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NDP Pledges Election Reforms Libs Stalled

Three years after task force tackled municipal spending limits, no action on 31 items.

By Andrew MacLeod 18 Feb 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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UBCM vice-president Sav Dhaliwal: 'We were not pleased' at 'shocker' news BC Liberals would, again, not pass election laws.

New Democratic Party Leader Adrian Dix said a government he leads would make the improvements to municipal election laws that the BC Liberals have long promised but failed to implement.

The minister responsible, Bill Bennett, this week admitted the needed legislation -- which would include things like setting expense limits, requiring third party advertisers to register, and banning anonymous donations from local politics -- will not be passed before the May 14 provincial election.

At this point Dix's NDP looks more likely to form the next B.C. government. His government would make sure the reforms are in place for the 2014 municipal elections, Dix said.

"I think it's an important step and I think ... these issues in our democracy are important issues," said Dix. "I think that's something we have to pursue."

Because it has been so long since the changes were proposed, the Union of B.C. Municipalities will need to be consulted, but the changes should be in place for the next municipal vote, Dix said. "That seems like a reasonable deadline we could set for action."

'City Hall for Sale'

The changes have been a long time coming.

The Tyee began raising awareness of the gaps in the regulation of municipal politics in 2007. "It is entirely possible for offshore money to buy a municipal election in British Columbia," said Patrick Smith, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, quoted in the series "City Hall for Sale."

"And it would be easy for the recipient of that money to hide it from public view," Smith said. "I think that's pretty stunning."

Several of those stories examined donations to the Non-Partisan Association and then mayor Sam Sullivan. Today Sullivan is seeking to be the Liberal candidate for the provincial election in Vancouver-False Creek, a contest to be decided Feb. 20.

In 2009, then premier Gordon Campbell struck the Local Government Elections Task Force, co-chaired by the UBCM's Harry Nyce and Bennett during an earlier stint as the minister responsible.

The task force, which also included two backbench Liberal MLAs and two representatives of the UBCM, circulated discussion papers and received over 10,000 written submissions.

In 2010 it released a 68-page report that included 31 recommendations (see sidebar), about half of which required changes to provincial laws.

The government promised to implement the recommendations in time for the 2011 municipal elections. As that deadline approached, Bennett was sitting as an independent, having publicly attacked Campbell.

The changes needed to be made promptly, Bennett then said. "It has to do with transparency and accountability of people who go into local government," he said. "We didn't do it just because we felt like it. We did it because we saw a need for it."

Revolving ministers

Bennett re-joined the BC Liberals in April 2011, after Christy Clark became leader, and she returned him to his old post as minister of community, sport and cultural development in September 2012.

Asked this week what happened to the government's plans to improve local government elections, Bennett said, "I got shifted to another ministry, then I got kicked out. That's what happened."

In his absence, responsibility for the ministry transferred frequently, with Ben Stewart, Stephanie Cadieux and Ida Chong each having a turn at its head.

"I co-chaired the committee and it was a personal project of mine, so when I left there was some period of time when there wasn't as much energy behind it," said Bennett. "What I have discovered since I came back to the ministry is Minister Chong actually had lots of work being done on it and in fact they had about 180 pages of legislation drafted when I came back to the ministry."

There are still six people in the ministry working on it and Bennett gets updates on it every week, he said. "It has proven to be a monster to draft," he said. "Every week we deal with another section of it and it is complicated."

The details include things like figuring out what the expense limits will be and how to account for expenses that more than one candidate shares, he said. "Let's say you have an ad with Gregor Robertson and 10 councillors in it. His picture's there, and maybe the other guys have their names mentioned. How do you do attribution there? A lot of really tricky questions there."

The government needs to balance competing priorities, he said. "You've got something called 'workability,' which is how friendly is this going to be to candidates, especially candidates who aren't experienced, or come from a small town or something, so it has to be workable.

"Another priority is its integrity," he said. "The integrity of the process we set up in the legislation, we want it to have the highest level of integrity. Sometimes by adding so much there to meet that principle of integrity, you make it unworkable."

Bennett said he and his staff are making good progress and he has committed to the UBCM to have the legislation ready to go for a fall session of the legislature, or in the spring. "The sooner the better," he said. "Nothing has changed for me."

'We were not pleased': UBCM VP

Sav Dhaliwal, a Burnaby city councillor and a second vice-president of the UBCM, said Bennett just informed the UBCM executive in January that the legislation wouldn't be introduced in the current session of the legislature, the last before the provincial election.

"That was a bit of a shocker for us," said Dhaliwal. "We were not pleased."

In particular, local politicians need to know whether the government will follow through on the recommendation to move municipal elections from November to October, he said. "Not knowing if it's going to happen or not puts us in a bit of a bind."

The spending limits and disclosure rules are more of a big deal in Vancouver than they are anywhere else, he said. While he personally felt it would be fine to put them off until the 2017 elections, the government really should follow through when it says it's going to do something, he said.

"I'm sure if they wanted to do it they could have done it by now," he said. "It's a question of priorities ... I'm not holding my breath this is going to be brought in this year or in time for the 2014 cycle. Personally, I think they've missed the opportunity already."

The group Integrity B.C. has argued the changes are overdue, and should also include a cap on the amount any one donor may give, as well as a ban on corporate or union donations.

Dix criticized the government for failing to make the changes. "It should have been dealt with in this session," he said. "We've gone through a four-year period where the government has been campaigning the entire time and not governing and these are the kinds of issues that fall off the table."

The legislation could have been dealt with in the fall, or last spring, or the previous fall, said Dix. "One of the challenges for whoever wins the election is a lot of these issues that needed to be dealt with a long time ago, that could have been dealt with here, are pent up because the government hasn't been doing it's job for some time on some basic issues."  [Tyee]

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