EDITORIAL – Petition organizers: Why the reluctance to share your numbers?

Why, nearly six months into the effort, will organizers of a petition drive to force a cruise port referendum not reveal how many signatures they have collected?

To date, our reporters’ repeated requests for the simple information have been met with vague replies; the closest answer a vague “high 4,000s” offered by petition organizer Mario Rankin last month (see Front Page story). How are the signatures being verified? Have they been verified? By whom? The lack of clear answers to these fundamental inquiries raises troubling issues. Secrecy is fertile ground in which suspicions grow.

These are not idle questions. Readers will recall the bungled efforts of those opposed to the closure of a segment of West Bay Road just a few years ago – a petition drive that yielded thousands of invalid signatures from foreign residents, visitors and children.

On a more philosophical level, it is difficult to understand port opponents’ secrecy when one of their chief complaints about the port proposal is of government’s reluctance to share project details, including the cost, timeline for completion and plans to maintain services during construction.

There is another reason the petition drive should be a model of transparency and open communication: The petitioners are attempting to exercise a relatively new power. Before the 2009 Constitution, Cayman had no mechanism for people-initiated referendums. There is still much about the process that is untested and unknown.

Unfortunately, Elections Supervisor Wesley Howell has not been much help on that front, either – failing to respond to multiple requests for information from the Compass. Previously, he told the Compass that the terms of a referendum would be set by Cabinet and Legislative Assembly, and his office would be responsible for organizing it. How, exactly, that would work he has not said.

Compounding the confusion is the law, itself – contained in Section 70 of the 2009 Constitution – which is as mangled a jumble of legalese as this editorial board has ever encountered. It is stacked with vague and relative directives, not least of which are the provisions that the petition must concern “a matter or matters of national importance,” that Cabinet, upon receiving the petitions must settle on the wording of the referendum “within a reasonable time period” and determine the date for the referendum “in a manner prescribed by law.”

In 2011, the Constitutional Commission urged lawmakers to draft and approve a legal and administrative framework for people-initiated referendums. The commission identified a host of questions and considerations that were not explicit in the constitution but demanded codification, from the formatting of petitions, determination of topics that may or may not be subject to referendum, campaign finance disclosure, rules for the collection and verification of signatures, how to handle amendments and time frames for petition organizers and Cabinet.

To our knowledge, government never acted upon their recommendation. Which brings us to our current predicament.

It is a relatively easy matter to put pen to paper, starting a petition or signing one, but make no mistake: The power to force an islandwide vote on any major public project or issue is an extremely serious undertaking. At the very least, a referendum which requires an off-cycle trip to the polls represents a substantial withdrawal from the public purse.

The logistics of securing the necessary signatures requires the acumen of a military tactician planning for battle, and the subsequent scrutiny of an eagle-eyed auditor. (Personally, on collecting the signatures, we would highly recommend consulting with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are the obvious experts in door-to-door canvassing.)

Levity aside, petition organizers ought to take a lesson from the iguana cullers who, through the government, each week make public their progress toward their goal. Why should the petition organizers do anything less?