Regina’s city clerk is a self-appointed stickler for correctly-written dates

by Paul Dechene

The saga of the waste water treatment plant petition keeps getting more convoluted. The latest development since Regina Water Watch dropped off their list of 24,000-plus signatures for verification with the city clerk’s office is that the city clerk is striking names off the petition if the date accompanying the signature isn’t written properly.

And by properly, city clerk, Joni Swidnicki means that it has to include the day, month and year. Just writing June the something-or-other won’t cut it.

“That is what’s going on,” says Swidnicki. “And what it is, is that the Cities Act doesn’t define date. So what I did was I went with what’s in the dictionary, which is day, month, year.”

As anyone who’s been following this story knows, Regina Water Watch is not a fan of the City of Regina’s decision to go with a public-private partnership (P3) model to build the next waste water treatment plant. The City’s plan would give a 30-year contract to a private corporation to design, finance, build, operate and manage the plant. RWW wants the city to go with a traditional procurement process, where the city seeks out companies to build the plant but manages it in-house after that.

Hence the petition, which is intended to force a public referendum on the issue.

Back to the petition dates: it seems odd that the year could be in any way ambiguous considering there wasn’t even a waste water public-private partnership (P3) in the cards until February of 2013. But Swidnicki says that she’s seeing dates listed on the petition as 2012, 2015, and 2017.

Swidnicki says that when she is verifying the petition, just as when she’s acting as returning officer in an election, she is acting completely independent of council and administration and her role is spelled out in the Cities Act. And while the Act allows her some latitude during an election to interpret a voter’s intent on a ballot, it doesn’t grant her such latitude when verifying a petition.

“So I’m only validating on what’s in front of me,” she explains.

For Regina Water Watch, having all the signatures that lack a year in the date column come off the petition is a cause for worry. According to Jim Holmes, spokesperson for the group, when they checked over the petition for incomplete dates, they rejected about 14 per cent of the names.

Considering the threshold that will force a referendum is about 19,300 names, to invalidate the petition, the clerk would have to reject roughly 19 per cent of the 24,000 names collected.

Fourteen per cent is getting close to that.

In addition, it turns out that the clerk’s office is also phoning people who’ve signed the petition to verify whether they’re eligible to vote in Regina — if you aren’t, then according to the Cities Act you don’t count on petitions about city policies and bylaws.

The Act, however, doesn’t require the clerk to go through this additional step of phoning up petitioners. It doesn’t even mention it, in fact. What’s more, the petition doesn’t include a box for phone numbers so city clerks are actually looking those up.

They’re certainly going above and beyond. And this isn’t the first time. A mere week before the petition’s deadline, the City Clerk’s office attempted to have the referendum threshold raised by 1,432 signatures.

Jim Holmes wonders if all this extra rigour is necessary. He points out that the petition isn’t an election. There are no secret ballots and no returning officers. Lawyers aren’t collecting and notarizing the signatures.

It’s a social act.

On the one hand, that means errors are a natural by-product of the process.

“People tend to follow what people above them have done on that sheet,” says Holmes. “Often what you’ll see is if someone makes a mistake filling the thing out, people will often follow that mistake all the way down.”

Also, he notes that the petition itself doesn’t have any real authority.

“The petition doesn’t do anything,” Holmes says. “It doesn’t say when we get to 19,300 signatures we have to stop the waste water treatment plant. No. It gets us a vote.”

Whether or not Reginans will get that vote will be decided on July 22 when Swidnicki presents her findings to city council. And if the petition survives a process this vigorous, it’s legitimacy will be that much stronger.

Over 24,000 people signed Regina Water Watch’s petition. That’s more than the number of people who voted for Mayor Fougere, and more than the combined votes for all the sitting councillors. If a referendum does get called on the P3, that’s a hell of a lot of people who are going to need convincing that a waste water P3 is the way to go.

But if 19 per cent of those names get thrown out — that’s one in five — and the petition is rejected, that’s going to be a hell of a lot of pissed off voters.