Seduction by the technocrats

By Gene Miller, June 2015

Amalgamation may destroy that which makes this place meaningful.

I suppose it’s not amalgamate’s fault that the word sounds a bit like a body process, sharing space with masturbate or suppurate. According to the best online sources, synonyms include consolidate and confederate, but also, somewhat obliquely, adulterate and denature. 

Remember denature.

Singing the praises of municipal amalgamation, advocates act as if they were rational scientists explaining weather to Hottentots: “As when a little cloud cuts off the fiery highway of the Sun” (apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson). And, somehow, anti-amalgamation—or pro-leave-things-as-they-are— types wind up seeming like luddites or dotty locals standing in the way of progress, blunderbusses at the ready, perversely clinging to some musty, inefficient but cherished model of municipal management.

Amalgamation advocates attempt to claim the rational ground, their arguments bristling with self-evident truths including, locally, claims of duplication: Thirteen elected municipal councils! Thirteen city managers! Thirteen solicitors! Thirteen planning departments, they moan, as if they were ticking off the very causes of social death. Needless and costly duplication is the centrepiece argument for amalgamation’s true-believers. Amalgamation, in their view, makes an open-and-shut case for greater efficiency and savings. It seems logical. Thirteen of something must cost more than one of it. 

The success of this argument has a lot to do with what financial columnist Paul Krugman calls “the power of misleading analogies between governments and households,” that is, mis-applying private financial reasoning and practices to the public realm economy, as if thirteen mayors was like discovering thirteen plumbing snakes hanging in your basement. Remember, too, that public figures like to sound serious as they practice the theatre of stern talk about the need to make hard choices (often, with costs and consequences of those choices deferred long enough to render blame ambiguous). 

Amalgamators also dangle the promise of greater unity of purpose, more intense focus, clearing the municipal dead wood to better address a competitive world filled, presumably, with other fully amalgamated cities trimmed for battle and ultimate conquest of the stars. So, instead of Curly, Moe and Larry municipal management, if we amalgamate we get something trim and aerodynamic, a municipal killing machine.

All of amalgamation’s assumptions and entire belief system were flagrantly on display in a recent Victoria Conference Centre speech by Mike Harcourt, a quarter-century ago Vancouver’s mayor and then BC’s premier. Focus and the Times-Colonist reported on his speech, whose key arguments were: 

1. Greater Victoria and Vancouver, respectively, are too caught up in the politics of various municipal “fiefdoms” to work effectively to create sustainable, prosperous city-wide economies.

2. Victoria and Vancouver are just too important to the province to not work properly. 

3. Successful cities such as Calgary, Toronto or Chicago market themselves to the world as great places to live, invest and do business. Cities fail when they don’t motivate themselves and excite the world about their potential.

4. Greater Victoria, as a region, should be competing with places like Portland or Saskatoon. Instead, municipalities like Esquimalt and Langford are too busy competing with each other.

Okay, let’s freeze these fast-moving claims so we can examine their internal logic and truth.

Un-amalgamated, we are wasting time, energy, capacity and potential with the current localized style of municipal management, and inhibiting the region’s economic sustainability and prosperity. This assertion conveniently overlooks the fact that we are, in fact, economically sustainable and prosperous. I mean, what? If we were fully amalgamated, Apple would move its corporate headquarters here? Recently, Whole Foods came snooping. They looked at various locations, including the Downtown area, studied various market factors and settled on Uptown Shopping Centre. They didn’t leave the region in frustration, muttering “Get your act together!”

Victoria is too important to the province not to work properly. Sounds orotund, but I have no idea what it means. This assertion claims that Victoria is important to the province and could be importanter (code, I think, for less of an annoyance) if it worked properly—an apparent synonym for “amalgamated.” But here are some problems. Cities that work properly do so because they are effectively led and managed, not because they are amalgamated.

Like Chicago? Run by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Democrat. Preceded by Richard Daley, Democrat. Preceded by Eugene Sawyer, Democrat. Preceded by other Democrats. Conclusion? Democrats are great municipal leaders and, by sheer force of personality, get their cities pointed in the right direction and closer to God, also a Democrat.

That riff was just for fun. Thanks for indulging me.

