Close referendum raises concerns

Christine Wood/Staff Writer / Staff writer
March 14, 2014 01:00 AM

Sechelt resident George Goudie holds up one of the signs he had made for the referendum that was taken down by District of Sechelt staff and held for much of the day on March 8.

An incredibly close referendum vote is being examined by some residents who question how much money the District of Sechelt spent on a yes campaign and if any election-day improprieties took place.

The March 8 referendum saw 1,721 of the 7,639 eligible voters in Sechelt cast a ballot on whether they were in favour of the District borrowing up to $7.4 million to help pay for construction of Sechelt's new wastewater treatment plant.

The loan was being offered by the Green Municipalities Fund and it was tied to a $1 million grant that would essentially pay for the interest on the loan.

On March 8, a total of 868 residents cast ballots in favour of going for the loan, while 853 were against the move.

That slim margin of 15 votes between the sides spurred some to come forward with concerns this week.

One resident who lives near the new treatment plant, George Goudie, said the District took down his "no" signs early on voting day, which he thinks impacted the vote.

"It would have been absolutely different if the signs stayed up all day," Goudie said.

He had spent $1,000 to print 20 signs that read "$7.4 million. Don't be fooled again. Vote No. No more trust," and he placed them around Sechelt on District and private property.

Goudie said he put the signs up shortly after 7 a.m. following a discussion he had with Sunshine Coast RCMP.

"They authorized me to put those signs up and said that if I had any problem with the District taking them down, to call them, which I did immediately after voting," Goudie said. "I voted just before 10 a.m., after I checked around to make sure all of the signs were actually taken down."

The District seized the signs, saying they were unlawful; however, the Local Government Act states they are only illegal "within 100 metres" of a public voting place, and Goudie's signs were outside that prescribed distance.

Goudie and friend Marc Nixon challenged the removal of the signs and they were later returned by chief election officer Margi Nicholas at around 3:30 p.m.

"It wasn't clear whether they should or should not be [allowed], and in my interpretation I initially thought it was more indicative they should not be there because they met the definition of election advertising in the Local Government Act. However, taking the legislation as a whole, I made a decision that it was not prescriptive enough and allowed them to go back up," Nicholas said.

Goudie ended up filing a report with the RCMP about the theft of his signs and said he hopes a charge might stop the $7.4 million loan from going forward.

"Let's see what the Crown comes up with. I want them charged. I want those responsible charged," he said.

A second issue came to light this week as polling clerk Sheila MacDonald disclosed both Goudie's and Nixon's names were struck from the voters' list in West Sechelt after they had voted at the Sechelt Seniors' Centre on March 8.

"The procedure is for people to come in, look up their name alphabetically, get their number, write it down and then they check their address and they sign. Then they get their ballot and when you look them up in the book you cross their name off," MacDonald explained.

She said she was ordered by presiding officer Stacey Buchhorn to cross Goudie's and Nixon's names off the list in West Sechelt.

"She insisted we cross it off, which I did, feeling very uncomfortable about it. I disagreed and I told her the procedure I think we should be following, but the names of these two gentlemen were crossed off. Then within about an hour she came back and said she wanted to initial those two people that we crossed off and she actually initialed the lines," MacDonald said.

"But to me it still was wrong and my concern also was if somebody wanted to get nasty with these two gentlemen, who I think have caused a little bit of rabble rousing, they could go to those books and bring charges because it looks like they've voted twice."

Coast Reporter asked Nicholas about the issue but she would only say, "Elections officials have various duties under the Local Government Act and actions taken by those officials at the polling stations were in order to fulfill those duties. We are unable to disclose any further specifics, as this would constitute a disclosure of personal information contrary to the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act."

The issue of how much the District of Sechelt spent on a "vote yes" campaign is also being raised.

Nixon filed a Freedom Of Information (FOI) request to see the numbers, and when Coast Reporter asked for the same information, the newspaper was also told to file an FOI.

Nicholas said it could take up to 60 days to get the information together.

One last issue raising some eyebrows is the fact that several deceased residents received letters from the District in the past month, urging them to vote in favour of the referendum.

Nicholas explained the letters were generated by the District's property tax base.

"It is not uncommon for the database to contain names of individuals who are deceased because the only way they are removed from the list is if requested by their family members and upon provision of satisfactory evidence that the person is deceased," Nicholas said.

Despite concerns, Sechelt council is going forward with their plans to secure the $7.4 million loan based on the slim majority vote, moving to do so at a special council meeting on March 12.

The only councillor to vote against the idea was Alice Lutes.

"I feel that because it was so close a count that we didn't get a clear mandate from the community and that's my feeling," Lutes said.

© Coast Reporter

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