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TransLink referendum could sway civic election outcomes

Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore is one of the Metro Vancouver mayors who says the Nov. 15 civic elections in some cities could be influenced if a TransLink referendum draws more voters to the polls on the same day. - Black Press file photo
Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore is one of the Metro Vancouver mayors who says the Nov. 15 civic elections in some cities could be influenced if a TransLink referendum draws more voters to the polls on the same day.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

The outcome of this fall's civic elections across Metro Vancouver may be altered by holding the promised TransLink referendum at the same time, prompting an unusual surge of voters aligned with one side or the other.

Several observers say that's a strong possibility if the province pushes forward with the plebiscite on new transit taxes that could then dominate local campaigning.

Transit riders could come out in force to vote 'Yes' in the referendum, potentially pushing pro-transit candidates onto local councils.

But more likely, some watchers say, is a stampede to the polls of anti-tax voters who want to pay no more for TransLink and will help elect conservative councillors and mayors as a byproduct of defeating the referendum.

A Nov. 15 TransLink vote would boost the "notoriously low" turnout in civic elections, said political analyst David Schreck, but he added it might also sweep into power candidates similar to Toronto Coun. Doug Ford.

"Usually the people who are encouraged to turn out are the people who are angry and upset and opposed, not the people who want to pay more taxes to fund transit," Schreck said. "And those are the ones who would be casting their votes for city councillors and mayors and school trustees."

Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said Metro mayors have themselves to blame for the timing because they were angry with the government-promised referendum and failed to reach a swift agreement with Transportation Minister Todd Stone so it could be held sooner than the fall.

"If I was a mayor in a community where TransLink is not popular but I'm proposing big tax increases to give TransLink more dough, I'd be very nervous about this election," Bateman said.

So far no question has been announced and Stone and Premier Christy Clark have sent mixed messages about what they think it should be.

Mayors have said they first want the province to reform TransLink governance to give them more control over spending priorities if they are to support the referendum.

"I know a lot of mayors don't want to see it mixed up in a municipal election," Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said.

But she said the timing is good and will spur better voter turnout than the traditional 18 to 30 per cent while also lowering the cost.

"People really do want to have a say in how they're going to pay for it, recognizing that there is going to be payment made whether it's by tolls or road pricing or whatever."

Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, Metro's board chair, questioned whether the referendum result could be considered valid if it's held in November but the turnout doesn't improve.

Also to be determined, he said, are parameters such as the threshold of approval.

"Is it 50 per cent plus one or is it more than that?"

Moore predicts it will be difficult for residents to view the referendum as a vote on whether the region needs more money for transit and roads, rather than just a way to castigate TransLink for various shortcomings.

"That's going to be a challenge for people to separate those two."

Moore also agreed a simultaneous referendum could alter outcomes of local races.

"In some areas it could have a real impact on the election," he said.

Metro mayors have opposed holding a referendum on transit funding, warning it will be sharply divisive.

"It has the potential of pitting communities against communities," said Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin. "It also has the potential to dilute or push aside other local issues during the election campaign."

Most mayors wanted the province to simply authorize a new funding source to raise billions of dollars for new rapid transit lines and improved service.

They suggested an annual vehicle levy, a regional share of the carbon tax, a 0.5 per cent regional sales tax or regional bridge and road tolling.

But Bateman said there's no way the province will back down and push through higher transit taxes in the region without a referendum after having promised one in the 2013 provincial election.

Doing so would infuriate voters, he said, and no provincial politician will forget their wrath after the BC Liberals' botched imposition of the harmonized sales tax.

"No party wants to go through the HST broken promise scenario again."

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