Friday, December 11, 2009

Will a committee tame 'Wild West' municipal campaigns?

It would be pretty easy to take over a mid-sized town in B.C.
Not in an uprising. Just by writing cheques.
Municipal election campaigns are, as Community Minister Bill Bennett said recently, "a bit of the Wild West."
There are no limits on political donations or spending. Third parties can spend as much as they like to influence the election without even revealing their identities.
The potential for corruption is so great that it's almost inevitable.
Say you're a developer keen on a lucrative rezoning or the extension of services to property you own. Or you're a public sector union president, worried about wage cuts or layoffs in the next round of contract negotiations.
You notice that hardly anyone votes - just under 20 per cent of those eligible in Kelowna in the last municipal election, for example.
You recognize that name recognition is important when voters aren't paying much attention to issues and campaigns. That's why incumbents have a huge advantage.
You realize that for a relatively modest sum, you could ensure the election of councillors and a mayor who would see things your way.
And everything you do will be completely legal. No wonder money from special interests have started to play a larger and larger role in municipal elections, from Vancouver to much smaller communities.
In part because of pressure from the Union of B.C. Municipalities, Premier Gordon Campbell government promised to do something about it back on Oct. 2.
A task force would look at all aspects of municipal elections, he said, from campaign financing to changing the current three-year cycle.
The project has been slow in starting. The government says the UBCM needed extra time to decide on its representatives.
But now Bennett and UBCM president Harry Nyce, the co-chairs, have been joined by two UBCM vice-presidents - Quesnel Mayor Mary Sjostrom and Surrey Coun. Barbara Steele.
Liberal MLAs Douglas Horne of Coquitlam and Donna Barnett of the Cariboo-Chilicotin riding. Barnett is a former mayor of the District of 100 Mile House.
You will notice something about the MLAs on the task force. They are all Liberal.
Bennett says the idea of including New Democrats or independent MLA Vicki Huntington never came up and they didn't ask to be involved during the planning stages. And the premier did say in October that government MLAs would be on the task force.
Steele, one of the UBCM reps, is also a Liberal. She ran for the party in 2005.
That creates an interesting problem for the task force, at least in terms of public perception.
Municipal politicians are looking for reforms that include limits on both campaign spending and donations. A survey of 38 B.C. mayors done earlier this year found 82 per cent supported both measures.
The notion that people or organizations with the biggest bank accounts shouldn't be able to determine the outcome of elections has been pretty widely accepted. The federal government, Manitoba and Quebec have all banned union and corporate donations and limited personal donations. Ontario allows donations from companies and unions, but limits them to $15,500 a year, or twice that much in an election year.
But Gordon Campbell has ignored a series of recommendations and insisted that no limits on donations are needed in B.C. There are spending limits.
His theory is that as long as donations must be reported, the public can be alert for any signs of special treatment for big donors.
It's a lame argument. The donation reports come out long after an election. Few people will pore through hundreds of reports. And even if there was favoritism for big donors, how would they know given the large number of decisions quietly made by government?
That puts the Liberal-dominated task force in a tough spot. Any call for donation limits will contradict the boss's insistence they aren't needed.
The group is going to be looking for public input. The output will be what's interesting.
Footnote: The task force has its work cut out. The report and recommendations are due by May 30, because the government would like any changes to the rules for municipal elections to be in place for the 2011 vote. That will require legislative changes.


Anonymous said...

PW wrote: "Bennett says the idea of including New Democrats or independent MLA Vicki Huntington never came up and they didn't ask to be involved during the planning stages."

Huntington is understandable as she only has so much time and must choose her battles wisely.

The NDP? Paul, it would have strengthened your column to have given them a call. Somehow... taking Bennett at his word does not seem to be a prudent course.

seth said...

Note that the NDP in last months convention came out in support of corporate campaign donations once again. Carole James tried to push the no donation shtick in 2005 and got nowhere with it.

This municipal corruption is shows why Vancouver was unable to get it's citywide wireless going.

Also shown is why Vancouver has some of the worst taxi service in North America. City taxi licenses issued for a few hundred dollars to select eligibles in the business immediately are worth hundreds of thousands.

DPL said...

Lets get down to the real story about local elections. People in this country are tuning out their politicians, plain and simply. They don't trust them and so don't bother to get involved. I just got a email from a friend back home seeing her family in Chile. She ran from the country when Pinochet overan the democtratic president.They were having a election this week. She knows the value of the vote and as she lost friends who disappeared during and just after the coup. Nobody has to tell her the value of a vote. Nobody should have to form a committee to urge us to vote. Bennet is blowing smoke when he says the opposition wern't interested.

I never missed a chance to vote in my life and did so even when out of the country. The right to vote means a lot to many of us, but unfortunatly some folks don't bother and use the excuse" They are all crooked anyway" Some are crooked but we let them be crooked.

Quimby said...

The fact is this can be done at the municipal level via by-laws. If so many Mayors want reform, why don't they pass a by-law?