Civic elections the wild west for campaign spending

A byelection for Port Moody-Coquitlam has been called for April 19. - FILE
A byelection for Port Moody-Coquitlam has been called for April 19.
— image credit: FILE

It's great that municipalities are now putting candidate expenses on line but who cares about the information six months after the election, says SFU professor Patrick Smith.

Fundraising information should be posted as soon as the cheque comes in or while the election is taking place, says Smith, a long time critic of municipal campaign financing.

"Kim Jong-un (North Korean leader) could give somebody $1 million for mayor and we wouldn't know for six months," Smith said.

He was referring to the election campaign in Vancouver, where developer Rob Macdonald coughed up $960,000 to the Non Partisan Association's campaign for Susan Anton.

While campaign documents released this week on city hall websites showed no such largess from dictators, unions or developers, many Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody candidates did receive sums from either real estate developers, unions or both with cheques ranging from $1,000 to $6,000.

The trend was particularly noticeable in Coquitlam where it's more expensive to mount a campaign, and it was a rare candidate who could do without either CUPE funding or money from local builders. In Port Moody and Port Coquitlam, where there are fewer voters, some candidates, mostly incumbents with good name recognition, managed to fund their campaigns completely on their own.

Besides lack of transparency, civic campaigns also lack fairness, accessibility  and accountability in other ways, Smith said. For example, the records are not audited, and there are no limits on campaign expenses. In Coquitlam, for example, Mayor Richard Stewart spent double what he spent in 2008.

Stewart says election expense limits are badly needed. He told The News this week that he had planned to spend just $50,000 but a car accident 10 days before the vote meant his campaign had to spend more money on publicity. Mayoralty challenger Barrie Lynch, who spent even more cash for his bid than Stewart ($82,000 compared to about $66,000), agreed that spending limits were a good idea.

According to Lynch, who plans to run for council again, $80,000 is a reasonable ceiling for a mayoralty campaign.

Smith would also like to see tax deductions for political donations to encourage individuals other than deep pocket unions and developers to support candidates.

While union money provides a reasonable counterbalance to developer dollars, "that doesn't make it right," Smith said.

"It's about transparency, it's about ensuring some sort of level playing field," said Smith, who said technology likely exists to post real time data about candidate finances but without anyone championing the idea, nothing is likely to change.

A provincial task force on campaign financing died on the vine, and B.C. remains the "wild west" when it comes to campaign spending, according to Smith.

Memories are short and the next civic election isn't for another two and a half years. "The pressure doesn't stay on because we're caught in this hiatus."





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