No Price Tag on Democracy

In the last few weeks, a story out of Central Saanich suggests that something is not sitting well with some Central Saanich voters as a result of the last municipal election in November 2008. Both the Vancouver Sun and Times-Colonist have covered the issues from the perspective of those voters who believe that there may have been some impropriety related to municipal campaign financing. The allegations have certainly caught the attention of other municipalities. (To read the Times-Colonist article, click here:

As a sitting Council member here in North Saanich, I have been following this story with interest because the topic of unregulated campaign financing and funding is one near and dear to my heart. I have believed since the election of 2002, that municipal elections should be carefully regulated to ensure the independence of candidates and the integrity of the municipal election process. It goes without saying that the issue is a difficult one.

Ordinary citizens interested in making a meaningful contribution to their local community through public service as an elected official, face the reality that running for public office costs money; without donations, the possibility of incurring all the costs personally can make a difference for some between running and not running. Access to funding should not be a barrier to standing as a municipal candidate -- for me, such a barrier does not serve the best interests of the public, our local communities or the election process, and excludes potentially good people from holding public office.

In North Saanich, it is my understanding that political slates and heavily funded municipal election campaigns were unheard of until 2005 when the incumbent Mayor put together a well funded slate and campaign team, hired a campaign manager and opened a campaign office to run his Mayoralty campaign. It is my opinion that the incumbent Mayor and his supporters put together a campaign that seriously upped the stakes and made it possible for the incumbent Mayor and his team to access campaign election tools that significantly increased their reach and profile in the community.

In North Saanich's case, it is entirely possible that a well-funded slate of candidates’ access to unlimited campaign funding may have made it more difficult for single, non-aligned grass roots candidates to compete against what appeared to be a well-oiled machine. The then Mayor ran a similar campaign in 2008 but lost to a grass roots candidate.

While I do think that the issue of slate candidates changed local election campaigning in North Saanich, certainly between 2002 and now, I also believe that North Saanich voters have changed. They are more wary and wise and have learned lessons about candidates that appear heavily funded and powered by machine-style election campaigns that are out of character for a small community like North Saanich. In the end, I want to believe that independent grass roots candidates can still run and get elected, not because they are well funded, but because they are well respected.

I believe that municipal elections should be regulated by Elections BC and that campaign financing and funding should be capped at 20% of whatever the individual stipend is for each Council position. The capping based on percentage is an idea put forward by North Saanich Council member Peter Chandler. It works like this: If a Councilor position in Oak Bay pays a stipend of $10,000, then a Councilor candidate running there cannot accept or spend more than $2,000 for his/her campaign. If the Mayor's position pays a stipend of $30,000, then the mayoralty candidate cannot accept or spend more than $6,000 for his/her campaign and so on.

If an elector organization, campaign organizer or individual endorses a slate of candidates, then donations are limited in the same way. It is a simple formula that levels the playing field and protects the integrity of the municipal election process that, otherwise, could be vulnerable to abuse.

Capping and regulating campaign financing/funding also prevents a "quid pro quo" situation, where special interest groups, organizers or individuals expect to have special influence on Council members making decisions. The mentality that says "I donated heavily to your campaign for a reason, now I expect a return on my investment," is one that we simply cannot afford to encourage, tolerate or ignore. Such a negative climate, whether real or perceived, compromises democracy and further reinforces the public's belief that the political process is somehow dishonest or corrupt. Sadly, that perception hurts all of us and damages our electoral and democratic processes.

At the upcoming UBCM Conference at the end of this month, a resolution (B104), made by Vancouver City Council, calls for a petition of the BC Government to amend the Local Government Act and the Vancouver Charter "to set limits on the annual amount of contributions that can be given by an individual or organization to an elector organization, campaign organizer or an individual seeking elected office." The resolution also calls for limiting the amount of money that can be spent annually during a general local election campaign and disallowing contributions from sources outside Canada.

I will support this resolution but I also intend to work to see it go further and that means setting a 20% cap across the board on campaign financing/funding.