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John Baker, ceo of Desire2Learn Innovative Learning Technology, a local business that employs more than 300 people, voices his opinion to city council during a public consultation on the city's proposed rapid transit plan at city hall in Kitchener, Ont. May 26, 2011.

Kevin Van Paassen

Should city residents get a direct say on contentious issues such as transit - casting votes in favour of light rail, increased buses or expanded roadways? Most people would probably say yes to that kind of public referendum. But what about similar votes used to decide whether you can circumcise your child or if your drinking water should be fluoridated?

At a time when North American municipalities are facing tough decisions about budget cuts and infrastructure developments, the idea of giving more power to the people is quickly gaining traction.

Grappling with contentious topics from transportation to social services, many municipalities are starting to put decisions to public votes, with city councils allowing residents to decide which course their city should take rather than risk an unpopular move.

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Next week, a 16-member council representing the Ontario region of Kitchener-Waterloo will be asked to approve a public referendum on an $818-million light rail transit plan. The vote would come after six years of environmental studies, economic forecasts and more than 131 public meetings on the issue, and will likely add another six months and $1-million to the process.

Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran, who is advocating for a referendum, believes the current transit proposal was developed against the will of residents, who she says favour an expanded bus system.

"We're elected to serve the will of the citizens, and to cavalierly say they don't know everything, well, I think that's disrespectful," she said.

In British Columbia, two municipalities hoping to become the home of a new provincial prison have also decided to put the issue to a public vote. And in Fort St. John, residents will use a November referendum to decide whether fluoride should be removed from their drinking water. Last October, residents of Waterloo, Ont., voted to discontinue fluoridation.

But asking the public what they think is not always a straightforward proposition. In Ontario, more than 50 per cent of the public must participate in a referendum for its results to be binding, a number that far exceeds municipal voter rates.

And many critics believe referendums are a copout by city councils elected to make tough decisions on behalf of their constituents, handing the reins to a majority not necessarily well informed on the nuances of specific issues.

In the United States, where referendum questions are often added to elections in the form of voter-approved propositions, the potential for controversy is high.

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This November, San Francisco residents will vote in a referendum about circumcision. If the measure is passed, the circumcision of male children would be punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

Mitchell Kosny, a professor of urban and regional planning at Ryerson University in Toronto, believes most municipal issues are too complex for a Yes or No question. "It's all in the question," he warned. "So be careful what you ask for, because you may just get it."

Thunder Bay, Ont., got its name in a 1969 referendum, he noted, after the favoured options "Lakehead" or "The Lakehead" split the vote.

When it comes to a contentious topic such as public transit, he feels that measured decisions should be made by council according to the sound advice of experts. "Would you like more subways in the City of Toronto? Yeah! But there's the ifs, the ands, the who pays?" Prof. Kosny said. "There are so many variables."

Peter-John Sidebottom, of the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs, said referendums remain rare in the province. Organized in the same way as a by-election, the votes are expensive, he said, and take a minimum of 180 days.

"Large-scale referendums about important projects, municipalities tend not to do that," he said.

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Saskatoon City Council recently decided, in a 7-4 vote, that a public referendum would not be held on curbside recycling. The city is already far behind on the issue, council reasoned, and a referendum would further delay a resolution.

In Kitchener-Waterloo, a regional council that represents the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge, as well as four townships, could decide against a referendum this week, opting to approve the transit plan themselves in a June 15 vote.

But Ms. Halloran believes the council will opt for a public vote, and could choose to make the referendum binding without 50-per-cent turnout.

"As a municipal government, this is pretty much the only option we have to really get a mandate from the citizens," she said. "It's pitting businesses and people against one another in our community, young against old. It's just so divisive, we need a process that's fair and equitable to all."

But it remains unclear whether a transit referendum will produce a clear result. A recent poll by the Kitchener-Waterloo Record found the city almost evenly divided among supporters of light rail, bus transit and the status quo.

At a public meeting on the issue in Kitchener on Thursday, opinions varied widely. Representatives of local high-tech companies called the light-rail proposal "transformative," while environmental groups praised its green credentials. Advocates pointed out that provincial and federal funding has ensured the region would only pay $260-million of the project's total $818-million cost. Others voiced their opinion that citizens will never give up their cars, and called the trains a waste of taxpayers' money.

One group advocated against both rail and buses, suggesting instead that the city install aero-rails, futuristic trains that would be suspended several storeys above the street.

At the end of the meeting, Kitchener City Council voted 4-1 in favour of a referendum, with five members declaring a conflict of interest because they own property close to the proposed transit stations.

Mayor Carl Zehr, the only city representative with a seat on regional council, abstained from the vote, but has said in the past that he opposes a referendum. Mr. Zehr said his constituents have come out loudly in favour of light rail.

Margaret Kohn, who teaches politics at the University of Toronto and grew up in California, where referendums are commonplace, believes the votes are an effective means of educating citizens on municipal issues. She said that referendums in the United States and Switzerland have been shown to increase voter participation, and to encourage informed debate on the issue at hand.

"I'm not trying to suggest it's a panacea," she said. "But if you say people shouldn't really be deciding these things, it raises a really interesting issue: Do we really believe in democracy?"

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