Local politicians applaud provincial efforts to change the financing of municipal elections, but also urge other steps.
The provincial government this week tabled legislation prohibiting corporate and union donations to individual candidates and slates. The provincial government also plans to limit individual donations to candidates to $1,200 per person, per year. The limits would be effective for the 2018 municipal elections.
Mayor Richard Atwell said he supports the move, but adds more needs to be done to “level the playing field” between incumbents and challengers. “When the same set of rules apply to everyone the system appears fair,” he said. However, the legislation may disadvantage new candidates.
Incumbents need to raise and spend less money, as they have already paid for their signs from previous elections, he said. “Incumbents can also use their council salaries, to help fund their re-election,” he said. “Many councillors have a pension or second income while challengers risk family savings and struggle to raise funds as unknown candidates.”
Provincial parties are also active in municipal elections, providing volunteers and other resources off book. “If the goal is to reduce outside influence, the proposed legislation will improve that,” he said. “If the goal is to keep democracy vibrant, then we need to look to term limits and other restrictions on influence to further level the playing field.”
Other members of council agreed with the general direction of the legislation, but also raise questions.
“I have always supported this,” said Coun. Judy Brownoff. But she would like to see the province revise the rules around total election expenses allowed. Under the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act, mayoral candidates competing in communities with populations between 15,000 and 150,000 can spend 55 cents per person, or up to $63,250. Councillor candidates can spend 28 cents per person, or up to $32,200.
Brownoff said the province should use the number of eligible voters rather than the total population to calculate limits. “With these high campaign expenses allowed, you are removing opportunity for average citizens to run and possibly more candidates with disposable income to use total election expense limit allow to run campaign,” she said.
Coun. Fred Haynes said it is positive that sources and amounts of funding are being scrutinized. “It is good to remove any opportunity for undue influence, and to have a level playing field. It is not good if it makes mounting a campaign even harder, especially for new candidates,” he said. “Removing union and corporations [donations] means candidates will need to work harder to convince individuals to help cover campaign costs.”
Coun. Dean Murdock said the proposed legislation promises to put municipal politics on more equal footing. “Big budget election campaigns backed by big political donors represent a barrier to most residents who want to run for [council] to make a difference in the community they live in,” he said.
The Union of B.C. Municipalities has supported the change for several years, UBCM delegates this year supported a motion by Oak Bay and Victoria councils to get corporate and union money out of local elections.
Coun. Susan Brice cited this history. “I enthusiastically backed the motion presented by Oak Bay at UBCM that requested this change,” she said. “I think that these restrictions along with lowering an individual donation to $1,200 should prevent any actual or appearance of influence.”