Toronto residents could be heading to the polls as early as October to cast their votes on casinos if one member of Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee gets his way.
Councillor Michael Thompson, who is also head of the city’s economic development committee, is pushing for a mid-term referendum on whether Toronto should pursue the casino on offer from the province’s lottery corporation.
On Wednesday, council voted to defer the debate and send two motions on the matter to the city's executive committee.
Mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, have not indicated support for a mid-term vote, but have on several occasions voiced their belief that they have the support of Torontonians – if not the majority of city councillors – on several initiatives, most notably building new subways. A referendum sooner rather than later could offer a chance for the mayor to wrest back control of the transit agenda, as well as find out whether he should move forward on the casino.
So far, both Ford brothers have said only that they would support a referendum on casinos on the next municipal ballot – along with a question about subways.
But Mr. Thompson argues it makes no sense to wait two years until the next civic election for a referendum.
Since the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. is pushing the casino initiative, Mr. Thompson said the price of holding the vote should be included in the cost of developing the plan. “The province as the driver and catalyst of this, they should put up the money,” he told reporters.
On Wednesday, Aly Vitunski, press secretary for Ontario's Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, reiterated his position in an e-mail : “The municipalities would be on the hook for the bill.”
Holding a city-wide referendum could cost as much as $7-million, according to estimates from city staff.
One of the motions before council came from Councillor Adam Vaughan, who called for a referendum before any casino is permitted in Toronto, but only as part of a general election. The other motion, from Councillor Mike Layton, asked the province to take Ontario Place off the list of possible casino sites.
The support of two-thirds of council was needed for either motion to be debated at council Wednesday.
It makes no sense, Mr. Vaughan said Tuesday, to spend millions on a special vote on casinos when the city is cutting costs in other areas. “That just tells you how out of touch they are with the economic pressures facing this city,” said Mr. Vaughan, referring to supporters of a mid-term vote.
The casino question was put to Toronto residents in 1997 as part of that year’s civic election and more than 70 per cent voted no. That result should stand, Mr. Vaughan argues, until the next election in 2014.
The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. is eager to open a casino in Toronto, possibly at Ontario Place on the waterfront, a move that would provide the province with some badly needed revenue. Mr. Duncan last week spoke in glowing terms about the benefits of such a development, describing it as an “entertainment destination” that would create 4,000 permanent jobs and generate $3-billion to $4-billion in investment.
Mr. Duncan made it clear that the province would not force a casino on the city if its residents do not want it, noting that other cities in the region are ready to take its place.
Premier Dalton McGuinty echoed that statement Wednesday, saying whether to have a casino or not was up to the people of Toronto.
"I know there are a number of communities that are going to be giving the prospect of a casino due consideration. I think councils have got a couple of things they've got to kind of come to terms with: First of all, do they want to give a casino due consideration. If they do, then they're going to have to find a way to appropriately consult the people who live in that community."
"I will leave it to them to determine what appropriate consultation might be," the Premier said.
Both Mayor Ford and Councillor Ford have expressed their support for the idea of a Toronto casino because of the jobs it would bring. Both also have said they would support a referendum on casinos, suggesting they’d like to add a question on subways to the ballot, as well.
“I believe in referendums,” Doug Ford said Tuesday. “During the election there should have been a referendum on subways. There should be a referendum on casinos. Two major issues,” he said.
The casino issue is a tricky one for the mayor because it cuts across political lines. Some of Mr. Ford’s traditional supporters, such as Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, have spoken strongly against casinos, saying they oppose gambling on principle.
Councillor Josh Matlow, another critic of casinos, said it does not matter who pays for a mid-term vote – the city or the province – the money could be better spent. “I don’t believe that single question merits the cost of going to a referendum,” he said.
Mr. Matlow said he would support putting several issues directly to voters as part of the 2014 municipal election. Other questions, he suggested, could include road tolls, congestion charges and raising taxes as a way to pay for transit. “We could put all those different options on the table and see how badly people want subways,” he said.
With reports from Kelly Grant and Karen Howlett