Why I’m Voting The Way I’m Voting

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013So… I’m voting “Yes” in the wastewater referendum. I know. “Prairie Dog guy is voting against a P3, big effing surprise.” It’s a no-brainer so I wasn’t even planning to write this. But hey, the Leader Post thinks you care how their financial editor, Bruce Johnstone, is voting (spoilers: he’s voting No… who saw that coming?!?), so indulge me.

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More Allegations Of City Hall Referendum Shenanigans

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.

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P3 Referendum Debate Video

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013Did you miss the September 19 sewage P3 debate put on by the Gyro Club? Maybe you’re not a Gyro or one of the lucky members of the press corps who got invites to this shindig?

Never fear. Aidan Morgan was there with his motion picture machine and documented all the proceedings for your viewing enjoyment.

The first part is here and the rest are below the fold.

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P3 Cost Comparison Infographic

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013Ever have one of those days where you sit down planning to do a quick little project that you reckon will be fun and easy and won’t take up too much time and then the next thing you know… boom, you’ve blown, well, hours and your whole family is thinking maybe you’ve had a psychotic break because you’re swearing at your computer like it’s a poorly performing sports team or a politician?

That’s me today. I decided to whip up a quick infographic about the sewage plant because I’ve been having trouble wrapping my head around all the frickin’ numbers that have been flying around and I thought I could put together something that would be a handy reference for other stuff I’m writing and that might give me a sense of the scale of everything.

Well, I finished it. And I’m posting it below along with explanatory notes. And it’s huge so beware…


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What Happens With The Potash Water? — An Answer To Greg’s Question

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013Greg posed a question a few posts back about the deal the city struck with Western Potash to use our grey water for some kind of extraction mining process. He was wondering what happens to the revenue that should come from that deal if we go ahead with a P3. Will the Sewage Consortium get that cash? It’s a good question. And related to that, by selling our water to Western Potash, will the specifications of the sewage treatment plant have to change and thereby put us in a position to run up extra costs with the Sewage Consortium?

I spoke with deputy city manager Brent Sjoberg a while back and he says that everything should be fine. The interview is after the jump…

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The Uncertain Costs Of A P3: Guest Blog Post By Morina Rennie

Morina Rennie is a professor of accounting in the University of Regina’s Faculty of Business Administration. She researches public sector accounting, risk management, and private company auditing.

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Regina Water War - Referendum 2013There has been a lot of posturing on both sides of the Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP) upgrade issue with much contradictory information being bandied about. People I have talked to are having trouble knowing what and who to believe. I have been studying the publicly available information on this issue (from an accounting prof’s perspective) and I’m hoping I might be able to say a few helpful things in relatively plain language in this commentary.

The City relies primarily on a consultant’s report prepared by Deloitte LLP which carried out a Value for Money analysis on various approaches to upgrading the WWTP. The three finalists were the traditional public sector procurement model (Design-Bid-Build or DBB); the P3 model (Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain or DBFOM); and a third hybrid option that is not on the referendum ballet. On the other side, Water Watch is relying on another consulting report, written by economist Hugh Mackenzie.

It seems that there are two main issues that have caused confusion:

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What’s The Worst That Could Happen If We Get A P3? – An Interview With Maude Barlow

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013

I interviewed Maude Barlow, the national chairperson for the Council of Canadians, for our upcoming issue. She was in town to take part in a forum put on by Regina Water Watch concerning the upcoming wastewater referendum, and as we were putting together a list of questions about P3s and wastewater I figured she was a good person to turn to for answers.

I only used a few quotes from her in the final article so I’m posting the entire interview below…

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Prairie Dog: What would you say is the worst thing that could happen if the No side wins and the P3 goes through?

Maude Barlow: My guess is it’ll be revisited in five years because all over the world when municipalities are coming into contracts with public-private partnerships they’re questioning it within a few years. Everybody’s been talking about the immediate cost and the arguments been going back and forth. But what we have to remember is over the life of the 30-year contract, paying high water rates by the people of this city, that’s the cost, that’s the issue. And people have got to start to realize what looks like some free money — in this case from the federal government and in other cases the company itself puts the big investment in — once they’ve paid back their investment they’re free to rake in profits as long-term high water rates. And it’s not going to take people here very long to realize that that’s the case.

