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Referendum Questions


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#1 Jacques Cadé

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Posted 26 September 2008 - 09:29 AM

A letter in today's TC:

Amalgamation belongs on ballot
Central Saanich Council is to be congratulated for including several referendum questions on the ballot in the upcoming election.
The questions deal with issues such as the ability to finance major infrastructure projects, how to improve efficiency in providing basic services and making optimum use of municipal buildings.
Interestingly, all the questions have a direct relationship to the size of the municipality.
It is surprising, therefore, that there is not a referendum question on amalgamation to create one municipal entity for the peninsula.
Why is it the elected officials continue to deprive the citizens of their democratic right to be heard on this issue?
- Carl Eriksen, Central Saanich


I realize there are other threads dealing with amalgamation. What interests me is that some municipalities - unlike Victoria - regularly put referendum questions on the ballot.

As that Unknown Victoria guy has noted here,

Victoria’s election ballots included one or more referendum questions nearly every year. Victorians approved the city’s first public library and its first sewers, the tapping of municipal water from Sooke Lake, the replacement of streetcars with buses, the construction of Memorial Arena and Centennial Square, and numerous other projects that determined the burg we have today. (Our most notorious referendum, of course, is the one held in 1992, in which we voted 57 to 43% against treating our region’s sewage – the rare time a city has become internationally famous for not building something.) In 1998 the province changed the Local Government Act to let municipalities borrow more freely, and since then the city’s only referendum was the 2002 approval of the $30-million deal to build the Save-On Foods Memorial Centre. There are no referendum questions in Victoria this year.


Victoria has electronic voting machines. So why don't we have more referendum questions? And if we did, what would you like to see asked? It seems this would be a democratic way to resolve a number of the issues listed in this part of the VV forum.

#2 Bernard

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Posted 26 September 2008 - 10:14 AM

In the US the referendum is used a lot to make decisions, but in Canada it has been used a lot less.

There is a segment of people in Canada involved with politics that do not believe letting voters decide issues at the ballot box is a good idea. I think back to how Stockwell Day was mocked in the 2000 federal election for saying the Canadian Alliance would make it possible for citizens to call referendums on issues nationally.

In BC we have a way to get a referendum onto the ballot provincially, but the NDP made the rules so onerous as to make it almost impossible.

The counter signature process has a referendum at the end of it, but it once again requires a degree of effort of the public to make it almost impossible.

I would like to see local governments make it possible for citizens to put issues onto the ballot. I think 10% of eligible voters signing that they would like something on the ballot is a reasonable hurdle, though I would give groups a year to get the signatures.

The local governments could enact this themselves, they do not need provincial approval. The referendums would be advisory to the council, but when the public votes a certain way it is political hubris to ignore the result.

I would put the Beacon Hill covenant on the ballot - keep it or scrap it.

#3 Jacques Cadé

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Posted 26 September 2008 - 10:39 AM

Bernard, how could municipalities permit citizens to force referendum questions? As I understand it, there's no procedure in the Community Charter for citizens to initiate referenda; we're only allowed to oppose the actions of council by counter-petition.

One place that did try to give citizens referendum power was Rossland. In 1990 it passed a bylaw allowing citizens to force questions onto the ballot if they got 20% of voters to sign a petition. The bylaw was rescinded in 2005 because it was deemed illegal under provincial law:

