Two U of R professors are looking in to the 2013 P3 voting process

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The war of numbers from nowhere

The Yes and No sides could have based their findings on inconclusive findings that have since been redacted. / Peter Gagilas

The Yes and No sides could have based their findings on inconclusive findings that have since been redacted. / Peter Gagilas

As many readers are aware, the City of Regina held a referendum in 2013, which would determine the construction, financing, and operations of a new wastewater plant in the city.

Doctors Morina Rennie and Bill Bonner, two U of R business professors, are researching how vital financial information was not made available to voters in the lead-up to the 2013 referendum. Some information has been revealed, but much remains redacted.

Bonner states that this is a civic interest for them.

“The vote itself was a bit puzzling to us. One of the reasons we took on the project is, we are heavily invested in voting, much like anybody else, right? And yet, as we probed and probed, ‘How do we inform ourselves?’ Boy, the information is just not there, or we just seem unable to get our hands on it. ‘The vote’s coming, the vote’s coming, the vote happened.’ Well, wait a minute, what just happened?” said Bonner.

Bonner is arguing that the public was not presented with transparent financial figures throughout the campaign. After the campaign, as documents were redacted, the very basis of the numbers stated were in themselves redacted.

Rennie went into the goals of this study.

“The goal is to understand how all of this took place. To look at every aspect and perspective, to trace everything that happened as best we can. Even now, as noted, there is still not a lot of information out there underpinning these various numbers. A lot of it comes down to commercial confidentiality; it’s a particular private sector organization’s assessment tool, which has some proprietary rights to it.”

According to Bonner, the figures provided to voters in the lead-up to the referendum were based on calculations that were opaque with some remaining.

“In the referendum, they were saying, ‘Okay, we can’t tell you stuff because the city is under negotiations; it would put the city at a disadvantage,’ and so on. There’s the flaw in the process, right there. You’re asking us to vote, well, give us the information. ‘But all will be revealed,’ and here we are a year later, and we get the report and it’s still redacted.”

Bonner worries about what seems like an overall sense of secrecy in the referendum, which informed the title of their report.

“That was deeply disturbing. The sense of, ‘trust me, trust me, my numbers are right,’ ‘no, my numbers are right.’ Where do your numbers come from? That’s where the title comes from, The War of Numbers from Nowhere, because when you drill down to it, the foundations aren’t visible.”

Rennie is excited about the opportunity to help establish a framework for analyzing this type of event in the future.

“The numbers obviously came from somewhere, but nobody could find where. There is research out there on lots of different P3 situations and this is another one that should be on the academic record. We should be in a pretty good position to tell what we can about that and have a theoretical basis that nobody’s used before in this type of scenario.”

“As we drill deeper, it gets messier and messier,” said Bonner.

“We put this paper together for a conference coming up in April, but every time we delved down, we’d say, ‘wait a minute, the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) was applied here. Look what was redacted.’ It doesn’t make sense why that was redacted. Sit down with the report that existed at the time of the referendum and the report released about a year later, after the contract was awarded, and compare that with what was redacted, because it’s in one and not another. And, that almost becomes a paper in itself. ‘How do you justify taking out public information?’ Because it was public information taken out. In Abbotsford, they had a referendum and turfed the idea. That was blacked out. The new report reveals that is what was taken out of the old report available during the referendum. Some of the assumptions about the benefits — “the private option is going to automatically be cheaper than the public option,” – that wasn’t available and we still don’t have a basis for those assumptions. When you start looking at FOI and its actual application, you can see it wasn’t the law saying, “Take this out,” it wasn’t the Information and Privacy Commissioner. It was someone at the city choosing these,” said Bonner.

Dr. Rennie states that since both sides’ calculations depended on a heavily redacted report, supporters of either the Yes or No sides were left in the dark on a lot of the calculations thrown around.

“I think that on the No side, the Mackenzie Report was available and he did what he could. But he was relying on the Deloitte report as well. So, he was relying on a redacted document. There was only so much that could be done. In some sense, you couldn’t get to the basis of the numbers that came from the same incomplete set of data. It did turn out to be a problem in both cases because of that.”

Dr. Rennie’s and Dr. Bonner’s work is evolving and expanding over time. As such, what is currently being discussed is subject to change and adjustment as more is unearthed.

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