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Tonight: Maude Barlow And Friends Take Down Big Sewage

Referendum 2013-Maude BarlowRegina Water War - Referendum 2013UPDATE: CJME has a good story on this morning’s press conference. Check it out. Here’s my original post.

There is an excellent, perhaps even can’t miss free event tonight for anyone who wants to be better  informed about the Sept. 25 referendum on Regina’s waste water sewage treatment plant at the University of Regina. Legendary Council Of Canadians national chairperson Maude Barlow, along with P3 expert Pierre Hamel and aquatic biochemist Marley Waiser will speak against the City Of Regina’s plan to  use a private company to design, build and operate Regina’s next waste water treatment plant. These aren’t trade union stooges or dippy local hippies* — these are smart, world-class thinkers who you can bet will make a clear, coherent case against the City’s plan.

If you’re struggling to understand the issues, tonight’s event will offer the best possible articulation of the Yes side’s position.

The public forum starts at 7:00 p.m. at the University of Regina education auditorium. It’s free, and so is the parking. These things often end in Q&As, so I suspect there will be an excellent chance to have your specific questions answered. And, especially if you’re planning on voting for City Council’s plan, you owe it to yourself to hear the other side make their best arguments. Don’t you think?

*No offence to our beloved dippy-hippy friends.

Busting Some Referendum Rumors

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013There sure are some crazy notions about the referendum swirling about the Regina rumor-scape these days. I thought it might be worthwhile putting a couple of them to rest.

The latest I’ve heard (last night at recreation program sign-up) is that the city clerk’s office has declared that for a Yes side win to be binding, they would need to capture 60 per cent of the vote and there would have to have been a 50 per cent voter turnout — an impossible threshold.

But that rumour is 100 per cent false.

I just spoke with Jim Nicol, executive director of governance, and he says some people may have read the provincial Referendum And Plebiscite Act and assumed it applies to the City of Regina. It doesn’t.¹

“Ours is a strict 50 per cent plus one [vote],” says Nicol.

And that means that if only 10,000 people show up to vote, the question of whether to P3 or not P3 could be decided by as few as 5,001 people.

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Why The Rush To The Sewage Plant?

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013You’ll recall how I interviewed Mayor Michael Fougere three weeks ago to talk about possible alternate sources of funding for the waste water sewage plant project in the event that we can’t access P3 Canada Fund dollars because of a Yes side win.

Alternate sources like the new, soon-to-be replenished Building Canada Fund.

Fougere said the Building Canada wouldn’t work (read the article for a dissenting opinion on that) because the BCF that restarts after 2014 is a new fund and would require all projects be vetted for P3 viability.¹

Well, that got me wondering, why didn’t we access the old Building Canada Fund? I mean, here we are racing to get our waste water sewage treatment plant built in time so our waste water sewage will comply with new federal water quality regulations — and we’re going to be cutting things seriously close. But it’s not like these water regulations are some kind of big surprise.

City council has been talking about upgrading our waste water sewage treatment plant for a very long time. But we haven’t been actually getting it upgraded until just now.

I asked Mayor Fougere about why we’ve been so sluggish…

Prairie Dog: This sewage treatment plant project has been looming in the background at council for a long time. Almost as long as I’ve been covering city hall. Why didn’t we get funding secured for it three, four, five years ago when the Building Canada Fund was there? Why are we only getting this done now?

Mayor Fougere: I’ll have to go back and look at some of the reports and give me a chance to look at those to be clear on this one before I answer in detail. But it’s also we’re building up our own reserves because part of the funding is we were paying through the reserves as well and it was the timing to go forward. Building Canada wasn’t available at that time, I don’t think it was when you’re talking about it, unless we’re going back even further, that Building Canada wasn’t necessarily there at all. So it was when we’re ready to do it, when we felt we needed to do it and when we had the capacity to do the project.

