Prince Rupert City Council weighed in Monday evening on whether the City should use a referendum or a loan bylaw to borrow money to build a new emergency services building. Last month the Mayor asked council to consider the question and asked staff to prepare a report on the municipal borrowing process.
Councillor Anna Ashley argued she felt a referendum would better serve the public.
She said she’d prefer to have a referendum and in advance give the public the opportunity to receive as much information as possible and provide input.
“Cost wise, because we’re having an election this year means we would be able to lower our costs by having a referendum at the same time,” Councillor Ashley said.
In fairness to the community, she added, the City has to outline the pros and cons of refitting the existing RCMP building or constructing a new one.
“I think every one of us sitting around here has our opinions about what is right, but at the end of the day, it’s not our money that we’re spending, but it’s the money of everyone in the community,” Councillor Ashley said, adding she thinks a referendum would get more people in the door voicing their opinion than an alternative approval process would.
Mayor Jack Mussallem asked if Ashley wasn’t concerned with the cost of delaying construction by six months.
Responding she said she didn’t agree it would make a difference because the electorate will still need to be given adequate information.
The mayor argued the bylaw process allows people to have input.
“I understand your reasons, from your point of view, they’re admirable, but I happen to believe that we were elected to make a decision. This is a no brainer. We’re not getting out of providing emergency services. We better get on with it. As the economy advances I’m concerned about the cost of construction,” Mussallem said.
It’s an opportunity to save some months of time, and time is money, he added.
Councillor Ashley questioned whether a bylaw in the summer months would result in a real response from the community.
“I don’t think so. Do I agree that we were elected to make decisions? Absolutely, but I think when a decision is this big that we need to go back to people and ask them,” she said.
Mussallem said if the City receives a letter from the RCMP saying they are no longer providing policing services in Prince Rupert because they are concerned about the health and well-being of people working in the detachment, it might perhaps sway Ashley.
Councillor Ashley countered it’s not about whether or not something needs to be done, but it’s council’s job to show and prove to the public that a new emergency service building is the way to go.
“We can’t just say, ‘we know best’. The fact is we’re signing up for twenty or thirty years of debt for people in this community to pay for and they need to have a say in this,” Councillor Ashley said.
Councillors Joy Thorkelson and Kathy Bedard reminded that discussions about a new emergency building have been going on amongst various councils for over a decade.
“I would do an alternative approval if we were talking about this two years ago, but this close to an election? We have all talked about part of this election being a referendum, ” Councillor Thorkelson said.
Councillor Bedard said she agreed that the question should take the referendum route.
“I have a feasibility study that was done in 1998 around the emergency services building. This has been on the table for a long time. Unfortunately it has come to a critical point in time and when the RCMP starts to write those letters it’s unfortunate that we didn’t start this sooner,” she said.
If the alternative approval process is not successful, and 10 percent of the voters sign a counter petition, then it would have to go to a referendum anyways, Councillor Bedard said.
“To have an alternative process in the middle of the summer is not good timing for this community either. I don’t believe we really truly know what we would ask for. I think we need to look at a referendum and we need to make sure we have as much input and as much information as possible going out there so we guarantee that referendum will pass,” she said.
Mussallem said it appears the next council will be the ones dealing with a new emergency services building.
“If you’re going to have your referendum during the election, it’s going to be a new council that will deal with this, it certainly is not going to be us,” he said.
Councillor Sheila Gordon-Payne said in reality, on Monday evening the council was being asked to receive and file the report on municipal borrowing and it did not mean the discussion will not continue.
“We don’t have all the information in front of us as far as cost and what’s going on and what we need to be asking for. Our staff still has quite a bit of work to do. We will see that information and then we’ll make a decision, but for now we will file this report and speak to our community,” she said.