September 11, 2013

Referendum won’t solve Erin’s sewage problems

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Town will investigate the possibility of a referendum question on the 2014 election ballot, asking if voters support further environmental studies on a potential sewer system for Erin village and Hillsburgh.

Councillor John Brennan had the support of fellow councillors last week in asking for a staff report, saying a question on the ballot would give voters “a direct voice in probably the most important issue that will confront our community in the foreseeable future”.

In theory, it should be a simple matter. Consulting the voters in a democracy is a good idea. Councillors’ first loyalty should be to their residents. In practice, even if the province allows us to have a sewer referendum, it raises a series of problems.

First of all, council cannot control whether the referendum is binding. The law says the outcome of a referendum question on the ballot only becomes binding on the municipality if at least 50 per cent of the electors actually vote.

Voter turnout in the 2010 election was 40.9%. That is high compared to some elections where it was less than 30%, but a referendum could easily push the turnout over 50%.

Municipal elections are every four years, with the next one on October 27, 2014. (If you are thinking of running for Town or County Council, the nomination deadline is just one year from now – September 12, 2014.)

The second problem is that the issues are complex, and cannot be decided by a simple Yes / No question. Among those with an interest (already a minority) there are three main positions: 1. Stick with septic tanks; 2. Build a traditional gravity sewer system and 3. Build a partial, or hybrid system using alternative technologies. All three actually require further environmental study.

There was general support for a referendum at a public meeting this year. But there was also support for Transition Erin, which said that instead of a referendum, we could assemble a committee to discuss what options may be feasible, to give advice to Council.

The existing Liaison Committee for the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) is to get some extra members and do that job. The existing Terms of Reference still need to be revised, so the committee can report directly to council.

The third problem is that a referendum would delay completion of the SSMP by at least another year. The crucial final step in the SSMP is to choose an option, and a direction for further studies. A No vote would attempt to force the Do Nothing option.

The delay alone would trigger action by Solmar Developments, which has 300 acres in the north end of Erin village. Waiting for a referendum result to complete the SSMP “would be irresponsible,” said Maurizio Rogato of Solmar. “We would proceed on our own – that’s a valid option.”

Solmar has the right to do its own studies and build its own sewage plant to serve an eventual 1,240 new homes, but the Town says the SSMP must first be complete. The issue could end up at the Ontario Municipal Board.

The fourth referendum problem was outlined by Councillor Brennan. “Who should be allowed to vote on such a question, all of the electorate, or only those people who would likely have to hook up to a sewage treatment facility?” he said.

Even if it were legal, it would not seem right to have a different ballots. Urban residents would bear most of the cost of a sewer system and receive most of the benefits, but the issue does affect the economy of the whole Town. As well, the treatment plant would deal with the septage pumped from rural septic tanks.

If the Town simply wants to know if urban taxpayers support a sewage system, it would be better to hire a research firm to do a detailed survey. The numbers would be interesting, but it is a question for which the answer is already known. Based on letters to the editor, petitions and comments at public meetings, there is very little support for sewers.

If Council wanted a public vote on sewers, they should have tried to do it a couple of elections ago. That would not have made sense, though, since the Town was being forced by the Ministry of the Environment and Credit Valley Conservation to follow the SSMP process.

A referendum must be approved by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. It must be a question where the Town has full authority to implement the result. The law says the question cannot be about “a matter which has been prescribed by the Minister as a matter of provincial interest.”

In theory, we have a choice about sewers. We could try to say No, abandon all the effort that has gone into the process and be no closer to a solution. In practice, I don’t think the province will stand back and allow that to happen.