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Former minister champions referendums

'It's wrong," citizens can no longer hold referendums on land-based planning decisions, said Dave Keenan, a former community affairs minister.

‘It’s wrong,” citizens can no longer hold referendums on land-based planning decisions, said Dave Keenan, a former

community affairs minister.

Municipal referendums were always intended to be applied to Official Community Plans, said Keenan, who was minister in 1998 when the Piers McDonald’s New Democrats introduced the new Yukon Municipal Act.

Last week, Whitehorse administrators proposed striking the referendum policy from the 2009 Official Community Plan.

The policy, which was added after the 2002 plan, states a referendum will be held every time there is a proposal to strip land of its greenbelt, protected status or park reserve status.

The city had to strike the policy from its plan when a court case in the summer ruled referendums related to anything arising from the Official Community Plan aren’t allowed.

The defendant, Marianne Darragh, was taken to court by the city after collecting more than 2,000 signatures to force a referendum over the protection of McLean Lake.

Keenan is disappointed citizens no longer have the right to hold referendums on land issues in the Official Community Plan.

“The purpose of the referendum vehicle is to provide people with a voice,” said Keenan.

“If it’s being removed, what is it being replaced with? If it’s nothing, well then, people need to have a say.”

In the late 1990s, the Association of Yukon Communities held lengthy consultations with Keenan asking that public oversight of municipalities be written into the municipal act.

Referendums were seen as

a way of holding municipal governments to account after the territory threw out their municipal oversight boards and power was devolved from ministers to city councils, he said.

“This came forward from the municipalities themselves, they came to us with it,” said Keenan.

Now, the municipalities are trying to get rid of it.

“If I remember right, the (Official Community Plan) was put into place to steer development,” he said.

“It was a plan that could be altered or changed, and (referendums) were one vehicle for that sort of community input. The municipal act was never meant to be watered down in that way.”

After the Supreme Court judge came forward with his ruling in August, the territory didn’t address the issue.

Only in November did MLA Darius Elias question Community Services Minister Archie Lang about whether he was going to amend the municipal act as a result of the court case.

“We will follow the instructions of the guidance that was given to the municipality on that decision through the Court of Appeal,” said Lang.

But the issue is dead, according to Christine Smith, acting director of community affairs.

“The court case brought clarity to the (public votes) section of the municipal act,” she said.

At the council and special management meeting where the draft Official Community Plan was presented, officials offered plebiscites as an alternative to referendums.

But councillors and administrators now realize it would just be a pointless exercise in community input.

“A plebiscite wouldn’t get you anywhere,” said director of administrative services, Robert Fendrick. “It doesn’t matter what people say because nobody would be bound by that result.”

Councillor Betty Irwin acknowledges that plebiscites can still provide input, but without council’s decision they can’t accomplish a whole lot.

The decision is ultimately left up to council, she said.

Contact Vivian Belik at