There was some confusion last week resulting from Council’s decision to affirm the engineer’s recommendation for the Reid Street redesign despite the fact the engineer’s report contained the results of an online survey suggesting the public wanted a different design. The online survey indicated that “the public” wanted status quo, while the consultants had recommended a slight change to the current streetscape to accommodate wider sidewalks. Council’s decision to “ignore” the public’s wishes, as expressed in the online survey, upset and confused some people who attended the Council meeting (and who happened to agree with the online survey results).
There are only two situations in which Council (or any other elected body) is compelled to act as a result of a majority vote: an election and a referendum.
The outcome of an election gives the duly elected Council the mandate and obligation to lead the City over a four-year period. This mandate inherently gives Council the authority to make decisions based on the best available evidence, information, advice from experts, and input from the public. Since many decisions of Council are complex, and all too often the public will have a wide array of opinions and advice for Council on most of these decisions, the elected Council must exercise leadership and make decisions knowing that some members of the public will not be happy and will feel that their voice was not heard.
The critical factor for Council is to strive to make informed decisions in the best interests of the community, even if some members of the community do not agree with Council’s decision. Those unhappy individuals, along with the rest of the community, ultimately get to exercise their authority over Council by marking a ballot at the next election.
The second situation that compels Council to act on the majority will is a referendum. Like an election, referendums give every citizen an equal opportunity to mark a ballot and express their wishes on a particular issue. At the local government level referendums are generally used to seek borrowing authority to fund a major project, like the arena that is near completion or the upcoming referendum on a new public works yard for the City. One authority that a municipal Council or Regional District Board does not inherit as a result of an election is the ability to incur debt, that authority remains with the voting public, therefore locally elected bodies are compelled to abide by the outcome of referendums.
Other than elections and referendums, an elected Council is not compelled to lead by the numbers: whether those numbers are reflected in the results of straw polls, online surveys, or a packed gallery. Straw polls, online surveys, and attendance in the gallery are not necessarily reflective of the majority will, not necessarily informed opinions, and not necessarily reflective of the best interests of the community as a whole (both in the present and in the future). Council should definitely consider the information they gain from all of these kinds of input, but none of them, individually or collectively, compel Council, legally or morally, to act in a certain way.
In the case of the Reid Street redesign, the results of the unscientific straw poll taken at the Open Houses where people sat through the full presentation from the engineers mirrored the desired outcome the engineers recommended in the report tabled with Council. On the other hand, the online survey allowed individuals to vote multiple times and did not require people to read the background material before voting for one of the concept options, and the majority of respondents online voted for the status quo. Council noted all this public feedback on this important investment along with the expert advice provided by the engineers, and then, by majority not unanimous vote, made a future-oriented leadership decision that its electoral mandate enables it to do.
Bob Simpson is the Mayor of Quesnel. He can be reached via email here or at 250-991-7477