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City election rules changing

Oct 30, 2017

New provincial rules ban city council candidates from accepting corporate and union donations, change the maximum allowable gifts, and regulate third-party interventions in next fall’s municipal elections. Of particular interest to Hamilton, the changes to the Municipal Elections Act also restrict how much can be spent on post-election gifts and parties.

The new rules limit the length of the campaign. It will start on May first instead of the traditional January 1, and nominations will not be accepted after July 27 rather than the former late September deadline. The election will take place on October 22.

The elimination of corporate and union monies from the coffers of candidates could assist challengers who in past elections have been financially out-matched by well-established incumbents. Possible changes to ward boundaries now being decided by the Ontario Municipal Board could open up other possibilities for new candidates. Corporate and union donations have long dominated election funding, and have particularly flowed into the campaigns of incumbents.

In the last Hamilton election in 2014, eight councillors and the mayor got the majority of their campaign monies from corporations and unions. Terry Whitehead and Chad Collins each relied on these sources for over 80 percent of what they collected. In addition, Tom Jackson, Jason Farr, Maria Pearson, Scott Duvall, Sam Merulla and Lloyd Ferguson got at least 50 percent from corporations and unions.

Duvall’s replacement, Donna Skelly, also reported over half of her by-election finances last year came from corporate donors. In the 2014 election only Brenda Johnson reported no corporate or union contributions.

The new rules approved earlier this year increase the maximum individual donation to a candidate to $1200 giving extra power to wealthier donors. The previous maximum was $750. However total allowable donations by an individual to two or more candidates remains at $5000.

That’s also the maximum that a third party can spend in advertising on behalf of one or more candidates.

“A third party advertisement is a message in any medium (billboard, newspaper, radio, etc.) that supports or opposes a candidate or a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on a question on the ballot,” explains the provincial government website on the new rules. “Third party advertising does not include issues-based advertising so groups that do public outreach can continue their issued-based advocacy work throughout the municipal election period.”

Corporations and unions as well as individuals can register as third party participants in the municipal election campaign, but their ads must identify the funder. That allows corporate and union monies to continue to influence the election outcomes but who is backing who will be evident before election day, rather than the previous system where voters only found out when campaign financial reports were filed months after voting day.

“Third party advertising must be done independently of candidates, who are not able to direct a third party advertiser,” warns the provincial government. “Candidates are not able to register as third party advertisers.” 

Candidates will still be allowed to pour large amounts of their own monies into their campaign.

“A candidate for mayor can contribute $7,500 plus 20 cents for each elector entitled to vote for the office or $25,000, whichever is less,” explains a staff report going to councillors this week. “A candidate for council can contribute $5,000 plus 20 cents for each elector entitled to vote for the office or $25,000, which is less.”

Another new rule imposes “new spending limit for parties and expressions of appreciation after voting day” something that generated controversy in Hamilton’s last municipal election. Five long-time councillors devoted very large amounts to these post-election goodies for their supporters.

Tom Jackson poured more than $24,000 into an election day party and gift cards to supporters, something he’d done before as well. Lloyd Ferguson allotted Just over $12,000 to such expenditures, while Sam Merulla dropped about $6200 for this purpose and Maria Pearson spent $4700 on her appreciation efforts. Surplus campaign funds must be given to the city, but this was avoided by these handouts.

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