A Regina group trying to force a public vote on the city's plans for a new wastewater treatment plant is expressing concern about the city's move to change the number of signatures needed for a referendum.

In February city council approved a public-private partnership approach to upgrade Regina's wastewater treatment plant, which is estimated to cost about $224.3 million.

But a group called Regina Water Watch says involving the private sector in the plan is a more expensive way to build and operate the new plant. The group has been collecting signatures on a petition to force a referendum on the plan.

 

'What it looks like to me is that they're in full panic mode.'—Jim Holmes, Regina Water Watch

Since starting the petition drive in March, the group says it has gathered about 19,000 signatures.

According to provincial regulations, the number of signatures required to force a vote is 10 per cent of the latest census population figures.

The 2011 census places Regina's population at 193,100. However, Regina Water Watch was told by the city that it would need 20,000 signatures to force a vote. The group said they would follow that benchmark.

This week, however, in an email sent to the group, city officials say they have asked the Saskatchewan Minister of Government Relations, Jim Reiter, to use his discretion to base the petition-threshold number on health card figures from 2012. That places the city's population at 207,429, and would increase the number of signatures needed by about 750.

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Jim Holmes is with Regina Water Watch, a group trying to force a referendum on the city's wastewater treatment plant proposal. (Sheryl Rennie/CBC)

"We're concerned that this request has come one week before the petition deadline and after news reports that we are on track to reach the legal requirement," Jim Holmes, a Regina Water Watch spokesperson, said Friday. "It's unfair to the public to change the goalposts in the last quarter."

At a news conference highlighting the federal government's $58.5 million contribution to the planned wastewater treatment plant, Mayor Michael Fougere told reporters the communication with the province was simply to clarify how many signatures are needed.

"We are seeking clarity on what the number is," Fougere said. "We will respect the decision by the minister. If he says it's census data versus health card numbers, that's fine."

The city also released a copy of a letter officials sent to the province, which suggests Regina is not seeking clarity but is actually seeking authorization to use the higher threshold.

"I would again like to request that I be authorized to use Saskatchewan Health Information to determine the population," City Clerk Joni Swidnicki says in her letter, dated June 13, to the provincial minister.

"What it looks like to me is that they're in full panic mode," Holmes added Friday. "Why would you do something as boneheaded as asking the minister to change the rules at the last minute? It's just unspeakably stupid."

Later on Friday, Minister Reiter told CBC News he was aware of the city's request and would review it and respond early next week. He said his initial reaction was one of reluctance to wade into a local issue.  

City officials also kept the doors locked during their news conference Friday. That move prevented members of Regina Water Watch from attending the event.