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St. John's mayor, councillor joust over donation ban

St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen speaks to reporters Monday at city hall.
St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen. - File photo by David Maher

The question of banning corporate and union donations has not been answered yet in St. John’s City Hall.

Early in debate at Wednesday’s committee of the whole meeting, anxieties were expressed by Mayor Danny Breen and councilors Wally Collins, Sandy Hickman, Jamie Korab and Deanne Stapleton. Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary and councilors Ian Froude, Maggie Burton and Hope Jamieson spoke largely in favour of the move.

With councilors Debbie Hanlon and Dave Lane absent from the council chambers and the ban headed for a 5-4 defeat, Breen offered another option: an independent panel to make recommendations to council on the matter. Council unanimously passed the motion to appoint a panel to study the matter.

The corporate and union donation ban was brought forward as one of four recommendations from the Citizens Assembly for Stronger Elections (CASE NL).

Ward 4 Coun. Ian Froude likes the move to a panel, but says a decision could have been made on Wednesday.

“Elections should belong to residents and voters in the city and not be influenced by private-sector business and unions,” said Froude.

“I personally think the public has made up their mind on this issue. I’ve been hearing it for years as a resident of the city, province and the country. There’s a worry that the accountability is to someone else and not residents. I think that leads to a public trust breakdown. I respect that it’s a complicated issue and a hard decision to make.”

Froude says incumbents reap a large advantage from corporate and union donations. He did some math on the 2013 and 2017 election and found a big difference.

“It was a very stark difference. For 2017, it was roughly $170,000 that was given to incumbent candidates,” said Froude.

The remaining 27 candidates received about $19,000 in corporate and union donations.

Breen says he’s uncomfortable making a decision on the ban without independent study, given uncertainty over who could stand to gain from such a move.

“There is the view that by banning union and corporate donations that you would have the situation where it gives an advantage to people just getting into municipal politics. There’s also the concern that the incumbent will gain some advantage by having them banned because name recognition in politics, certainly in municipal politics, plays a large role,” said Breen.

“What I think was an uncomfortable situation for me was making a decision that would impact future elections while we’re elected members. As an incumbent, I felt uneasy making that decision.”

Corporate and union donations are banned on the federal level, as well as in Ontario and British Columbia.

During debate, Ward 5 Coun. Wally Collins said he didn’t think the rules needed to change due to the amount of turnover in the 2017 election. He suggested because only five incumbents were re-elected in 2017, there’s no advantage for incumbents under the current system.

Froude isn’t so sure.

“There’s very little turnover from election to election. The 2017 election in St. John’s is an anomaly,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to unseat an incumbent.”

Meanwhile, three other recommendations from CASE NL were passed unanimously. The spending cap for candidates will be reduced from its current threshold of $10,000 plus $1 for every eligible voter to a lesser number to be determined by staff. Campaign contributions will have to be disclosed within 30 days of election, down from 90 days. As well, expenditures and contributions will have to be reported during the election campaign.

Overall, Breen isn’t so sure the issue of corporate and union donations is as big as it needs to be. He says there are already rules in place to prevent politicians from being unduly influenced by cash donations.

“We operate under the Public Tendering Act. We take our advice from staff on awarding contracts under the Public Tendering Act. I don’t see those as big issues because $500 is a contribution that a company may have made to every candidate that was running,” said Breen.

“As mayor, I have no special power. I am the first amongst equals, so to speak. I can’t make decisions on my own. It requires a majority vote of council. I think companies that pay their taxes in the city and want to be involved in the political process, that’s the way they do it.”

Twitter: DavidMaherNL

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