Constitution Bylaw given boot by Rossland:[Final Edition]
Raymond Masleck. Trail Times. Trail, B.C.:Sep 22, 2005. p. 1 / Front
Rossland's 15-year experiment with direct democracy came to an end Wednesday morning with the repeal of its Constitution Bylaw at a special meeting of city council.
The much-heralded attempt to more fully engage citizens in the local government, which was approved by 80 per cent of voters in a November 1990 referendum, was killed by council virtually without public debate.
Council decided to repeal the constitution at its Sept. 12 regular meeting and then scheduled a series of unadvertised special meetings to speed the process along. The issue was also discussed at closed meetings on Sept. 12 and Aug. 31.
"Council unanimously felt that this was not good to have on the books and we want to get rid of it," Mayor Greg Granstrom told the Times following the meeting.
The city has received two legal opinions indicating that the citizen-initiated referendum process in the bylaw is beyond the powers of council to enact.
This has been well-known since the constitution was adopted, but concerns that the bylaw would be used to challenge the controversial Redstone Resort proposed for the golf course -- and possible legal action that could follow from the developer -- spurred council into action.
The constitution required council to advertise bylaws after third reading and hold them in abeyance for a month before adopting them.
This would allow citizens to petition for a referendum on the issue, a process that required the support of 20 per cent of eligible electors.
Electors could also petition council to initiate or amend a bylaw on any city manner, excluding zoning.
"Whatever the majority opinion (in a referendum) was, would bind council," said city administrator Ross McPhee. "Council wouldn't have any clout. That is one of the key points that makes it invalid under provincial law."
McPhee previously suggested council could amend it to fix the legal concerns. This would involve excluding voter challenges of changes to the Official Community Plan and all issues where council is legally required to act, and adding wording indicating the referendums were advisory rather than binding.
"If you get rid of the binding part, what is the point of having it?" Granstrom said, when asked about this alternative.
Despite the speed of the process, council received 10-11 letters from citizens on the issue.
"I object to the repeal of the Constitution Bylaw without consultation with the community," wrote Raymond Gaudart, while Leslie Beatson complained about the "covert" repeal process.
McPhee said citizens can always lobby council for a non-binding vote on any issue. Recent changes to provincial legislation provide for petitions to force referendums on borrowing bylaws, boundary expansions, and parkland closures with a lower 10 per cent voter threshold, he added.
The constitution received nationwide attention when it was adopted and was followed by other municipalities. Then-mayor Bill Profili and administrator Andre Carrel were invited to speak at a number of conferences on governance.
UBC professor Paul Tennant, one of the province's most prominent political scientists, wrote that it was "clear" the referendums would not be legally binding. But that was really irrelevant to the fact that the "Rossland model" would "add a significant and meaningful element of citizen participation."
"The constitution would be moral and political, in the best sense of the term, in its providing standards and procedures through which the civic community could better govern itself."
Over the years, the constitution was only used twice by electors to force referendums, both on bylaws increasing council stipends.
Last summer, Profili successfully petitioned for a referendum and a borrowing bylaw for the Ophir Creek reservoir project, but council chose to abandon the bylaw instead.
All members of council except Don Vockeroth were present and voted in favour of repealing the bylaw. Vockeroth previously spoke in favour.
A referendum on boundary expansion to include the golf course lands will not be affected by the constitution's repeal and will proceed in November as part of the local government election.


I agree, if you got enough signatures on any petition, you could press councillors to either put a question on the ballot, or face the electoral consequences. But that's not the same thing as having a mechanism that would put the question on the ballot automatically.

#4 jklymak

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Posted 26 September 2008 - 11:43 AM

I would look really hard at places that have referendums and see if that is a model you really want to follow. It sounds nice and democratic, but it usually gets used to pass things that appeal directly to individual voter self interest, and not for the good of the city/state.

For instance, Seattle needs to pass a bond measure for any capital expenditures. If they put these bond measures on the general Nov ballot, they almost always get shot down, so no new school for the kids. The way around it is less than democratic - they hold a special ballot on a week day in February so that only the dedicated turn out to vote. A pretty goofy way to run a city in my opinion.

Instance two: the anti-tax initiatives passed by Tim Eynman in WA state. Sure, it sounds great to limit car registration to $30, except that money goes to fund the highways that are falling apart.

Instance three: the Seattle monorail. In this case, a laudible project, approved by referendum of the good citizens of Seattle. Killed because the city government didn't want it. So even when something productive is proposed, it will only go ahead if the civic govt agrees to make it happen, so why not just let them make the decision in the first place?

Instance four: CA's property tax freeze for existing owners has beggared the treasury

Instance five: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Government via the lowest common denominator is not my cup of tea.

#5 Jacques Cadé

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Posted 26 September 2008 - 06:19 PM

Citizen, "lowest common denominator" -- I guess we have a difference of opinion about the intelligence of our neighbours.

I take your point that the referendum/initiative power can get out of control, and some places in the U.S. are an example.

But why is it that other municipalities regularly put forward referendum questions, and Victoria has none? Is it because we have nothing left to build? Is it because we don't have any issues to resolve?

Take a look at the list of threads under "Election Issues". I can see a question for each one.

Downtown Nightlife: Do you support or reject the creation of a late-night entertainment zone in the Rock Bay neighbourhood?

Working with the Province & Municipalities: Should the city of Victoria vocally and publicly demand that other levels of government pay into a fund to help pay for the disproportionate burden of social services borne by our municipality?

Improving Transit and Transportation: Which would you prefer on the Douglas Street corridor: a) streetcar line; b) rapid busway; c) status quo?

Sewage treatment, Amalgamation: see questions asked in 1992 and 1962, respectively, etc.

Maybe these issues are too complex to be understood by the lowest common denominator. But if they were on the ballot, people would get more interested in the election generally. And they just might turn out to have more on the ball than some of our councillors.

#6 Bernard

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Posted 26 September 2008 - 07:33 PM

Any local government can put issues up for referendum. There is nothing stopping them from having a policy that means they will put things to referendum if enough people sign something.

The lowest common denominator argument is one that says the people in power are better deciding how we should spend our money and what we should do.

Referendums have been very unpopular with the political elites because the assumption is that the people do not know well enough to make a rational decision. If this is the case, what are we doing elected our politicians and giving them more power than an referendum.

