29 Sep 10 Point Agenda for Cleaning Up Elections
Our government is only as good as our democratic process and, frankly, our election campaigns in Halifax could be much better. I commit to making 10 changes on Council to restore people’s trust in the system.
On nomination day, fully one quarter of our districts were simply awarded to incumbents because no one ran against them. Some Councillors have sat in their position for decades, depriving Halifax of fresh representation and new ideas. Being an elected representative is public service, not a career.
A pattern has emerged in which Councillors who receive donations from one group more consistently vote in favour of that group’s interests. All of these issues highlight the need for change, and I intend to deliver solutions.
1. No donations from special interests.
On numerous recent occasions, Council has made decisions that benefited developers at the expense of the public interest. In one of the worst cases, Council voted to allow 10 story buildings in a leafy residential area on Wellington Street, against the advice of the local Councillor, local residents, city staff, and the planning advisory committee.
Shockingly, Councillors who voted for it received more than five times as much money, per Councillor, from developers than those who voted against it. Shortly after the decision was made, the landowner sold the property for 4.6 million dollars more than he had bought it for, thanks to the new development rights Council had given him.
Councillors should not be taking donations from companies and then voting on those companies’ proposals at Council. The perceived conflict of interest is too great. To help you vote, I have put together a list of Council Candidates who will take no donations from developers.
2. Replace discretionary funds with participatory budgeting.
With four incumbents acclaimed because no one ran against them, one quarter of our districts will have no democratic election this year. Our system is structured in favour of incumbents so heavily that it discourages good candidates from even trying.
One major problem is that Councillors can award $94,000 each year from their District Capital Funds at their own discretion. Added up, Councillors give out a combined six million dollars over a 4-year term. Since it is at the Councillor’s discretion, it seems like the money comes from their personal generosity, rather than from taxpayers.
It is time to end this “re-elect me fund.” All District Capital Funds should be distributed through participatory budgeting, as has been adopted by Councillors Waye Mason, Jennifer Watts and Lorelei Nicoll, or some arms-length process. That way, the money that comes from the community is distributed by the community.
3. Establish Term Limits.
Incumbents running for re-election have sat on Council a combined 124 years. Some have held their position since amalgamation. It is time for fresh faces.
Without a renewal of leadership and a diversity of voices, Halifax can’t take on new challenges. Over the last four years, the majority of new ideas and initiatives have come from Councillors who have sat for less than three terms. New Councillors must work hard to win their seat and to come up with proposals to define their candidacy. In contrast, the strong name-recognition and free media publicity of long-serving incumbents grants them an enormous advantage in municipal elections.
If elected, I will work to establish a two-term limit for Councillors. Eight years is enough to accomplish a platform. Once done, it is time to let someone else step forward with a new set of priorities.
4. Establish Spending and Donation Limits.
Last election, all but five winning Council candidates raised less than $10,000. One winning candidate, however, raised nearly $20,000, and the Mayor raised over $300,000.
We need to ensure a level playing field in which people from all communities have the potential to run and win elections. A spending limit (a reasonable amount might be $12,000) for Council candidates would allow the vast majority of them to maintain their current budget, while preventing excessive expenditures that could drown out new voices.
The amount that any one person can give should also be limited. Right now, someone with millions of dollars could very well decide who will sit on our next Council. A worthy candidate should have to earn the support from many donors. A limit between $500 and $1,000 per individual seems reasonable given where the federal and provincial contribution caps are.
5. No donations from abroad.
Considering our current lack of spending and donation limits, it is especially crazy that someone from outside Canada would be allowed to donate to our campaigns. No one from abroad should be able to have that much influence over our democracy. This one is obvious: let’s plug this hole.
6. Report Campaign Spending.
Mayor Savage himself has pointed out that nothing in the current rules would have prevented him from using the $300,000 he raised last election on whatever he wished.
At the provincial and federal levels, there are stringent rules for how donations may be spent and how that must be reported. In Halifax, the only thing candidates must do is report donations over $50. Halifax residents deserve to know that donations are spent appropriately and they don’t contribute to anyone’s Hawaiian vacation.
7. Establish a lobbyist registry.
Would you like to know who is meeting with your elected officials? Paid lobbyists work to influence decision-makers on all kinds of issues, from contracts to property rights. Everyone, including paid lobbyists, should have access to decision-makers, but to ensure transparency, it is standard practice at the provincial and federal levels to keep track of who is meeting with whom. We need not spend money on establishing our own registry. Nova Scotia already has a well-functioning system on which the municipality could piggy-back.
8. Better transparency at Council.
As recommended by the transparency group Right to Know (pdf), all of Council’s in camera sessions should be recorded and later released once an issue is deemed no longer sensitive. Councillors should know that they will be held accountable for how they vote on an issue, even if in the short-term, their reasons for voting are kept secret. Major decisions have been made in Halifax behind closed doors, such as not releasing the original staff report on Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes to the public, or the decision not to locate the Convention Centre on the Cogswell Interchange. The public deserves to find out why such decisions were made.
9. Cooling off period for Councillors and Senior Staff.
A retiring Councillor was recently offered a job by an organization whose issues he helped champion while on Council. Even if this hire is absolutely appropriate, it exposes a potential risk factor for corruption because it means companies can offer Councillors high-paying jobs in exchange for favourable decisions. Not even a year ago, Halifax’s CAO abruptly left and took a job with a development company, with whom he had negotiating a land deal in the weeks leading up to his surprise resignation. At the federal and provincial levels of government, decision-makers are barred from working for lobbyists for a period after they leave office. We should establish a cooling off period of at least a year in which time Councillors and Senior Staff cannot work for companies or organizations that lobby the municipality.
10. Allow non-citizen residents to vote.
My district has communities with a large number of immigrants and refugees. That means their neighbourhoods have a lower proportion of people who can vote, which risks reducing the influence they have on Councillors during election season. The fact that they cannot vote in municipal elections affects their neighbouring Canadian citizens as much as it affects them.
Some of these communities are the most directly affected by Council decisions because they rely heavily on transit, tenant protection and rules to keep housing affordable. While it may not be appropriate for non-citizens to vote at the national or provincial level, I believe it is a discussion we should have for municipal elections.
Building a better democracy should be the biggest election issue in 2016. The more residents we can engage in the democratic and the more transparency and accountability we can bring to the process, the more we can help rebuild people’s trust in our institutions and the officials who lead them. The health and credibility of our electoral process is at stake. I want to make Halifax the most democratic and vibrant city in Canada!
City Hall photo by Shawnee G.