Campaign donation rules: laxer in Halifax than other cities

By Theresa Ketterling

 

All the campaign finances data is kept in one binder in City Hall. (Photo: Theresa Ketterling)

Critics say corporate campaign donations influence how candidates vote.

By Theresa Ketterling

Every bit of information HRM has about every candidate in every campaign in every municipal election since the 1996 amalgamation is stored at City Hall. Anyone can look. City staff will bring it all out, give you a desk and a chair, and you can stay for as long as you like – photocopies are 25 cents a page.

Or, you could smuggle it all out of City Hall in a backpack.

Each and every record about campaign funding in Halifax Regional Municipality – every last one – is stored in one big white binder. It’s a phone book-sized stack, most of which are handwritten, and some of which are illegible. The records from 2008 also are online, as scanned photocopies. The binder starts with 1999. It would be a bit bigger if the records from 1995, the year of the first HRM election, weren’t missing.

The binder exists because of rules about campaign disclosure in the Municipal Elections Act, a provincial document. Municipal Clerk and Returning Officer Cathy Mellett says HRM has no authority to check or audit the documents. “The act basically says we receive it,” Mellett said, and under the act HRM has “no powers of review.”

The binder looks like it holds a lot of information, but it is missing what some people say is important data.

Waye Mason, the recently elected councillor for District 7, Peninsula South, says his team made sure to read the act before starting to campaign.

“We realized there are no rules,” says Mason.

Waye Mason put contribution reform in his platform. (Photo: Theresa Ketterling)

“The only rule is 60 days after the election you have to post anyone who donated $50 or more. They could donate $50, they could donate $50,000, it could be businesses, it could be unions, it could be associations,” he says. ”How it’s spent and what happens with the surplus isn’t required to be reported.”

No other major city in Canada has rules governing campaign funding disclosure that are so lax. The relevant section of the Ontario Municipal Elections Act, for example, is, at 7,190 words, ten times longer than Nova Scotia’s. Ontario caps campaign spending and requires candidates to report all expenses, things missing completely from Nova Scotia’s rule book.

Mason put campaign disclosure in his platform and says he didn’t accept any contributions over $1,000, and none at all from corporations or unions. Only individuals can give to campaigns in provincial elections, and Mason says Halifax should catch up. “That’s the floor.”

This isn’t a new idea. Introducing a donation maximum was being discussed here in 1996. In 1997, a provincial committee drafted new municipal government legislation, combining several acts into one. The draft included new disclosure rules. “With controls on spending in provincial elections, the committee noted that it must consider why they are not justified municipally,” it says.

The committee recommended caps on spending and disclosure of contributions and expenses. The draft was circulated and municipalities gave feedback. Halifax council passed a motion to recommend that expenses and any contribution more than $50 be disclosed. The $50 rule is the only new one that made it into law. Where the money goes still is a mystery.

[pullquote]

“The only requirement is that they submit the forms.”

– Cathy Mellett, HRM Chief Returning Officer [/pullquote]

The debate has surfaced again. Tim Bousquet, news editor at the Coast, the weekly alternative newspaper, is a vocal critic of secrecy on Halifax council. In August 2011 he published a “Sunshine Ordinance” directed at potential candidates for 2012’s election. The ordinance urged council to adopt “modern attitudes” and called for contribution disclosure early and often – as in, before election day. That’s how it’s done in all jurisdictions in the United States, Bousquet says.

“You know, if there’s a candidate out there, for instance, who’s in the pocket of the development industry, that’s information voters should be aware of,  or the labour unions, or whoever,” he said.

The development industry is not a random example. Almost all of the winning candidates in 2008 received at least one donation from a developer and even more donations from construction companies. Many companies gave to candidates in many districts. For example, Clayton Developments gave to 14 campaigns and Armco Capital gave to 12; if you count contributions by Scotia Learning Centers, which is owned by Armco, it’s 17. There were others, too: three campaigns received donations from Salter’s Gate Developments and two campaigns received help from Cresco Developments, Provident Developments, Prince’s Lodge Developments, Westwood Developments and Meadowland Developments. The picture was similar in 2000 and 2004.

This also is the case in other cities. Robert MacDermid, a political scientist and professor at York University, has studied the influence of developers on municipal councils in Toronto. He was interested in how candidates were paying for their campaigns and says the answer surprised him. In the 2006, candidates campaigning in Toronto suburbs, including Oshawa, Pickering and Brampton, collected more than 50 per cent of their campaign money from donations made by developers or development-related companies, such as brick makers or roofers. MacDermid’s 2009 study calls the companies’ influence “extreme.”

MacDermid says he is not surprised developers are high up on donation lists in Halifax.

“Why this is allowed in municipal politics continues to be perplexing.”

Councillors cannot be bought for a few hundred dollars, he says, but developers make a lot of money when land is rezoned. Planning decisions can cause land to increase in value many times over before anything is built, let alone sold, he says, putting a lot of power into the hands of municipal council.

“When you look at the agendas they have in municipal council, much of their work – most of their work – is about development approval.”

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It’s back in 2008. An ugly, low, rust-red building, B.C. Silver Junior High School, sits empty in Spryfield, having been declared surplus a few years earlier. Its neighbours want it gone. Kimberly-Lloyd Developments, part of Armco Capital, offers to buy the land if it is rezoned for homes. District 18 councillor Steve Adams calls a meeting and invites everyone who lives nearby. David Sampson, a local realtor, hears about it and decides to go.

It’s at this meeting that Sampson decides to run in the upcoming municipal election. He was pretty sure he would lose, he says, but was angry and wanted to stop Adams from winning by running unopposed.  Adams, says Sampson, is too close to developers.

