Worries Continue About Big Money in Small-Town Politics

Former Sunshine Coast mayor asks whether new election rules will have sufficient teeth.

By Andrew MacLeod 3 Jan 2018 |

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

New rules introduced for municipal elections in British Columbia are a step forward, but may not be enough without strong support for enforcement, says a former Sunshine Coast mayor.

“The rules are only practical if they’re going to be enforced and if there are consequences for breaking the rules,” said Barry Janyk, who served in local government in Gibsons for 15 years starting in 1996, including 12 years as mayor.

“If people want to cheat the system and they have the resources to do it, then they’ll do it. I don’t know what the answer is.”

In the fall session of the legislature, the provincial government passed a bill that set a cap of $1,200 each year for individual donations to any one candidate or to candidates running as part of the same elector organization, or party.

A donor can still give $1,200 to multiple candidates if they are running independently and not part of an official slate or to candidates in several municipalities. Bill 15, the Local Elections Campaign Financing Amendment Act, 2017, also banned all donations from outside of the province, as well as those from corporations and unions.

The laws governing municipal elections already contain “a compliance and enforcement scheme” that Elections BC administers, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in an emailed statement. “The new rules will be subject to the existing enforcement scheme.”

A spokesperson for Elections BC, Andrew Watson, said in an email, “Elections BC is confident that we will be able to administer the changes to the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act effectively, and will seek additional resources if necessary.”

Uneven playing field

The day the bill was introduced, Union of British Columbia Municipalities president Wendy Booth endorsed the change. “Elections shouldn’t be won or lost on who has the most money,” she said. “We think these changes will level the playing field for candidates.”

Concerns about municipal election financing, particularly in Vancouver, go back many years. The Tyee published City Hall for Sale, a series that a decade ago exposed the “lax regulations that allow virtually unlimited contributions with little public scrutiny.”

In October, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Selina Robinson said the changes were needed in smaller communities as well. “I’ve certainly heard stories in different communities and the one that stands out is in the Sunshine Coast where a $20,000 contribution was made to a mayoral candidate,” she said. “In that campaign in a small community it was a significant contribution.”

The current mayor of Gibsons, Wayne Rowe, whose largest donation in 2014 was $5,000 according to the Elections BC database, did not respond to requests for an interview in time for this story.*

According to a spreadsheet Janyk made using Elections BC data from the 2014 municipal elections, Gibsons had the highest spending per capita of any community in the province. Candidates and third parties spent more than $19 per person in the community, more than double what was spent in Vancouver.

Janyk said the amount spent on the election is a sign of business interests hoping to influence the outcome.

In particular, a plan from Klaus Fuerniss Enterprises Inc. for a marine resort and condominiums on the waterfront has been controversial in the community.

The plan was first proposed around a decade ago, and Janyk opposed it as mayor. “I got cold feet on the whole plan because I thought it was so out of step with the little town of Gibsons.”

The community was already struggling to adjust to development, he said. There’s a need to find more drinking water, he said, adding, “The ferries are a gong show, always overloaded, always late.”

‘Development plum’ and influence

People have been willing to spend money to influence elections in Gibsons because they hope to benefit from projects council can block or approve, Janyk said. “It’s all about money. That’s all it’s about. It’s made me really cynical about local politics in a community where there’s a development plum.”

Even with the new rules, much will depend on people’s honesty and integrity, he said. When something is improper, he said, “Unless you get someone who’s going to leak it, it’s very difficult to prove it.”

Elections BC’s budget request for 2018/19 included $1.69 million to administer campaign financing rules during the 2018 municipal elections. The agency added 11 full-time staff in 2014 after the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act was first adopted.

Watson said Elections BC didn’t seek more funding to administer the changes made last fall because Bill 15 had not yet passed when the agency appeared in front of the legislature’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services during the budget process in November.

“We are working to determine if additional resources are required to administer the requirements of the Bill, and will meet with the committee early this year with a supplementary funding request if required,” he said.

Elections BC tries to resolve any compliance issues through education first, Watson said, but can take further steps if necessary.

“The Chief Electoral Officer has the authority to conduct reviews, investigations and audits of the financial affairs and accounts of candidates, elector organizations, third party sponsors and assent voting advertising sponsors to ensure compliance with [the law],” he said.

“They also have the authority to require individuals or organizations to provide further information respecting compliance with the Act. We follow up any complaint we receive regarding potential contraventions of the Act, and may initiate an investigation if required.”

The new law made the rules retroactively effective starting on Oct. 31. Local elections will be held across the province on Oct. 20, 2018.

* Sentence clarified on Jan. 4, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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