Councillors, school trustees pleased or indifferent on bill to get big money out of civic politics

A provincial government bill to ban corporate and union donations to civic election candidates prompted smiles, shrugs and some questions from Edmonton city councillors and school trustees Tuesday.

If adopted, Bill 23, An Act to Renew Local Democracy in Alberta, would introduce rules around third-party advertisers in municipal and school board elections, limit campaign donations to $4,000 to civic candidates plus $4,000 to school board candidates, require candidates disclose more detailed expense reports and remove a six-month Alberta residency requirement to run, among other changes.

Donations from companies and labour groups have funded substantial portions of past civic campaigns. In 2017, one incumbent public school trustee received 84 per cent of his funding from companies in the building trades.

“I think democracy is healthiest when it’s funded by the people and not special interests,” Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson told reporters Tuesday. If approved, the changes would bring civic election rules in line with provincial and federal elections, he said.

What’s missing from Bill 23 is a candidate’s ability to issue tax receipts to donors, Iveson said, which provincial and federal contenders can do.

“Our local governments are not second-class democracies, and I do think we need a solution,” he said.

Here’s what others said Tuesday about the bill:

Councillor Mike Nickel is indifferent. Candidates will still knock on doors, make phone calls and meet people to ask for donations, he said.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s just pure optics, and I don’t think there’s any material gain here. Not for transparency or accountability. The system has worked fine up until now.”

Edmonton Catholic school board chairwoman Laura Thibert said trustees will comply with whatever campaign rules the province imposes.

Edmonton Catholic school board chairwoman Laura Thibert had no concerns with the changes and said trustees will follow the law, whatever it is. The government should do a public education campaign so candidates are aware of new restrictions, she said.

Edmonton and District Labour Council president Greg Mady said the proposed change is “great news,” which the council has been pushing for. The council endorsed and donated to civic and school board candidates during the 2017 campaign. It was partly to counteract donations from corporations, he said, though their contributions were not nearly as large. Councillors and trustees may feel beholden to their large donors’ interests, he said.

He is concerned the bill lacks teeth for those who break the rules.

In June 2015, Edmonton public school trustee Michael Janz successfully introduced a motion for the board to lobby government to ban corporate and union donations in civic elections. Bill 23 would make a council or trustee seat more attainable for first-time candidates, he said.

If fundraising falls short, lawn signs would be the first expense he cuts, and he hopes others follow suit.

“It will force candidates to think creatively about the way they engage voters.”

Edmonton public school trustee Bridget Stirling said she hopes proposed new election rules will help women fundraise for their bids for office.

Edmonton public school board vice-chairwoman Bridget Stirling said the bill would benefit female candidates. Contenders often seek contributions from their social circles, she said, and women, on average, earn less than men. She is concerned about political action committees, which operate relatively unchecked in provincial politics, making a move into civic elections.

jfrench@postmedia.com

With files from Paige Parsons

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