Ottawa·Analysis

Everything you ever wanted to know about developer donations

CBC recently revealed most councillors on the city's planning committee are taking donations from the very developers whose applications cross their desks for approval. How is this allowed to happen? Joanne Chianello has the answers.

Why can councillors accept money from donors whose applications need their approval?

Developers often write cheques for the candidates they like, but some find that arrangement problematic.

As CBC recently reported, most members of the City of Ottawa's planning committee are open to taking donations from people in the development world, and development execs held — or plan to hold — fundraisers for a few members, including chair Jan Harder.

It's completely legal for developers to donate to candidates. But considering that the planning committee approves billions of dollars worth of projects during a term of council, the optics of committee members receiving contributions from executives whose companies need those same members to approve lucrative projects can be, well, problematic.

Still, there's a lot of nuance to the issue that doesn't always get a full airing in news stories. So here is everything you ever wanted to know about developer-backed campaign contributions.

Barrhaven incumbent Jan Harder chairs the powerful planning committee, and attended a fundraiser held for her by developers. (CBC)

How is this allowed?

This is a question we've heard — a lot.

Virtually every adult who lives in Ontario is allowed to donate to a municipal candidate, and that's as it should be. All citizens have a right to participate in the democratic process, and we need more of them to do so, not fewer.

No reasonable observer is arguing to ban any group of people, based on their employment or any other factor, from donating to an election campaign.

Wasn't banning corporate donations supposed to fix this?

Yes and no.

Until this election, corporations and unions were allowed to make donations to municipal candidates. This was problematic on a number of fronts, including that corporations and unions were allowed to give money, and then executives from the same organizations were allowed to donate as individuals.

This "double-dipping" was particularly prevalent within the development community.

As well,  some organizations gave more than the maximum amount, but the practice was never policed, so the rules were broken relatively often and with no consequences.

So while banning corporate and union donations eliminated some problems, it's never going to complete remove developer involvement in municipal elections.

Anyway, while the province banned corporate and union donations, it also increased the maximum allowable donation from $750 to $1,200. So much for levelling the playing field.

Stephen Blais is the city councillor for Cumberland ward, and is running for re-election. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Was the old system more transparent?

Not really.

Sure, if a donation was made in the name of a corporation, it would be more obvious where the money came from. But see "double-dipping" above. Also, neither donors' names nor the amounts they give are made public until the March after the election — so it's hard to see how that helps transparency at the voting booth.

Are we picking on developers? 

A little bit. But there's good reason.

"I don't think anyone would think that stopping contributions from people who work for social service agencies, or charities, or not-for-profit groups, or advocacy groups that get funding from the city of Ottawa would be appropriate," said Cumberland ward incumbent Stephen Blais. "I think it's a very delicate line."

So sure, other people come to City Hall for stuff.

But the fact is, none of the groups Blais mentioned has the economic interest in what happens at City Hall than the development industry does. And the people who work in those areas generally don't have the deep pockets that those in the development industry have.

The sheer magnitude of what's at stake for the developers who appear before the planning committee is on another level.

Can councillors really be bought?

Probably not. But that's not really the point.

There's a lot of cynicism in some circles about how some development applications are approved. Case in point: the recent approval for the 65-storey tower near Bayview Station after most of council overturned a community plan that called for a cap of 30 storeys.

Council was within its rights to make that decision. But when residents perceive — either rightly or wrongly — that City Hall too often sides with developers over community members, the fact that some of those same councillors accepted donations from the developer doesn't help the situation.

There's another issue that's perhaps a little less obvious.

Like any voter or any political donor, someone within the development industry is likely to support a politician with a similar mindset, who represents the same views and values. So the financial support of like-minded candidates can lead to a council that is, in Kitchissippi ward incumbent Jeff Leiper's words, "prone to see things the developers' way, prone to be pro-development, prone not to want to put a lot of limits on development."

It's not that candidates who accept these donations are in the pockets of developers, but that they tend to be more naturally aligned with their interests.

Kitchissippi ward Coun. Jeff Leiper believes accepting donations can leave some politicians 'prone to see things the developers' way.' (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Transparency is the answer

So what to do?

If you care about whether development money is involved in your ward's campaign — and not everyone does — ask your candidates. If they say that don't handle the contributions or know who donated, ask why. Most candidates are well aware of substantial donations from development execs. 

In the longer term, donations should be posted in real time during the campaign. It is absolutely doable. Alta Vista incumbent Jean Cloutier ​promised to post his donors online by Oct. 17, and challenged other candidates to do the same after he cancelled a developer-backed fundraiser.

No measures will ever create a truly level playing field among candidates. Incumbents have advantages, and candidates with connections to richer folks have an advantage. But the more transparent the system becomes, the fairer it will be.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.