PD: There were even other funds available at one time though. The Canada Saskatchewan Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund,² for instance, that maybe we could have accessed seeing as we’ll be entering into agreements with rural municipalities [to use our waste water facility]. It’s almost as if we’re coming at this late in the game and now things are rushed.

MF: I don’t feel that way at all. I don’t think we’re rushed on this at all. We needed to get the work done so you can rewrite history I suppose and say we should do something different but we weren’t ready to do the project at the time. We were still designing the project, looking at the timing of that relative to other infrastructure needs, so I wouldn’t want to rewrite and say we should’ve done something differently because we weren’t ready to go then.

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No Really, Capitalists Should TOTALLY Be Backing The Yes Side, Amirite? — An Interview With Brent Sjoberg

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013Hey! Look at this! I actually did do an interview with deputy city manager, Brent Sjoberg, executive lead on the waste water sewage plant P3. Just last week. And I transcribed the whole dang thing.

Maybe I’m not such a lazy toad, afterall.¹

I basically asked Sjoberg the same questions I asked the Mayor in that interview excerpt I posted yesterday. Sjoberg’s answers, though, were a little more… erm… comprehensive. (Interview clocks in at a whopping 3,000 words.)

So, as for why aren’t sewage treatment companies supporting the Yes side and trying to stop these P3s from happening, Sjoberg gave me a very detailed answer that ends with…

One of the factors is with P3s, they are a long term contract. And they are larger contracts. I mentioned in this case the P3 would not only be in construction but in the ongoing operations and maintenance. Instead of, to use the P3 numbers, instead of a $224 million project it’s a $760 million project over 30 years. That’s a big project. It’s attractive and that’s the business that they’re in. So usually they’re well versed on various different models and they do assessment of each project and determine that there’s something for them and that’s part of our process.

On the subject of how water rates will be set through the P3, I was under the impression that the waste water portion of the rate could fluctuate and so the private partner might be able to influence the rate over the lifespan of the project. Sjoberg says no.

What ends up happening under a P3 procurement and contract is the rates paid to the private consortium for operating and maintenance are determined in advance. For the duration of the 30 years. So that’s the I guess a little bit of the benefit of having a competitive process. So each of the consortiums are bidding on the project not only for the construction portion but they’re also bidding on it for the 30 year maintenance.

And as for what kind of reporting requirements will be on the private partner and what form they’ll take, Sjoberg explained it this way…

The contract that is structured with them has a whole level of performance requirements and reporting requirements. There’s compliance reviews and all kinds of work going on on a regular basis. At the administrative level they would be reporting to the city more often than they would be to council. I can’t say specifically if there’s a requirement for them to report to council. In any event the administration would do that as part of our regular process.

In the interest of providing maximum pre-referendum info-dumpage, I’m posting the entire interview below.

Continue reading “No Really, Capitalists Should TOTALLY Be Backing The Yes Side, Amirite? — An Interview With Brent Sjoberg”

Why Aren’t The Capitalists Backing Regina Water Watch? An Interview With Mayor Michael Fougere

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013Hey Regina. How’re things? I’ve been on holidays. Sorry, booked them long before you decided to kick your autumn off with a “referendum.” Mind you, I left detailed instructions with our esteemed editor, S. Whitworth Esq., about stuff that needed covering on the waste water sewage P3 vote but apparently he fukken ignored them.

In my absence, I hear Chad Novak has been scooping the hell out of us on the referendum front. I wouldn’t know. My first week of holiday was spent in the Narrow Hills without any access to the internet. I read a book. It was a great experience. These books they make out of paper nowadays are awesome. I predict they’re totally going to overtake laptops and iWhatsits as text readers. I can’t believe I used to do all my reading on a backlit screen.

How primitive.

Anyway, since I got back to civilization — such as it is — I’ve been doing the domestic bliss thing, paying exclusive attention to first days of Grade Two and waffle making. And as for the internet, if it was about something other than comic books, I didn’t read it.

Then the other day, our next door neighbour put up a “Vote Yes” sign on their lawn and I thought, “Ah shit, right. Referendum. I should write something about that.”

Fortunately, I had something in the can all ready to put on the web and here it is! An interview with our mayor, Michael Fougere about P3s, private companies and profit margins returns on investment.

