By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
It was a close one, but Durham will not implement a campaign contribution rebate program for residents who financially support regional chair candidates prior to the 2018 municipal election.
Regional council approved a staff recommendation advising against such a program by a 15-13 vote at its most recent meeting.
In the next municipal election, candidates cannot accept campaign donations from corporations and union organizations.
In reaction to these changes, council passed a resolution in January 2017 directing staff to investigate the merits of reimbursing citizens who donate to regional chair candidates.
At that time, Ajax Mayor Steve Parish suggested the contribution rebate program was appropriate for the position of regional chair because candidates have to spend significantly more on the campaign trail to stand a legitimate chance of winning.
In the 2014 election, the first instance where Durham’s regional chair was elected instead being appointed, Roger Anderson, who received 47 per cent of the vote, spent approximately $82,000 on his campaign, almost seven times more than the next highest candidate.
Of Anderson’s spending, $68,000 came from corporate and union donations and $14,000 from individual contributions. Anderson and Barbara Pulst were the only candidates to receive contributions from outside parties.
The spending limit for regional candidates in the 2014 election was approximately $386,000.
With the ban on corporate and union donations in 2018, Parish previously said there may be more pressure on regional chair candidates to secure individual contributions, and a rebate program could encourage residents to become more involved in the democratic process.
There are currently eight municipalities in Ontario, including Whitby and Ajax in Durham Region, that offer campaign contribution rebate programs.
Rebates in Whitby and Ajax are only offered for contributions made to municipal campaigns, not those for regional councillor positions. Currently, no rebates are offered by the region for contributions to regional councillor campaigns.
Ultimately, staff advised against a rebate program ahead of next year’s election, but recommended further analysis should take place prior to 2022.
“Given our lack of experience with this program, accurately determining the budgetary and administrative requirements…is difficult,” the report states.
Regional chair Anderson said he “doesn’t think the municipality should be funding anyone’s campaign.”
Oshawa Mayor John Henry is also opposed to a rebate program.
“When you get into this, there is an expectation about a candidate needing to raise the money. I’m supportive of that. I don’t think it’s fair for taxpayers to pay for the rebates,” Henry said.
A rebate program may force taxpayers to contribute to candidates they don’t ‘like or support’, argued Oshawa Councillor John Aker.
“When a citizen contributes to a campaign, that is their choice,” Aker stated.
Parish argued heavily in favour of the program again at the recent meeting, stating the race for regional chair will “rely on people, who for their own reasons, can afford to write big cheques” and candidates of lesser financial standing will be at a disadvantage.
“This rebate program seeks to even the playing field and make the regional chair race more democratic,” he said.
Ajax Councillor Colleen Jordan said as a single parent of four children, she would ‘never have a hope of self-funding her campaign’.
“Because Ajax had a rebate program, and because I was well known, I was able to garner a lot of support.”
Claiming there has been ‘very little interest’ in his municipality’s rebate program, Whitby Councillor Derrick Gleed said it makes him wonder about its usefulness.
He suggested it would be better for candidates to get “out of the dark ages” and modernize their campaigns by using resources such as social media.
There are no guidelines for such rebate programs to follow, so they vary greatly, the staff report concluded, with reimbursement rates ranging from 25 per cent in Whitby to 75 per cent in Toronto and in some municipalities, larger donations receive a higher percentage rebate.
Some rebate programs are offered only to residents of the municipality while others are available province-wide.
Donors to federal and provincial election candidates are eligible to receive tax receipts, and Anderson says the Association of Municipalities of Ontario’s stance is the rules should be the same for municipal elections.
“AMO asked to be treated the same way the province is, no better, no worse,” Anderson said.