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.

According to that release, Yes-side scrutineers allege that polling clerks are overstepping the rules when handing out advance ballots. From the release:

In at least two cases, a clerk offered the instruction, “Vote yes for Regina Water Watch, vote no for City Council,” while handing the ballot to voters. When Regina citizen Mary Arpin went to vote, the poll clerk gave unsolicited conflicting information, ending with the comment, “a 57 million dollar difference.”

Later on, the release states:

Holmes says that even more troubling are reports from the seniors’ residences where voters were not provided the legally required secret place to mark their ballot. At one residence Water Watch was only allowed to speak to residents days after the ballots had been distributed and mostly collected. Some residents claimed the Mayor had spoken to them immediately before the ballots were distributed. Regina Water Watch had requested to have observers present during all of the special polls, but was denied.

If true, these stories are troubling — but right now they’re just stories and I’m not blogging about them to say, “Okay, this is what happened, it’s egregious, time to round up the mob, light the torches and storm city hall.”

It isn’t time to do that. Put the torches away.

No, the noteworthy part for me is less what may or may not have happened here but rather the fact that I find it completely plausible that polling clerks would be acting inappropriately. And that means I have joined the ranks of cynical bastards who just assumes the worst about this referendum — that there’s something hinky going on.

I mean, if this was the first report of weirdness related to this referendum then I’d dismiss the story and not even bother to write about it. Seriously, I’d really much rather be doing housework right now — that’s how tired I am of reporting on this referendum.

But the thing is there are just so many confirmed cases of city hall behaving poorly that stories like these now seem representative of standard operating procedure downtown instead of outliers from the mean. Let’s take a look at a few instances…

The Case of the Rising Threshold: Just before Regina Water Watch dropped off their petition, the city clerk’s office notified them that they had applied to the provincial government to raise the threshold required to force a referendum by about 1,000 signatures. The Government Relations Minister turned down their request.

The Missing Year Mystery: After the petition was dropped off and after verification of the 24,000 signatures on it had begun, the city clerk announced that they would be disqualifying any signature that was not accompanied by a full date that included the day, month and year. The petition was ultimately deemed insufficient to force a referendum as the clerks disqualified over a quarter of the names collected — 2,800 of them because the year had been left off the date.

The Double Jeopardy Detection: It was also revealed that the clerk’s office conducted two verification passes through the list of petition signatures even though the provincial Cities Act explicitly states that only one should be done. And it also turns out that the only way the petition could be deemed invalid is if both verifications were conducted in sequence. If either one was done singly — as the Act says is appropriate — then the petition would have passed the threshold.

The City Tweets at Midnight: Once the referendum campaign began, people were alarmed to find that the city’s Twitter feed was being used to promote the Vote No side. When questioned, the mayor said he considers it completely appropriate for city staff to promote the No position on the referendum.

BUjNs5jCcAEwThe Imprudent Postcard Incident: Most recently, people received Vote No cards that also informed them of where they’re supposed to vote. (Pictured at right. Thanks to John Klein for sending it to me.) Many of the people who received them assumed they were official voter information cards from city administration and therefore that the clerk’s office was telling them how to vote. Mayor Fougere stated that the postcards were part of the No side’s marketing campaign and were not sent by city administration. And, while defending the voter information cards during the P3 debate at the university, Fougere stated that there is a firewall between the No side and the clerk’s office — and he was loudly booed.

There are more stories — such as an allegation by Florence Stratton that two councillors shouted at RWW petition volunteers that they (the volunteers) were liars; and a story reported in the Leader Post that Councillor Hawkins, while manning the Vote No table at the Farmers Market, made a woman cry — but the ones above are the major incidents.

Taken together, the optics are very, very bad. City hall has made a series of blunders on this issue and at every step their mistakes have made life much more difficult for the people in Regina who disagree with the direction council has taken on the wastewater P3.

For many people who I’ve spoken to, that adds up to a conspiracy to undermine the Yes campaign.

Now, I have a really good imagination. And I can still imagine a way in which all of these instances were the result of good intentions, bad communications, worse luck and maybe some honest clerical errors.

But even if that’s how things really played out behind the scenes, so what?

If a municipal democracy is functioning properly, it shouldn’t be hard for me to imagine that our institutions are acting within the law, in good faith and with everyone’s interests at heart – even the interests of people who openly disagree with them. It should be easy to imagine that.

I should just assume that’s the way things are working.

That’s why city officials are held to a higher standard than volunteers and people in the street. That’s why we have a professional civil service. It isn’t enough for them to just uphold the principles of the law behind closed doors. They have to be seen to be acting fairly, honestly and legally.

