Regardless of the outcome in the City of Regina’s wastewater referendum being held today, there is one thing that is certain. We need to establish very clear rules for how City-wide referenda should be conducted in the future and we need very specific rules on how the City communicates with the voters on the referendum issue. The catalogue of controversial and borderline unscrupulous practices by the City during the entire life of the referendum are almost too numerous to list. Before the referendum was even confirmed we had the attempt by the City Clerk to raise the petition threshold, the disqualification of signatures that did not include the year in the date, and the strange use of two verification procedures for the petition signatures that appears to have contravened the Cities Act. Once the referendum was underway, we had city staff promoting the Vote No side, splash pages on the City’s website advocating for the No side, the City twitter feed used to promote the No side and even voter information cards emblazoned with arguments for the Vote No campaign. (Paul Dechene has an excellent run-down of the various incidents here).
Through all of this, the City has claimed that its actions are legal and merely designed to impart objective information to voters. (Objective information apparently being a euphemism for information that contains absolutely no mention of any critique of the P3 model). Legality aside, the seemingly cavalier attitude of the City to use public resources to promote one side of the referendum and be oblivious to the perceived impropriety of this seems to demand that we need to get some very clear rules in place to ensure that this sort of fiasco does not occur again in the future. Indeed, the provincial rules governing province-wide referendums gives much clearer directions on how governments are to communicate with voters during the referendum campaign:
During a referendum or plebiscite period, no department, board, commission, Crown corporation or agency of the Government of Saskatchewan shall broadcast or publish in any manner any information or particulars of the activities of the department, board, commission, Crown corporation or agency that pertain to the question or questions put to electors in the referendum or plebiscite.
If this summer has taught us anything, it is that we desperately need the same type of legislation that governs provincial referenda to be adopted for municipal referenda as well. Regardless of the outcome of the vote today, perhaps the one positive we can derive from this campaign is to leave the citizens of Regina and other Saskatchewan municipalities with a much more clear, transparent and fair process for future referenda.