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BEYOND THE HEADLINES: A different approach
Rob Sawatzky knew the question coming at him so he went into defense mode.
“Don’t ask me about the A word,” Vernon’s mayor told me as I approached his desk Monday.
Just minutes earlier, a consultant had raised the prospect of amalgamating Greater Vernon’s three jurisdictions while providing an update on the city’s core services review.
“You need to restructure local government to be more efficient,” said Brian Bourne, a senior manager with KPMG.
And such a suggestion isn’t a surprise given that Bourne comes from Ottawa, which merged with 10 other municipalities in 2001.
However, Sawatzky isn’t willing to bite.
“I spend no time thinking about those things,” he said when asked if amalgamation would benefit Vernon or create challenges.
“I am so busy with day-to-day operations.”
He also isn’t convinced that a combined government is on the radar for Vernonites.
“Many citizens may feel it’s logical but we mostly hear about things we deal with day-to-day,” he said of infrastructure, bylaws and development.
Sawatzky’s approach is novel as Vernon mayors have traditionally taken the position that everything outside of the border should come in. Sawatzky believes that firm stance has caused significant damage.
“When amalgamation has been raised before, it led to several years of dysfunction,” he said.
“The benefits have been tempered by that dysfunction.”
Sawatzky freely admits there is little appetite in Coldstream and the electoral areas to restructure governance and as a result, the focus must be those shared interests such as water, parks and recreation and the fire training centre.
“We are working towards co-operation with our neighbours,” he said adding that agreements on those costly services have created the kind of efficiencies the core review is pursuing.
If Vernon was truly interested in managing financial resources better, Sawatzky says city boundaries would shrink, not get bigger.
“Land use management is an important factor in terms of being efficient,” he said of plowing and paving roads, providing sewer treatment and keeping police on the beat.
“We are a very spread-out, non-dense community that we have to service and that’s expensive.”
Amalgamation means that even with a larger tax base, Vernon residents would become responsible for roads in the outlying areas and some of them in the BX don’t meet urban standards. There would also become an expectation among the new Vernonites to receive full city services while council and bureaucrats would struggle with land use decisions surrounding vast tracts of agricultural land in Lavington.
Many of these matters are still unresolved even after almost 20 years of Okanagan Landing being part of Vernon.
Of course contradictions abound.
At the same time that current city council doesn’t subscribe to broad amalgamation, it accepts annexation of individual properties in the BX. For the integrity of the electoral areas, it’s like death by a thousand cuts.
One could also speculate that Sawatzky’s views are influenced by the fact that he lives in the electoral area and not Vernon.
It will be interesting to see if KPMG’s amalgamation suggestion gains legs, but Sawatzky’s apprehension makes it clear that such a dramatic departure won’t happen on his watch.
“If it’s to ever move forward, it can’t be championed by the (political) participants seen to be promoting their own issues. As mayor of the largest community, they can’t be seen as expanding their own kingdom,” he said.
“It’s not an issue I would push in my role as mayor while co-operating with our neighbours.”