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Hunting for payoffs in city politics

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(originally published in the Toronto Sun)

Are developers buying municipal elections in the 905?

That screaming headline hit the papers last week in the wake of a study sponsored by Vote Toronto and the CSJ Foundation for Research and Education. The study, by York prof Robert MacDermid, examined the financial statements of candidates in the 2006 election in 10 GTA municipalities.

The findings: With the notable exceptions of Toronto, Markham and Ajax, the development industry was the most important financier of winning campaigns.

Not only are developers contributing big bucks to municipal campaigns, they are winning council votes in their favour too, MacDermid found.

That’s the bad news.

But is this happening everywhere? Here’s the good news: No, it isn’t. Not all 905 towns are created equally. The study covered Toronto and nine municipalities closest to Toronto: Vaughan, Brampton, Mississauga, Markham, Richmond Hill, Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax and Pickering.

But it left out Halton region, including the cities of Oakville, Burlington, Milton, and Halton Hills. So I did some number crunching of my own.

Residents in Halton have long believed developers call the shots in our cities, and are probably buying our local politicians. Headlines that paint the entire 905 area with one brush add fuel to our suspicions.

So I went looking for candidate financial statements for councillors and mayors elected in Halton in 2006. Oakville and Burlington post these documents — which are public record — online, though it takes some patience and intuition to find them. Milton requires you to seek records from the town clerk, and Halton Hills makes you fill out a freedom of information request. I won’t get those papers any time soon.

In Oakville and Burlington the situation is a little different than MacDermid’s study. For now.

Out of 18 councillors and two mayors elected, five self-financed their entire campaigns, three were acclaimed and spent next to nothing, and another six raised the majority of their money from local businesses or individuals.

Only six of 20 candidates took any money from developers. But even then, the contributions were minimal compared to the total campaign budget, amounting to only 5-10% of all funds raised.

By contrast, in the seven most developer-bankrolled municipalities in MacDermid’s study, elected officials were funded more than 54% by the development-related industry. Defeated candidates in the same regions received only about 21% of their funds from development firms.

SLOWER RATE OF GROWTH

There may be several explanations for the difference between Halton and these other 905 communities. Halton is not growing as quickly as, say, Brampton or Vaughan, so developers perhaps haven’t set their sights on us in the same way — yet.

But that’s only a matter of time. We should initiate election reform before developers think about bankrolling our elections, not after we find out they have.

Here are three steps in the right direction:

  • Provide rebates for individual donors. In Toronto, Markham and Ajax, private citizens donated the largest portion of campaign funds, MacDermid found. These three cities, as well as Oakville, have rebate programs that return a portion of money to individual donors, excluding corporations or unions. It’s an obvious first step for all municipalities to take, to encourage greater citizen participation.
  • Make candidate financial statements available online and easy to find. In the interest of transparency and accountability to the communities they serve, every municipality, if it doesn’t do so already, should be posting this information. Why not provide a link right from every councillor’s page?
  • Record all council votes. Though not a funding issue per se, it’s very difficult to track developer influence, or any other “influence,” because votes aren’t recorded. You only know if a motion passed or failed, but not how a particular councillor voted. Councillors can request recorded votes, but there’s no incentive to do so if a vote is controversial or unpopular. It’s time for mandatory recording – and a searchable system to easily find vote results.

Developers will always be with us, but these steps will hopefully invite greater citizen participation and government accountability, thereby diluting the enormous power developers can wield.

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