Ottawa·Analysis

City election kicks off amid dubious new rules

From delaying the registration date by four months, to allowing huge amounts of spending by third-party advertisers, the 2018 municipal election launches today under some questionable new rules.
The Ottawa municipal election is Oct. 22. (Olivier Plante/CBC)

Ryan Kennery plans to register bright and early Tuesday morning to run as a candidate in College ward in this year's municipal election, which will take place Oct. 22.

Considering he's taking on 20-year council veteran Rick Chiarelli, Kennery would have liked to begin his official campaigning a bit earlier. But he couldn't. This year, for the first time, candidates had to wait until May 1, instead of signing up in early January. 

"I think a four-month delay from the last election rules definitely puts incumbents in the driver's seat," Kennery said.

While prospective candidates can tell potential voters they're planning to run for office, they aren't allowed to raise money or incur any sort of campaign expense — think pamphlets, websites, buttons — until they officially register.

"So yeah, you can go, you can knock on a door, but if someone's not there, you don't have the ability to leave something behind," Kennery said.

The later registration date undoubtedly makes it that much harder for newcomers to beat incumbents, who generally enjoy a massive advantage when it comes to name recognition. That's just one of a number of dubious changes made to the city election rules that come into effect this year.

Here are some other significant — and questionable — changes to the Municipal Elections Act.

No corporate, union donations but higher limits

This is the first election where corporations and unions are banned from contributing directly to a  municipal candidate. The call for banning these sorts of donations came, in large part, from public consultations over recent years on changing the election rules. 

So shortly after the Liberal government banned corporate and union donation in provincial elections, they did the same thing for municipal campaigns in Ontario under new legislation passed in June 2016.

But almost a year later, the province quietly increased the maximum amount individuals can donate, from $750 to $1,200 — a 60 per cent increase.

In the public consultations on reforming election rules, no one called for increased limits. Indeed, people were more concerned that candidates with access to wealthier donors had an unfair advantage. It's unclear why the province unilaterally raised the ceiling on donations, although the Mississauga's council did vote to ask the province to raise the maximum contribution level.

"We will be seriously hampered in our efforts to raise money," Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie told a local newspaper last year.

But there is no evidence that disallowing corporate and union donations will hamper candidates.

Toronto has banned corporate and union donations since 2009, and that city has fielded a wide range of candidates in the 2010 and 2014 elections, when the donation limits were $750.  

Closer to home, a number of Ottawa councillors were elected in 2014 without union and corporate donations, again when the max contribution was still $750.

Donating through 3rd-party ads

The old rules allowed for double-donating, when both unions and corporations, and individuals within those groups, could contribute to campaigns. That was a problem.

The province may have closed this loophole by banning corporate and union donations altogether, but it has opened a conceivably far larger one by allowing these very entities to act as third-party advertisers.

"I'm totally puzzled as to the motivation, because in all of the discussion leading up to the amendments in the Municipal Elections Act, I didn't hear any mention of the introduction of third-party campaign finance," said Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Tobi Nussbaum.

Here's how the new third-party advertising rules work:

A third party can only advertise in favour of, or against, a candidate. This third party is supposed to be completely independent of the candidate, a rule that will be virtually impossible to police.

Any individual, corporation or union can register as a third party. A third party can spend a maximum of $25,000, which is an enormous amount considering that candidates' spending limits are usually around $30,000, depending on the size of the ward, while the mayor's is about $500,000.

Any money spent by a third party advertiser is not included in the spending limits of individual candidates. On top of that, corporations and unions  can donate up to $1,200 toward any third party advertiser, and the identity of the donors won't be known until the finances are made public in March 2019 — five months after the election. 

25 signatures needed, but no one checks them

Elected officials have long complained it's too easy for frivolous candidates to enter the race.

To mitigate that, the new rules call for candidates to gather 25 signatures from people who are eligible to vote in the same municipality. The bar is so low it is't unlikely to stop any frivolous campaigner, especially as the signatories aren't promising to vote for the person — they're simply providing an autograph.

The new rule acts as more of a nuisance to those who are serious about running.

No one checks whether the signatures are valid. And if, somehow, someone discovers a signature isn't valid, there are zero consequences. According to the provincial election guidelines, if a candidate finds out that "a person (or persons) was not eligible … you will not lose your nomination."

Clerk to look over financial contributions

In previous elections, candidates filed their campaign finance records and it was up to their opponent, activists and the media to figure out whether any rules were broken. 

Starting in the 2018 election, the city clerk will have to look over the records, which are due next March. If he — Ottawa's city clerk is currently Rick O'Connor — sees anything he thinks might be amiss, he's supposed to flag it to a specially formed group known as the elections finance compliance audit committee for further investigation.

This sounds like a good idea. But it also means that because the clerk will be the one reviewing candidates' election finances later on, neither he nor his office can give candidates any advice on how to interpret elections finance rules during the campaign.

For new candidates in particular, that could be a problem.

"Some of the new rules haven't been tested," said Christine McAllister, who's planning to run in Capital ward. "So there's no precedent. If you need a interpretation, you might not be able to get one. Trying to find that reasonable interpretation might be a bit challenging".

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.

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