Council rejects ballot question

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No capital-projects plebiscite coming in October

St. Albertans won’t get a chance to have their opinions on capital projects noted on the ballot for the next municipal election after all.

Council defeated Coun. Bob Russell’s motion March 13, to have administration craft a question to solicit feedback from voters about capital projects for the next four years when they head to the polls this fall, by a 4-3 vote.

“Obviously, I’m very disappointed about it,” he said. “It would have gotten us away from the criticism we got over the Banister survey.”

The city commissioned Banister Research to survey residents last fall, seeking feedback on which of three proposed major projects were more important to them: a branch library, a new ice surface, and a new or expanded aquatics facility. Criticism of the survey Russell cited included the fact anyone who answered the phone was allowed to answer rather than just the head of the household, and the fact there was no “none of the above” option.

A branch library was ultimately funded in the 2017 budget, while ice-surface and aquatics-facility expansions were not, with survey results playing heavily into council debate on the issue.

Over the next 10 years, if all projects on the capital list are funded, the city could be facing a deficit of more than $300 million.

Coun. Sheena Hughes said she supported having a ballot question because of that deficit the next council will have to deal with, but also because too often council is swayed by vocal interest groups that don’t necessarily represent all voters.

“We have organized lobbying, where they all come and email council with 100 emails, getting their friends and family to email, their dogs, and God knows who else they can find to hit the send button,” she said.

Coun. Cam MacKay said all a question or questions on the ballot would do is solicit feedback from voters in a way that’s more valid than the surveys that have been done.

“I would like to see as many questions as you can put on there, put to the electorate,” he said.

Mayor Nolan Crouse and councillors Wes Brodhead, Cathy Heron and Tim Osborne cast the four votes opposed to the motion, each citing similar concerns about the ambiguity of the question at hand, the potential cost to hold a plebiscite as part of the election, and how one would interpret the answers.

Brodhead noted even if you ask about support for just 10 of the dozens of capital projects slated for the next four years in the city’s capital plan, it would be difficult if not impossible to be able to provide enough background information for residents to make an informed decision.

“How do you craft a question that everybody’s going to have clear understanding of how to respond to?” he asked. “And how does the next council interpret that?”

Crouse asked about the cost implications of putting such a question on the ballot. He noted the ballot question in 2004 about Servus Place – which solicited a simple yes/no answer on a single project – cost around $150,000.

Corporate services manager Maya Pungur-Buick said it was impossible to gauge the potential cost until the question itself was determined.

Osborne raised half a dozen concerns, including the fact surveys had already been done to solicit feedback, the approved budget calendar would have council debating projects before the vote regardless, a ballot question would change the focus of the election away from the candidates, and the fact a ballot question would exclude feedback from anyone younger than 18.

Russell said he wasn’t swayed by the concerns he heard about the costs and complexities of such a question, as residents of St. Albert are generally intelligent and all the information has already been produced and regardless, worrying about costs of a project is moot if residents aren’t even interested in it.

“Let people tell us whether they want the damn thing or not,” he said.

A defeated motion cannot come back before council for a year, meaning barring extraordinary circumstances, there will be no question on the ballot Oct. 18.

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Doug Neuman