Yellowknife pool referendum was above board, city says

Yellowknife's referendum on whether the city should borrow $10 million to build a new aquatic centre might feel like ancient history, but for one Yellowknifer questions remain about how the city handled the campaign.

Yellowknife resident remains unconvinced last November's referendum on borrowing $10M was fair

A concept design for the proposed aquatic centre in Yellowknife. Yellowknifers voted in favour of borrowing $10 million to replace Ruth Inch Memorial Pool with a new aquatic centre. (City of Yellowknife)

Yellowknife's referendum on whether the city should borrow $10 million to build a new aquatic centre might feel like ancient history, but for one Yellowknifer questions remain about how the city handled the campaign.

On Nov. 23, 2021 Yellowknifers voted in favour of borrowing the money. Tim Thurley, a former political campaign manager, member's assistant on Parliament Hill and volunteer political candidate scrutineer, maintains that city staff breached the city's ethical code of conduct for employees during the referendum campaign.

According to Section 11 of that code, public employees are barred from "activities which strongly promote one side, or person in a campaign for election."

Thurley says that the city's communications materials — including mail-out flyers and postings to social media — endorsed a "yes" vote. 

That, Thurley maintains, amounted to the city using public resources to campaign for one side.

"Since that platform is a public platform and it's supposed to be a neutral platform, both sides of the referendum need to have access to it," Thurley said, referring to city of Yellowknife communications. 

"What they can't do is then use their resources to push an ad campaign to try and swing the vote. That's where it becomes sort of a partisan interference and that's not okay and that's what prevents it from being a free election." 

An example of a post to social media made by the city of Yellowknife regarding last year's pool referendum. (City of Yellowknife/Twitter)

Days before the referendum vote in November, Thurley wrote a letter to the city manager outlining his allegations, and filed a complaint with the city clerk.

On Jan. 4 he received a response. In a letter, acting city manager Kerry Thistle said the city investigated Thurley's complaint. Thistle did not address any specifics of the city's code of conduct for employees, but wrote "we reviewed all of the information and documents gathered in the investigation and have concluded that the actions complained of did not breach applicable city of Yellowknife policies." 

Thurley followed up on an invitation in that letter to bring any further questions or concerns forward, but said he received no response.

Thurley said he was in favour of the yes vote, but added that what he sees as the city's "administrative interference" in the referendum "brings into question the fairness and integrity of our electoral process."

"I think city employees are good people and they're trying their best and sometimes policies and procedures can fall a little bit by the wayside when people think they're doing the right thing, but it's really important that we have them," he said.

Breach unclear

Anthony Sayers is an associate professor of  political science at the University of Calgary, and the author of the Canadian Elections Database — which records results from all federal, provincial and territorial elections since Confederation. 

He said it's unclear if the city breached its ethics policy.

Sayers agreed if city staff used public resources to promote an outcome, then that would have been unethical. But after reviewing referendum materials he didn't see that line crossed. Sayers said city Facebook posts on the referendum stuck to information around what would happen if citizens voted yes or no. 

"But if you were making phone calls [while working as a government employee], printing literature on government printers or tweeting up through an account that's official only, tweeting support for one side, that would be questionable, I think." 

A Facebook post published by the City of Yellowknife leading up to the Yellowknife pool referendum in November 2021. (screenshot)

Sayers said the question revolves around "whether a government can lobby for a particular outcome and whether it is required to provide matching or balancing points of view."

He said it makes sense that a government would prefer one outcome over another and it wouldn't make sense for the government to lobby against the referendum it is proposing. 

"That defies logic," he said. 

"What is their obligation in terms of balance given their general commitment to the community? I just don't know."

Sayers said he suspects that in this case, the city was within its rights. 

"It may not be strictly fair, but it is not illegal.

When asked to comment on Thurley's allegations, city campaign materials, and if city employees were engaged in "partisan campaigning," city spokesperson Alison Harrower reiterated that the city violated no "applicable city of Yellowknife policies."

"Throughout the referendum, the city was committed to ensuring that residents could cast an informed vote in the borrowing referendum and shared relevant communications materials to this effect," she wrote in an email.