City Hall better not reject RWW’s water plant petition on flimsy grounds

by Stephen Whitworth

There’s a lot of really good stuff to read in this edition, from Aidan Morgan and Chris Morin’s spectacular feature on legendary Regina band The Extroverts to our always-entertaining (and usually semi-incoherent) annual booze feature. But if you only read one thing, it’s got to be Paul Dechene’s story on Regina Water Watch’s waste water treatment plant petition. It’s important.

As you’ll know if you’ve been following the controversy, the City of Regina is building a new waste water treatment plant. This is good. We need one. The old one rots. The potential problem, however, is the way we’re building it: using a public-private partnership that will result in a private company not just building the thing but managing it for decades.

Critics worry that because a P3 model needs profit to function, this project will end up being more expensive than having city workers run the new facility. They also worry that when the private company’s contract is up and the City of Regina takes over the thing’s management, we’ll run into a situation where city workers lack critical, detailed knowledge and experience with a now-aging plant.

There’s also the basic principle that something as essential to life as water shouldn’t be viewed as something to profit from.

For these reasons, Regina Water Watch launched a petition drive. They needed to collect just shy of 20,000 valid signatures to force the City to hold a public referendum on the new waste water plant. They collected over 24,000 signatures, so the referendum should be a go.

But there’s a problem.

Regina’s city clerk Joni Swidnicki is currently validating signatures. That’s her job and it’s in the public interest that this be done. However, she’s using extremely rigid criteria and apparently disqualifying signatures on flimsy pretences — such as signatures that contain a month and date, but not a year. Really?

The City has already pulled some bureaucratic bullshit to try and thwart this petition—a week before its deadline, they attempted, unsuccessfully, to have the referendum threshhold raised (incidentally, it wouldn’t have mattered in the end, because Regina Water Watch beat the referendum level by about 4,000 signatures)

I understand why the City is nervous: if the P3 is shot down we’ll lose federal funding, because the Conservatives, being ideological hacks, have tied it to using P3s, and that’s not City Hall’s fault.

But the City needs to understand that a referendum is a public right. It’s not even guaranteed to reject the plant’s construction model, though the possibility is there.

A petition drive that collected over 20,000 signatures is a powerful indicator of public unease with a major infrastructure project involving an essential resource—water. It’s clearly time to have a larger discussion about this. So unless there is clear evidence of major shenanigans, disqualifying the petition — a possibility that seems strong at this point — will be an intolerable rebuke to the thousands of people who care about this issue.

It would quite possibly be a step too far for a City Hall that has consistently displayed a consistent pattern of dismissing the concerns of engaged citizens other than developers and the business community.

The public should watch this evolving situation carefully.