B.C. municipal election expenses on notice

When municipal elections come around again, candidates and electoral organizations could have stringent spending limits.

When municipal elections come around again in four years, candidates and electoral organizations could have stringent limits on how much money they can spend on a campaign.

Before the Nov. 15, 2014 civic vote, an all-party special committee of the B.C. Legislative Assembly was struck to review the issue, with the goal of developing provisions on election expense limits and spending on election-related advertising. Saanich North and the Islands MLA Gary Holman is one of the eight-member committee that in early December finished the first phase of its study.

“The first phase was seeking public input to identify the underlying principles involved,” Holman said.

On Dec. 5, the committee announced that it would endorse principles of fairness, neutrality, transparency and accountability in developing proposed local election spending limits. The second phase, Holman explained, will see the committee make more specific recommendations on election expense limits at the municipal level. That report, he said, is due this June.

The timing of the committee’s work has been criticized by some municipal-level politicians, as it took place during the 2014 fall election campaign.

“It was difficult, reaching people to talk during the election campaign,” Holman agreed.

As a result, the committee had its phase one deadline extended. In all, they received some 900 submissions.

Holman said that for him, the issue of local election expenses came to a head in 2011 in Vancouver. A very large corporate donation was made to one of that city’s elector organizations — large enough to raise eyebrows. Holman said groups like the NPA and Vision Vancouver, elector organizations in that city, spend millions during a campaign.

“So, contributions can be very large and have the potential to influence a campaign.

“This can be a problem in smaller towns, too,” Holman continued, “it’s just a different amount.”

There’s a balance the committee must achieve, he agreed, between large and small communities and election spending limits. They will have to come up with a formula that can be applied to everyone.

“I think in Canada, you have these limits and it does make for a fair playing field.”

Asked whether such limits and imposed fairness could limit the competitive nature of elections, Holman said the work is being done to help ensure anyone or any organization has equal opportunity and are not simply drowned out by the group with the most money.

“It’s not about prohibiting (competition), it’s about trying to limit undue influence and not stack the cards too heavily against independents,” he said.

Holman, an NDP MLA, said his party proposed a motion to include donations and contribution limits in the committee’s term of reference. He said the Liberals on the committee, who hold the majority, rejected that.

Be that as it may, Holman said he enjoys the committee work, which seems to rise above the party drama of the legislature.

“There are provincial and federal rules on this already out there,” he continued, saying they could be applied in some form to the local level.

The committee’s phase one report can be seen at www.leg.bc.ca/cmt/leel.

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