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Plebiscite time?

Neither Thunder Bay’s city manager nor its mayor is opposed to putting the question of an event centre to the public. But both Tim Commisso and Keith Hobbs said Monday it’s a little early in the process to consider a ballot question.
Mayor Keith Hobbs says he’ll support an event centre ballot question if the city considers a debenture to cover costs not provided for by other levels of government. (Leith Dunick,

Neither Thunder Bay’s city manager nor its mayor is opposed to putting the question of an event centre to the public.

But both Tim Commisso and Keith Hobbs said Monday it’s a little early in the process to consider a ballot question.

Commisso said he figures the city is at least a year away from a decision on whether to move forward to the construction phase of the proposed $106.1-million project. Until other levels of funding are in place, which city officials have said must be there for an event centre to become a reality, they’re not even sure what question to ask.

Commisso said they hope to make a formal submission to senior levels of government next September.

“We’re taking this step by step. We’re moving forward and until we have all the pieces of the puzzle, I think the challenge is what type of question do you put (forward) where it doesn’t become a what if or a hypothetical question,” Commisso said.

“Those aren’t questions that quite honestly should be put on the ballot. We still have a long way to go and we’re at least a year from having any type of decision made on this project.”

Hobbs reiterated he’s said all along the project won’t go ahead unless the provincial and federal governments come to the table with substantial amounts of cash.

Putting a question on the ballot would be premature, he said.

“I don’t think it’s time yet. At some point we may ask a question. It might be a standalone question after the election,” Hobbs said.

“I said when I was running for mayor, three or four years ago, if we have to debenture funds, I would like to ask the public questions. We could do that in the form of a survey too.”

The city has put aside about $30 million to cover its share, and plans to lean on other levels of government for the other two-thirds of the cost.

In an unscientific poll on on Monday, with 649 votes tabulated, about 63 per cent of respondents indicated they would like the question of whether or not the city should build an event centre put on the ballot.

Hobbs also said the public can’t expect to have a say in every move council makes.

“I know it’s a lot of money we’re talking about spending here, but I still maintain the majority of people in Thunder Bay want an event centre. That question, I think, is clear to me. And sorry, but surveys aren’t the most accurate.”

Asked what it would take to have a question put on the ballot, city clerk John Hannam said council must hold at least one public meeting on the matter, give notice of their intent to establish the bylaw and then pass it with a majority vote.

There’s also the matter of timing, he said.

“To include a question on a regular election, say this year’s, council must pass the bylaw by the end of April,” Hannam said via email. “In any year the bylaw needs to be passed 180 days prior to the byelection. It’s important to note that you can’t, under the legislation, do one any faster than that.”

A standalone question would cost between $100,000 and $200,000, depending the number of polling stations and advertising. It wouldn’t cost anything extra to place the question on the municipal ballot, other than advertising costs.

Coun. Ken Boshcoff said the last election itself was a de facto referendum on an event centre.

“Every elected member of council campaigned for the event centre. The few candidates that were opposed received very few votes,” he said, reached in Charlottetown.

“Therefore the community has already indicated very positively that they understand the Gardens must be replaced and a proper facility constructed.”

Current River Coun. Andrew Foulds said he was elected to take a stand, did his homework and he believes an event centre is the right direction for the city to proceed.

“I believe the city is doing its due diligence on all the serious considerations for the multiplex and moving forward in a thoughtful and responsible manner,” Foulds said.

At-large Coun. Iain Angus said he would not support a plebiscite. 

Coun. Larry Hebert, who unsuccessfully asked council to place the question on the ballot, said it may be too late.

“I don’t know if it would be worthwhile trying,” he said, given all the work that’s been done. “But I guess we can always try.”

Thunder Bay has held at least three ballot questions in the past, ending the debate on the city’s name, approving a debenture to cover costs for the regional hospital and giving the go-ahead to enact a smoking bylaw.



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