The anti tax referendums are in my mind the best ones out there. Nothing forces a government to govern more efficiently and creatively than one that has been told by the public that they are not wanting pay more in taxes.

Anti tax referendums also force governments to justify why they are spending all that money. We do not have nearly enough justification of government spending. Our only current hold is to elect politicians that we give a carte blanche to govern.

There are some other models out there for citizen governance. One is the Wisdom Council process - Simon Nattrass sat on the first one here in Victoria. There is also the Citizens Assembly style of process.

I am a firm believer that we need to devolve more power from government and politicians to the public.

#7 Sue Woods

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Posted 27 September 2008 - 03:29 PM

The lowest common denominator argument is one that says the people in power are better deciding how we should spend our money and what we should do.



I am in favour of referendums. I think carefully chosen questions about projects that have major monetary implications for taxpayers would help to engender debate, encourage citizens to be involved in municipal issues 'between elections', and hopefuly repair the apathy evidenced by low voter turnout.

Sue

#8 Sue Woods

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Posted 27 September 2008 - 04:29 PM

opps/never mind. Enough said for now. Thx Sue

#9 Jacques Cadé

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Posted 30 September 2008 - 08:36 AM

Some municipalities like referenda. Today's TC:

Central Saanich voters must decide on rec centre reno
Proposed expansion will cost $11.5M
By Richard Watts, Times Colonist

Residents of Central Saanich will be asked to vote in the upcoming municipal election whether to help pay to expand the Panorama Recreation Centre.
The question spells out the estimated additional charge to property taxes, $8.50 per $100,000 of assessed value or approximately $44.31 per household on average over 15 years.
The Panorama Recreation Centre is embarking on an $11.5-million expansion, adding an additional pool, waterslide, kiddie pool and hot tub. Ramps are being installed to make the new upgraded facility more accessible.
All three Saanich Peninsula municipalities, Central Saanich, Sidney and North Saanich, fund the Peninsula Recreation Commission which operates Panorama Recreation Centre. Sidney and North Saanich have agreed to fund the expansion in earlier referendums but Central Saanich has yet to offer a decision.
Tim Chad, chairman of the Peninsula Recreation Commission, said he believes residents of Central Saanich will opt to be participants in the new upgraded centre.
“I know that is popular among many of the people I’ve spoken to, “ said Chad. “It’s going to be a fantastic place.”
He said if the voters don’t agree to chip in, the money is still available. But the commission, said Chad, has not discussed what moves might be taken, if the vote goes against Panorama, such as charging Central Saanich residents extra at the door to use the facility.
The Panorama Recreation Centre question is one of four to be put to the voters of Central Saanich on the Nov. 15 ballot.
The other three are survey-style questions of a general nature to provide direction to the council.
Question 2 asks if higher priority should be given Central Saanich’s own projects, such as a new fire hall/police station.
Question 3 asks if the municipality should raise property taxes to maintain current service levels.
Question 4 asks if the municipality should increase borrowing, to be repaid through property taxes, to finance necessary infrastructure.


But their citizens don't necessarily feel the same way. An online comment on the same story:

This same referendum came up several elections back and I can't believe we're going to have to go through this again. Unless the municipality is ready and willing to build their own facility, it is completely inappropriate to let the residents to decide whether to fund their portion of the area's only rec centre. A rec centre is basic community infrastructure, not an option - and certainly not a choice that is made instead of funding other infrastructure necessities like a new fire hall police station. We already know that approximately 1/3 of the users of this facility are residents of Central Saanich. Putting this issue to referendum is just plain wrong. Central Saanich council deserves a spanking. That they would offload an issue such as this onto the largely uninformed and apathetic residents (and you can count me as one of them), is unconscionable, and simply lends strength to the argument for amalgamation of the three Saanich Peninsula municipalities.
John Carswell: 30 September 2008, 07:11


Bizarre. The guy is so apathetic that he's willing to write an angry letter to the paper about it ....

#10 Concerned Citizens

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Posted 30 September 2008 - 09:26 AM

CCC

The Concerned Citizens' Coalition released its new 10 point Recovery Plan Victoria 2008 on September 21, 2008.

Point No. 10 in the CCC's Recovery Plan Victoria 2008 reads as follows:

'10. ACCOUNTABILITY: PUT AMALGAMATION AND OTHER REFERENDUM QUESTIONS ON BALLOT

For more accountability let's bring in some electoral reforms and put the sewage treatment questions, amalgamation questions, mayor and councillors' term limits, lower-age youth vote, direct votes for Capital Regional District and Provincial Capital Commission directors, and other contentious issues on the regular election ballot.'

