A Coquitlam councillor is calling on the Union of BC Municipalities to lobby the provincial government to ban union and corporate donations in civic election campaigns.
Coun. Bonita Zarrillo put forward a notice of motion during the May 16 council meeting asking her council colleagues to submit a resolution to the UBCM for consideration at its 2016 convention in September in Victoria.
She told The Tri-City News last week that with so much money spent around election time, city officials are beholden to interests that do not always align with the will of residents.
“I truly believe that there is no chance that a candidate gets elected with a sizable contribution, that it doesn’t affect their voting,” said Zarrillo, who in the last civic election collected $10,300 from corporate contributors and $10,041 from labour groups. “There is no way.”
Asked whether she felt she has been influenced by a campaign contribution, Zarrillo said she had never been consciously swayed by a financial supporter. But she added that on some level, councillors may by impacted by a donation without realizing it.
“To say that it is not influencing is naive,” she said.
The provincial government is currently considering implementing expense limits on civic campaigns. Last year, the special committee on local elections expense limits released its final report, which included a spending formula based on a given municipality’s population.
While Zarrillo called the proposed changes “a step in the right direction,” she said the public will still believe council is influenced by large corporate and union interests.
“Perception is reality for the electorate,” she said. “It is important that we react to that perception.”
Council will debate the motion at its next meeting on Monday but already one of Zarrillo’s council colleagues has said he won’t support her initiative.
Coun. Terry O’Neill, who in the last civic election received $16,950 from corporate contributors and no contributions from labour groups, told The Tri-City News last week — and the provincial special committee in a submission two years ago — that any effort to curb donations would hurt non-incumbents running for election and benefit those who are aligned with political parties.
“It is already an uphill climb for independent newcomers,” he said. “Restricting those who they can seek financial support from would make it even more difficult.”
Changing the current system could have unintended consequences, he added, noting that he believes the campaign finance process works reasonably well. O’Neill opposes any limitations on spending and donating to civic election candidates, and said he believes it infringes on a person’s freedom of speech.
He also questioned Zarrillo’s assertions that donations influence the way a councillor votes.
“I have never seen any evidence that anything other than ideology, policy, principles, beliefs and response to public opinion have driven the votes of my colleagues on council,” he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Union and corporate donations made up a sizable percentage of candidate contributions in the Tri-Cities during the 2014 civic election.
The 50 candidates who sought municipal office in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody raised a total of $890,319, with $405,576 coming from corporate contributors, $152,186 from unions and labour groups, and $107,492 coming from individual donors. Candidates spent $225,065 on their own campaigns.
The numbers change depending on the city.
In Coquitlam, corporations donated $297,225 and unions $58,570, while in PoCo, corporations donated $61,827 and unions $28,350. Port Moody was the only city where unions donated more than corporations, with $65,266 coming from labour groups and $46,524 coming from businesses.
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