Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bill Longworth's Request for an Audit on City Council's efforts to prepare voters for the plebiscite question

The following is Bill Longworth's presentation to Oshawa City Council's Finance and Administration Committee, Nov. 13, 2007

"I am here this morning to request City Council to direct Oshawa's Auditor General to perform an audit on City Hall’s communication, information, and education efforts to properly prepare Oshawa voters for the General Vote Plebiscite question.

In a democracy, the result of a vote is valid only if it comes from an informed electorate. Thus voter information about the plebiscite question prior to voting is the only input that could validate the plebiscite result.

In this country, we have access to information legislation protecting citizen's right to "know". In the face of this "right" protected by law, how could Oshawa politicians withhold important voter information about the general vote plebiscite--Why the question was asked when no disatisfaction with ward voting was ever expressed; What was meant by the term "general vote"; What the consequences of the general vote were to the city; Why were satisfactory attempts not made to ensure voters understood the question; Why did council refused to circulate information brochures to the public on the issue, etc., etc., etc.

We think it important to establish if Oshawa measured up to the communication standards expected by the Supreme Court of Canada, Elections Ontario, Elections Canada, and Access to Information Legislation in its awareness campaign leading up to the General Vote Plebiscite.

There seems to be a great disconnect between the expectations of these bodies and public pronouncements from the Mayor that the city had no responsibility to inform the public, to define the terms used in the plebiscite question, to provide a rationale for the change, to explain why the question was asked since the question was not in response to any expressed public concerns about ward voting and to explain the ramifications of the change to Oshawa ratepayers.

The mayor insisted it was the public's responsibility to fundraise and organize public awareness campaigns despite the fact that Section 39 of the Municipal Elections Act places significant legislative restraints in the Municipal Elections Act against such "third party" campaigns. Such groups have to register with the clerk, can fundraise only after such registration and continuing up to the voting day, and are subject to the same spending limits and reporting requirements as candidates

While the supreme court says voter information is a basic right in a democracy, and the mandate of Ontario’s election commissioner leading up to the Provincial Plebiscite on Electoral Reform was:
a) To insure that voters receive clear and impartial information about the referendum process;

b) To increase awareness of the referendum question; and,

c) To educate voters about their choices.
None of this was done in Oshawa…the Mayor said the city had no responsibility to communicate any of this to the voter. Councillor Joe Kolodzie said he’d never heard of a government body providing information about a plebiscite question.
Along with Mayor Gray and Councillor Kolodzie, Councillors Sholdra, Pidwerbecki, Parkes, Marimpietri, and Henry consistently voted against providing any information to the public. Obviously, they didn't respect Oshawa voters enough to provide the information.

Are city politicians heads in the sand so they simply overlooked their communication responsibilities to insure an informed voter…or did they purposely and systematically design a system to keep the voter in the dark until they were confronted with the complex and confusing question for the first time in the voting booth not knowing even what was meant by a general vote or its ramifications.

In either case, those who voted to deny voter information are unfit to govern.

At the very least, Oshawa politicians should have insured that voters were aware of what was meant by the general vote. A likely interpretation of the general vote to many voters is like a general election where everyone votes in constituencies for their area representative. And this is a perfectly legitimate interpretation for someone unfamiliar with political terms.

Interestingly, Oshawa’s Strategic Initiatives committee is presently establishing a committee to study how City Council can receive more direct communication from the upper levels of government. Isn’t it hypocritical for a local government that refuses to communicate important information about a plebiscite question to voters to get their considered and valid opinion itself to complain about what they consider to be inadequate communication from senior levels of government?

Council is also establishing an accountability and transparency committee as required under Bill 130.

Isn’t it hypocritical also for council to establish an accountability committee when it has voted to introduce the less accountable general vote system to the city. And isn’t it hypocritical for council to establish anything having to do with transparency when it hid the plebiscite question and details about its implications from the public as best they could.

And isn’t it hypocritical when council publishes brochures on topics like downtown ethnic restaurants, walking paths, and the 60 page Infosource document complete with politician’s mug shots delivered as a re-election document by Canada Post to everyone’s doorstep only to land in their recycling bucket and then be collected and disposed of at taxpayer expense when they refuse to provide information about major electoral reform being proposed for Oshawa?

And so I’m asking council to direct Oshawa’s Auditor General to perform an independent and thorough audit on Oshawa’s plebiscite process and City Council’s efforts to inform and educate the public about the referendum process and question to establish with some certainty the validity of the plebiscite result…to see how well Oshawa City Council measured up to the information expectations of both Canada’s Supreme Court and Elections Ontario.

In the survey, I’m asking that:

a) The auditor compare Oshawa’s communication efforts with other Canadian Federal, Provincial and Municipal administrations that wanted to secure a measure of public opinion through the plebiscite process,

b) The auditor commission a survey of Supreme Court cases having to do with the availability of voter information leading up to elections,

c) The auditor commission questionnaires and surveys to establish the degree of voter knowledge about the plebiscite questions, its meanings and ramifications leading up to the vote,

d) The auditor commission independent and random surveys of Oshawa voters to establish ratepayer’s knowledge of the change and their degree of satisfaction with its ramifications,

e) Survey questions should include:
i) if respondents agree that they were fully and sufficiently aware of the details and ramifications of what they were being asked on the plebiscite question,

ii) if respondents agree with the removal of local or neighborhood ward representation,

iii) if respondents agree that they could make knowledgeable choices of the merits of up to 100 general vote candidates for different offices on an election ballot,
iv) if respondents agree that members of local council should have constituencies twice the size of those of their provincial and federal government representatives

v) If respondents agree that governments have responsibility to inform the public of details and ramifications of questions they are being asked…or do they agree with mayor gray who says the city has no responsibility to inform and all of the efforts at communicating details of the city question should be left up to private citizens to fundraise and organize the information campaign
I would ask that any audits commissioned on this issue be completely independent of city council, that reports and study design be completed without input or approvals of city politicians, and that the results be widely distributed to the public."

And so what was the result of this suggestion? It was the expected. No action! The committee recommendation is to receive and file this request. They don't want any study of their undemocratic, irresponsible, and self-serving actions that cannot be supported on any rational grounds whatsoever. So I will be making the same request of the full council at their November 26th meeting.

I am predicting that the recalcitrant intractable and obstinate
seven---Mayor Gray and Councillors Sholdra, Pidwerbecki, Parkes, Mariempietri, Kolodzie, and Henry will vote against any objective study of the sense of their decision to move to the general vote while such a study will probably be favoured by Councillors Lutcyk, Neal, Cullen, and Nicholson.

So you ask why would I continue to knock my head against the wall when I can predict the result with a high degree of certainty?

I have to document and exhaust as many lines of potential positive action as I can and every roadblock I reach is mounting evidence of council's resistance towards any reasoned and responsible action. All of this will be useful as pleas for democracy escalate to higher external authorities with Canada's Supreme Court at the pinnacle.

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