- Gregory Hartnell, President
Concerned Citizens' Coalition

CCC

#11 jklymak

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Posted 30 September 2008 - 12:14 PM

I am in favour of referendums. I think carefully chosen questions about projects that have major monetary implications for taxpayers would help to engender debate, encourage citizens to be involved in municipal issues 'between elections', and hopefuly repair the apathy evidenced by low voter turnout.


I guess I agree with that. If a council wants to decide if they should embark in project X, then fair enough to open it up to a vote. What I would be dismayed to see are voter initiatives and obligatory referenda. As I said above, they sound good and democratic, but aren't what I think makes for good government decisions.

#12 Sue Woods

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Posted 30 September 2008 - 12:57 PM

I agree with you. They are best used sparingly.

#13 Jacques Cadé

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Posted 23 October 2008 - 10:06 AM

Mr. Unknown Victoria has an item about referendum questions in this week's Monday magazine, and on his blog here.

The blog entry also has a link to a PDF with a list of referendums held in Victoria over the past century. Interesting if you want to know how we voted on amalgamation or sewage treatment.

#14 aastra

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Posted 23 October 2008 - 10:51 AM

I love this one:

Victorians also approve construction of the View Street parkade and pedestrian malls. “This bylaw will insure the future health of our city,” says mayor Percy Scurrah, “and it places us first in Canada to install malls and among the leaders in this field on the North American continent.”



#15 Jacques Cadé

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Posted 23 October 2008 - 10:55 AM

I agree. When was the last time a Victoria politician said they wanted the city to be "among the leaders in this field on the North American continent" in anything?

#16 mat

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Posted 23 October 2008 - 11:01 AM

Mr. Unknown Victoria has an item about referendum questions in this week's Monday magazine, and on his blog here.

The blog entry also has a link to a PDF with a list of referendums held in Victoria over the past century. Interesting if you want to know how we voted on amalgamation or sewage treatment.


Fantastic - love this stuff when it comes up on VV. Nice to know my fellow Sannichites rejected Sunday shopping back in 1980. Thanks Jaques

#17 victorian fan

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Posted 23 October 2008 - 03:05 PM

December 8, 1949: Victorians approve creation of the position of city manager, and spending
$350,000 for renovations to the Carnegie Library.


I remember this very well. (the outcome not the vote) The children's section remained in the old, front part of the library. The new part at the back was for adults and had a mezzanine level. Children weren't allowed up there.
You climbed the stairs and turned right to the children's read alone books. I can still see the books and feel the echo-y heights of that building.
Absolute silence only broken by the sound of the librarian stamping the out-going books.

#18 Jacques Cadé

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Posted 07 November 2008 - 04:00 PM

On Tuesday many Americans cast ballots in various state referenda, including the notorious Proposition 8 in California.

A good place to find out about all the items voted upon is Ballotpedia. Consider:

• Massachusetts decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana
• Ohio imposed a cap on interest rates charged by payday lenders
• Missouri required power companies to increase production of renewable energy
• California allocated $10 billion to high-speed rail
• Montana instituted a childrens' health insurance program
• Washington approved assisted suicide

Aside from Proposition 8 – the likes of which could be prevented by forbidding votes on minority rights – I'd argue that many of the 2008 referendums are proof that direct democracy can push forward progressive legislation that elected officials are too chicken to enact.

We should hear more about these other initiatives up here, but all our news media covers is the outrage over Prop 8. Wouldn't want Canadians to start agitating for more democracy now, would we?

#19 Coreyburger

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Posted 08 November 2008 - 02:40 AM

There are two primary issues with referendum questions. Firstly, often these are attempting to solve complex issues but the message often boils it down to something simple and it is easy for one side or the other to mislead the public into voting one way. The second issue is money. Quite simply, if you can outraise and outspend your opposition, you are more likely to win.

#20 Jacques Cadé

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Posted 08 November 2008 - 05:31 PM

There are two primary issues with referendum questions. Firstly, often these are attempting to solve complex issues but the message often boils it down to something simple and it is easy for one side or the other to mislead the public into voting one way. The second issue is money. Quite simply, if you can outraise and outspend your opposition, you are more likely to win.


I agree that some issues are more complex than referendum questions allow. But all too often "complexity" is a political excuse for inaction.

If you want to get somewhere, you need to make decisions. You can't spend forever on the side of the road, debating. Where should we go? What route should we take? Who should we ask for directions? What means should we use? Consult, consult, consult. In Victoria, it's been a ticket to paralysis.

As far as money deciding the outcome, that’s not at all clear. In some cases mentioned above the winning side had more cash: the Massachusetts marijuana decrim had $1.2 million, with $400K from George Soros. But in other cases, it didn’t: the Ohio interest-rate control was pushed by community organizations and food banks, up against $15 million in opposition cash donated by payday loan companies.

In other words, the case for referendums is "complex". But the ineffectiveness of our current way of doing things tips me in favour of trying something different.

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