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St. John’s moves to eliminate corporate, union campaign donations

Mayor Danny Breen: “The public requires transparency.” JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM
Mayor Danny Breen: “The public requires transparency.” JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM

Council votes to make municipal politics more accessible, diverse

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

St. John’s city council is taking steps to make municipal elections more accessible, transparent and diverse, beginning with the next election in 2021.

At the committee of the whole meeting Wednesday morning, council voted mostly in favour of recommendations based on input from a study by Citizens' Assembly for Stronger Elections, and an expert panel comprised of political science professors Stephen Tomblin and Amanda Bittner, former federal politician Ross Reid and former deputy mayor Marie White.

Council approved all of the recommendations, though there were some councillors who were not in favour of all of the ideas.

One of the major changes council voted on was prohibiting corporate and union donations beginning in the 2025 election, and putting a cap on such donations to 50 per cent of the total allowable contributions in the 2021 election.

Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary said the changes will make running for municipal politics more accessible, thereby encouraging greater diversity on council. JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM
Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary said the changes will make running for municipal politics more accessible, thereby encouraging greater diversity on council. JUANITA MERCER/THE TELEGRAM

A related recommendation reduces the allowable corporate and union donations from $2,000 to $1,000, as is currently permitted from an individual.

Coun. Sandy Hickman voted against the recommendation. He said candidates have friends who want to donate via their businesses because it’s easier, and he was concerned this would affect accessibility for new candidates.

Coun. Wally Collins also said he was not in favour of any change to the election finance bylaw. He said council is mostly new members, so he questioned statements made by Coun. Maggie Burton and Coun. Ian Froude that corporate and union donations tend to more greatly benefit incumbents.

Burton said she studied trends since 2011 that show new candidates get disproportionately less in corporate and union donations, so this change makes elections more accessible to newcomers.

Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary said it’s about levelling the playing field. She said there needs to be greater diversity on council, and this change makes it more accessible for everyone.

Coun. Hope Jamieson echoed that sentiment, saying people with corporate connections “tend to look a certain way.”

Hickman also took issue with a recommendation that contributions of $100 or more would require that the donor be named in a candidate’s campaign contributions disclosure. Currently, donors are named when they contribute $250 or more.

Hickman said he has run in several elections, and many people want to give a personal donation, but don’t want to be acknowledged.

Coun. Dave Lane said the interests of the public should outweigh an individual’s comfort level in being named.

“The public requires transparency,” said Mayor Danny Breen.

Another proposed change would see total allowable campaign donations reduced.

“The public requires transparency,” St. John's Mayor Danny Breen.

Currently, the mayoral and deputy mayoral candidates are permitted $80,000. Pending final council approval, that number will change to $60,000 for mayoral candidates and $40,000 for deputy mayoral candidates.

Ward councillor candidates would see a decrease from $24,000 to $15,000, and councillor-at-large candidates would be permitted $20,000 in donations instead of $80,000.

The list of amendments to the election finance bylaw was ultimately passed by council in an 8-2 vote, with Collins and Hickman voting against. Coun. Debbie Hanlon was absent and did not vote.

While many people on social media are applauding this vote, committee decisions are not final.

Council requires another vote on the matter at an upcoming regular meeting before the changes are enacted. It’s expected to be on the agenda for March 9.

Province should make similar changes: political scientist

Amanda Bittner. - Contributed
Amanda Bittner. - Contributed

Bittner said this is an “impressive” move by city council.

“Democratic reform is not easy to achieve, and so the fact that they were able to get people to agree on this is quite something.”

She called the increased disclosure on donations a smart move, and something that all levels of government should do.

Specifically, Bittner said she hopes the province can be influenced by the city to make similar changes.

“I think the province would do well to try to implement changes to its legislation as well to ensure that elections are fairer, freer (and) less wrapped up in kind of secret money donations.”

Other changes council agreed on include engaging Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador to see if there’s a willingness to lobby the province to allow permanent residents to vote, and to reduce residency requirements to make it easier for students to vote.

Twitter: @juanitamercer_


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