The possibility of adding a binding referendum question on the 2022 municipal election was considered by the Town of Fort Frances Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday. However, council declined to move forward, due to lack of time and education.
Under the Municipal Elections Act, a municipal council may pass a bylaw allowing them to put questions on the ballot. However, there are conditions to the kinds of questions that may be asked.
For example, the questions must be about a matter that the municipality has authority over, and that the municipality can implement, the questions cannot be a matter of provincial interest. In addition, the wording of the question must be clear, concise and neutral, the possible answers to the question must be “yes” and “no,” and multiple choice or multi-part questions are not permitted.
The proposal was brought forward at the Planning and Development Executive Committee meeting by Coun. Douglas Judson, who said he’s heard comments from the community and around the council table suggesting that some questions ought to be put directly to voters.
“Ballot questions provide one method of getting powerful, representative mandates from the community,” Judson said in a statement.
However, several council members said, while they believe in the value of referendums as a tool to engage the public, it is not the right time, because it requires careful consideration. Council would need to have the by-law in place by March 1. If a question is added, in order to pass, at least 50 per cent of eligible voters are required to cast a ballot, and at least 50 per cent of cast ballots are required is support of a decision. Any decision by voters adhering to those requirements is binding, and must be enacted, or blocked, to the best of the ability, by the incoming council.
Coun. Mike Behan said he disagreed with Judson’s inference that engaging directly on big questions or strategic opportunities is necessary, when civic engagement is already available in other forms.
“I want to stress it’s one thing to invite and welcome public input on the myriad of issues Council faces week in and week out, which I strongly support and encourage, and quite another to potentially take decision making responsibilities out of the hands of the next council,” he said.
Behan added that he recognizes that putting a ballot question to the electorate is a tool council has at its disposal, and he believes it should be used sparingly and for limited circumstances, not merely as a bellwether of public opinion at a particular moment in time.
Judson said that at various points over the term members of council have asked to take issues to the public for input. He added that the reality is that councillors also bring lived experience to the table, and a referendum would give a broader representation, and allow direct input on issues like a new truck route or recreational development.
“We have two people at council who are women, we have one person at council who is LGBT, we have no one at council who is Indigenous. There is value in diversity at the table,” Judson said at the meeting. “And I think providing opportunities for people at different ages and stages and from different walks of life to influence and inform the decisions of counsel and bring that to the table is not an indictment of the people who are here. It’s a recognition of the fact that we all have different lived experiences.”
Behan noted that his race and identity don’t limit his ability to serve a broad demographic.
“I was elected to represent all Fort Frances citizens at the council table and make decisions in the best interest of our community as a whole, which I’ve tried my best to do over the past three plus years and will continue to do over the final 10 months of our term,” he said.
Coun.Wendy Brunetta felt the timeline to enact the bylaw was tight, given the limited number of council sessions before the deadline.
If council had agreed to put questions on the voting ballot in October, it would have to have a public meeting and pass a bylaw before March 1. It would add additional work and tight deadlines on staff, which is already stretched thin, she noted.
The possibility of adding referendums as an educational component for the incoming council was also discussed.
Citizen engagement is already on the radar for Town CAO Faisal Anwar. He said there is a plan to develop and implement a citizen engagement strategy. Anwar said they have not started yet due to limited human resource availability.
“It’s a very valid point,” Anwar said. “And we need to involve and engage your citizens to get their opinion and input on initiatives or any change in existing level of services, so that we can meet their expectations.”