CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY REPORT

About the Citizens’ Assembly

The Citizens’ Assembly was made up of 36 randomly selected residents from Duncan and North Cowichan and its members spent over 50 hours hearing reports from municipal employees, stakeholders and the general public. The Citizens’ Assembly delivered their Final Report in May 2017.

What did the Citizens’ Assembly consider?

The Citizens’ Assembly was tasked by the City of Duncan and the Municipality of North Cowichan to learn about the needs and interests of local 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 on Municipal Amalgamation developed:

  • A set of values which described their aspirations for good local governance;
  • A list of issues which they believed needed to be satisfactorily resolved for municipal amalgamation to merit consideration; and,

A detailed recommendation concerning municipal amalgamation, including any conditions which they believed needed to be satisfied if a reunification of the two municipalities was to proceed.

What were the findings of the Citizens’ Assembly?

The Citizens’ Assembly consensus recommended the municipalities endorse amalgamation and pursue a referendum. The Final Report of the Assembly stated:

We believe that amalgamating Duncan and North Cowichan into a single municipality will make possible lasting cooperation. Amalgamation will enhance the sustainability of our communities by strengthening our fiscal foundation and allow local government to pursue a more coordinated approach to encouraging economic growth, delivering efficient and effective public services, and ensuring that residents benefit from good local planning and strengthened environmental stewardship.

We believe amalgamation will ensure that local government in the Cowichan Valley pursues a common vision and that residents benefit from a harmonized approach to services, policies, and governance.

These benefits include:

  • One council
  • Streamlined regulations and bylaws
  • A level and consistent playing field for businesses
  • One Official Community Plan (OCP) with consistent and coordinated land use policies

More information on the Citizens’ Assembly process, including an overview of the planning, development and outcomes, can be found at https://www.dnc-cama.ca.

Was the Citizens’ Assembly recommendation on amalgamation unanimous?

It is important to note that the Citizens’ Assembly recommendation was not unanimous. There were members on the Assembly who disagreed with the Final Report and these members were invited to include a minority report to state their positions, or clarify points they believe were overlooked.
Here are their perspectives:

Citizens’ Assembly Member Tanya Ablonczy’s perspective:

In regard to the proposed amalgamation of Duncan and North Cowichan, my personal opinion is as follows. While I am not violently opposed to amalgamation, I am decidedly against it. I deeply respect the consensus of my colleagues in this matter, but must agree to entirely disagree. I believe that their inclination to support the recommendation was born of high hopes and a positive attitude rather than likely and quantifiable benefit to the City of Duncan, of which I am a resident. I believe that the City of Duncan and the Municipality of North Cowichan have vastly different demographics, land use and development challenges, and political interests. I believe that essentially nothing would change with regard to Duncan’s current success and viability—economically, socially, or in terms of the levels of service delivery. I believe that there were some legitimate incongruities addressed throughout this process, and I believe that they could all be rectified without the cost, commitment, and upheaval of amalgamation. I would recommend the following:

  • Achieving the greatest possible degree of service integration between the two groups, including one shared infrastructure system and public-works department, a jointly funded administrator or administrative team for the two fire departments, and increasing service integration where possible with the Cowichan tribes. I am entirely in agreement with the recommendation that the two fire halls continue to operate at status quo.
  • The implementation of a joint official community plan.
  • A binding commitment from each group to require a joint consensus when initiating development plans for borderline properties, and a commitment from each side to contribute equal effort to ensuring smooth physical flow in borderline areas.
  • That the City of Duncan should immediately put an end to signage bylaw inequities in situations where businesses directly adjacent on frontage are subject to different regulations. I understand what these bylaws were initially trying to achieve, but when businesses that are contributing to the tax base are facing a clear disadvantage, changes must be made.
  • That the issue of inadequate police funding for the required number of staff to adequately handle current call volume in the City of Duncan be addressed in the most aggressive and immediate ways possible, as a joint effort between the Municipality of North Cowichan and the City of Duncan. If necessary, the two 31 groups should draft a proposal to the provincial government to amend the funding model to address current inadequacies.
  • That the City of Duncan and the Municipality of North Cowichan immediately and aggressively pursue a cohesive and jointly funded branding of the Cowichan Valley as an aficionado tourist destination of global rank. I believe it would be wise to include the area from Mill Bay to Cassidy, as well as Lake Cowichan, in international branding as part of the Cowichan Valley destination – and recommend that this also be a focus of pursuit.
  • That the two Councils should be as continuously co-operative as possible, and that partisanship and special interest should be set aside for the sake of economic and social development of the valley as a whole.
  • That both the city and the municipality explore ways by which to lessen tax burdens on local businesses and provide incentives for property upgrades and maintenance. I believe that the city should also consider increasing services to businesses, particularly in the areas of waste disposal and sidewalk snow removal in the downtown core.

