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Regina Water Privatization Referendum

The long strange fight, so far...

by Daniel Johnson

Regina Water Watch
Regina Water Watch
Vote no splash-page ad on City Of Regina website.
Vote no splash-page ad on City Of Regina website.

UPDATE: Regina lost to right-wing propaganda, and the involvement of known voter-suppression specialists Front Porch Strategies,  in a slick campaign abusing $360,000 of our tax money. This is a major set-back. As I was quoted in a Leader Post article shortly before the vote,

'"It should be kept in mind that this fight isn't just about Regina. This is a test case, and if we lose here, we will have a harder chance of winning elsewhere."

Well, we lost, Canada, so get ready. P3s are coming for your water now. But here's the original article, written in better times, a few weeks ago...

On September 25, 2013, the people of Regina will have a vote on whether or not our water treatment system remains entirely public. It's been a long, twisty road to get to this place, and shows something of the charactar of our democratic institutions that it was such a fight just to be allowed to have a voice in this crucial decision at all. 

Since the referendum was called, through a difficult campaign, we've seen television, radio and billboard ads at taxpayer's expense, in addition to a full splash-page ad on the City Of Regina official website. 

There is no doubt that the City Of Regina's aging water treatment system needs a complete overhaul. So earlier this year Regina City Council announced plans to get it done. Unfortunately, as many readers will already know, Harper's Conservatives are determined to see everything privatized, and funnel as much taxpayers money to private interests as possible, so the Federal Government's policy regarding funding for municipal infrastructure projects requires a 'Public Private Partnership' or 'P3' arrangement. 

So, Regina City Council voted to proceed with a request for proposals for a 30-year P3 (public-private partnership) contract which would see a private company design, build, finance, operate and maintain the city’s new $224.3-million waste water treatment facility. The proposed facility would reportedly be able to process 92 million litres of wastewater per day, much more than the existing system. 

Privatizing the operation of Regina’s waste water treatment facility will tie the city’s hands for three decades and citizens will lose control over our single most important resource, and many believe this is the beginning of a slippery slope towards complete privatization of water, which would be a violation of the UN charter right to water. 

 Under the funding arrangement, the Federal Government would kick in $58.5 million of the  total cost, which is interesting because a report by  economist Hugh Mackenzie, titled "Flushing Money Away: Why the privatization of the Wastewater Treatment Plant is a bad Idea" shows that it would cost  $61 million more than if the city were to build it without private sector 'help', so the funding is not really much help at all, yet City Hall is making it sound as though the money were crucial to the project. 

There was a presentation on March 5 at the Artesian community centre featuring Paul Moist, national president of CUPE and Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians on the topic of muncipal P3 deals in general with local activists focusing on the treatment plant problem. This started an ongoing discussion between local activists from many different groups about how to stop this from happening here. 

The resistance to privatization of Regina's infrastructure officially began on March 22, 2013, when a citizens’ group called Regina Water Watch started collecting signatures on a petition calling for a referendum vote on the question of whether or not the City will publicly finance, operate and maintain the new wastewater treatment plant.  

The Saskatchewan Referendums and Plebescites Act says that a referendum becomes mandatory with signatures from 10% of a cities residents, so a city of just under 200,000 people would require just under 20,000 signatures. Specifically, the required number they were given when they started was 19,301. 

2 weeks before the signature deadline the City Clerk requested that the Saskatchewan Minister of Government Relations use his discretion to increase the number of signatures required to 20,750, by counting health cards instead of census figures. 

The minister refused, luckily, but this was just the beginning of an anti-democratic obstruction campaign by City Council. 

Petitions were submitted on June 19, 2013 with 24,232 signatures, even more than what the City had tried to change it to, but City Hall had more tricks. The clerk’s office conducted two verification processes, even though legally they were supposed to only use one. 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, and on July 21 2013 the City Clerk's office announced that only 18,145 of the signatures were valid and attempted to dismiss the petition altogether. 

But again, the rules said they were only allowed to use one verification measure, and neither by itself brought the number of signatures below what was required. 

To say that there was a public outcry is a major understatement. Hundreds of citizens croweded into the chamber at a Regina City Hall emergency meeting on Monday July 22, making it clear that we were no longer asking them for a referendum, we were DEMANDING one, because it was our right and we aren't tolerating any more cheap games.

Later in the meeting, a shaken and nervous Mayor and City Council finally announced a referendum.

Then, shortly after, they dedicated a budget of  $340,000 in public money to the 'NO' campaign. 

CUPE has also remained involved, on the 'YES' campaign, running full-page newspaper ads which stress the importance of keeping sewage treatment in public hands.

  Finance Minister Jim Flaherty weighed in on 'NO' side with an 'open letter', cited in every major media outlet, with the highly misleading title 'Why I’m giving Regina $58.5 million'. 

 The fight continues, with taxpayers paying for the 'NO' campaign with City employees as their primary campaign 'volunteers', and the 'YES' campaign funded by donations and non-profit groups, but at least there's still a fight. 

I should be kept in mind that this fight isn't just about Regina. This is a test case, and if we lose here, we will have a harder chance of winning elsewhere. 





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Daniel Johnson (Daniel Johnson)
Regina Sask
Member since August 2013


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