• Kyodo

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Procedures officially kicked off Monday for a March 9 referendum in Toyosato, Shiga Prefecture, on whether to oust the mayor over his aborted attempt to raze a historic school building in the face of strong public opposition.

Built in 1937, the art deco structure was designed by American architect William Merrell Vories, who was also a prominent missionary and entrepreneur.

Many residents of the town have been seeking to preserve the structure, which at the time of its completion was reportedly touted as “the best school building in Asia.”

Mayor Wasaburo Ono, however, is pushing for construction of a new building, saying the old one is no longer earthquake-safe.

The dispute has drawn nationwide attention since the mayor ignored a court order in December and had workers start to demolish the structure. It is extremely rare for a referendum to be held targeting a mayor.

Mayor Ono will lose his job if a majority of voters favor his dismissal. If the voters choose to oust him, an election to pick a new mayor will be held within 50 days.

Toyosato Isshin-no Kai, a civic group that called for the referendum to save the historic school building, is asking voters to back Ono’s ouster, distributing leaflets and campaigning on the streets with loudspeakers.

“Vote (for the mayor’s ouster) to bring back democracy to the town of Toyosato,” the group’s leader, Hiroshi Ito, urged passersby near a local train station. “Construction of a new school building is a waste of taxpayer money. The mayor would not listen, so he should step down.”

Mayor Ono also campaigned for voter support near the same station, saying, “I will continue my efforts to provide better and safer education facilities for the children, no matter how I may be criticized.”

Residents supporting the mayor are printing posters stressing his achievements during his term.

The civic group submitted signatures for the referendum to the municipal election board in December.

The board said in January it had received signatures from 1,892 eligible voters in the town, six more than the one-third of voters needed to begin the process to oust Ono, who was pushing for the demolition plan.

There were 5,657 eligible voters in the town as of Dec. 2.

Ono attempted to demolish the 3,500-sq.-meter building housing the elementary school and to build a new one, arguing that the old structure may no longer withstand a major earthquake.

He even ignored a Dec. 19 injunction by a local court to suspend the demolition by ordering workers to start tearing it down. The workers ended up partially destroying the building.

Faced with the angry public outcry, however, the mayor suddenly retracted his initial plan and declared his intention to preserve the building.

But the mayor and proreferendum residents remain at odds because Ono told them the building will no longer be used for classes.

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