I had proposed a referendum question for the 2010 municipal ballot that read, "Are you in favour of having a "ward" system as the method of electing future Town Councillors instead of the current "at-large" system? Yes or No." The intent here was to allow the public a chance to say whether it wanted a ward system. There are some legislative caveats described below, that determine if this would be a binding referendum.
But first you have to agree to ask the question.
So far all of the questions about voting and elections - including a previous discussion on ward systems and one on the mail-in ballot - have been debated and decided without any public input. The decisions have been made solely by council. As you might expect, councillors who are eager to protect their status and to ensure their re-election won't support any change that could endanger those. This was, as I saw it unfold, a Protect Your Ass vote.
The comments at the table last night were mostly about how individual councillors felt about a ward system, not whether the public should have any input into the matter or if public input was even valued. In fact, four of the councillors spoke out about how complicated an issue it was and how the public - you - wouldn't understand it. So rather than ask you what you thought, council would make the decision for you.
Feel better now? I know, you're confused and simple minded, so council will take care of you. Doesn't matter that ward systems have been in use since Confederation, that wards are already used by many of our neighbours and that many of the residents recently moved here came from a municipality that use them. It's too complicated for you to understand.
Councillor McNabb was one of the most vocal in such comments, saying he wondered "how many people in the community understand a ward system." Councillor Labelle felt it would require a "very long educational process" for the voters to grasp the concept. Councillor Edwards also felt a referendum question was too complicated, and suggested we instead put a questionnaire into utility bills. That didn't strike me as a lot of collective faith in the wisdom of the voters.
Both Councillors Sandberg and Foley felt the need to defend the now-defunct VOTE special interest group because, as Sandberg noted, VOTE his widely perceived as having been instrumental in electing six of the nine on the current council. All six - plus Councillor Labelle - voted against the referendum question. A ward system could seriously mitigate the impact of any special interest groups in future elections. Foley noted not only was VOTE not responsible for them getting elected - which raised a few eyebrows at the media tale - but that VOTE would favour an at-large system.
But none of them spoke to the real issue: public input into the process.
Why, I ask myself, is this council so profoundly suspicious of public input? We have not allowed it in some of the most important debates this term, including the Admiral Collingwood debacle, two debates on elections and ballots, any of the budget sessions, on moving the patios, on changing the highway speed limit, the mayor's educational development charge battle, rebuilding the Contact centre at Heritage Park...
Okay to be fair, last night's discussion on the referendum was called as a public meeting (one of several last night) to which no one came to speak. In part that's because a referendum question requires a public meeting by provincial legislation.
But no one spoke at the public meeting last night about banning smoking from municipal entranceways, either. Only one person spoke about banning smoking at restaurant patios. Only two people spoke at the public meeting on the right of entrance bylaw. Doesn't mean people aren't interested, doesn't mean people don't care, doesn't mean people can't understand the issue. It might simply mean the meetings were not well advertised or promoted as a chance to have a say in the process. I've had dozens of emails about ward systems this term, and heard from many more people one-on-one. I think there's a great interest in the process, just low turnout at meetings.
Councillor Labelle has in the past rejected my calls for public input into a debate, saying he was elected to make decisions. True, but that doesn't mean making decisions in a vacuum. That doesn't mean not asking for public opinions and comments. Well, yes it does for this council, but in a theoretical democracy it doesn't.
The issue about the referendum was not about whether a ward or the current at-large system is better. The issue wasn't about whether a ward or an at-large system will better get this council re-elected. The issue wasn't about whether VOTE or any other special interest group can influence an election. It was whether the public should be able to decide for itself which system it prefers. It was about whether the public has the right to choose for itself how it gets to cast its vote.
Seven members of council decided last night you don't get that choice. And in great part that was because they didn't believe, you the public, could understand the issue.
I can't fathom that at all. It strikes me as the height of arrogance to assume that we on council are the only ones who can understand the issues. Whatever happened to those campaign promises to be open, accountable and transparent?
Here are the clerk's comments on whether the referendum is binding:
Should the question receive a binding "yes" result, the Council of the Corporation of the Town of Collingwood shall pass a by-law to implement the question result in a timely manner. Within 20 days after notice of passing of the by-law has been given, an appeal may be made by the Minister and any other person or entity to the Chief Election Officer of the Province of Ontario on the grounds the question is not clear, concise and neutral, or that the question is not capable of being answered by either the "yes" or "no" options provided. Notice of appeal shall be filed with Sara Almas, Clerk and shall set out the objections and reasons in support of the objections.
There would be no cost to the municipality to put the question on the ballot - Councillor Edwards' idea of a questionnaire would cost at least $6,000 if we included postage-paid return envelopes, and would not bind council to the results. Which is more fiscally responsible?
The study for ward boundaries would not be undertaken if the vote was no or was too low, so there would be no cost involved unless the result was binding. The referendum question would have cost us nothing to put on the ballot.