Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's time for the province to clean up our dirty little civic elections secret

By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun August 13, 2009

At the rotten core of democratic elections are shady dealers who quietly or secretly finance candidates' campaigns in hopes of future favours.

It's no credit to the B.C. government that scofflaws from last November's provincewide civic elections are being investigated and may yet be charged.

Even though the Liberals revised the Local Government Act in May 2008, among its gaping holes are no spending limits and no electoral oversight by an independent body.

With unlimited cash possible, enforcement is all the more necessary. But that's left up to citizens to police, along with everything else from how ballots are counted to ensuring that campaign organizers register so that voters know who's behind a candidate's campaign.

Few citizens have the time, money or stomach for holding local politicians to account. Yet, there are those odd few willing to brave publicity, intimidation and/or ostracism to complain to police.
David Wilson of Central Saanich is one of them.

He was told by RCMP earlier this week that after 400 hours of investigating his complaint, it's recommending 19 charges be laid regarding financial reporting irregularities.

The RCMP had to investigate because the local police chief is a director of Peninsula Co-op, one of the groups that failed to register as an elector organization in a timely manner.

The recommendation has gone to local Crown counsel and it will likely be at least a month before a decision is made on whether to lay charges. Wilson doesn't know who may be charged, but expects it could include campaign contributors, financial agents or even councillors.

Three months ago, West Vancouver police forwarded their charge recommendations to Crown counsel. They investigated complaints by candidate (and now councillor) Michael Lewis and his campaign manager David Marley about the longstanding, quasi-party West Vancouver Citizens for Good Government's late registration and the Low Tax, Low Growth Association's failure to register or account for thousands of dollars spent trying to elect a slate of candidates.

In Langley, RCMP investigated and found that Parents for Independent Trustees breached the Local Government Act by failing to register as a campaign organizer after the group had spent more than $500 on candidates' campaigns.

The penalty under the act is up to $5,000 and/or imprisonment of up to one year.
Insp. Lesley Bain, who's in charge of the commercial crime section, did not recommend any charges since the group did eventually file the requisite financial information.

Nor did Bain recommend charges against two B.C. cabinet ministers -- Rich Coleman, minister of housing and social development, and Mary Polak, minister for children and family development -- who endorsed candidates.

After consulting federal justice department lawyers and other counsel, RCMP concluded that an endorsement does not have a "fair market value" as stipulated by the act, so the ministers didn't need to register or report their contributions.

Yet, in a five-page letter sent to complainant Sonya Paterson in late June, Bain makes it clear that the act is a shambles. Officers with legal training, senior department of justice officials and B.C. ministry officials all were consulted "to ensure the accuracy of our interpretation of the provisions of the Act as well as the procedures and practices of the ministry with respect to complaints arising from the act."

Even RCMP were assured that both the Crown counsel and the ministry of community and rural development are aware of the act's problems. Bain has a senior member of the commercial crime section writing a report for the divisional headquarters outlining issues that arose during the investigation and proposing better ways to deal with similar complaints in the future.
It is no comfort at all that other provinces do little better when it comes to good legislation and transparency concerning municipal campaign financing.

Manitoba introduced legislation in June that requires full financial disclosure, sets spending limits, bans donations from corporations, unions and people from outside the province, and puts in place employee conflict-of-interest guidelines.

In Quebec, former judge John Gomery stepped into Montreal's municipal election fray this week as chair of a Montreal political party. As inquiry commissioner into the federal Liberals' sponsorship scandal, Gomery says he learned that election financing is at the root of government dishonesty.

Elections and campaign spending are too important not to be regulated and monitored closely. Here in B.C., that requires substantive legislative changes.

Most importantly, responsibility for elections must be taken away from individual municipalities and transferred to Elections B.C., which is an independent agency.

Police and Crown counsel would still be left to investigate and lay charges, but at least this would take the onus off citizens to be the watchdogs.

Within a few months of the last municipal election, Premier Gordon Campbell said he'd consider it. But nothing happened.

Now, three community development ministers later and with evidence of electoral misadventures mounting, it's time to act.
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