Thursday, February 02, 2006


Gomery's shadow

The Saskatoon Star Phoenix today had a great article written by Randy Burton (subscription required). Now, it is rare that Moldy would ever refer to Burton, the Star Phoenix and great in the same breathe but credit is due.

Saskatoon City Council is entertaining the notion of a bylaw on campaign finances that would require candidates to reveal who their donors are on any contribution of more than $100. The bylaw would also force them to provide an itemized statement of revenues and expenses if they spent more than $10,000. These two measures would allow for a more transparent civic electoral system and yet the outcomes have some Councillors nervous.

Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg already have campaign financing bylaws, and Calgary's public school board has similar rules. So does Saskatoon's district health board, and it continues to function. In fact, most street vendors selling pickles on a stick can adhere to these basic rules, so there's no reason councillors shouldn't be able to do the same.

Saskatoon city councillors are apparently treating City Council like a high school student council. The majority of Council, including the Mayor, fails to realize that they are public servants and they draw their salaries from the taxpayer.

These folks are politicians, whether they like it or not. They can't continue to argue that the principles and rules that apply to senior governments are unnecessary at the municipal level.

A couple of interesting quotes from Burton's article:

Former city councillor Peter McCann successfully argued that there should be no permanent record of what councillors say in their weekly meetings.

His reasoning was that councillors shouldn't be held to account for what they say, because, well . . . it's only city council, after all. It's not like it counts or anything.

Now, according to Burton, all manner of excuses are being offered up as to why such a simple idea would undermine local democracy as we know it.

Councillor Glen Penner assures us the amounts involved in a councillor's campaign are negligible, so the law will make no difference, anyway. Penner is only half right. The majority of candidates are backed, largely, by friends and family with some donations, however, this isn't always the case. Furthermore, if they are irrelevant than rules will show this.

Councillor Myles Heidt promotes a similar line, suggesting disclosure costs would be prohibitive. He makes the preposterous claim that to audit campaign spending over $10,000 could force council to raise taxes. Really. A couple of thousand dollars to conduct an audit and the mile rate will rise. Give me a break. These men and women deal with multi-million dollar budgets on a weekly / monthly / yearly basis and somehow this audit will send alarm bells off.

Finally, Saskatoon's straight shooting Mayor Don Atchison will set the record straight, won't he? Nope. Mayor Don says full disclosure would only complicate the lives of candidates and probably discourage people from running for council. One word - WHY?

These city councillors seem to be overlooking the fact that campaign finance disclosure laws serve an invaluable purpose. They allow the voters to know who wants people elected and how badly they want them in office - essential who the successful candidate may owe favours to down the road. This could be a land developer? A union? A general contractor? Pick a group or individual and without disclosure they could privately / secretly bankroll someone to victory AND come calling to collect on the favours later. This matters more today more than ever now that civic governments are dealing with multi-million dollar infrastructure contracts. Multi-million dollar land deals? Various union settlements. Call it municipal payback.

All politics works on the premise that volunteers and supporters can call back favours or labour at any time. For Penner to suggest that city councillors are somehow immune to such pressures is simply wrong.

Burton closes with a better point that even the current bylaw may not go far enough.

This is not to suggest that there has been any financial involvement by the proponents in any of these cases, but a disclosure law would let voters see for themselves.

For example, in the last civic election campaign, local business interests played a significant role under the name Lead Saskatoon, but there is no formal record of which councillors' campaigns the group contributed to, if any, or to what degree.

It's here where the city's proposed bylaw does not go far enough. There is nothing in it to prevent anonymous donors acting under a generic label from making big donations to candidates without having to reveal themselves.

Saskatoon voters deserve an open and accountable government. The stakes are too high to allow people to tiptoe around pretending that transparency is reserved for the big leagues.

Hold their toes to the fire! Politicians and unelected bureaucrats have escaped accountability for too long. It's about time their leashes got shortened!!
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