Regina Water War - Referendum 2013Maybe you’ve heard? Regina Water Watch put out a press release yesterday alleging polling clerks have offered inappropriate instructions to some voters. Can’t say I’m surprised RWW’s saying this. Stories have been circulating for a while about problems with the advance and mail-in polls but getting confirming stories has been difficult so I’ve held off on writing anything.

But now that RWW has gone public with a press release I’ll report on that.

According to that release, Yes-side scrutineers allege that polling clerks are overstepping the rules when handing out advance ballots. From the release:

In at least two cases, a clerk offered the instruction, “Vote yes for Regina Water Watch, vote no for City Council,” while handing the ballot to voters. When Regina citizen Mary Arpin went to vote, the poll clerk gave unsolicited conflicting information, ending with the comment, “a 57 million dollar difference.”

Later on, the release states:

Holmes says that even more troubling are reports from the seniors’ residences where voters were not provided the legally required secret place to mark their ballot. At one residence Water Watch was only allowed to speak to residents days after the ballots had been distributed and mostly collected. Some residents claimed the Mayor had spoken to them immediately before the ballots were distributed. Regina Water Watch had requested to have observers present during all of the special polls, but was denied.

If true, these stories are troubling — but right now they’re just stories and I’m not blogging about them to say, “Okay, this is what happened, it’s egregious, time to round up the mob, light the torches and storm city hall.”

It isn’t time to do that. Put the torches away.

No, the noteworthy part for me is less what may or may not have happened here but rather the fact that I find it completely plausible that polling clerks would be acting inappropriately. And that means I have joined the ranks of cynical bastards who just assumes the worst about this referendum — that there’s something hinky going on.

I mean, if this was the first report of weirdness related to this referendum then I’d dismiss the story and not even bother to write about it. Seriously, I’d really much rather be doing housework right now — that’s how tired I am of reporting on this referendum.

But the thing is there are just so many confirmed cases of city hall behaving poorly that stories like these now seem representative of standard operating procedure downtown instead of outliers from the mean. Let’s take a look at a few instances…

The Case of the Rising Threshold: Just before Regina Water Watch dropped off their petition, the city clerk’s office notified them that they had applied to the provincial government to raise the threshold required to force a referendum by about 1,000 signatures. The Government Relations Minister turned down their request.

The Missing Year Mystery: After the petition was dropped off and after verification of the 24,000 signatures on it had begun, the city clerk announced that they would be disqualifying any signature that was not accompanied by a full date that included the day, month and year. The petition was ultimately deemed insufficient to force a referendum as the clerks disqualified over a quarter of the names collected — 2,800 of them because the year had been left off the date.

The Double Jeopardy Detection: It was also revealed that the clerk’s office conducted two verification passes through the list of petition signatures even though the provincial Cities Act explicitly states that only one should be done. And it also turns out that the only way the petition could be deemed invalid is if both verifications were conducted in sequence. If either one was done singly — as the Act says is appropriate — then the petition would have passed the threshold.

The City Tweets at Midnight: Once the referendum campaign began, people were alarmed to find that the city’s Twitter feed was being used to promote the Vote No side. When questioned, the mayor said he considers it completely appropriate for city staff to promote the No position on the referendum.

BUjNs5jCcAEwThe Imprudent Postcard Incident: Most recently, people received Vote No cards that also informed them of where they’re supposed to vote. (Pictured at right. Thanks to John Klein for sending it to me.) Many of the people who received them assumed they were official voter information cards from city administration and therefore that the clerk’s office was telling them how to vote. Mayor Fougere stated that the postcards were part of the No side’s marketing campaign and were not sent by city administration. And, while defending the voter information cards during the P3 debate at the university, Fougere stated that there is a firewall between the No side and the clerk’s office — and he was loudly booed.

There are more stories — such as an allegation by Florence Stratton that two councillors shouted at RWW petition volunteers that they (the volunteers) were liars; and a story reported in the Leader Post that Councillor Hawkins, while manning the Vote No table at the Farmers Market, made a woman cry — but the ones above are the major incidents.

Taken together, the optics are very, very bad. City hall has made a series of blunders on this issue and at every step their mistakes have made life much more difficult for the people in Regina who disagree with the direction council has taken on the wastewater P3.

For many people who I’ve spoken to, that adds up to a conspiracy to undermine the Yes campaign.

Now, I have a really good imagination. And I can still imagine a way in which all of these instances were the result of good intentions, bad communications, worse luck and maybe some honest clerical errors.

But even if that’s how things really played out behind the scenes, so what?

If a municipal democracy is functioning properly, it shouldn’t be hard for me to imagine that our institutions are acting within the law, in good faith and with everyone’s interests at heart – even the interests of people who openly disagree with them. It should be easy to imagine that.

I should just assume that’s the way things are working.

That’s why city officials are held to a higher standard than volunteers and people in the street. That’s why we have a professional civil service. It isn’t enough for them to just uphold the principles of the law behind closed doors. They have to be seen to be acting fairly, honestly and legally.

But when you have a series of public gaffes like these, people start to have doubts about their democratic institutions.

It starts to look like there are great big gaps in that firewall the Mayor claims has been raised between the clerk’s office and the No campaign and people start to wonder if they can trust their clerk’s office to run an election let alone a referendum — that’s why the audience booed Fougere so loudly.

It also starts to look like the No campaign can’t win the day on the basis of their logic and reasoning and have resorted to skullduggery. It starts to look like voters aren’t setting the direction for their city, something else — something sinister — is.

That doesn’t have to be the way things actually are. It’s bad enough when it just looks that way. Because that’s when you start hearing things like: “City council is in the hands of the developers,” or “The administration is really running the show downtown.”

And those are exactly the kinds of things I’ve been hearing.