Could Rob Ford Really Hold a Subway Referendum?
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Could Rob Ford Really Hold a Subway Referendum?

Rob Ford has said he'd consider a referendum, but has he considered the obstacles to making that happen?

Photo by {a href=""}asianz{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

In the run-up to today’s vote on the future of rapid transit on Sheppard Avenue, Mayor Rob Ford loudly declared to the press that he would consider enacting a new tax to fund his preferred option for the corridor—a subway extension—only if voters approved the measure in a citywide referendum.

Since Ford’s proposed subway extension is currently underfunded by as much as $2.7 billion, according to an estimate by the City’s expert advisory panel on transit, a tax of some kind would definitely help bring the scheme within the realm of feasibility. Even Gordon Chong, the mayor’s hand-picked subway advisor, has been urging tax hikes—and some of the mayor’s allies are expected to float versions of the idea at today’s council meeting, despite Ford’s objections. At the time of this writing, Mike Del Grande (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) has already introduced a motion that supports a parking levy.

But what if Ford, man of the people that he considers himself to be, decides to press ahead with this referendum idea? Perhaps unsurprisingly, its odds of success are slim.

Referendums have been virtually nonexistent in Toronto politics since 2000, when the provincial government passed a piece of legislation called the Direct Democracy Through Municipal Referendums Act. The act codified the current procedure for putting questions directly to the municipal electorate in a legally binding way.

Before the act, Toronto and other Ontario municipalities could hold non-binding referendums on matters far outside their jurisdictions. In 1997, for example, the former city of Toronto and other GTA former municipalities asked voters to weigh in on amalgamation. The results were overwhelmingly against. The Harris government was embarrassed, but not swayed. Now we’re all one big city, and it’s as though the vote never happened.

The act effectively banned municipalities from punching above their weight, by limiting referendums to questions on matters within a city’s purview. It also gave the province the power to decide the scope of that purview.

If Ford were able to sort out those jurisdictional issues—and the City does have some power to levy taxes and fees, so he’d have a case—he’d then have to embark on the hardest part: getting council on side.

Launching a referendum requires a bylaw, which means a majority vote by city council. Ford hasn’t had much luck getting his favourite policies passed, of late, so this would be a significant hurdle.

Assuming council went for it, though, things would get progressively hairier. The next municipal election isn’t until 2014, so the referendum probably couldn’t be added to an existing ballot—it would need its own special vote.

“It would be very similar to holding a citywide election,” said Bonita Pietrangelo, director of elections for the City. And how much does a citywide election cost? “Approximately $7 million,” she said.

It’s a price tag that would make any municipal politician balk—especially a notorious cheapskate like our mayor.

If the vote were actually to be held, the results would be binding if (and only if) more than 50 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. Turnout in the 2010 municipal election exceeded that by about 3 per cent.

A binding referendum would dictate City policy. If the answer were “no,” the City would be forbidden from bringing the matter up again until four years after the vote.

And so one possible reason referendums are so rare in Toronto: they are, frankly, a pain in the ass. Pietrangelo believes the last one was on the Ward 14 ballot in the 2000 municipal election. The issue then was whether to legalize alcohol sales in the Junction dry zone, east of Keele.

You can buy a beer there, now! So maybe direct democracy does work, after all.