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.

It’s also worth noting that the two verification procedures are, according to the Cities Act, supposed to be conducted for the same reason. That being, “to determine the sufficiency of the petition”.

And yet, based on the clerk’s report, they used different criteria on each verification pass. First they checked names, dates, those sorts of things. But when they phoned people, they were checking to see if the person was a resident of Regina, a Canadian citizen, or if they’d signed the petition more than once.

Fair enough.

But you’ll note what they didn’t bother to do was double check when the people they called had signed the petition. You know, see if everyone was signing in 2013 or not.

Now, maybe it’s too much to ask a person if they remember the exact day at the Farmers Market they were approached by Regina Water Watch. But the purpose of that date block on a petition is to make sure the person signed during the allowable date range. It’s important because you don’t want the people running the petition to pad their list by collecting names outside the 90 days the Act allows a petition to be active.

When the clerk began the phone verification, she already knew that she’d excluded over 2,800 names because the people signing had left the year out.

If the clerk was actually concerned with determining “the sufficiency of the petition” through their statistical sampling — and not, you know, just trying to pare down the number of names on a petition so as to scuttle the chance of a referendum going forward — you’d think she might ask people if they signed the petition in 2013 and then apply what she learned from this when making her final evaluation.

But that didn’t happen. And it’s one more reason to think that the clerk was not trying to determine in good faith if the petition was sufficient but rather was working very hard to make the petition fail.

It’s worth noting that according to Demerse, city hall’s petition headaches may not be coming to an end.

It’s certainly in [Regina Water Watch’s] right to take the city to court, if that’s how they feel, that their democratic rights to petition [were hindered] weren’t properly followed through and that there was some sort of negligence in regards to how the legislation was fallowed and how those signatures were petitioned. I’m not a legal expert. But I have had conversations with people who work in the province who have written Cities Act and that’s certainly something that’s available to petitioners if they feel there’s been some sort of negligence in regards to the clerk overstepping or not following the legislation properly.

Ick. A court challenge? This is getting really messy.

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FOOTNOTE
¹ I really hate removing huge chunks of what a person says from the middle of a quote. But to keep this blog post manageable I pulled a chunk of what Jacklyn said out and stuck in an ellipsis. I didn’t change her point about the two verifications but she did say some useful stuff on how the Cities Act was written.

Here’s the full quote with the deleted bit restored and highligted:

It clearly states in the legislation, and this again is the one issue with reading some of this legislation is that it’s silent on a lot of things and so it can be broadly interpreted by municipalities. And that’s something that the province has purposefully done because municipalities have been asking for more and more power and more and more control over their jurisdiction which is certainly in their right to do so. And the province has purposefully made the legislation quite broad so they can do that.

However, it clearly states 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.

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.

12 thoughts on “Dear City Clerk: You’re Doing It Wrong”

  1. Ummm, excuse me good sir, but I do believe I posted about this several days ago. Can I at least get SOME credit for bringing this important fact to light??

  2. I already knew what the outcome would be. The City administration showed their poker hand before the game was over, so was not surprised at the announcement. This whole thing leaves a funny taste in my mouth.

  3. @Chad: You interviewed Jacklyn Demerse at the University of Western Ontario about the Cities Act after spending a couple of weeks calling summer-vacationing professors to get a lead on the perfect source? :P

    Seriously, while we will happily give credit where it’s due, Paul (with (minuscule) help from me) chased this one down independently of your insights. I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with a “great minds think alike”.

    Thanks as always for the comment.

  4. @Stephen: Whatever floats your boat man. It’s really unfortunate you have to always be so against me in anything I try to provide to the Prairie Dog. You do realize that more often than not, I am proven to be right, even in the most ludicrous (appearing) statements I put out there?

    Anyways, if you choose not to acknowledge it, so be it. That’s your decision, not mine. Your paper, not mine. Your spaces for advertising that continue to lose spots because people dislike your approach, not mine.

  5. The people insisting that a referendum will be too costly and time-consuming, have clearly never taken a jaunt through the legal system.

  6. @Chad: Whoa, settle down there guy. No call to be vicious. If you gave us a lead that we’d used we’d happily credit you but Paul’s work on this file has been 100 per cent Novak-free.

    @David:Thanks! Very kind.

  7. By the way, here’s what I presume is the comment Chad’s feeling slighted about. I just tracked it down and read it now (no, I don’t read every comment on every article and blog post, though I probably read most). It’s true that he made exactly the same point Paul made about the phrase “instead of” more than a week ago.

    Nevertheless, Dechene’s work was independent of Chad’s. But I will happily acknowledge that Chad beat us to making that point on our own website. Thank you Chad, for helping to bring this important fact to light.

    Now hopefully we can all be friends again.

  8. Thank you for acknowledging that Stephen. I’m not trying to steal anything from Paul, he knows that I respect his journalistic style and ability to get to the meat of a story. But, at the same time, when I wrote about something ten days prior to when it’s published on here, both in that comment and on my blog novak2012.blogspot.com, it is hard for me to believe that my writing didn’t have some assistance into the development of this story. Even if it didn’t officially, if you read my blog post, it’s pretty apparent that what Paul writes above is of a very similar vain of what I wrote.

    Peace shall now be with everyone, and hopefully we can all work together to get some true democracy happening in this City!

  9. Oh and by the way, I have no clue if you read my blog, and honestly I hope you do, because I do post some stuff that would be relevant for the Prairie Dog to jump on. With that said, I am very aware that the City of Regina and the Regina Police Service apparently tune into my blog on a daily, if not hourly basis. Why do I say that? When I was escorted out of City Hall last week, they mentioned how I had been talking about my banishment just the day prior to that. At least I guess I have some fans! LOL

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