But when you have a series of public gaffes like these, people start to have doubts about their democratic institutions.

It starts to look like there are great big gaps in that firewall the Mayor claims has been raised between the clerk’s office and the No campaign and people start to wonder if they can trust their clerk’s office to run an election let alone a referendum — that’s why the audience booed Fougere so loudly.

It also starts to look like the No campaign can’t win the day on the basis of their logic and reasoning and have resorted to skullduggery. It starts to look like voters aren’t setting the direction for their city, something else — something sinister — is.

That doesn’t have to be the way things actually are. It’s bad enough when it just looks that way. Because that’s when you start hearing things like: “City council is in the hands of the developers,” or “The administration is really running the show downtown.”

And those are exactly the kinds of things I’ve been hearing.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

29 thoughts on “More Allegations Of City Hall Referendum Shenanigans”

  1. Wow, you should have heard the varying types of questions asked by poll clerks during municipal elections, when they wanted to ascertain from voters which school board ballot, public or separate, was the appropriate one to hand over. Poll clerks are volunteers with a smidgeon of training, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that what looks like gaffes are happening.
    That said, I agree that the optics are pretty bad, so bad that I’d argue massive incompetence rather than massive conspiracy.

    I hate to say it, but it looks as though Water Watch has lost confidence in the outcome of the vote, and is already lining up excuses for failure…and that is disappointing.

  2. I’m totally disgusted by the city employees, the council, the chamber of commerce… I’m ashamed to see actions like these in my city. Misleading information, tax money being spent on the referendum and my councillor being unable or unwilling to answer my questions. Even aside from any shenanigans at the voting stations, I feel this whole process has been undemocratic.

  3. C’mon everybody. If the City administration were truly unethical, they’d appoint the scandalized City Clerk who tried messing with the petition process as the Chief Returning Officer and get her to oversee the vote she tried to illegitimately block. Oh wait, they did.

  4. Paul – you can add another smoking gun mystery to your list… those ‘town hall’ conference calls.

    They don’t appear to have been publicized in advance, so when and where were they held, Were they truly town hall meetings, or scripted with plant questions and pre-recorded?
    They both seemed to start mid-meeting, and the host seemed to be campaigning not hosting.

    Real town hall meetings are published in advance so citizens can participate, and normally conference calls are recorded for easy playback by anyone that couldn’t attend.

    Blogger John Klein’s recording appears to give us the answer. He records well after the meeting ends and caught some damning fingerprint evidence.

    The conference calls appear to have been staged by Front Porch Strategies, the same company implicated recently in Republican and Tory election robocall scandals.

    They sell a fake conference call service called ‘Teleforum’ that promises they can manipulate up to 85% of listeners to vote for the customer’s candidate. In this case, it appears the city may have used this firm to broadcast the fake town hall meetings. If this can be proven, it would pretty much invalidate the whole referendum, and require a do-over.

  5. Barb: More I think about it, the more I wonder if it isn’t incompetence so much as an early bout of inflexible hyper-competence twinned with some really tone deaf communications.

    Or not. I don’t know.

    My point though is that each time you add another one of these incidents to the pile, you get a few more people hitting the point where they say, “Okay, this is just TOO coincidental. Clearly, it’s a conspiracy.”

    And at the same time, the threshold drops for what counts as inexcusable behaviour from city hall. I don’t know that we would have heard these stories about poll clerks phrased in quite this way if we hadn’t gone through that nonsense with the dates on the petition.

  6. Reader: Yeah, the town hall calls. Those were… odd… to say the least. Forgot to mention them. Thanks.

  7. Really, Barb? Based on this long list of shenanigans, it looks like the city has been the one lining up excuses. Too many vote no toilet fumes clouding your brain.

  8. Hey, second from the bottom: all you’re doing is detracting from the credibility of Water Watch. Save your energy for your Grade Eight grad.

  9. Read about the company that’s apparently been manipulating Regina voters:

    http://www.vancouverobserver.com/politics/2012/04/16/us-firm-used-widely-tory-mps-not-always-cited-elections-canada-reports

    Their company marketing states: “Our passion is helping Republican candidates, elected officials, and conservative causes win by connecting them with voters and constituents.”

