Voters in both North Cowichan and Duncan rejected amalgamating the two communities in a referendum on the issue that was held on June 23.
Votes were 3,051 for to 2,140 against in North Cowichan and 835 against to 395 for in Duncan in the long-anticipated referendum, but in order for a single new municipality to be created, at least 50 per cent of the votes in both municipalities were needed to favour amalgamation.
As part of the municipal elections in 2014, both Duncan and North Cowichan councils agreed to include on the ballot a non-binding opinion question in regards to exploring the costs and benefits of amalgamating the two municipalities.
In North Cowichan, 68 per cent of those casting ballots voted in favour of conducting an amalgamation study, and in Duncan, 52 per cent of voters were also in favour.
Amalgamation of the two communities was recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly, a group of 36 citizens from both municipalities, that were randomly chosen to study the concept, in the spring of 2017 after a lengthy review.
Assembly members concluded that a unified municipality would be better able to manage future growth, afford quality public services and infrastructure, and attract outside investment.
The assembly also reported that its members felt that residents would benefit from a more coordinated approach to local governance and planning.
But assembly members also indicated that their research concluded that the cost-savings to taxpayers from amalgamation would be “negligible”.
As the referendum approached, two groups formed, one advocating for the “yes” side to amalgamation and the other the “no” side, last spring.
The Cowichan Pro-Amalgamation group, led by Patrick Hrushowy, had the view that both communities would benefit from amalgamation and set up a website, Facebook page and placed radio and newspaper ads encouraging voters to vote ‘Yes’.
The Cowichan No-Amalgamation group, spearheaded by former Duncan city councillor Sharon Jackson, also began an information campaign and said that it was predicted that the true cost of amalgamation would be approximately $22 million.
The CNA group said that this was much more than the $11 million that the province had agreed to give to help with the costs of joining the two communities together.
In the days leading up to the referendum on June 23, former Duncan Mayor Phil Kent also came out against amalgamation.
In a letter, Kent said he applauded the work of the Citizen’s Assembly and that he has always believed that a community should be developed and driven by its stakeholders.
“But what has been missed in this process, unfortunately, is the ability of the Citizens’ Assembly to fully explore the opportunities to reflect on the community as it exists today; to consider the realities of an increasingly complex society, and the ability to respond to the needs and services required to become resilient in a fast paced and ever-changing environment,” Kent said.
“I believe that a much deeper conversation was needed to follow the Assembly’s work to determine what we hope to collectively accomplish and to identify both our goals and aspirations. Without a deeper more inclusive dialogue on the objectives, I cannot support the amalgamation.”
Jon Lefebure, the former mayor of North Cowichan, never stated his preference before the referendum and continued to remain mum after the vote.
But in the aftermath of the referendum, Lefebure said it’s now time to “buckle down” and do the work that the citizens of both communities want and expect their local governments to do.
“We’ll continue to work together, build on our relationship and increase cooperation side-by-side as we work on our common interests,” he said.
Lefebure said he thought the referendum was likely the last the Cowichan Valley will hear of amalgamating Duncan and North Cowichan for some time.
But he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the issue arose again in the future.
“There are good reasons to consider amalgamation, and those reasons will still be there in the future,” he said.
“Other issues may come up as well. But I don’t see an appetite for another referendum for awhile so we’ll continue to work together and be good partners for each other.”