Province wants answers before giving nod to amalgamation referendum between the City of Duncan, seen in this aerial view, and the Municipality of North Cowichan.

April referendum may have been overly optimistic

Amalgamation proposal for City of Duncan and North Cowichan runs into red tape

I sometimes wonder how local governments get anything accomplished at all.

There always seems to be so much red tape and bureaucracy involved in even the simplest of decisions that I’m amazed garbage is collected regularly and water runs from my taps.

It gets even more convoluted when two municipalities must work together to achieve a goal; such as the amalgamation of the City of Duncan and the Municipality of North Cowichan.

Both of these communities have been toying with the idea for years, held a non-binding referendum on whether they were going to study the issue in 2014, formed a 36-member Citizens’ Assembly to study its implications, and countless staff and independent reports have been tabled on the issue.

But there is still a lot of work to be done to fine-tune the details, despite the fact both Duncan and North Cowichan have targeted sometime in early April, 2018, as the preferred date to hold the long-anticipated referendum on amalgamation.

That’s why I always felt that holding the vote so soon — just about four months from now — is probably overly optimistic.

Now that another government, the province, has decided to weigh in with its concerns and demands, I expect that I’m probably right.

As part of the process, the province must give approval to the amalgamation referendum for it to proceed.

But both Duncan and North Cowichan received a letter from B.C.’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson just before Christmas stating there are a number of steps they must complete before she can approve the referendum.

They include a better sense of costs and resources that would be available during the transition to a single municipality, more information on how Duncan and North Cowichan would operate in the time between the referendum and the actual amalgamation (if approved), and a framework on how the new inaugural single council would be developed during the transition period.

North Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure told me at the time that both municipalities had hoped they had already answered those questions to the ministry’s satisfaction.

He said they were optimistic Robinson’s letter would simply state what funding the government would provide to assist with the referendum and the amalgamation process, if amalgamation is approved.

So now, on top of the Herculean task of trying to bring many issues together and tying up lots of loose ends between the two municipalities before an anticipated April vote, planners also have to work with a nit-picking new government that seems to want to study and overanalyze all aspects of the issue before considering giving its approval.

It’s not like this is something that has never been attempted and successfully accomplished before in B.C.

The districts of Matsqui and Abbotsford amalgamated in 1995, and I’m sure there are other examples as well.

The template for successful amalgamations is there for all to see and study and I would recommend that the governments involved with this referendum look at them closely, as I’m sure they probably are.

It really shouldn’t take long for staff in both Duncan and North Cowichan to examine these cases and determine how the concerned municipalities were governed during the transition period, and the lessons learned, to best answer the minister’s questions.

Lefebure said he hoped staff would draft a letter to the minister soon after Christmas to try and answer questions.

But the bureaucratic wheels of government tend to turn slowly so it’s anyone’s guess when the letter will be responded to.

In the meantime, staff and volunteers in both Duncan and North Cowichan are burning the midnight oil in anticipation of holding the referendum this spring.

We’ll have to wait and see if the province will allow it to proceed.

Robert Barron is a reporter with the Cowichan Valley Citizen. He can be reached at Robert.Barron@cowichanvalleycitizen.com.

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