Should the Town of Fort Frances put questions directly to voters on the 2022 civic election ballot?
Today at the Administration & Finance Executive Committee, I brought forward a proposal to ask Council to put ballot questions to the electorate as part of the 2022 municipal elections. These types of questions are sometimes referred to as municipal referendums.
The Municipal Elections Act, 1996 allows municipalities to place questions pertaining to issues of municipal jurisdiction, which can be answered as "YES" or "NO" on the ballot as part of the election. It is a tool to get community input on important projects, issues, or even legislative proposals before Council.
The Committee agreed to put forward the item for further discussion at Committee of the Whole on Monday, January 10. In order to make use of this tool, Council must pass a bylaw by March 1 indicating what questions it will place on the ballot.
To be frank, our Council is not as demographically representative as it could be, so I see value in engaging voters directly on big questions and strategic opportunities. We should use this opportunity to get wider input. Doing so can drive voter turnout, and give Council powerful and informative mandates on its community's desires. For example, we could ask electors whether we should amend the official plan to get truck traffic out of downtown or whether to proceed with a splash pad at Legion Park.
I routinely hear from some members of Council their desire to consult the community on projects or issues of high public interest, so I will be interested in whether they use this opportunity to do so. In my view, there is more than enough time to get this done.
Here are my remarks from today's Committee meeting (check against delivery):
Thank you. I asked that this item be placed on the agenda.
As members may know, the Municipal Elections Act allows a council to put ballot questions to its voters as part of the regular election. Some people might refer to this type of polling as a municipal referendum.
The next election is in October, and I have included with the agenda today an excerpt of the legislation with the most relevant sections highlighted.
The reason this discussion is timely is because to put questions on the ballot, the municipality must meet certain procedural requirements. The most imminent of those requirements are that we must adopt a bylaw to submit a question to electors by March 1. Before passing the bylaw, the legislation requires that the clerk give at least 10 days notice to the public and that we hold at least one public meeting to consider the matter.
Council only has 4 regular sessions scheduled between now and March 1, though we do have special meetings scheduled as well which could be used as necessary.
The reason that I think this is important – and a useful tool at this juncture – is that our municipality is at a fundamental and transformative point in its economic, demographic, and social evolution. The next council will have an opportunity to put in place a new strategic plan for the municipality that reflects that transition and new priorities.
Ballot questions can help to inform those priorities and guide decision-making. I can think of a number of issues and files that have been discussed by Council or in the community which would be worthy subject matter. For example, whether to amend the official plan to get truck traffic out of downtown, whether to proceed with a splash pad at Legion Park, or whether the Town should enter into negotiations to acquire the International Bridge if it comes on the market in the future.
The types of questions we are allowed to put to electors must be “YES” or “NO” questions involving matters within our jurisdiction. The results are binding on the municipality, so care must be taken to frame the questions appropriately and cautiously. I would propose, for example, to avoid questions which trigger large funding commitments, and instead to advance ones that inform planning or priority-setting on important issues or projects.
I raise this today because I believe there are a number of benefits to going directly to voters on big picture issues. In addition to driving turnout in our election, we can also get strong mandates from the community on certain themes or priorities, which can be used for funding applications and to make our case to other levels of government. Council often operates in an echo-chamber, and by conferring with our voters on community-building projects through ballot questions, we can break down these silos and get more representative feedback on issues that require tough decisions.
I think all of Council should have input on this, so what I am proposing today is that we ask the Clerk to compile some information for Council on ballot questions and the process, and that this matter go to the Administration and Finance section of the Committee of the Whole agenda for a discussion next week. I would suggest that Council be educated on ballot questions during that meeting, and that we request that it direct this committee to develop proposed questions for discussion and approval at Committee of the Whole at the January 24 meeting.
That will give us the February sessions of Council to hold a public meeting and meet all of the procedural requirements by March 1.
Subject to questions or comments, that is my suggestion for today and I seek the committee’s support for it.