Without campaign funding disclosure we simply can't trust the vote
Ever since Premier Campbell announced his government's commitment to reform municipal campaign finance rules, the clock has been ticking for political organizations like the one running the City of Vancouver at this time. Vision Vancouver and their high profile candidates such as Gregor Robertson and Raymond Louie raised eyebrows with their extraordinary ability to raise, and spend, campaign cash. Moreover, the sources for these donations continue to pique the public's interest.
Now the Premier has appointed a group of community leaders – SFU associate professor calls them a Dream Team – to look at this municipal campaign finance reform, and the Vancouver Sun editorial board applauds the move. Sun columnist Daphne Bramham has led the way for her publication, revealing glaring problems such as the council in Summerland made apparently illegitimate by anonymous donors.
It's been over one year since Vision Vancouver won majorities on city council, park board and school board. In mid-March just at the deadline for disclosure, Vancouver's governing party finally released its campaign finance disclosure statement. Not only had they spent a record amount to run their campaign, the disclosure showed that the civic party was carrying significant debt in the range of $240,000.
What has struck observers of civic politics is that Vision Vancouver continues to spend money like an organization that isn't overly concerned about a burdensome debt. Unlike the NPA, they have staff and other overhead. They're currently in the market for a new Executive Director, who depending on their skill sets can easily command a salary in the high five-figures per year. They also organize regular social events for supporters (especially unlike the NPA), all which have a price tag attached to them.
We've asked the question many times – who is that quarter million dollar debt owed to? What kind of financial interest, if any, is being paid on that debt? Who is paying that interest? If the debt has been reduced through fundraising efforts, why has there been no effort at all to update the records of the City's Chief Electoral Officer?
For the democratic system to hold any water with citizens, considerable effort needs to be paid to matters of campaign disclosure. The language of the Vancouver Charter is very clear on spending for general elections. If you have raised new money to pay down the expenses of your campaign, you must report how much money and who gave it - as soon as possible.
Vision Vancouver made a big deal out of their supplementary disclosure in the summer of 2007. Their financial agent Geoff Meggs waved it around to make a political point. Vision were more "transparent" (read: ethical) than the opposition because they had submitted their lengthy financial update. Of course, the reason there was a mid-term supplementary disclosure at all is because Vision's 2005 election campaign left them with around $200,000 worth of debt.
Going by the records Vision have released publicly to date, the organization has never been in the black. The NPA, by comparison, usually end election campaigns just over the break even point as a rule. Vision's voracious campaign spending habit sends a signal that they know that power comes with a price, even if it means incurring a hefty debt.
Last Thursday, Councillor Suzanne Anton saved up a number of uncomfortable questions for Vision Vancouver and the City Manager in the New Business portion of council's Planning & Environment meeting. My colleague Daniel already described how Anton directed her questions to Ballem on how an "on the record" media briefing was handled by Mayor "Geoff" Meggs. Anton's second set of questions pertained to Vision's lack of campaign funding disclosure during a time when multi-million dollar decisions affecting large developments were being made by council.
Anton directed the following statement and question to Mayor Gregor Robertson during the afternoon sitting of city council on December 3rd (video - see 5 minute mark).
Anton: You will have been collecting money I'm pretty confident of that, and as long as you are paying off your debt you are in breech of the ongoing disclosure regulations. May I ask when you intend to comply with those regulations?
Robertson: You'll have to direct those questions to Vision Vancouver and their executive.
Anton: Actually, I don't think I have to address those questions to Vision. You're the mayor, it's your political organization and they are there to help you, and they did help you to get elected. It's up to you to exert your influence. The money's being donated not because they love the Vision Vancouver board, it's because people apparently like you and your organization... It's to do with you. And it's you and your colleagues that are making these very, very expensive, lucrative decisions on behalf of developers.
At this point Robertson decided to cut off Anton, citing the five-minute rule for questions.
Councillor Raymond Louie in political attack-mode rose from his chair to return fire on Anton. First, he tried to remind the NPA councillor how the tables have turned, by quoting Anton herself from her time in government.
Louie: "The innuendo is unacceptable. The parliamentary behaviour that I'm witnessing is disgraceful. Shocking..." is the best recollection I have [of what Anton stated].
In true patronizing fashion, Louie reminded Anton that she voted against disclosure bylaws proposed by the Vision opposition, and in effect called the lone NPA councillor a hypocrite:
Louie: And so to now be able to stand up in council and ... profess to have the interests of citizens at heart is a bit rich for me and should be taken with quite a big grain of salt. She is not genuine in her efforts, rather she's trying to score political points.
With his next comments, Louie takes it to the next level that might be considered as borderline paranoia.
Louie: In the vein of political point scoring, where is the money that Sam Sullivan, our former mayor who she supported, where is that money and where did it go? How's it currently being spent? These are questions that remain unanswered. Who donated that money? How was this tied in with the Nanitch Society? And Councillor Anton that was your mayor. When you ask questions, be prepared to answer questions about yourself and your own party.
We've said before that Sam Sullivan is the left's bogeyman, but you get the feeling that Louie and his Vision colleagues stay up at night thinking about the former mayor's fabled vault full of campaign cash.
Mayor "Geoff" Meggs never likes to miss an opportunity to mix it up in a political debate, and he had this to say about the minor contretemps between Louie and Anton:
Meggs: I just want to reassure Councillor Anton, as the former financial agent for Vision Vancouver that we exceeded by a huge margin the disclosure requirements of the [Vancouver] Charter, which I regret to say have not been updated. And when the time came to disclose the retirement of Vision Vancouver's debt about 18 months ago, we were in close discussions with the Clerk that our disclosure was fully compliant that when the debt was retired we disclosed everything. And we were far ahead of Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Anton in that regard.
The new financial agent is going to put me in the shade because she has far greater financial experience than I did. I had the advice of some good people and I think it withstood scrutiny...[Vision Vancouver] do everything and then some to be compliant.
Meggs likes to refer to his 2007 supplementary report as the "retirement" of Vision's 2005 debt. Technically, it is accurate to say that they had raised the equivalent amount of their debt, a year and a half after that election. But on the day that the party filed this "retired" debt, their disclosure indicated that they were $54,000 in the hole to cover ongoing operations and staff costs.
Meggs and Louie both found ways to get their jabs in on Sullivan and the NPA, insinuating they were less than thorough when it came to their own disclosures. The left wing media were always prepared to pounce on Sullivan, devoting incredible rigour to how the former mayor & city councillor spent $5000, but showing none of that same journalistic hunger for exploring the eye-popping campaign spending of millions by Robertson, Louie and Vision.
One can only hope that the Premier's new committee on campaign finance reform clamps down on potential abuse, and makes our municipal electoral system unimpeachable when it comes to the matter of who is donating dollars, and how much.