Fougere: “It was the right thing to do.”

by Paul Dechene

Mayor Fougere - photo by Darrol Hofmeister

It was late and the media scrum around Mayor Michael Fougere was breaking up but I still felt like I needed something to open this article with.

“One last question?” I asked.

“Are you going to pick on me any more in your paper?” That’s Fougere kidding around. I think. But kidding on the square.

“Oh probably. Yeah. But maybe not today,” I said.

I have to admit, it’d be pretty hard to pick on him after what happened at that council meeting on Monday, July 23. Over 200 people tried to cram into Henry Baker Hall. They were squished together, sitting on stairs, spilling out into the foyer. City staff hooked up audio in an adjacent room so the overflow could listen to the proceedings there.

The only topic on the agenda that night was a report from the city clerk’s office rejecting a petition gathered by Regina Water Watch. The group was hoping to force a referendum on the public-private partnership that council is planning to use for its waste water plant upgrade. RWW gathered over 24,000 signatures but after the clerk was through double checking the petition, nearly one in three names had been struck from the list and the clerk declared the petition failed to hit the 19,310 signature mark needed to force a referendum.

People were mad.

No wonder that in the days since Jim Nicol, the city’s head of governance, declared the petition dead that the mayor and council had received an earful from people who still wanted a chance to vote on the P3. They’d received so many calls and e-mails that the mayor felt compelled to announce at a press briefing late Monday that he’d be asking council to call a referendum on the issue anyway.

Despite this, as the meeting was called to order, people were still steaming. They were getting to vote on the waste water plant but the stink that hung over the clerk’s petition report hadn’t faded.

And everyone I spoke to assumed that the mayor’s referendum would be rigged — that council would ask Regina voters a leading question designed to guarantee city hall an easy win. “Would you be willing to give up $58.5 million in federal support from the P3 Canada Fund and pay for the waste water treatment plant upgrade solely through your taxes?” Or something like that.

But that isn’t what happened.

Fougere’s motion went like this, “I want to put a motion on the floor that this city does have the referendum on the waste water treatment plant. That’s the first part of this motion, part A. And I’ll speak to the second one quickly as well: that we use the wording on the referendum of what’s in the petition.”

The room erupted in applause that quickly died away as Fougere read out the petition question that was now a referendum question, “Be it resolved that the Council of the City of Regina publicly finance, operate and maintain the new wastewater treatment plant for Regina through a traditional Design Bid Build (DBB) approach.”

I sure as hell wasn’t expecting this.

A vote followed shortly and his motion passed unanimously. I had just spent two days writing blog posts exploring the many reasons why the petition should have been considered valid and it all seemed kind of wasted.

Council was going ahead with the referendum and doing it on the terms that Regina Water Watch demanded.

And that brings me back to the question I saved for the end of the scrum with the mayor.

“So, I think it’s fair to say that with today’s decision, you’ll have blown Prairie Dog readers’ minds. Want to say anything to them?”

“Um, well, not to sound too trite about it,” I think that’s the mayor calling me trite, slyly, “but I want to say that council listens. I listened. All members of council listen. [Because] we don’t agree doesn’t mean we don’t hear you. We hear people all the time. And I’m hoping we can have an intelligent, respectful discussion and be tolerant of other people’s viewpoints. Because during this campaign period of a referendum, nerves will be frayed, people will say things and I understand all that and I respect people’s right to say anything they want to. I just hope it’s respectful, because we’ve heard you.”

Earlier, I’d asked him why, when he could have set the referendum question to anything he wanted, he decided to go with what was on the petition. “Because it was the right thing to do,” he replied.

“My thoughts evolved on this. I talked to my colleagues. I certainly got the temperature of the room. We talked about what was the right thing to do and how should we proceed with this. I just felt that that question, while I don’t want to do a Design Bid Build, I think that is an issue, this is an expression of many thousands of people who asked the question that way. I think that’s the right thing to do,” he continued.

As for Jim Holmes, the spokesperson for Regina Water Watch and one of the chief organizers behind the petition, he was naturally extremely happy about the outcome. When asked how he felt about the fact that the referendum would be using RWW’s question, he said that he was delighted.

“It is important what the question is, and it should be a clear question. And we think it is and I guess city council thinks it is because they’re going to put it forward,” said Holmes.

At one point during the press scrum, Mayor Fougere remarked, “Democracy is about the clash of ideas building a community.”

According to the Cities Act, that clash of ideas will play out now for eight weeks before a vote is actually called. On one side, the city will be defending its decision to go with a P3 model. On the other, Regina Water Watch, CUPE and other groups in the community will be making their case for why a DBB is the wiser option.

It will doubtless be a messy business. And there are certainly easier, cheaper ways to get a waste water treatment plant. But that’s democracy.

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