In almost everything that local politicians control, from approvals of permits to zoning, opportunities lurk for scandal.
Local politicians have the most impact of any level of government on our everyday lives. They decide whether we can cut down our own trees and whether the sun shall be eclipsed by towers. They nevertheless receive the least media scrutiny and inspire the lowest voter turnout.
Cities have had their fair share of scandals. One does not have to go back to New York’s Boss Tweed who sagely observed, “Voters don’t elect people. Counters elect people”
LET US PREY
On September 9, 2013 the B.C. Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development released a White Paper on proposed changes to local government election finance and disclosure. The Provincial government intends to enact legislative changes before the 2014 local elections.
This is a joint effort of the Union of BC Municipalities and the Province. Rest assured, therefore, that the politicians' looked after their own interests. The Province should have required from the outset that all of the stakeholders including developers and community groups, prepared the report. Instead they left it to politicians and bureaucrats. It is an example of government of the politicians, by the politicians and for the politicians.
The White Paper proposes to expand the scope of disclosure of candidates election expenses. There are new controls on what candidates, electoral organizations like VISION and the NPA and third parties may say and when they may say it. Virtually any communication that even indirectly promotes or opposes a candidate is deemed to be election advertising. This includes third party advertising and issue advertising. The period covered for campaign finance disclosure starts on January l of the year of the election. Penalties for breaking the law are severe.
An honest politician, they say, is one who when bought stays bought. The costs to the public begins when councilors vote for whatever it was that inspired their contributors donation. This kind of corruption is presently covered by the conflict of interest provisions of the Community Charter, ss. 100 - 104. Under the present law politicians must disclose a conflict after which they must not participate in the matter. The penalty for violations is disqualification from holding office.
Here is the problem. In a series of decisions the courts have held that a By-law ought not to be set aside by reason of any indirect pecuniary interest of the Mayor or any Councillor which might be said to arise merely from campaign contributions, particularly where the contribution is disclosed. ( Guimond v. Vancouver (City) 7 M.P.L.R. (3d) 44, par 109)
The White Paper fails to address the fact that cities are regulatory bodies in which many politicians and their party's campaigns are funded by the gang they are expected to regulate, namely, developers. If they seriously wanted to stop this they would simply ensure that for conflict of interest purposes, campaign contributions are treated as pecuniary interests. Bylaws promoted by say, General Skyscraper Corporation could then be set aside if a majority of councilors who voted for it had earlier been recipients of its largesse. All that is needed is a minor amendment to the Community Charter.
Politicians know perfectly well that this would discourage large political donations because it denies to the donors the spoils of their support. That is why the White Paper doesn't deal with it.
Instead they chose to drown cities and towns in a sea of regulations. That is a made in City Hall approach.
Aside from the restrictions on expression during the year of an election, the proposals insidiously favour incumbents over challengers. Once elected, politicians enjoy the enormous advantage of having what they do and say during their term reported in the news. This is not considered a campaign expenditure. Since local politicians need name recognition, incumbency is worth 109 gigabytes more than advertising. Every baby or developer kissed by a Mayor or Councilor is bankable but not reportable.
One more thing- the proposal to extend councilors’ terms to four years in a related report did not come from popular demand. It is one more power grab by politicians. It would be the worst thing that happened to local governments since September 3, 1998 when they extended the terms from two years to three.
Terms should be restored by the Province to two years. Politicians need the whiff of reality that can be gained only by elections.