Put referendum questions on ballots: Rotrand

By René  Bruemmer
In The Gazette

Montreal should allow citizens to put referendum questions on their voting ballots at election time, city councillor Marvin Rotrand says.

Would allow residents to bring forward municipal issues to be voted on, city councillor says

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MONTREAL – On top of voting for a mayor, Montrealers could be checking off whether or not to build a new bike path in their neighbourhood or allow urban farms to sprout in the city the next time they vote in municipal elections.

Veteran city councillor Marvin Rotrand is proposing Montreal adopt a system long used in the United States, in which referendum questions concerning municipal issues are included on ballots at election time.

Popular in the U.S. as a way of getting people involved in municipal politics and giving citizens a voice, it would allow referendums on a variety of points without extra expenditure, Rotrand said. Referendum questions could be local, borough-only issues like creating bicycle paths or changing traffic regulations, or involve city-wide issues like the right to grow agricultural produce within city limits, Rotrand said.

“It’s used by the right and the left in the U.S. as a means of increasing participation in municipal elections,” he said. “Some voters say quite honestly they don’t really care who their councillor is, but they do care about certain local issues, and they go to vote when those issues are on the ballot.

“This seems to me a reasonable accommodation of democracy at a reasonable cost. … It would enhance the powers of citizens to affect change.”

Stockholm used the system recently for a vote relating to whether or not to institute congestion charges on drivers coming into the downtown core, noted Rotrand, who intends to table the motion at the next council meeting on Feb. 25.

Vision Montreal said the proposition merited looking into and plans to request that it be brought before the city council speaker’s committee to be studied. Projet Montréal said it wouldn’t comment until it had discussed the idea in caucus.

In 2009, the city adopted a bylaw on “citizen initiatives” allowing residents to request public consultations on subjects falling under borough or municipal jurisdictions as long as they collect a number of signatures equivalent to five per cent of the borough population, up to a maximum of 5,000 signatures. Consultations on city-wide issues require 15,000 signatures.

The bylaw has only been used once, after 30,000 people demanded a consultation on urban agriculture. Their will was heard: Montreal’s public consultations office held hearings on urban agriculture, and many of the ideas brought forward have been adopted or will be used by the city, Rotrand said.

Rotrand said his new proposal could be added to the citizens’ initiative bylaw, making it quick to implement.

Independent Mount Royal councillor Carl Boileau spearheaded the citizens’ initiative campaign to hold hearings on the urban agriculture in large part to show citizens they could have a voice. The fact he was able to collect twice as many signatures as needed shows citizens can be involved given the right tools and topic, he said.

“It’s fantastic — it’s a very good initiative,” he said of the referendum ballot idea. Never a large fan of Rotrand or Mayor Michael Applebaum, Boileau said they have to be given credit for recent progressive moves made at city hall, including a coalition government and more transparent decision-making that he called a small revolution.

“(Having referendum questions on ballots) will implicate citizens,” Boileau said. “Voting won’t just be a question of picking a mayor or councillor, it will reflect questions that elected officials will have to carry out.

“I think it can do a lot to increase participation in municipal politics, which is a huge problem. We know there’s a big correlation between corruption and the lack of interest of the population — if we don’t get interested in politics, it will only be the worst among us that will do so.

“This will gives citizens a little more power to decide the choices of society, instead of just municipal parties.”

Rotrand said he hopes for quick passage so the new measures will be in effect by the next general municipal elections in November.

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