At 1pm today, Regina city clerk Joni Swidnicki announced that the Regina Water Watch petition to force a referendum on the City’s plan to finance, build and operate a new wastewater treatment plant under a P3 model had been deemed invalid due to insufficient “valid” signatures. According to Swidnicki’s report, of the 24, 361 signatures in the petition 4,289 were immediately stricken due to “incomplete or incorrect surname, given name or initial, (How would they know if someone’s initial was incorrect?), incomplete or incorrect street address, signature not witnessed and incorrect or incomplete date. A total of 3,416 signatures were struck based on date alone, with 2,634 of those signatures struck because they did not include the year 2013. After this culling of signatures down to 20,072, Swidnicki assures us that even with “extremely generous calculations” in regards to the random sample, they can only verify (valid) signatures at between 84.4% (16,941) and 90.4% (18,145). Of course, both numbers fall far short of the 19,300 required to force a city-wide referendum.
For those that have followed the City’s rather haphazard and panicked response to the petition, the city clerk’s decision is disappointing, but not at all surprising. The efforts of this clerk to move the goal posts and introduce last minute rule changes would be the envy of any Soviet-era hockey ref. The last minute attempt by the clerk to have the province increase the signature threshold along with the unprecedented (as far as I can tell from previous City petitions) decision to strike signatures for not including the year (which was clearly identified at the top of the petition in case someone forgot what year it was), would lead any semi-objective person to wonder whether the fix isn’t in. And regardless of the inevitable court battles to come, it is this lingering suspicion that will haunt the City’s elected officials for years to come.
A recent, widely-publicized Samara poll shows that Canadians are more disengaged from politics than ever, with many Canadians seeing little use for political engagement beyond the requirement to mark a ballot every four or five years. The Water Watch petition was a reminder that we do not elect our officials and go to sleep until the next election; that we as citizens’ can still have a voice in what policies are decided in our name in the interim between elections. Certainly the threshold for these kinds of citizen interventions should be high, but when an issue – like this one – garners more signatures than the Mayor received in votes, perhaps we should view this as a truly democratic moment, one that should be welcomed rather than squelched. At the end of the day, the City should have given it’s citizens the benefit of the doubt in regards to their intentions when signing the petition, rather than acting like a frenzied actuarial looking for any and every loophole. If this is the City of Regina’s idea of democracy, they have set a terrible example for all of us.