When Peterborough was being considered as a host site for a casino in 1997, city council voted unanimously to add a referendum question to the ballot in the upcoming municipal election. Residents who went to the polls voted 65% against a casino.
This time around, there hasn’t been any discussion at the council table about a referendum.
The provincial government updated legislation in June last year, removing the requirement in the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation Act for municipalities to hold a referendum if they wanted to be a host community for a casino. The government changed the legislation to a more general requirement for public input and a resolution of support from council.
Peterborough city council has already passed a motion expressing support for hosting a casino.
On Tuesday, it’ll hold a special meeting to hear from the community before it sends a more formal notice of its support to Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.
“There’s no appetite for a referendum,” Coun. Lesley Parnell said.
Parnell quickly clarified that she meant that council has no desire to hold a referendum.
“Council has been elected by the citizens of Peterborough to make this decision,” she said. “A referendum isn’t necessary.”
A substantial majority of council members firmly support bringing a casino to the city and welcoming the economic development, Parnell said, adding that buses already run through the city to gambling facilities elsewhere.
“A casino is already here,” she said. “We might as well get the revenue out of it.”
Both Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak and NDP leader Andrea Horwath have called for communities to hold referendums to decide whether to welcome in casinos.
In Kingston, which is in the same OLG “gaming zone” as Peterborough, one councillor is calling for referendum on the issue. Kingston’s mayor responded that he doesn’t support the municipality spending $300,000 to put the question to its voters, but he’d be willing to consider it as part of the next election in 2014.
The $300,000 figure could be low. Peterborough city clerk John Kennedy estimates the cost of a referendum would be essentially the same as running an election. The 2010 election cost the municipality about $500,000.
A referendum held outside an election would follow Municipal Elections Act rules, Kennedy said (See fact box). That legislation requires councils approve questions that would be on a ballot. (See accompanying fact box for detailed regulations).
For the 2010 election, the provincial government’s guidebook for municipalities and candidates indicated that casinos were a matter a provincial interest that couldn’t be the subject of referendum questions.
However, a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing official has told the city it could hold a referendum on the casino issue, Kennedy said.
“Obviously things must have changed since 2010,” he said.
Things have also changed since last year for Peterborough MPP Jeff Leal. Back then, Leal voted for a private member’s bill tabled by a Tory MPP that would have required municipalities to hold casino referendums. That bill died when the Liberal government prorogued the legislature for a Liberal leadership campaign that would select the next premier.
Leal no longer supports requiring referendums.
“We’ve evolved from that position,” he said in a recent interview.
There needs to be community engagement, Leal said, praising Peterborough’s approach to the issue.
“They’ve been doing a fair, significant outreach to date in terms of information that they’re providing to the public.”
The Wynne government is going ahead with adding as many as 29 new casinos; it has to be done in a transparent and accountable way, said Lambton-Kent-Middlesex Tory MPP Monte McNaughton, who authored the private members bill that would have required communities to hold referendums.
“Local people should be able to have a say in something as serious as casino development,” he said. “The government has been expanding casinos under a veil of secrecy.”
Beyond a couple of emails, people in Ashburnham Ward haven’t been calling for a referendum, said Coun. Keith Riel, who represents the East City ward.
“People elected me to do a job,” he said. “We have a good council that can make a decision . . . I would like to hear what the people have to say.”
Peterborough’s public meeting on the issue starts at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board office on Fisher Dr.
An OLG representative will speak at the meeting.
OLG has indicated that it’s not willing to wait until the next municipal election for the communities to let it know whether they’re interested in hosting a casino.
“We need to roll out the procurement . . . It’s a long process, and we can’t roll out the procurement if we don’t know the communities are interested,” OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti said. “We won’t go where we’re not welcomed . . .We’ll respect the will of council.”