It appears, as many suspected, that the campaign to collect signatures and force a referendum on a controversial borrowing bylaw failed to get the numbers required. Initial reports are that they didn’t even get half the number of signatures required.
Contrary to what some may say, I think this demonstrates, more powerfully than a successful campaign would, that the Alternative Approval Process is seriously flawed.
Remember, this process was started when the City decided to request authorization to loan up to $59Million from the Municipal Finance Authority. To do that, they were required to pass a Bylaw, and because of the nature of the loan authorisation, the City was required by the Community Charter to get approval from the electorate to pass that Bylaw. As a referendum is potentially expensive and time-consuming, the Alternative Approval Process allows the City to just send the idea out to the community without the hassle of a full referendum, and see if there is even any appetite for having a referendum about the issue. If no appetite is found (by not getting enough people to sign their disapproval) then a referendum can be skipped and approval is presumed.
Except in this case, the alarm was raised on what is usually a dull procedural process, and there was a coordinated campaign to force the referendum, a campaign that clearly struck a chord.
James Crosty is a hell of an organizer, and proved again that he can raise a ruckus like no-one else in this town. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes don’t, but I’ll always respect his ability to rally the troops and get the media attention when needed. He makes me think of the Woody Guthrie lyric:
“I ain’t the world’s best writer nor the world’s best speller,
But when I believe in something I’m the loudest yeller”
So when Crosty took the charge in this campaign, he managed to put an organizing team together in short order, dominate the local media and editorial pages, create an ongoing Twitterstorm, and gain radio time on CBC and CKNW, all about a little local bylaw issue in New Westminster. The volunteer team no doubt invested lots of time and some donated money to make the campaign happen, including buying ads in the local newspapers. When City Hall would not provide enough ballots or long enough hours for people to collect them, Crosty first shamed them into putting the forms online, then opened his office space to serve as a proxy City Hall.
The way the campaign framed the issue, it was broad enough to encompass people who hated the Tower idea on the face of it, those who had a distrust of the current Council verging on conspiracy theory, those who were concerned about the sustainability of local government debt and the impact on Taxes, and those who just thought referenda were a better way to make decisions like this. A former Mayor and several former Councillors spoke in favour of the campaign, as did current and past School Board Trustees and business leaders in the community. FOI requests were generated, casting more suspicion around details of the Tower and the pull-out of the private partner. Even the Canadian Taxpayers Federation got their unaccountable two bits in on the topic.
So I ask you, if this campaign was unable to hit half the minimum amount of signatures, will any campaign ever hit the mark? Does anyone seriously think an overwhelming majority of the people in this City are happy with this process? Or is the bar set too high, with too many restrictions in place to make it achievable?
Talking to people on either side of this campaign, no-one thought that 4500+ signatures was possible, (note: I never actually asked Crosty if he thought it was possible, so don’t include him or his team in this generalization) and no-one thought that if a referendum was actually called, the Bylaw would be approved by the populace. People were not going to line up to vote “for” the City borrowing $59 Million on behalf of the Taxpayers on a business venture, but a hell of a lot would line up to stop it. In other words, the Alternative Approval Process seemed almost guaranteed to get the opposite result that a referendum would have. That isn’t right, and we can thank Crosty’s campaign for making that obvious.
It is legal, completely legitimate, and something that has happened before in the City. The Community Charter and the Local Government Act allow this process to happen and set the terms for it. The City, I have to emphasise, did nothing illegal or outside of its rights as a Local Government. Maybe the result is for the better good and all is well, but I still hate this process, as it seems by design or by chance, it was set up to fail.
So what can we change? The City could just step up and take accountability on its own behalf and review whether the AAP process should be used in future, and if so, how it might be adapted to get a fairer poll of the populace (remember, the Community Charter only sets minimum standards for the AAP, the City is free to exceed those standards in quest for greater accountability). Perhaps a better idea would be for the Provincial Government (who writes and administers the Community Charter) to acknowledge that this is an accountability problem, and change the Charter to reflect that problem. Perhaps this is a better task for the Municipal Auditor General to undertake than the nitpicking of library or recreation facility accounts.
I don’t know the solution. Hopefully, now that it is out in the light, we can have a rational discussion about what this process means, and how to balance the need for public input and consultation with the need for a Municipal government to operate efficiently and effectively.
The Campaign is over, let the conversation begin.