Successful cities market their potential to the world, and underperform and wane when they don’t. By “potential,” does Mike mean: our potential to be one of the loveliest places on the planet to live, and to strike a fabulous work/life balance while surrounded by nature and culture? Yeah, we’d better amalgamate immediately so we can have that.

A regional Victoria should be competing with Portland or Saskatoon, but instead vitiates its potential in inter-municipal competition.                                                  For God’s sake, how can we compete with Saskatoon? I mean, they’ve got the ocean, equable year-round weather, a heartbreakingly beautiful city, and an Arcadian setting. And Portland, with a regional population of 2.5 million, home to Nike, Adidas, Intel, Schnitzer Steel, and so on. Why set our sights so low? We should be tackling London, Paris, New York. 

If this was an amalgamated region, Mike means, we wouldn’t have to live in this Third-World joke of a place where we boil our household water scooped from filthy creeks; make midnight runs to Beacon Hill Park and the legislative lawn to dump our crap; camp on the streets, wrapped in bloody bandages, waiting for medical attention; cope with roads that fail to meet each other as they cross municipal boundaries.

In all of Harcourt’s heartfelt but misguided blathering, there is a cloaked image of what a city is, or should become: people turned into invisible units in a play of political slogans. Really, what Harcourt and a lot of others are doing, perhaps unwittingly, is championing amalgamation as a surrogate desire: They are frustrated by Victoria’s idiosyncratic and bumptious qualities and want to sanitize the place.

Now, it’s true that Victoria has a long-cultivated genius for inertia that may appear to stand in the way of achieving the efficiencies or unified sense of purpose that Harcourt is offering. But, put his rhapsody of social progress aside long enough to open your eyes to the real world. We’re living in times and conditions of profound global risk and instability—economic, social, political, cultural. You would have to be pathologically unobservant and insensitive not to perceive this. Believe me: All of us everywhere feel it in our guts.

In that setting, Victoria’s appeal is semeiotic, coded. It consists of various forms of very subtle social messaging, projected more by drivers voluntarily stopping to let a pedestrian cross the street, or hellos between strangers on the street, or community gardens, or the surprisingly open and inviting nature of much of our housing, than through some amplification of our global competitiveness. From our parks and front-yard landscaping and treed streets, people get that we’re not killing nature, but embracing it. Yes, all of this is poetics, but made up of very real parts. We ourselves are largely unconscious of how remarkably, magically local these things are. Why, for a cluster of spurious benefits, saddle ourselves with an amalgamated regional government that, with the best of intentions, would be at odds culturally with everything that makes this place meaningful?

Further, I predict this region, as a set of distinct social, economic, and spatial environments, has a great future in store as a (comparatively) sane, safe and recognizable human refuge from a world turning by steady increments into some futuristic sci-fi nightmare battle zone.

I would suggest that in our region of neighbourhoods—identifiable human geographies scaled to human experience and behaviour—our civic governments are beautifully local, responsive to concern at the community and neighbourhood level, and perfectly capable of collaborating inter-municipally, when it’s beneficial and commonsense to do so. On top of which the Capital Regional District, faceless government though it may seem, delivers functional amalgamation through “over 200 service, infrastructure and financing agreements with municipalities and electoral areas,” according to the CRD.

Most readers responding to the piece about Harcourt in the TC wrote about local yokels who can’t see the forest for the trees, and expressed support for the “greater idea” of a unified city.

Still, one writer noted that “most credible studies that look at the results of amalgamation find that the process of amalgamation generates expenditures and costs which outweigh any cost savings. The result of amalgamation is typically a more complicated form of local government that is more costly. Yes, amalgamation produces savings as well as costs, but the evidence shows that the costs generally outnumber the savings.”

The writer continued: “Some former [Toronto] city councillors who supported amalgamation, like Howard Moscoe, now say that they regret the decision to amalgamate, suggesting that the local pre-amalgamated municipalities were far more personal, hands-on and identifiable with the average citizen.”

Sorry to be such a small-picture thinker, but I conclude that with amalgamation we would just be trading a minor set of frustrations for a major set, and putting at risk three social goods which are essential but increasingly rare in this world: relationship, accessibility and belonging (identity). 

These are conditions that may resist calculation, but can still be counted.

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences. With Rob Abbott, he has launched—a website about exceptional North American sustainability initiatives.