and the hard work and professionalism of elected officials and public servants alike.
To that end, I also want to personally acknowledge the professionalism and support I received from senior staff from both North Cowichan and Duncan, and specifically thank Talitha Soldera for her assistance throughout our proceedings.
I will of course be happy to answer your questions, but I would now like to invite Assembly members Mona Kaiser and Richard Matthews to say a few words.