Halifax lags with weak municipal campaign finance rules

Halifax has weak rules surrounding municipal campaign finance, lagging behind other Canadian cities.

Other jurisdictions have spending limits and reporting rules

Coun. Linda Mosher raised $19,900 for her 2012 re-election campaign. (Pam Berman/CBC)

Halifax has weak rules surrounding municipal campaign finance, lagging behind other Canadian cities.

In Ontario and Quebec, regulations limit how much money candidates can collect and require strict expense reports. Toronto banned donations from companies and trade unions in 2010. 

In Nova Scotia, however, there are no rules dictating who can contribute, how much they can give and how the money is spent.

A CBC News investigation has found that one third of all campaign contributions collected by sitting Halifax councillors were from companies in the development community. Top executives from those companies also gave as private individuals.

City council decisions often focus on proposals for new developments, a fact that University of Western Ontario political scientist Andrew Sancton says has made other cities rethink campaign rules.

"Anybody who studies municipal politics knows that developers have a huge interest in what's going on and they're likely to be, one way or another, the main funder of municipal campaigns," Sancton said.
University of Western Ontario political scientist Andrew Sancton says developers have a "huge interest" in municipal politics. (University of Western Ontario)

"Saying that they should be able to raise an unlimited amount of money from anybody they want does lead to real problems."

Changes must be approved

Halifax municipal staff are preparing a report, due in June, that is expected to recommend new campaign financing rules. Any changes will then have to be approved by the province.

Campaign contributions varied widely in Halifax's 2012 election. For instance, Coun. Lorelei Nicoll raised $1,550, while Coun. Linda Mosher generated $19,900.

Money from the development community made up between 28 per cent and 72 per cent of campaign spending for those councillors who accepted such donations.

Several councillors, however, refused to take any money from companies, including Jennifer Watts, Waye Mason, Steve Craig and Brad Johns — who self-financed his campaign. Nicoll accepted one donation from a garbage company, but says she thought it was going to be from an individual.

"It's important that you should come into this job not owing anybody anything — real or perceived — as best you can to make the best decision for those you represent," said Craig, councillor for Lower Sackville.

Campaign spending questioned

Mosher, councillor for District 9 Halifax West Armdale, says she's more worried about how the money is spent after it's collected. She raised nearly $20,000, including $7,350 from companies involved in development.

"I think if you look at any of the council candidates for the last election I did not see any violations or expenditures or extravagance. It was only the mayoralty candidates," said Mosher, pointing to Mayor Mike Savage.

"I know in the mayoralty campaign [Savage] used funding to pay themselves a stipend. I would question that. I don't think if someone is donating for a campaign that you should use it to pay yourself."

Paying candidate and campaign staff salaries is common practice at higher levels of government, but not at the municipal level. 

Savage raised more than $308,000 in cash donations, including more than $91,000 from companies in the development community. Savage, criticized for being paid a salary from contributions during his 2012 campaign, says he likely will not do that again in future municipal elections.

Surplus funds

Savage advocated for staff to study the issue and has his own ideas for change.

"There's no need to be raising money between elections," he said.

"I think if you set a rule that you only could raise money during an election year, and at the end of it, if you have money leftover you shouldn't be able to take it and do whatever you want. It should be given to the city or put aside for another election."

Sancton says in Ontario surplus funds following an election are put in a trusteeship with the municipal clerk.

Some jurisdictions have banned corporate donations. But several Halifax councillors say if that were to happen here, it would be hard to raise much money at all.

Bill Karsten, for example, raised $4,925, with $3,550 coming from the development community. Without money from development-related companies, he'd be left with little to run his campaign.

Mosher says perhaps a ban on corporate donations could come with alternative funding.

"I saw one municipality that gave $10,000 per candidate and a dollar per voter. That's way more than I spent," Mosher said. "That would be acceptable to me."


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