Continue reading “Why Aren’t The Capitalists Backing Regina Water Watch? An Interview With Mayor Michael Fougere”

The Mayor Called Me Last Night, How About You?

This Week at City HallTwitter was all abuzz last night with tales of people receiving phone calls from a recorded Mayor Michael Fougere, entreating them to vote “No” in the upcoming waste water treatment plant P3 referendum. There was even a comment on the blog about it.

Of course, Fougere didn’t refer to it as a waste water treatment plant, the phrase is sewage treatment plant now.

I know this because I also received one of these automated calls. I found it a little off-putting because I’m actually expecting a call from the Mayor to interview him about the referendum. So when I picked up the phone and heard, “Hello, this is Mayor Michael Fougere.” I was like, “Oh, thanks for getting back to me.”

I was three quarters the way through my interview questions before I realized I was talking to a recording.

Continue reading “The Mayor Called Me Last Night, How About You?”


83B_9840Tonight, at a special meeting of council to consider the rejection of Regina Water Watch’s petition, Mayor Fougere moved to call a referendum on the waste water plant P3.

He also moved the question on the petition should be the same as the one used on the Regina Water petition.

A vote was held and the motion passed unanimously.

And that means we’re having a referendum in probably around eight weeks.

I think it’s safe to call this a big win for the people who came out to speak tonight and for all those who collected the 24,000 names on the RWW petition. And it also strikes me as a pretty daring move by Mayor Fougere.

With that, I’m going to bury myself under a blanket and write a story about this for the next issue of Prairie Dog. It comes out on Thursday.

Final Thoughts On The Waste Water Petition Before Tonight’s Council Meeting

This’ll probably be my last chance to do any blogging before tonight but I wanted to follow up on that last post about the statistics used in the clerk’s report.

I hope by this point, after writing on this for two days straight, that it’s obvious that the petition only failed because the clerk was using some very debatable assumptions. Namely, that signatures should be deleted for not including the year and that she was expected to conduct two verification processes in sequence.

  • If the clerk just did a line-by-line run through of the petition and left out the signatures that didn’t include the year, then the petition passes the referendum threshold with 20,072 signatures.
  • If the clerk just did the line-by-line run through of the petition and kept the signatures that didn’t include the year, then the petition passes the referendum threshold with 22,906 signatures.
  • If the clerk did the line-by-line run through of the petition, kept the signatures that didn’t include the year and conducted the phone survey, the petition passes the referendum threshold with between 19,332 and 20,732 valid signatures.
  • And if the clerk did just the phone survey and during that also verified the year in which people remembered signing the petition… well, I can’t speculate on the actual numbers that would result from that but I think it’s obvious based on the results of the scenario immediately preceding this one that the petition would have passed the referendum threshold.

There are four scenarios with slightly tweaked assumptions about how the verification procedure should be conducted and in all of them the petition passes the referendum threshold. And note that you can argue that each of these scenarios is more valid than the one used by the city clerk.

In fact, the only way to make this petition fail is to do this paring down of the list of names that the clerk embarked upon.

Many people have said this to me over the last few days: It’s like the clerk devised a method specifically to make the petition fail.

And yet the Mayor continues to remind us that the clerk’s office is independent of council and administration in this matter. And as far as the letter of the Cities Act is concerned, her office is certainly supposed to be acting independently. And it probably is.

But I think what many people are concerned about is the clerk’s objectivity.

Dear City Clerk: Don’t Mean To Be Picky But While We’re On The Subject Of Stuff You’ve Maybe Done Wrong…

City Hall-RWW petition_sad Jim Holmes-2After writing that last post about how the clerk’s office probably violated the Cities Act when they conducted two verifications of the waste water petition, I spent some time rooting through my “I’m No Lawyer, But…” file folder¹ and found a sheet on which was written the question, “Does the clerk’s office even have the authority to phone people who’ve signed a petition?”²

Kind of sounds like a dumb question. Why wouldn’t they? When people put their names on a public document knowing full well that it will be handed off to city hall, there really shouldn’t be anything stopping the city clerk from phoning them up to verify that they are who they say they are.

