Lack of Transparency in Local Election Reform and Extra-Municipal Influence

To the Honourable Selina Robinson, Deputy Minister Kaye Krishna, and whom it may concern in the Policy, Research and Legislation Unit;

Today, November 18, 2019, the Township of Langley Council will debate whether or not to send a letter to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing regarding electoral reform in the Province of British Columbia. The filed notice of motion (item N.3 on the attached meeting agenda) that is presented by Mayor Jack Froese of the Township of Langley appears to have two purposes:

a) asking for the Ministry to clarify allegedly contradictory legal opinions regarding campaign contributions from peoples who have applications under consideration by Council, which has led to the Mayor and several past and present Councillors being accused of a conflict of interest

and

b) seeking for electoral reform to close an alleged “loophole” that allows candidates to donate to each other’s campaigns, which is itself a response to the actions made by other elected and unsuccessful council candidates in the 2018 election.

Whether or not this proposed letter is endorsed by the majority of the Township of Langley Council, I am concerned about the intent and what is missing in the notice of motion. I believe the intent of this recommendation is to defend the Mayor’s interest and to challenge the interests of another Council member – I do not believe there is anyone that would debate this. However, I do not believe the filed notice of motion is complete or unbiased in its concern for electoral reform.

The ramifications of the proposed letter is to heavily favour incumbent candidates who accept significant campaign contributions from individuals who do not live in the Township of Langley and who have significant financial interests that may be unfavourable to the interests of the residents and environment of the Township of Langley. The proposed letter is also purposely challenging a fundraising tactic used by other candidates which would further handicap candidates who did not ir will accept the majority of their contributions from individuals affiliated with development industry.

Since this notice of motion is for a recommendation that will not be up for public debate, I would like to take this time to write my own points of concern that relate to the Township of Langley and the rest of the Province.

 

Lack of Transparency in Local Election Reform

While well intended, the ban on corporate and union donations in Local Elections has led to a lack of transparency that was required in previous elections. In past elections, Corporations could donate to councillors, as well as individuals who had interests in these corporations. Unlike the 2018 election, individuals with corporate interests also had to disclose their corporate interests on the respective campaign financial disclosure statement. The names of the corporations as well as the addresses of the corporations were disclosed. This provided greater access and transparency for the public to understand who is contributing to who. By banning corporate donations, the individuals who may stand to gain influence and favour from preferred candidates now no longer have to disclose their corporate ties. It now requires a significant effort by the public to understand who is donating to campaign contributions.

Since the intent of banning corporate and union donations was to reduce the potential of perceived influence of corporate and union influence on elections, this unintended lack of disclosure requirement effectively undoes this intent. With some candidates accepting upwards of 70% or more of their donations by known executives or affiliates of housing development companies, and with the executives and affiliates from the top 4 contributing development companies (2 of which are not from Langley) providing over 23% of all campaign dollars given in the Township of Langley, it is easy to see that the intent behind the previous election financial reform that banned donations by corporate interests has failed in its effectiveness.

In 2017, two Canadian policy researchers, Tobi Nussbaum and Miranda Spessot, outlined just some of the issues relating to influence in municipal affairs and how this can lead to poor city planning (https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/november-2017/the-five-is-of-failed-urban-planning/). While the two researches recommended that corporate donations be banned, as we saw happen in BC, they also did not foresee the lack of transparency that would accompany this ban.

I therefore recommend the following reforms to be considered for implementation prior to the 2022 Local Elections:

1) Re-institute the requirement for individuals with corporate and union interests to disclose such interests with full and immediate transparency.

2) Clarify that accepting campaign contributions from an applicant, whether individual or corporate, who has direct financial interests in an application submitted to council will be seen as a conflict of interest and a council member should recuse themselves from the hearing and vote.

3) All campaign contributions of over $100.00 to be disclosed by the candidates financial officer to the public via a central online system operated by BC Elections within 48 hours of acceptance of the campaign contribution. This will be updated in real time.

4) There will be no campaign contributions made within 72 hours of election date.

5) A candidate may only accepted a campaign contribution, whether directly financial or in-kind, from another candidate in the same municipality if they have together  formed a registered electoral organization. These donations will also be disclosed and via the aforementioned proposed central online financial disclosure system within 48 hours.

These items are connected and logically interdependent. If one assumes that one candidate donating to another could be seen as influence or interference on another candidate, or a conspiracy between the two (or more) candidates, or that an “unregistered” political party has been formed, so to could the same assumption be made about the donation between a developer, especially one from outside of the municipality, and a candidate. It is logically incoherent and disingenuous to accuse a candidate of potential interference and influence on another because of inter-candidate donations, meanwhile disregarding the potential interference and influence gained from monies given by someone with an extensive financial interest in an active rezoning, development permit and/or other related application.

Regarding the matter of the timeline of campaign contribution timelines, disclosures are essentially useless if disclosed after the fact. I compare this to my real estate business: if I disclosed my expected remuneration after I facilitate a transaction, this would be against the Real Estate Act. The reason for this is obvious. My clients have a right to know how much I am being paid for the transaction and by whom BEFORE the transaction takes place. The Province of BC later rightfully extended this to the mortgage industry. I see no difference in the logic between this and how the campaign financial disclosures should be treated. Voters should know WHO is paying for campaigns before voting, not months afterward. I understand the logistical challenge of this in the past, but the technologies are now available to easily implement this.

Furthermore, if there is not already a technological platform available to readily implement this, there would be an opportunity for the Province to develop a proprietary software and export to other governments around the world.

Extra-Municipal Influence

This leads me to what should be a logical reform that is in the interests of all residents. Many, if not the majority, of campaign contributors in our municipality that have development interests are coming from outside our municipality. The BC Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that campaign donations are likely going to like-minded candidates. This is an important and fair assumption that gives the benefit of the doubt to the candidate. Any resident of a municipality, no matter their occupation and interests, has a right to support a candidate their preferred candidate(s) and that candidate has a right to be supported.

However, it does not follow that members outside of the community have any interests in an electoral district they are not a member of and can not vote in, other than pecuniary interests, especially if they have an application before the candidate that they provide money to.

I fail to see any truly credible defence of the practice of accepting donations from individuals, corporations or unions that are not voting constituents of that municipality. It is entirely reasonable to assume that the primary reason for the practice of someone, especially with no familial relations, providing significant monies to a candidate in a municipality they do not live in is to either influence the decision making of a specific candidate or, perhaps worse, influence the outcome of an election solely for their financial benefit, potentially to the detriment of the present and future residents and environment of that community. I believe this practice undermines the precepts of our local democracy and should be ended.

I recommend the following reform to be implemented prior to the 2022 Local Elections:

Ban donations from individuals outside of the municipality they reside in. Just as a an individual is only allowed to vote in the municipality of their primary residence, so should be the case with campaign contributions.

Sincerely,

Brad Richert
Township of Langley Resident
betterlangley.com

 

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s