In a near unanimous vote Sept. 11, councillors agreed to have staff develop the wording for a referendum question, with an eye on adding it to the ballot in the next municipal election.
The lone dissenter was Mayor Marianne Matichuk, who failed to garner support for her last-minute suggestion to deregulate shopping hours for a one-year trial period.
She argued that, while referendums are cheap when combined with elections, other municipalities have gotten into legal battles over the wording of the questions, costing tens of thousands of dollars.
And in any event, she said, it's up to councillors to make decisions.But city clerk Caroline Hallsworth told Matichuk that, under the rules of procedure, councillors would first have to vote on the referendum motion. If it failed, they could then entertain her pilot project idea.
While Ward 9 Coun. Doug Craig voiced support for her idea, in the end, everyone but the mayor voted to support the referendum.
Councillors also made it clear they want a referendum on deregulating store hours separated from a question on whether to allow shopping on Boxing Day.
"The input I've been getting on the (Boxing Day) question is an overwhelming 'no,'" said Ward 10 Coun. Fran Caldarelli. "But when it comes to whether or not to allow stores to set their own hours — the answer to that question has been 'yes.'"
Currently, most stores have to close by 10 p.m., with the exception of pharmacies, which can stay open until midnight, and convenience stores, which can operate 24 hours a day.
City bylaws also don't allow stores to open Boxing Day and on the Civic Holiday in August.
Ward 5 Coun. Ron Dupuis proposed the referendum last winter, in the wake of a failed attempt by Matichuk to deregulate city store hours.
One potential problem highlighted in a staff report is that to be binding, at least 50 per cent of voters must participate. Historically, voter turnout for municipal elections in Sudbury has been about 41 per cent, although the 2010 vote attracted 49.75 per cent of eligible voters.
But Ward 8 Coun. Fabio Belli said if there was a clear vote one way or another, he's sure the next council would honour the result.
"I think if it was a 'yes' decision on store hours, they would push forward with it. No question," Belli said. "I would love to make the decision tonight, but I don't think that's going to happen. So this is the next best alternative. I would like to see the two questions on the ballot, for sure."
Hallsworth told councillors that it would take four to six weeks to prepare options for the wording of questions. Once the wording has been determined, she said it becomes a public process.
Lobby groups can register either for or against the question, raise funds and campaign.
"It very much becomes a public process at that point," she said. "What other councils have done is, once they have decided to put the issue to a referendum and choose a question, they don't allow the topic to be debated at council. The question becomes the people's question, not council's."
Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann asked when she would be able to present all the negative aspects of deregulated store hours — effects on policing and busing, for example. But Hallsworth replied once the referendum process is approved, it's staff's job to remain even-handed.
"It's our job to provide information that is neutral and factual," she said. "It's up to the lobby groups on either side of the question to make their case to the electorate."