I feel honoured and blessed to be part of this process and to have gotten to know such an amazing, admirable, and enjoyable group of individuals as my colleagues, the guests, and the facilitation team. Despite my disagreement with the recommendation outcome, I believe strongly in the value of this process as part of our democratic system.

A special thank you to the staff of Duncan Meadows golf course for providing our venue, complete with great food and service.

To all involved, well done.

Citizens’ Assembly Member Nora Dowsett’s perspective:

I came to this Assembly with the assumption that “of course amalgamation would save money and be more efficient.” However, after going through this process, I learned that there were far more factors to consider than money. I came to understand and appreciate the importance of a shared future vision for the Cowichan Valley, even though we have many diverse communities and neighbourhoods within our borders. I also had been previously unaware of the existence of local neighbourhood and community associations. I believe that these are a valuable resource for local government to gain a clear understanding of what is important to its citizens. I also believe that it is the responsibility of local government to encourage and foster these associations and to take action on their recommendations.

Citizens’ Assembly Member Mona Kaiser’s perspective:

Two concerns emerged for me from our Assembly discussions. First was the realization that we could not attach an economic value to the potential benefits of amalgamation. Costs can—and have been—clearly calculated, but in order to keep our recommendation free of conjecture, unquantifiable benefits (such as an even playing field for local businesses, economic development through shared vision and branding, or a unified voice at the provincial table) had to remain outside our calculations, potentially skewing the cost/benefit analysis to appear more expensive than it should. Secondly, the further we examined the two municipalities, the more I began to question the long-term financial viability of the City of Duncan. Duncan’s limited size has resulted in not only a very narrow tax base, but also one with a disproportionate assessment of business and property tax (no relief through industrial taxes) from its neighbours. Aging city infrastructure will require significant investment on the near horizon (sewer life remaining 15 per cent, roads and drainage 22 per cent), as will police costs once Duncan’s population gains another sixty-six residents. The current policing funding formula contributes to a degree of underservicing in this area, and although taxes are being collected to help bridge the inevitable increase in police costs, these funds are currently being used to pay for capital projects. Given the degree to which we all benefit from a strong commercial, cultural, and institutional core associated with the City of Duncan, unaddressed financial issues facing the city would likely have implications for the whole valley.

Citizens’ Assembly Member Don Reynierse’s perspective:

I feel I am standing on one side of the fence (amalgamation) and looking over it, seeing a municipality constrained by size (with a limited tax base to raise revenue), while facing major costs both to replace infrastructure nearing its end and increased policing costs. The Municipality’s only avenue previously was to allow commercial development in a two-block core, creating a tax base that has—in turn— created horrendous traffic congestion only seen in the likes of major urban metropolises. Any further tax increases will add to its current fate – urban decay. This is an evolutionary event for most, and a dire challenge for even small municipalities heroically facing it. Drawing from surrounding resources is mirrored by loss of your own destiny – a fate already or inevitably faced by lack of a tax base that has a viable financial future. You also have to carry existing municipal debt from the surrounding area – is this an additional edge to a conventional sword? Either way, the current situation is detrimentally affecting the ‘valley’, or ‘warm-land’. Needed is a well-thought-out, coordinated and planned implementation. And yet there are overlapping challenges – numerous local authorities and jurisdictions present in the valley; invisible boundaries that are not evident; and resources coordinated separately. The solution is not found readily in existing regional authorities