Is Transparency for Losers?

Politicians too often give us the governance we ask for. Democracy is not a meritocracy – it’s a popularity contest. Human nature can often lean towards hedonism, desires, and short term benefits over social responsibility, basic requirements, and long term planning. In a cynical moment, Churchill once stated  the “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

As we enter into the early 2022 municipal election season, I’ve already been constantly reminded about the lack of transparency on the local level. I’ve often written about the campaign contribution side of this lack of transparency (see Can We Improve Langley’s Local Government? and How INFLUENCE May Have Elicited Planning Failures in Willoughby & Brookswood and Lack of Transparency in Local Election Reform and Extra-Municipal Influence). 2022 will once again be no different. Campaigns cost money. For candidates who are not independently wealthy, it’s easier to get a bunch of money from a few hands than a little bit of money from a lot of hands. This is, however, just one aspect of the lack of transparency I see around the campaign period and so far, in 2022: there is another element that is growing.

In Mayoral candidate’s Blair Whitmarsh’s campaign announcement press release, he admitted that there will be a group running “alongside” him as “a team”, but not as an “official slate” or “municipal political party”. Unlike former Mayor Rick Green’s failed “Vote Langley Now” official association in 2011, Whitmarsh’s group did not come out wearing matching t-shirts. Instead, the public would have to wait as they announced themselves individually.

This, of course, was no surprise to anyone familiar with the Whitmarsh campaign, he had been publicly expressing this strategy long before Mayor Froese announced his retirement. Within hours of the press release, Langley’s social media circles were posting random photos of all sorts of characters that were apparently in Whitmarsh’s “team”.

One week later, the obvious challenger to Whitmarsh, councillor Eric Woodward announced his bid in a heavily promoted video shared on Facebook. There was no mention of any group or team. However, it is no secret that Woodward has also been selecting a group of people that are being heavily supported by him in some way.

Both campaigns have made no secret in their attempts to woo current councillors as well as candidates who have loss past municipal, provincial and federal elections onto their side. Both sides have so far pitched an idea of building consensus in one way or another. While their words have differed, the tactics are the same: consensus will ideally be sought through getting their “team” on as a majority, not by working with those on another “side”.

At this time, neither Whitmarsh or Woodward are looking like they will register an official electoral organization (aka “political party”). Woodward has not mentioned any plans and Whitmarsh has outright denied it. But they will, in all intensive purposes, be running one. You, the voter, may or may not know who is on this team. You don’t know how money is being funnelled between each other. You won’t know how they are being supported. You may or may not know what they actually stand for. You won’t know the extent of their combined campaigns.

And unfortunately, it’s because thats what the politicians think you want. They think you prefer this backroom way of doing politics.

This is because local, and transparent, party politics in Langley has traditionally been for losers. During the 70’s the Langley Voters Association had some success, but had a rocky history and dissolved. In 1996, Mayor Sholtens put together the Langley Leadership Team (LLT) and won a majority. But controversy led to a creation of the Langley Citizens Coalition (LCC) in 1999 and only 2 councillors from the LLT were re-elected. The LCC didn’t do well either, they only won one seat – Kim Richter. Partisan politics had effectively imploded in Langley. As previously mentioned, Green’s 2011 slate failed miserably. In 2014, Live Langley also made an attempt with a small partnership of 2 candidates, with neither gaining a seat.

Whether or not it was about the idea of parties or about the people in them which has led to the failure of registered associations, at least the people of Langley knew who stood for what and who was standing beside who. But it’s little wonder why any “team” would want to do the right thing and admit that they are a team in the legal way: it hasn’t been a road to success in Langley. It’s been better keeping things behind the scenes and keeping the public in the dark.

I’ve heard 4 sitting councillors, including Councillor Whitmarsh, admit to me over the years that they don’t know “where the cheques come from” or who the developers are. They attend the same events together, receive the same brown paper envelopes of cheques from known developer lobbyists and carry on their way. This isn’t hyperbole. It’s admitted by these councillors and I’ve seen it happen in front of me. Candidates get the funds they need to afford to tell you to vote for them and you don’t know who paid for those funds until I write this, AFTER each election. I don’t know how helpful a financial disclosures after an election is. Even less helpful was the provincial NDP stripping the transparent disclosures of corporations and unions and calling it a “ban”. It wasn’t a ban on corporation and union donations – it was a way to hide who is actually contributing.

I work in an industry that we must disclose everything – EVERYTHING, even referrals – that we EXPECT to get paid BEFORE it happens. We must RECUSE ourselves of a transaction if we have represented someone before in any fashion, even if we didn’t even get paid. I’m not sure why the bar is set so much lower for those running for elected office, but that’s just part of the problem. I couldn’t fathom disclosing what I’m getting paid by another party, when I am responsible for the interests of another, after the fact. Yet this is what your politicians are doing. They take money from a developer, but they don’t need to disclose the money until after we vote for them. The developer then asks for massive variances and changes to approved community plans that affect the livelihood of residents the politicians are suppose to represent.

This election, there are some of us who have spent the last 4, 8, 12, or 20 years getting to know the people in office, who have run for office, and who are running for office. This is a very small group in the Township of Langley who might understand who is running with who. Even during the campaign season, only a very small fraction of the populace will actually know who is supporting who and how much before we go to polls.

We need to forget about strategy and focus more on transparency. This practice of hiding behind unregistered teams and after-the-fact disclosures is anti-democratic. It is one of the biggest problems with the farce of non-partisan politics (Vancouver even has a political party that makes a bigger joke of the situation, by registering itself as the Non-Partisan Association, or, in other words, a party that is not a party). I’ve heard it said that Langley isn’t ready for party politics. Too bad. It’s already here and it’s been here for years: it just isn’t registered or transparent. Our former BC Liberal MLA was regularly involved in our local elections and the group that he supported was the group that has held a majority for over a decade.

As an analogy, let’s go back to my industry. I’m a hypothetical real estate agent with a “team”. I advertise myself as a “team”. I pay for the “team” expenses. I send “leads” to the “team” and they pay me back if they close deal. But since registered legal teams cannot represent both a buyer and seller in BC to take both sides of the commission, it’s more economically beneficial to NOT register my “team” as a legitimate team. That way, these “team” members can represent a buyer and I, the “team leader” can represent the seller. Don’t mind the fact that we act like a team, benefit as a team, and are a team in everything except legalities. Our regulators and industry boards are actively investigating and reprimanding this sort of business practice. Whether or not it happens, and it does, it isn’t allowed.

Yet in politics, not only is it allowed, it unfortunately seems to be rewarded. Hiding who pays for your campaign is rewarded. Not registering an official electoral organization simply for “optics”, while a disservice to the public, is rewarded. It is hiding what you truly are, how you are operating, and what you stand for.

Before going to the polls, voters deserve to know who council candidates are in bed with – whether it is with developers who have financial interests in the applications you are deciding on – or other candidates who you are going to be agreeing or disagreeing with. Hidden alliances do a disservice to democracy.

I urge both mayoral candidates, and any other upcoming candidates, to show leadership and transparency by (1) disclosing your respective teams through the regulatory process of registering an electoral organization in advance of the Campaign Period so that voters are not left to wild speculation and veiled partisanship and (2) disclose your contributors prior to voting day.

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