As a candidate in a local election, I was pleased to recently participate in phase one of the Legislative Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits online survey.
The work of this Committee is significant in my view and highlights my ongoing concern about local election campaign spending.
In the last decade, I have observed that the costs of running local election campaigns have continued to escalate, to the point where campaign spending may now be a real barrier to ordinary citizens who want to run for local office. Since there are no existing spending limits for these campaigns, the temptation for endorsements by elector organizations and third party advertisers is difficult to overcome when candidates are attempting to defray campaign costs. As an example, I ran my first municipal election campaign in 2002 and spent approximately $2,000. Over the course of five campaigns (four for Councillor and one for Mayor), my expenses continued to climb, peaking at over $10,000 for my 2014 Mayor’s campaign.
It is worth noting that all of my campaigns occurred in two municipalities with populations of less than 20,000. I did not at any time accept monetary donations from elector organizations or third party advertisers and relied solely on individual campaign donations from family, friends and community supporters. At the end of each campaign, I was fortunate that I had enough personal financial resources to cover and balance final campaign expense shortfalls — not everyone who runs a local election campaign has this same advantage or access to personal funds.
Elector organizations and third party advertisers who include monetary donations with their endorsement can be problematic for candidates and can lead to questions from the public about a candidate’s ability to remain fully independent and impartial when discharging their responsibilities as local decision-makers. Are there expectations and “strings attached” to endorsed and funded candidates who are successfully elected? Not an entirely unreasonable question in my view. Without local election campaign spending limits, I also think that the proliferation of slates creates another challenge for candidates and communities, raising similar questions about a candidate’s independence and impartiality. Slates, while not uncommon and often created to defray campaign spending, can also suggest to voters that block voting is the risk if the slate is elected.
Among my comments to the Committee, I suggest campaign spending limits based on a percentage of the individual stipend or salary designated to each Councillor, Mayor or Regional Director position. The stipend or salary is fixed in a local bylaw and can only change with a full Council resolution so are always subject to public scrutiny and accountability. I believe that this approach to campaign spending also provides ahead of time, key financial planning information to all individuals who consider running for public office and levels the playing field for all candidates who do run. I strongly believe that the viability of a candidate should not be based simply on one’s ability to raise money to fund an election campaign; rather, the quality, merit and integrity of a candidate should be the qualifiers when electing a local representative. Naive and idealistic? Perhaps, but I stand by this belief.
Local election campaign spending limits are long overdue in British Columbia and I hope that the Committee will move forward quickly to address this issue, one that has implications for local governments, communities and yes, local democracy.