(Copyright The Kingston Whig-Standard 2005)
Ran with fact box "Answer This" which has been appended to the story.
Taxpayers should have the final say over whether Kingston builds a costly new entertainment centre and arena, one local politician believes.
"They're paying for it," said Councillor Rick Downes.
The King's Town district councillor proposes adding a referendum question about the arena to the ballot for the November 2006 municipal election.
"The risk here is extraordinary," Downes said. "Because it is an extraordinary event, we need to go to the people.
"The property taxpayer is assuming the risk."
City council has approved, in principle, a plan to build a $37- million entertainment centre on property downtown near the Wolfe Island ferry terminal.
The building hasn't yet been designed and the city hasn't determined if it can afford to build it, since the plan hinges on securing at least $8 million in government grants. The city proposes borrowing $16 million and suggests it can use revenue from the centre to cover the loan payments.
Boosters of the idea reject Downes's idea for a referendum.
"I can't speak for the other members of the committee but I certainly don't support referendum questions on issues like that," said Carl Holmberg, a local businessman and founding member of a lobby group that wants to see a facility built. "I don't think that this is such an earth-shattering issue that the public needs to be surveyed."
Holmberg's group, which calls itself Friends of the Entertainment Centre, features a host of prominent businesspeople and entertainers, including Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker.
"I think that by far and away the majority of people do support an LVEC," Holmberg said.
Downes said if a majority of Kingstonians back the idea, why not give that majority a chance to speak out?
"They have absolutely nothing to fear with a referendum," he said.
If 50 per cent of eligible voters answer a referendum question on the election ballot, the outcome is binding on local government.
In Kingston, municipal elections typically attract about 40 per cent of voters.
Downes said he doesn't favour using referenda often, but he maintains this is an unusual situation, given the high cost and the plan that calls for a public-private partnership.
"We've never really done that as a city before," he said, noting councillors have not had a policy debate about whether it is appropriate to partner with private firms to build and run a large complex that includes a rink.
Downes drafted a lengthy proposal that calls on the city to complete negotiations to build the facility, with a firm price and a design. He suggests the city place a scale model on display at City Hall and attach a question to the ballot asking if citizens support the construction of the facility as envisioned.
"The message that the city should have for the property taxpayer is, 'This is what you are buying, do you want to buy it?' "
Ken Wong, a Queen's University business professor who was a member of a task force appointed by Mayor Harvey Rosen to produce an entertainment centre plan, said he does not support a referendum because it limits participation to those old enough to vote.
"I don't think it would be a good measure of what the city really wants," said Wong, who also is a member of the Friends group.
He said youth should have a say in the decision.
Wong likened Downes's suggestion to the battle for separatism in Quebec where the same question was asked repeatedly in a bid to get the desired answer.
"I really think this is desperate steps," Wong said.
By his count, the issue has been approved four times, once in the 2003 municipal election that saw Harvey Rosen elected on a pledge to come up with a plan to deal with the aging Memorial Centre, and three times when the matter has been considered by city councillors.
"Let's just get on with it," Wong said. "How much more public debate do we need?"
City clerk Carolyn Downs said adding a referendum question would boost the cost of running the municipal election.
"You have to make the public aware, you have to advertise, you have to let them know what the question is and make sure that they understand the ramifications of the question," Downs said. "I would think there would be costs attached to it but a dollar figure, I couldn't begin to guess."
Downs said she believes the Municipal Elections Act, the provincial law that sets rules for referenda, has been changed to drop a provision requiring the province to approve a planned question.
All that's needed now is a majority vote of council.
The law stipulates that the question must be "clear, concise and neutral" and must be answerable with a yes or no.
The city must draft the question and pass a bylaw authorizing it at least 180 days before the election.
Downes said even if less than 50 per cent of voters turn out and answer the question, it's still valuable.
"It really would be a pretty darn good opinion poll," he said.
Downes said he sent a copy of his proposal to the 12 other city councillors by e-mail yesterday.
He hopes that council will debate it at a meeting Jan. 24.
Councillor Rick Downes proposes adding a referendum question to the November municipal election ballot. His proposed question:
"The city council of the Corporation of the City of Kingston is proposing the construction of a new Large Venue Entertainment Centre at a cost of [final cost inserted here] after an architectural rendering as displayed at Kingston City Hall. Do you support the construction of this facility? Yes or No."