    And here’s where they brag that their teleforum product is actually a campaign tool designed to deliver up to 85% voters for the customer (in this case, the allegation is that the City of Regina was the ‘customer):

    http://frontporchstrategies.us/why-are-you-not-doing-more-teleforums/

  10. Paul, just a heads up, 2800 is not 1/4 of the signatures is is just over 1/8th, still pretty sketchy if you ask me.

    In regards to the allagations, the City of Regina has done a terrible job from the get go and have lost all credability in my eyes. From the petition disqualification to the very poor optics of the city itself funding the ” No” campaign. No matter what the outcome of Wed Referendum, it seems clear theat something is afoul in the City of Regina. In most other jurisdictions the sort of impropriety (vote “no”, pro P3 splash screens, the voter card issue etc) would be enough to bring the entire administration into question, here is seems to be the norm and acceptable. Imagine trying to figure out where to vote in a federal election and have to go through a Harper Economic Action Plan advertisment, or an advertisement for any other Political Party, that would be innapropriate, so why is it acceptable for the city to make us jump through those sorts of hoops?

    No matter the outcome, the city’s handling of the whole process has been an embarassing display by our city administration that has bread distrust that will fester and stink long after this referendum is over.

  11. The YES vote is strong and steaming ahead.

    Fougere and the Chamber of Commerce are an embarrassment to this community. I’m not going to mention any of the councillors – their not even worth mentioning. Councillor Fraser we are all especially disappointed in you.

    One has to be out of their minds to support a P3 foreign company coming into Regina to suck hundreds of MILLIONS of dollars over the next 30 years out of this community.

    How does the taxpayer and business owner benefit from that idiot idea?
    What does Fougere and John Hopkins have to gain out of this?

    People of Regina, do not fall for this it will come back on all of us and it WILL be EXPEN$IVE.

    VOTE YES

  12. I REALLY hope these reports aren’t true.

    Is our referendum becoming a Zimbabwe-style election minus the use of police and military thugs?

    Paul, keep up the excellent reporting.

  13. Paul: In that case I withdraw that statement. I was just doing some quick math with the numbers you presented. You are completely correct. Thanks for that clarification. The signature disqualification was very suspect in any regards.

  14. I see Vanessa Brown has (finally) picked up on the Front Porch Strategies scandal that John Klein captured the evidence for and which I called out after the first fake town hall meeting.

    http://www.leaderpost.com/business/firm+involved+City+Regina+Vote+campaign/8950666/story.html

    It’s nearly confirmed that these town hall meetings are indeed fake.

    Deb McEwen – a city administrator who should be impartial if there were any ethics at city hall – is now saying she doesn’t know when or where the meetings are? Give me a break. How is that public involvement? There should be mass resignations and/or terminations of everyone involved behind this dirty trick campaign.

    Further, she says the city is doing polling but won’t release the results until AFTER the vote?

    Why even do polling when you have a $500,000 “poll” happening tomorrow? Could it be that these aren’t real polls but push polls being done by Deb McEwen’s contracted robocall company?

  15. I am baffled.

    I was baffled during the stadium petitioning, I was baffled during the municipal election, and I am baffled now. In the last year I have listened, watched, read, and researched the city administration – and the same scandalous patterns of public manipulation plays itself out over and over again.

    The Vote No campaign telling citizens we need to be financially responsible. When has the city been financially responsible in the last year … now, suddenly, it is a threshold of public responsibility.

    I am watching the city tear down the buildings on the evraz grounds and I’m sure if I counted my footsteps from the new stadium to Taylor field it would amount to less than 5,000 steps and NO parking. In fact, if they propose to build affordable housing at the old stadium site, there will be ZERO parking. However, the stadium isn’t the issue, but again, is THAT a financially responsible decision given the city was well aware we needed a new waste water treatment plan before that decision to build a new stadium was made? And what is more important? Apparently the waste water treatment plant is more important because we need to recognize the financial responsibility associated with it.

    To be honest, I’m tired of watching city council manipulate the public.

    Marc Spooner said it best. When a city will only allocate $100K in advertising for the “Get Out and Vote” campaign, but then turn around less than a year later and spend over $340K in public money for a “Vote No” campaign … CLEARLY there are greater things lurking around the corner.

    If you put together a timeline of all the ill conceived actions of this administration in the last year and half, any citizen would be able to see the writing on the wall. If they can’t, then they’re purposefully turning a blind eye to it.

    I know this rant isn’t about the Regina Water Wars. But it is a rant to say, that I am not surprised by the cities actions.

    This cities administration is acting completely undemocratic for more than one reason alone and I for one am more surprised by the publics apathy than anything. (Not the whole public, but A LOT)

    I would like to see an investigation held into their actions on all counts. Every single one of them.

  16. I am the fourth generation of my family to live in Regina. I live in the house my grandfather built. I didn’t want to move for work or school. I truly love this city.
    I despise this city council and the mayor I have no respect for them.
    Except for the one guy who stuck his neck out…once.