However, I’m not sure things are quite that cut and dried.

First of all, there’s the fact that the Cities Act doesn’t require a person include contact information with their signature. There’s a block for address — presumably to verify that the person is a Regina resident and thus eligible to sign the petition — but no requirement to list a phone number or e-mail address. From this, one could argue that by signing a petition you have indicated that you are willing to be counted as among the people who believe that a certain issue should be decided by a referendum. But, you haven’t by signing your name given consent to be contacted about your views on the matter.

I mean, if the people who drafted the Cities Act had wanted Saskatchewan’s city clerks to be phoning up petitioners, you’d think they’d have added a line to the legislation that there should be a box for phone number or e-mail address on every petition line. It would have saved city clerks across the province oodles of time. And would make it possible for them to contact people who own a cell phone but don’t have a landline. (I hear people like that actually exist nowadays. Weirdos.)

But if the Act doesn’t provide a city clerk with a way to contact petitioners, how’s she supposed to double check if the signatures have been collected correctly?

Continue reading “Dear City Clerk: Don’t Mean To Be Picky But While We’re On The Subject Of Stuff You’ve Maybe Done Wrong…”

Dear City Clerk: You’re Doing It Wrong

City Hall-RWW petition_Jim Nicol-1You may have noticed in all the coverage of the rejection of Regina Water Watch’s petition how the clerk’s office conducted two verification processes. First, they excluded petitioners who they felt signed the petition improperly — 4,289 names were removed in this step.

And then the clerk’s office phoned random petitioners to see if they were qualified to sign. The clerk was able to exclude up to another 3,131 names after this.

Well, it turns out, the clerk’s office is only supposed to conduct one of these verification steps. Not both.

I spoke with Jacklyn Demerse, a PhD candidate in political science from the University of Western Ontario who’s studying local government. She’s an expat Reginan who’s taught classes in municipal governance at the University of Regina’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and she’s been following the waste water petition closely. Here’s what she has to say¹ on the clerk’s decision to do two verifications…

It clearly states in the legislation … that when you look at [section 108], you can validate the numbers by going through the list — so, the name, the date, the address, the witness. Or, instead of these things you can do a sample.

So what happened was instead of the city validating the list or taking a sample from the large list what they did is they made that list smaller first and then they took a sample from that. And that’s not something that— it’s pretty clear in the legislation that you do one or the other, you don’t do both.

The legislation that Demerse is referring to is Saskatchewan’s Cities Act. Here’s what it says in section 108 (emphasis added)…

(3) In counting the number of petitioners on a petition, the clerk shall exclude the name of any person:
(a) whose signature is not witnessed;
(b) whose signature appears on a page of the petition that does not have the same purpose statement that is contained on all the other pages of the petition;
(c) whose printed name is not included or is incorrect;
(d) whose street address or legal description of land is not included or is incorrect;
(e) if the date when the person signed the petition is not stated; or
(f) who signed the petition before the date mentioned in clause 107(4)(c).

(4) A clerk may use a random statistical sampling method with a 95% confidence level to determine the sufficiency of the petition, instead of verifying that the requirements of subsection (3) have been met with respect to each petitioner.

You’ll note that the legislation says that the clerk can do the statistical sampling instead of verifying every line. Not that the clerk can also conduct a statistical sample.

Couldn’t be more clear.

And you might say, “Well, that’s a pretty small point.” But, if city clerk Joni Swidnicki is going to be so rigorous in her application of the word of law that she’ll delete 2,834 names from the petition because they didn’t include a year with the date, I think it’s fair to expect she apply a similar rigid interpretation of the letter of the Cities Act.

We’re nitpicking the nitpickers, as it were.

Continue reading “Dear City Clerk: You’re Doing It Wrong”

The City Of Regina Rejects RWW’s Petition Because Thousands Of People Who Signed It Didn’t Write The Year 2013 Next To Their Names… Wait, Seriously? You Really Expect People To Buy That Line? Well Okay Then. I Admire Your Chutzpah.

