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.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Innovative' deal with developer needs better process (Note: The column is better than that terrible headline)

The new release from Housing Minister Rich Coleman was headlined "Innovative $32M affordable housing announced for Victoria."
Innovative it is. Affordable is relative; the project will offer condos and apartments at a 10-per-cent discount on market rates. That's not enough to make the housing affordable for many people, when one-bedroom condos will still sell for $350,000.
And the structure of the deal raises several questions.
Here are the basics.
Developer Rick Ilich, through Townline Victoria, bought the block in downtown Victoria that includes the historic Hudsons's Bay store, which has a great exterior fa├žade.
The plan is for a renovation of the beautiful old building that preserves the exterior while creating striking condos. Ilich also planned two other buildings on the block, replacing a parkade.
All in, it was to be worth some $300 million.
Then came the recession and progress slowed. A neighboring project ran into trouble and Townline bought that property as well.
And now the provincial government has effectively taken over as developer of one of the three buildings on the Bay block.
It's kind of a private-public partnership in reverse. The risk transfer is to taxpayers, not the private partner.
According to the government's news release, Townline will sell the portion of the property to the government, and eventually a non-profit operator of the building, for 80 per cent of the market price - $4 million. (Ilich said the sale price was 80 per cent of the company's costs in the land, incurred before the economic collapse.)
The provincial government will become the developer of the 13-storey tower.
It will borrow $32 million and hire a company to do the construction.
The news release said "TL Housing Solutions Ltd., an experienced developer of non-market housing, will develop the site."
TL Housing does have several projects on the go. It's the developer for a 51-unit rental project on Wilson Street in Vic West being funded by B.C. Housing and the city of Victoria. The company was formed to focus on those kinds of opportunities. The company offers to "be the interface at the municipal, provincial and federal political levels. We can uncover access to density bonuses, civic contributions, BC Housing funding programs and subsidies, as well as CMHC sponsored project funding and favorable loan rates."
It's a clever business model.
But in the interests of openness, the news release might have noted that TL Housing is also a Ilich company, with Rick IIich's wife Lauren as the president.
Not that there is anything wrong with that.
In this kind of unorthodox deal, though, transparency is essential. The benefits, costs and risks being assumed by all parties need to be clear.
And the fact that the developer selling the land is also benefiting from a $32-million untendered construction contract should have been acknowledged.
The provincial government plans to get the $32 million back. It hopes to sell 40 units as condos and take in $15 million, or an average $375,000 per unit.
And once it selects a non-profit owner/operator for the rental portion of the building, the remaining $17 million in debt will be transferred to the agency. The operator will use the income from the 80 rental units to make the mortgage payments and manage the building.
On top of the provincial funding, the City of Victoria is making an $800,000 contribution to the rental portion of the project, or $10,000 per unit. The rents are also to be 10 per cent below market level, a small but useful discount.
It looks to be a good deal. A developer gets help on a big project when times are challenging. The city reduces the risk that a key chunk of downtown will sit vacant longer than necessary. The shortage of rental housing is eased.
And creative approaches from government and business are welcome.
But a better public process is needed in these kinds of deals. Ordinarily, a public project would go to tender so taxpayers would know they were getting the best deal.
And by taking on the risk of selling condos to recover its money, the government is moving into an area where it has little expertise or experience. If they don't sell, or sell at a discount, taxpayers are on the hook.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

'Gladiators' drown out the decent in politics

Tom Flanagan, the Calgary professor who has been mentor and campaign manager to Stephen Harper, has just shed some light on why people don't vote.
Flanagan, in a column for the Globe and Mail, offered his thoughts on political attack ads and campaigns. Harper and the Conservatives have been criticized for sleazy attacks sent to households at taxpayers' expense.
Flanagan said today's voters are OK with sleazy. Only attacks that are "completely false" will backfire, he wrote. (Mostly false is fine.)
"Votes can stomach factoids, ambiguity, half-truths and statements ripped out of context," Flanagan said, "but they rebel against demonstrably false accusations."
It's fair to say Flanagan speaks for the Conservatives and a lot of political operatives.
But does he speak for you, as a voter? Can you "stomach factoids, ambiguity, half-truths and statements ripped out of context?"
The thought that those we elect and their handlers think half-truths are good enough is depressing. Why vote for such people?
Flanagan also said the public - that is you - are OK if politicians slander each other with half-lies.
But attacking people like Afghan torture whistle-blower Richard Colvin with the same sleazy tactics won't work, he said. That had been a Conservative error, Flanagan judged.
What sensible person would run for office, knowing that the ground rules would mean they would be seen as a legitimate target for dishonest attacks - and be expected to sling dishonest muck at others?
And what sort of Parliament or legislature do we end up when those who accept dishonest character assassination as part of the game stand for election?
Flanagan offered his explanation for why non-politicians are off-limits for the sleazier attacks.
"Canadians see politicians as gladiators who dish it out and take in equal measure, but who should not pound on non-combatants," he wrote.
Gladiators? Carole James, Kevin Falcon, Gary Lunn, Keith Martin? I can't imagine what kind of gladiators they are supposed to be, but the crowds at Rome's Coliseum would not likely have been much amused by the sight of men in suits shouting rubbish at each other. Bring on the lions.
Sadly, I fear many successful politicians - and those who labour to make them so - do see themselves as gladiators, striding boldly into question period or a media scrum to vanquish their foes.
Those who are cleverest and loudest at turning half-truths into sound bites are celebrated and promoted.
Real gladiators are supposed to have swords and spears and nets. And real politicians are supposed to be thinking about making life better for the people they represent, not focusing on scoring political points against the other guys.
Maybe Flanagan is right. But I've found people are looking for better from those they elect to represent them. Which might explain why half the eligible voters didn't participate in this year's provincial election.
Flanagan?s column came a few days before the Times Colonists Rob Shaw did several stories on the just-concluded legislative session, including interviews with rookie MLAs.
They were all still enthusiastic. But there were notes of discouragement. NDP MLA Lana Popham talked about the "out of control" catcalls and heckling in question period. Vicki Huntington, elected as an independent in Delta South, had worked on Parliament Hill, where all-party committees of MPs help shape legislation.
But not in B.C., she soon learned. Legislative committees meet when the party in power wants them to. And that is hardly ever.
The legislative committee on education, despite a tonne of issues worth considering, hasn't met in more three years. "I think that's a terrible waste of the intellectual capacity of the house," Huntington noted.
It is a waste. The breadth of experience and skills and local knowledge among the 85 MLAs is extraordinary. There are mill workers and doctors and business owners and social workers.
Together, they could bring perspective to the province's problems and opportunities. Instead, Tom Flanagan suggests, they are taught to be gladiators, comfortable with insults and abuse based on half-truths.
Why would MLAs and MPs accept that role?
Footnote: Not all politicians indulge in distortion and character assassination, of course. But the saner voices tend to be drowned out in the roars of abuse or targeted by the dishonest press releases from the other side.