David Sampson ran for council in protest against politicians with financial ties to developers. (Photo: Theresa Ketterling)

Adams got $4,000 — most of his campaign money — from companies in 2008, including $500 from Armco. Adams says his agent takes care of donations.

It’s not a lot of money, but Sampson says it still is important. “If you’re accepting the money, there’s a relationship. It’s as simple as that.” Sampson did not accept any donations during his campaign.

Adams says he is not close with any of his contributors. As for Sampson, “People are going to say what they’re going to say.”

Sampson opposed the sale to Kimberly-Lloyd, but he watched as the sale went through anyway. On the old school property now sits a subdivision called Silver Estates.

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“There’s no reason for business not to take place. But there’s also no
reason for things not to be done correctly.”

– David Sampson, former council candidate [/pullquote]

Sampson is not the only one with something to say about developer donations. Brad Johns, who has had a seat on council since 2000, doesn’t accept any donations. He doesn’t keep it quiet, either. In March of 2011 he planned to make a motion to get campaign disclosure information posted online. It never came to a vote because the clerk could do it without approval from council. The data from the 2008 election is available through HRM’s website.

He also made a motion, that same month, to ban campaign donation from developers. He amended it later to include all companies, unions and political parties.

“I try not to say just development because if you peg it to development, the development community gets very upset,” he says.

Developers have called around, he says, or caught councillors in the hallway during breaks and lobbied them to vote a certain way. “I do believe developers have an impact on council and how they vote,” says Johns.

Council voted to send his motion to a committee made up of councillors. That group put it on hold, he says. He says he doubts it will never get passed, “because it means they can’t take contributions.” He would consider it a fair compromise, says Johns, if councillors agreed to sit out votes about companies which had given to their campaigns.

Johns says his motions don’t make him popular with other councillors. “They hate it, man! They say I’m grandstanding.”

Former councillor Dawn Sloane is among Johns’ critics. Sloane in 2005 suggested a developer offered her a bribe in exchange for a vote, but said she couldn’t name the developer. Nothing similar has happened since, she says, and she doesn’t see campaign contributions as a problem. Sloane says anyone who’s strong-willed can avoid being influenced.

“I can’t be bought for such a small amount of money,” Sloane says, adding it would be “pretty cheap and pretty ridiculous” to do so. “People who take it too literally need to grow a pair of balls.”

She says she would support donation limits, but not a ban on corporate contributions.

Another former politician also supports campaign reform: ex-mayor Peter Kelly. He accepted donations from developers in all of his mayoral campaigns, but says he always has wanted better rules and more disclosure.

“There should be spending limits for council seats and for mayor seats,” Kelly says.

Between October 19, 2008 and May 4, 2012 he raised $80,868.25 for an anticipated reelection campaign. The only reason this is known is because he made a list of contributors and an expense report now available in City Hall’s big white binder – entirely of his own volition.

Because Nova Scotia has no rules about when candidates can fundraise, what the money is spent on, or what is done with surpluses, he could have, legally, disclosed nothing.

Contributors can’t expect favour, Kelly says, but developers and other groups don’t support just anyone.

“I think they want to see a pro-development council, and so if they believe that there is those that agree with pro-development they would probably support them.”

Kelly says change will require public pressure.

The question did come up in September 2012 at a mayoral debate hosted by the Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia, an organization dedicated to freedom of information and government transparency.

People are crowded into the McInnis Room of Dalhousie’s Student Union building, waiting for the debate. All six candidates are on stage and campaign funding is on the agenda. Half of the audience is smirking at big screens on either side of the stage, which are rolling Tweets from bored student union reps. Mike Savage is favoured as Kelly’s successor and looks the part on stage. The former Liberal MP sounds more like a politician than any of his competitors, who are skinnier, younger and not as good at spinning answers.

Ruth Davenport, a debate panelist, asks which candidates would be willing to reveal a list of campaign contributors by Friday, before online voting begins. Fred Connors and Tom Martin agree right away and Aaron Eisses pipes up with a yes. There’s a pause, and Savage says, “I’m going to follow the rules we all agreed to for the race.”

He gets a round of applause. He continues, saying federal and provincial regulations are “very significant” but don’t make candidates disclose prior to election day. Those rules do require corporations to keep out of campaigns, but speaking a few weeks later, Savage says he wouldn’t support such a ban. In fact, he says he is impressed businesses donate at all because they risk allegations of influencing councillors.

“The easiest thing to do would be to say, ‘I’m not giving money to any candidate because it makes it harder for me to do business.’ So, I applaud those who support the electoral process.”

He does want to see change to the current legislation, he says, since contribution disclosure is the only part that works.

“That’s the only thing we have that makes it halfway reasonable. The rest of it is the wild west.”

Rules should be tightened, says now-Mayor Mike Savage, but not to the extent of banning donations from corporations.

Even if the city asks for change, power lies in the province’s hands.

MLA Keith Colwell, municipal relations critic for the Liberals, says changes should be made. “I think it’s about time,” says Colwell.

Surpluses should be returned, disclosure should be quicker and expenses should be reported, he says, “If there isn’t a rule for that.”

The minister in charge of municipal relations, John MacDonell, declined an interview. A statement issued on his behalf reads, “After the election, we will review all the issues that have come up. We will also engage the Returning Officers in each municipality and discuss with Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities to determine if changes are needed and then take the appropriate action well in advance of the next municipal election.”

For now, Nova Scotia’s lax legislation will have to be good enough. Within two months of the October 2012 election, another batch of campaign disclosure forms will appear in the binder. There they will sit, gathering dust for another four years, and no one will know what happened to all the money.