Plain and simple, the petition had two problems: not enough valid signatures, and it came in too late. The petition reports are here.
The petition did not get the 78,244 valid signatures required by provincial law to force a binding plebiscite. I put no stock in the conspiracy theories concerning the petition verification process – the City’s clerks are among the most fair-minded process-driven people you’d ever meet. Suggestions to the contrary are insulting to the integrity of hard-working City staff.
There was a lot of speculation about how many signatures would be enough: 50,000; 60,000; 75,000? In the end Council stuck to the threshold set out in provincial law. It is a high threshold, but for good reason, and it should not be undermined.
It became apparent to me in the discussion yesterday that the other problem with the petition is actually more serious: timing is everything, and the Envision Edmonton petition was submitted far too late. Under the Municipal Government Act, petitioners desiring to overturn a Council decision must submit their petition within 60 days of the decision. That clock started running in July of 2009. No doubt that is onerous but the reason for the deadline is that it’s costly and difficult for a city to stop once it begins to implement a decision like this, particularly a decision with impacts upon third parties and that calls for significant city investment.
The date of closure set for the first runway (16/34) was known months in advance. The fact that lease buyouts were under active negotiation is common knowledge. The LRT planning to and through the Airport lands has been ongoing. Key decision points have come and gone, and yet Envision waited to begin their campaign until this summer, and submitted their petition only weeks before this fall’s election.
Mr. Allard, the petitioners’ spokesperson, said Democracy doesn’t have a best before date, and while I have to say that the 60 day rule would be an unduly harsh standard to judge their efforts by, waiting 350+ days was clearly a political move to prime this election season and push Council to take easy political cover by putting the issue on the ballot as a non-binding plebiscite.
A motion was put forward to put the issue on the ballot that might have provided just that political cover. It was roughly: “Do you want the city keep the City Centre Airport open for general aviation – yes or no.” The practical problem with the question is that an affirmative vote means the airport would limp along with one runway for another 10 years, until the question of the airport’s viability inevitably arose once again. This cycle could conceivably repeat until the expiry of the Edmonton Regional Airport Authority lease in 2052. Under that lease, opening it back up to scheduled air service is out of the question, and all costs to enhance the airport would bear upon the City.
One point raised over and over that I need to address is that the 1995 plebiscite question included an afterword that read: “Under both options the City will continue to own and offer general air services (e.g. private planes, small charters, air ambulance) at the Municipal Airport.” So did 100% of people vote to keep the airport open in 1995 as has been argued? Not necessarily. The question was on consolidation of scheduled service at the International. People had no way to give their opinion on closure so we can’t make any conclusions about the public’s will. The statement simply reflects that the Council of the day said they intended to keep it open either way.
So we tried that for 13 years until the question of the Airport’s sustainability was raised at Council 2008. After lengthy study in 2009, my conclusion was that the City Centre Airport was in inexorable decline, and that’s why I supported closure then. That decline has only accelerated with the implementation of Council’s decision over the past year. The appropriate time for the public to petition, or for Council to put it on the ballot, was sometime last year.
Phased closure will continue, and I’m prepared to defend that decision in this fall’s election.