  17. yeah, I just voted. And I voted “yes” to my city staff doing their own job, not having me pay them and pay a private company to do their job. crum-bums. how is it this hard to make people do their damn jobs?

  18. Becca Steps,

    I too have considered why so many people in Regina vote against their own self interest.

    Why do people who use ComFree and put ‘no agents’ continue to vote in real estate agents and house flippers?

    Why would people who are locked out of housing by bubble pricing elect a mayor who sat in city hall for 15 years representing the construction companies who created the high prices?

    Why would people who need a healthy local economy want to see their neighbors and customers that work for the city lose their jobs?

    Why would people who have good jobs with decent pay and benefits speak hate towards the unions that make that possible?

    Why would people who don’t want to pay $276 for 3-4 years be happy to pay thousands more in profits to a foreign water corporation?

    Why would people who fear 3 year cell phone contracts be happy to gamble on a 30 year billion dollar secret water corporation contract?

    Why would people who were angry that the city claimed they didn’t have $30,000 to keep the pools open would spend 10 times that much on a dirty political robo call company?

    Why would a mayor who says our city workers are too dumb to run the water plant then suddenly claim it would be those same workers who run the private profit P3 plant?

    Why would a water plant expansion the city estimated at $147 million in 2012 suddenly cost $224 million when a private corporation gets involved… and why would the mayor claim that huge price hike is some kind of ‘saving’?

    Why would people pay $200 million extra on the water bills for the last 9 years to save up for a treatment plant not ask questions about where that money has gone?

  19. Barb, success in office seems to require narcissism, obstinance, and willful abandonment of honesty and integrity.

    I’m getting there, but still not as qualified as the 11 we have running the show right now.

  20. Reader,

    All those questions cross my mind many times in a given week.

    As far as I can see the only way things can change is if the public starts acknowledging there is an issue with our current and former administration.

    Surely, there has been some eye-opening issues in Regina that warrant some type of investigation into the exact whereabouts and allocations of funds have gone for different programs.

    I’m also not comfortable in how the city goes about planning meetings and open forums for citizens. Should anyone care to peruse through the cities monthly agenda – a lot of meetings and discussions happen at asinine times of the day. 11:45 am, 1:15 pm, 5:00 pm, or 5:30. Sometimes 2:30 pm. Rarely, if ever, do you find any of these discussions happening during times that average working citizens with families can actually attend. Could you imagine the average retail worker or waitress telling their boss they need to get off early so they can get to city hall and participate in a discussion that might directly affect them? I can’t. And I think in other jobs you may be able to find an excuse to get out early if need be but why should you have to? If the city wanted to hear from their citizens they would try to find ways to get their input. The very fact that they don’t even try sends out a shiver.

    Ever sat in on a city council meeting? Those are fun. I wonder if the councillors are aware that the people sitting there are watching them?

    I mean you could shout from the rooftops but at the end of the day, you either get lumped in with the conspiracy theorists or as being just plain ignorant.

    Personally, it just sucks to watch the things I love about Regina getting drowned out by the intentions of few. If people could just look at what’s happening around them and put the timeline together I think they would be giving their heads a shake. There are better ways to do things. I guess it just comes down to priorities and maybe that’s where the problem lies.

  21. Hi Paul,

    I’ve enjoyed your online posts for the Prairie Dog and I want to thank you for opening my eyes to these “shenanigans.”

    Your article peaked my interest in municipal politics and after some casual research exploring the history of the City Council and the P3 decision, I have a question you may have the answer to.

    Do you know why Michael Fougere resigned as President of the Saskatchewan Construction Association after becoming Mayor of Regina, but did not resign when he was a councillor? It is my understanding that the previous City Council had meetings and votes regarding the stadium project and the P3 proposal prior to Fougere becoming mayor, and if this is the case, then would this mean that Fougere contravened the Cities Act, as it pertains to pecuniary interest; and if so, wouldn’t this be cause for his disqualification? I’m new to municipal politics and admit that I’ve probably misunderstood things. It just seems strange to me that he’d resign as President of the SCA after becoming Mayor but not as a Councillor. Perhaps he resigned for other reasons not related to pecuniary interest. Has this matter already been addressed? Forgive me if it has.

  22. 2 in 3 don’t vote in Regina, it’s as simple as that. At least 1 of those 2 non-voters stays home because they think the rest of their group won’t show up either, so what’s the point of standing up to the 1 of 3 who do vote?

  23. Reader: no, it doesn’t, and the fact that so many people take your attitude and either don’t vote or don’t run for office means the preservation of the status quo you hate. You have just answered all the questions you posed above, so I guess you’ll have to live with it.

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