Community associations will still exist in the foreseeable future as legitimate links between Saanich’s community-at-large and council, but things need to change.
That is the message from an informal round table with individuals familliar with the issues that confront community associations. They, according to Saanich’s web site, consist of Saanich residents that “provide valuable input to council and Saanich staff on items such as land use and planning proposals.”
This status makes community associations democratic laboratories and important transmission points between the public-at-large in each of the 18 neighbourhoods that they represent, elected officials and other actors, including private enterprise, non-for-profit agencies and other members of local civil society.
John Schmuck, former chair of the Saanich Community Association Network (SCAN), said community assocations will still make important contributions, as it was the case in the fall of 2017 when five community associations co-organized an all-candidates forum during Saanich’s byelection.
He made those comments after Illarion Gallant, a director with the Blenkinsop Valley Community Association, earlier this month raised questions about the viability and legitimacy of community associations.
Schmuck is less pessimistic. “But the hope is that we get some younger people involved,” said Schmuck. “One of the sad things is that Saanich is becoming a grey-haired community. Families have to move out [of Saanich] in order to buy a home. It is not an affordable area for younger families to come.”
This sociology not only skews membership in community associations towards older individuals, but it also makes it more difficult to attract younger individuals, who may find it difficult to find the time for community involvement as they balance their professional lives with their personal lives, he said.
Susan Haddon, president of the Quadra Cedar Hill Community Association (QCHCA) would like to see stronger ties between the community associations and Saanich. “The connection with council and staff has to grow,” she said.
Saanich, she said, counts on community associations to feel the temperature of their respective neighbourhoods in many areas. “Yet it is costly to truly get the measure of the community,” she said.
Case in point — development applications. Saanich gives community associations — regardless of their size — considerable weight in signing off on future developments, yet community associations differ in their respective resources when it comes to properly evaluating applications, said Haddon, who has in the past invited herself to planning meetings to understand Saanich’s process.
It is also not clear whether community associations can claim to genuinely represent the values and interests of their respective areas in light of the fact they represent only a fraction of those areas, said Haddon. “Some of us are feeling a little nervous about whether we are really representative,” she said.
Peter Haddon, who sits on QCHCA’s board of directors, said community associations must do their part to stay relevant in the lives of area residents beyond hot-button issues that tend to cause temporary spikes in community association memberships and participation. “But I do believe that Saanich can create more opportunities for us,” he said.
While Saanich does have a budget to help community associations communicate with their outreach, more could be done, he said. “You can go on and on about public participation, but until you put real effort into reaching out, it doesn’t happen,” he said. “Communication with the public is a huge effort. It’s time-consuming. It takes a lot of skill.”
The final report of the Governance Review Citizen Advisory Committee addresses some of these issues. It asks Saanich to formalize community associations through terms of references that would also clarify their involvement in land use development applications. The review commmitteee also called on Saanich to follow Victoria’s example in assigning councillors as liasions.
Saanich council last December forwarded both items to SCAN for additional discussion, and upcoming budget talks also promise to deepen ties between Saanich and the associations through a more participatory process.
Overall, it is hard to reach any conclusions about the general state of the community associations. They — like Saanich itself— are diverse. “Some of them are functioning fine, and have a bit of money,” said Sue Haddon. “Others, may be, are struggling, and are at that juncture, where they want to go that next step, and want more engagement.”