Advocates on either side of Greater Sudbury’s store hours debate are already sparring, with the chamber accusing one city councillor of “fear mongering.”
Debbie Nicholson, president and CEO of the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, said an attempt by Ward 6 Coun. André Rivest to change the wording of the referendum question showed he doesn’t understand the issue.
“It seems like we take one step forward, two steps back all the time,” Nicholson said after the Oct. 30 city council meeting. “I really objected to councillor Rivest’s comment. I think he’s fear mongering. I think he doesn’t understand the issue and I think there are some others around the table that don’t understand the issue.”
Councillors agreed to put three questions to voters as part of the 2014 municipal election. The first would deregulate store hours in Sudbury; the second would allow shopping on Boxing Day; and the third would allow shopping on the August Civic Holiday.
During a debate on the wording of each question, Rivest took issue with the wording of the store hours question. It reads: “Are you in favour of allowing retail business establishments to set their opening hours?”
Rivest said that question is “highly misleading” because residents won’t realize they’re opening the door to letting stores open all day and all night.
“There should be something that says ‘24-hour shopping,’ ” he said. “It needs to be in there, somewhere.”
Nicholson said she hopes the tone of the debate will deal with facts, and not play on people’s fears.
“(Rivest) really needs to get a handle on what the question is and what the issue is, because if he is perpetuating that kind of thinking in the community, he’s not doing anybody any favours,” Nicholson said.
“The right information will get out. I would hope the side opposed to our position won’t use those tactics, where they’re talking about information that is not accurate.
“That’s not fair, and certainly it’s the media’s job to get the right information across. And it will be the chamber's job … to get the message across.”
In past debates on the issue, which has come to city council repeatedly since the 1990s, opponents have said, among other things, unregulated store hours would hurt families, put students who work in retail at greater risk and impose undue hardship on an industry where many workers receive lower wages.
Nicholson said such arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny, considering they haven’t happened in other communities where store hours are deregulated.
“They’re talking about things that haven’t happened in any other community, so why would it be likely all of sudden to happen here?” she said.
“We’ve had councillors talking about the moral fibre of our community deteriorating if we allow late-night shopping. Well, who is council to dictate the moral fibre of our community? And why would Toronto or Ottawa or any other community that doesn’t regulate store hours have a moral fibre that’s any better or worse than ours?”
Rivest’s proposed amendment failed, in part because City Clerk Caroline Hallsworth pointed out that attempts to add extra information to the question makes it more likely than the wording will be successfully appealed by one side or the other.
That’s what happened in Sault Ste. Marie in 2010, when it held a referendum on allowing Boxing Day shopping.
“It changes the dynamic of the question if you start putting items in there,” Hallsworth said. “The question has to be very, very simple, and very, very short.
"The legislation requires it be a simple yes or no question. It must be clear, concise and neutral. It cannot be leading. Otherwise it could be challenged and it could be overturned.”
We’re the last city in all of Ontario that still regulates store hours. And no other cities blew up because store hours were changed.
Mayor, City of Greater Sudbury
And, as Ward 2 Coun. Jacques Barbeau pointed out, the election is two years away, plenty of time for everyone to become very familiar with what’s at stake.
“I think by then people will get an understanding of what these questions are all about,” he said. “We need to move on and spend less time on this issue. Let’s get going.”
One change to the questions was passed. It came from Ward 10 Coun. Frances Caldarelli, who pointed out many people may not realize the Civic Holiday is on the first Monday in August.
“I can see people voting either yes or no, not realizing that it’s the holiday Monday,” she said.
Her motion passed easily, so now the question reads, “Are you in favour of retail business establishments opening on the Civic Holiday on the first Monday in August?” The third question reads, “Are you in favour of retail business establishments opening on Dec. 26?”
While repeating her stance that council should be repealing the bylaws rather than putting it to a referendum, Mayor Marianne Matichuk said after the meeting she was glad the issue will finally be decided.
“It’s going to be an interesting election,” Matichuk said. “We’re the last city in all of Ontario that still regulates store hours. And no other cities blew up because store hours were changed. I think it’s a tempest in a teapot.
“Now the public has a chance to express its will. And all the surveys we have say that 70 per cent support deregulated store hours.”
After the meeting, Hallsworth said the rules governing the referendum are very specific, with spending limits and strict regulations requiring the municipality to be neutral.
“In many ways, a referendum question is a bit like a candidate,” Hallsworth said.
Groups now have 20 days to file an objection over the wording of the questions. Assuming that period passes without an appeal, city council will officially pass the bylaw at its Dec. 11 meeting.
At that point, no more debate can take place in council chambers on either side of the issues. Groups that want to campaign for either side have to register with Hallsworth’s office and provide all their campaign financing details, just as a candidate would.
“There are very detailed rules surrounding campaign financing and those rules do apply to anyone who is taking a position on either side of the referendum question,” she said.
Nicholson said she expects the chamber will be active in the campaign.
“And I’m sure the opponents will come out very strong,” she said. “So I think it’s going to be a very interesting discussion and an interesting debate leading up to the fall of 2014.”
To be binding, voter turnout must be at least 50 per cent. Turnout for municipal votes usually hovers around 40 per cent, but it reached 49.75 in 2010. Nicholson said if store hours are deregulated, consumers shouldn’t expect major changes.
“At the end of the day, will we see a whole bunch of stores suddenly have 24-hour shopping? No, it’s not going to happen,” she said.
But there may be a grocery store and a pharmacy that operates 24-hours, which would be a boon for the many shift workers in Greater Sudbury.
“And if a store wants to have a midnight madness sale right now, they can’t do it. But if this bylaw gets defeated, they can choose to do that if they want.”