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Opinion: Petition calling for referendum had to be flawless

The cloud of uncertainty that was hanging over the downtown revitalization project in Estevan appears to have been lifted. There won't be a referendum taking place on the project.
The costs associated with a downtown revitalization project have been questioned by the group Concerned Citizens Estevan Sk.

The cloud of uncertainty that was hanging over the downtown revitalization project in Estevan appears to have been lifted.

There won't be a referendum taking place on the project. A petition insufficiency report, filed last Wednesday for a special meeting of Estevan city council, revealed that the petition had 1,491 signatures, more than the 1,085 needed for a referendum to be triggered.

But after the city and its legal team combed through each line, it ruled that 485 signatures should be excluded, for a variety of reasons, bringing the document to below 1,085 valid signatures.

Members of the Concerned Citizens Estevan SK group, who launched the petition, were understandably furious, with one person audibly cursing at the meeting after the report was read. They believe there were enough legitimate signatures for a public vote to proceed.

But you have to think that even if one issue had surfaced, the city would have had enough ammunition to say "sorry, no referendum".

Long-time residents will remember that in 2008, there was a prolonged debate about residential garbage pickup. Council voted to shift the city to automated, front-yard pickup. The decision caused considerable outcry, and a petition collected more than 2,500 signatures. That petition was rejected as well, based on a technicality in the petition's wording. 

A compromise was eventually reached, with garbage still being picked up in the back alleys, but with automated service using a standardized cart. And, of course, garbage pick-up was moved to front yards a few years later, curbside recycling was finally brought in, and it's hard to find communities with manual pickup.

There have been a lot of changes since 2008, with a different city administration. Mayor Roy Ludwig is the only holdover from that council. (He was a councillor at the time). But the end result was the same: a petition that called for a referendum on a contentious project was rejected.

You can say this is an Estevan thing, but other communities would likely do the same thing. 

The lesson of 2008 and 2024 is the same: if you're going to have a petition that calls for a costly referendum or even a plebiscite, and it's not going to be held in conjunction with an election, then the petition has to be absolutely flawless. You might think small errors would not be enough to have all of the signatures tossed, but they can be.

If there's one signature from someone who resides outside of the city limits, one signature from someone not eligible to sign, or one improperly signed line, then that could be enough for all of the signatures to be tossed.

If you're going to have a petition calling for change or an action, or if you're voicing frustration, then it won't be subject to as much scrutiny. But when you're calling for a public vote outside of an election or by-election, then perfection is the only option.

It's unlikely that we've heard the last of the Concerned Citizens on this front. You can be certain they're going to be monitoring this project closely, and if any issues arise, they'll be quick to pounce. They still have the right to bring their concerns forward in a respectful fashion.

As for downtown revitalization, it's going to proceed. We're going to have a very different-looking downtown core on Fourth Street once this is finished. It's going to be more attractive, more pedestrian-friendly, and it's going to encourage people to spend more time downtown. It's going to be better for visitors.

The city had to move forward with work on this project while scrutiny of the petition occurred. There's a limited amount of time to get the work done. While the city has until March 31, 2025, to complete the project, in reality, the work has to be done by this fall, because you won't see much work happening in the fall or winter.

But only time will tell whether it will carry the desired economic benefits.