CHARLA HUBER: Smalltown feel lost in amalgamation

Small community councils have more of a connection with residents

When I was 10, I wanted to be a politician.

I had mapped out my career in the footsteps of then-Alberta premier Ralph Klein. I would start as a journalist and move my way into politics. I became the journalist, but I am no longer interested in becoming the first female prime minister. That same year Kim Campbell crushed that dream.

I grew up in Calgary and the only municipal government model I knew was having one mayor and a council of aldermen.

After school one day, my little fourth-grade self walked to my alderman’s office and asked him to talk to my class. I was amazed he actually came. It was Dale Hodges, and as I Google his name, I find he is Calgary’s longest-serving alderman, having earned that title after 28 years.

When I first moved to Victoria about 10 years ago, I found it interesting that I could leave my Esquimalt apartment and within a 25-minute walk, stroll through a couple municipalities.

It was hard to believe there were so many districts, municipalities, towns and cities within Greater Victoria. It seemed a bit wacky to someone coming from one big city with only one mayor.

I was naïve.

When I became a reporter for Black Press five years ago, I began to cover and follow municipal politics. There was no end to the juicy things that happened at a Metchosin council meeting.

I watched Coun. Bob Gramigna help people connect to city water and share his own experience with the issue.

Once, Metchosin council even wagered on the results of a non-binding referendum question. As the outcome was read, each member of council pulled a six-pack of beer out from under the table and passed it to the winner, Coun. Larry Tremblay.

I’ve attended meetings where it was standing-room only and where residents all wore red bandanas in support of a community house.

If you want to witness the heart of small town politics, go to a Highlands council meeting in its heritage school house. Before the meeting starts they pass around a candy dish where you can grab a toffee or two.

If the region’s 13 municipalities were to amalgamate into one large body, a lot would be lost.

The municipalities work well as they are because of the amount of representation they have. I fear what would happen if, for instance, there was only one voice from Highlands trying to explain the needs of its community to larger urban municipalities.

It’s refreshing to know the councillors and see them in the community practising what they preach. I live in Langford and often see Coun. Lillian Szpak riding her bicycle to community events or just for fun. I know that when she is at the council table, she is pushing for more bike lanes and connecting trails in Langford.

Residents choose which community they live in based on their own beliefs and principles, and sometimes on the direction of their municipality’s official community plan.

While there are a number of reasons for amalgamating, such as cutting down on administrative costs, will the savings really amount to much?

We all choose what we are willing to spend more money on, but at the end of the day, quality determines where my money goes.

If you check the stipends municipal councillors earn compared to the number of  meetings they attend, it’s obvious they aren’t in it for the cash.

Charla Huber is a reporter with the Goldstream News Gazette.

charla@goldstreamgazette.com