How to make municipal election financing fair

How to make municipal election financing fair Kennedy Stewart, Prof. SFU In 1997, we were commissioned to investigate how local government accountability in British Columbia might be improved. Disappointingly, little was done to implement the recommendations found in our 50,000-word report. In 2010, we were again asked to reflect and report on the state of local democracy in this province, this time by Minister of Community and Rural Development Bill Bennett and the newly formed Local Government Elections Task Force. We recently presented our findings to the group, the bulk of which concern limiting the amount of money candidates and parties can spend and raise during local elections. Unlike in provincial and federal election campaigns, there is currently no limit to the amount of money candidates and parties can spend during local election campaigns in B.C. We estimate $13 million was spent across the province during the 2008 round of local elections, not including the additional hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by third parties. Campaign spending is clearly out of control in large municipalities such as Vancouver where candidates and parties spent $5.5 million. But spending is also too high in smaller municipalities; in Quesnel, for example, two local candidates each spent $20,000 to secure a low-paying mayoral position in this community of only 10,000 people. There are also no limits as to how much organizations or individuals can contribute to political candidates and parties. In Vancouver’s last civic election, one union contributed $145,000, one non-local donor $60,000 and two companies $58,000 each. In Surrey, one company contributed $19,000, one union $76,000, with the vast majority of campaign contributions coming from those living outside B.C.’s second largest municipality. Even in small municipalities, one company, one union or one wealthy individual can easily contribute more than 25 per cent of a candidate’s campaign funds. Few local residents can afford to make contributions of this size, severely reducing the amount of attention candidates and parties pay to them both during and after local elections. To fix these two problems we recommend the government enact reasonable spending and contribution limits. Considering most municipal candidates in B.C. do not join local slates or parties, we suggest truly independent candidates should be subject to spending ceilings of $1 per municipal resident. Under these rules independent candidates running in Vancouver could only spend about $600,000, those in Quesnel $10,000. Once candidates begin cooperating with others through joint fundraising or promotional efforts or by formally forming slates or parties, they should be subject to group spending limits of $2 per resident. Under these restrictions, Vancouver’s parties would each be limited to a total of $1.24 million — half the amount Vision Vancouver spent campaigning in 2008. This $2 per capita group limit would also apply in Surrey, Richmond, Victoria, Burnaby, Delta, Summerland and other municipalities where candidates choose to work together during elections. Limits should be extended to include any work undertaken between elections, including party nomination contests. In terms of contributions, we recommend new municipal campaign finance laws should follow those found in the federal Accountability Act. Brought in by the Stephen Harper Conservatives in 2006, this act bans all corporate and union contributions and sets strict limits for individual donors. To ensure all local residents are given a chance to get the attention of their local candidates and politicians, we believe the municipal maximum should be no more than about $250 per year and all non-resident contributions disallowed. While our report contains a number of other recommendations, we believe spending and contribution limits are the most important. Our suggested changes would dramatically improve the local election process in this province. Reasonable spending limits would reduce the pressure on candidates to raise what are massive amounts of money for campaigning. Reasonable contribution limits mean candidates will no longer rely on a small number of large donations but rather a large number of small donations. These changes are likely to draw additional local residents into the election process and increase our appallingly low municipal voter turnout rates, as more and more local people are approached by candidates for contributions. Premier Gordon Campbell has already committed to passing a new local government elections act and to make Elections BC the local elections top cop in time for the next round of local contests in 2011. The best recommendation Bennett’s advisory group could deliver to the premier at its May 30 deadline is to make local election campaign finance work by enacting our proposed spending and contribution limits. Patrick Smith and Kennedy Stewart teach at Simon Fraser University.

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