Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Show Me the Money

Requiring candidates for public office to disclose the names of people who have contributed to their campaigns isn't a new idea. It's already required if you run for federal or provincial office, and in many municipalities for civic elections. The idea is that, in the interests of openness and accountability, those individuals or businesses who supported you financially in your run for public office should be identified. It's a further step in disclosing interests. Once elected, you already have to identify what financial interests you or members of your family have, to limit your involvement in decisions that may have a financial impact on those interests.

So, if someone makes a contribution to your campaign, and then is interested in doing business with the city, that might be a point at which a member of council would excuse himself from any discussion and voting on the matter, if this was public knowledge.

Right now, Prince Albert has no campaign contribution disclosure bylaw. When city work is given out without tendering, or when a tender is given to a company which is not the lowest bidder, there may be questions why, perhaps raising the suspicion that their contributions to help elect certain individuals might have given them an advantage in getting a part of city business.

This isn't right.

In much of the kerfuffle of the past few months, much has been made that members of council should be held to a higher standard than the general public. I don't agree with that, but I do think that we have to remove, whenever possible, any suggestion that our decisions may be influenced by anything other than what is best for the city.

To me, it seems straightforward - develop a bylaw that requires that anyone running for council must disclose the names and amounts of financial and in-kind contributions that were given to their campaign.

When I proposed this motion at Monday's meeting it was defeated, 5 - 2 (Councillor Swystun wasn't at the meeting; Councillor Gervais had left the meeting by that point). Most members of council aren't as willing to support openness and accountability as I had hoped. Not only that, but the two councillors who spoke against the motion focused on how they disagree with the ward system. They must have gotten their speaking notes mixed up, because my motion mentioned nothing about wards, and I couldn't see the connection.

Perhaps the real concern is that people worry that some of their backers might not be as willing to provide financial support if their contribution might be made public. If this is because they will only contribute if there will be a payoff down the road - good. That's the kind of influence-selling that this sort of bylaw is meant to prevent.

But, as I said, other municipalities have such bylaws, and people are still running for office there, so it obviously doesn't scare everyone off. Every campaign relies on a combination of financial and volunteer support, and I'm not sure where the line is drawn. Do I limit my disclosure to the friends who have written cheques or paid for lawn signs, or do I have to include the invaluable but totally voluntary contributions of my media advisor and the guys who help put up the signs? I'm sure reviewing the bylaws of some other cities would provide some answers.

Take a couple of seconds and let me know what you think, by clicking on the poll to the right. Perhaps it will give me some additional information to take back to council at some point before the next election.

"Money doesn't talk, it swears." - Bob Dylan


Peter said...
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Barb said...

And there should be a means to show the large personal contributions, too, that fund luncheons, coffee cups, crates of peaches, toasters, etc., that are given to voters to influence their choices. Following the money is a start, though.