As I was worried might happen, Regina city clerk Joni “Nitpicky” Swidnicki has used an Orwellian definition of the word “date” to recommend rejecting a legitimate citizen petition with over 24,000 signatures. She did this, I can only assume, because City Hall is really, really scared it would lose a public referendum on their precious private water treatment plant. If you want the straight facts you can go to CBC or the Leader-Post, both of whom will have excellent, accurate reporting. Or you could read Paul Dechene’s post, which I haven’t read yet but assume is excellent. [Dechene here: It’s just so-so. Mostly I just retyped the clerk’s report and calculated a few percentages. I spent some of this afternoon acting as a meat shield for my kids during a hail storm. And right now, retyping is all I have in me.] As for me, well, I’m going to rant. So buckle up.

After this afternoon’s announcement at City Hall by director of governance and strategy Jim “No Questions” Nicol (I assume Nitpicky Swidnicki was hiding under a desk elsewhere in the building and therefore unavailable), Regina Mayor Michael Fougere came downstairs to address media. Fougere, looking dapper in his grey suit with his fabulous Fougehair gleaming under the foyer’s fluorescent lights, stressed that rejecting the petition had nothing to do with council’s wishes. Nope! He pointed out that the city clerk’s office is independent from council but he thinks the clerk’s decision is reasonable and CLEARLY everyone’s hands are tied but trust him, no one at city hall hates democracy or is a fascist.

And anyways council will meet on Monday to talk more about this. And blah blah blahdy-blah.

If I recall correctly (I was busy taking unflattering pictures), Fougere was asked by one reporter if he’d spoken to the clerk about the decision before it was released. Which would of course be insanely inappropriate. Instead of answering the question, he merely said, repeatedly, that the clerk is independent of council. Uh huh.

So what now? Well, council could greenlight the referendum anyway. They kind of better, in my view, because Nitpicky’s sense of what is and is not a valid signature is total malarkey.

However, I doubt Council will validate a referendum that Nitpicky Swidnicki worked so hard to sabotage (but definitely not on their behalf, nooo).

Yeah. I think Regina Water Watch will have to take them to court to get this referendum.

Council will review the report on Monday night. If you care about this topic, get your butt to that meeting to let these councillors know by your frowny-faced presence that you’re deeply offended by citizen petitions being squashed for bullshit reasons.

And when council rejects the referendum–and they will–don’t be a whiny, discouraged pussy. Just start fundraising for legal action.

More to come later and in next week’s Prairie Dog.

Waste Water Petition Blasts Past Referendum Threshold

Yeesh. I'm a horrible photographer.Looks like there’s a pretty good chance Regina will be going to the polls to decide if our waste water plant will be built using a public-private partnership.

Around 7pm, I dropped by Artesian — that’s where Regina Water Watch volunteers gathered to collect petitions and tally the signatures — and at that time they reported they’d already passed the 22,000 signature mark.

That means they’ve easily surpassed the 19,310 signatures needed to force a referendum on the waste water treatment plant redevelopment.

This is all assuming, of course, that the city clerk’s office gives the petition their stamp of approval. They’ll have 30 days to go over the list of names and make sure everything is in order. And if the city clerk doesn’t find any reason to strike 3,000 plus names off the petition, city council will have to go ahead with a referendum on the waste water P3 within nine months.

Incidentally, Regina Water Watch has also passed the 20,742 signature mark that would have been required had the province agreed to the city’s request last week to raise the referendum threshold. But provincial government relations minister Jim Reiter turned the city down so the group will be bringing their stack of petition sheets to city hall tomorrow confident they have a much safer buffer.

Another benchmark to note: when I showed up, a volunteer pointed out to me that Regina Water Watch has also gathered more signatures than Mayor Michael Fougere earned in votes in October’s election. I double checked and Fougere was elected with 21,685 votes. And in fact, the total votes cast for everyone on council — that’s all 10 wards — is just 22,024.

Kind of puts into context the amount of discontent that’s brewing out there for the city’s P3 waste water plan. And doubtless, by now, the signature tally will only have increased.

Regina Water Watch will be handing off their stack of signatures to city hall tomorrow afternoon.