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Developer donations loom large at city hall

New election act revisions could mean big changes for Oshawa

oshawa city hall (web)

Cities may soon have the option to ban political donations from developers and other groups as part of proposed changes to the Municipal Elections Act – something Toronto did in 2009. Many Oshawa councillors received contributions from developers in the 2014 election, with one developer even spending above the limit put forward in the current Municipal Elections Act.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

The City of Oshawa and the development community have been working quite successfully together in recent years, breaking development permit records two years running with values climbing into the millions of dollars.

In 2014, many developers showed their support to a council that had worked so well for them and reached into the corporate coffers to offer up a $750 donation (the maximum allowed under the Municipal Elections Act) to support several incumbent candidates in their bids to get reelected. A few unions also showed their support.

In the past, the practice has received much criticism, with Toronto going so far as to receive permission from the province to ban the practice out right in 2009. At issue is the perceived conflict of interest created between corporate interests and a councillor’s obligation to serve the public when candidates take money from a corporation or union.

However, that could be about to change as the province, after more than a year of consultation and review, has released its proposed changes to the Municipal Elections Act, one of which will offer cities the option to ban these types of donations.

Corporate cash

In the grand scheme of campaigns reaching into the thousands and thousands of dollars, $750 is not that much and certainly not enough to buy votes, at least according to Councillor Bob Chapman.

“I guess you have to go back to the integrity of the person that’s taking it. Am I going to sell my vote for $750?” he says. “Sometimes the money comes to the people because they look at their record or whether they think they’re intelligent, whether they think they’re going to make good judgement calls.”

Compared to other elected councillors, Chapman was on the lower end of corporate donations, bringing in $2,300 from eight different companies.

Topping the list was Councillor Nester Pidwerbecki with $10,150, followed by Dan Carter at $8,950 and John Aker at $7,600.

Thousands of corporate dollars flowed into councillors campaigns over the course of the 2014 election.

The largest of the corporate donors was Datonbury Developments which provided the maximum donation to the campaigns of Councillors Doug Sanders, John Neal, Nancy Diamond, Pidwerbecki, Carter and Aker, bringing the total to $4,500. The company also provided $750 to former councillor Tito-Dante Marimpietri, bringing its total to $5,250, which is actually in violation of the Elections Act, which stipulates a maximum contribution of $5,000 in one jurisdiction.

Other large contributors included developers Midhaven Homes, Bond and Mary Developments, Minto, JFC Developments and general contractor JJ McGuire, the company awarded the contract to construct the city’s new consolidated operations depot the year before.  Another top funder was the numbered company behind the Jubilee Pavilion, which provided $500 donations to several councillors.

Councillor Rick Kerr was the lone elected candidate who received no contributions from corporations or unions, while Councillor Amy McQuaid-England says she only accepts money from unions because they are democratic institutions that should be involved in the election process. However, while she accepted a $500 donation from the Jubilee Pavilion, she says “developer money is different.”

“It’s not about whether or not you’re going to be corrupted by the money you’re given in a donation – it’s about the perception that the public has when you take that money and what the money is attached to,” she says. “We make so many decisions that relate to what developers do that I don’t think that we should be taking their money.”

However, Chapman says the intent behind the donations is the same as the money coming from private citizens who have a vested interest in the community.

“They’re developing our community. They’re paying development charges, they’re making changes to roads that we would need to do and putting them in and they’re building the homes and selling them. That’s going to increase our tax base because people are going to move here,” he explains.

This fine line between corporation and community member is evident when looking at the campaign donations of Mayor John Henry, who told The Oshawa Express he does not take money from developers or unions.

However, when The Oshawa Express looked further into his list of personal donations, it was found to include names with links to several companies who provided funds to other councillors’ campaigns under a corporate name.

Among them, a $750 donation from Danny Kallinteris, whose Jubilee Pavilion provided $3,000 to other councillors; $750 from Jerry Coughlan, founder of Coughlan Homes (now known as JFC Developments); $750 from Peter Saturno, founder of Midhaven Homes; and $750 from Jeffrey Robinson, the president of JJ McGuire.

Henry’s list also included donations from CEOs at Tribute Communities and Veltri Homes, along with senior managers in other companies like Medallion, Triad Metals, D.G. Biddle and Associates and the Rice Commercial Group.

When asked for further comment on the matter, Mayor Henry says many of the connections can be explained by his roots in the community.

“I’ve grown up in Oshawa, so when you look at the list you might want to ask me how many of those people are my friends?” he says. “It’s not a corporate cheque…it’s transparent and I’ve always been that way.”

Making a change

If the province decides to provide the option for municipalities, Henry says it will make an “interesting question” for council, but one he is not against discussing.

“The world is changing and it should be looked at once in a while,” he says.

Consultation with municipalities on the changes to the act began last year with the proposed changes making up part of Bill 181, the Municipal Elections Modernization Act. According to Conrad Spezowka, spokesperson with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the bill has been referred to the finance and economic affairs standing committee and Queen’s Park for further debate.

“Details on these proceedings, including timing for their completion, have not been finalized,” he says.

However, some councillors hope the province changes tact on the issue.

Aker says it would be better for the province to make the decision instead of allowing each individual municipality to choose, which he says would create a muttled and patchwork system.

“The province will make a terrible mistake if they leave it up to individual municipalities,” he says. “The good Liberal government has to stiffen their back up and make a decision and we will, to the penny, abide by it.”

New opportunities

Along with the campaign financing changes proposed by the province, there are also proposals to shorten the campaign period, implement a new framework to regulate third-party advertising as well as giving municipalities the option to use ranked balloting in their elections.

A ranked balloting system allows voters to rank candidates in terms of preference and, according to Jason McWilliam, the city’s manager of records and information systems, it would mean a big change for Oshawa if council were to decide to use it.

At this point, he says there needs to be some serious public consultation and more details provided before any decisions are made.

“It’s a pretty significant change,” he says. “I think we need to know what the rules are around them before we go the community and say ‘hey, this is something that we think would be good to consider.’”

With the proposed changes, clerks departments across Ontario could have a lot more work to do come election time, and increased responsibility for monitoring contibutions and new spending limits. Overall, McWilliam believes the changes are a step in the right direction.

“I think it’s good, it brings greater transparency to the process and it kind of proactively flags some of the issues that come up,” he says.