Editorial: Money talks, transparency walks

By Jordyn Marcellus

Perhaps money talks after all.

After a weekend of closed-door meetings with land developers, city council has removed an important density guideline from Plan It Calgary, the city’s 60-year plan for urban development. The CBC quoted alderman Druh Farrell expressing her sadness that citizens were not brought into the discussion between the city and the land development industry that produced these compromises.

Now, this in itself is a frustrating development for local political activists looking to help reduce the city’s incredible sprawl. But as Fast Forward reporter Jeremy Klaszus explained on his blog, there are some questions which will surely help to stoke conspiracies about Plan It’s gutting.

Historically, land development companies have been a major player in municipal politics. In the 2004 election, Mayor Dave Bronconnier received approximately $150,000 of $673,498 — approximately 22 per cent of his total contributions — from various development agencies. Some of them, like Ottawa-based Trinity Development Group, which donated $7,250, were based outside Alberta.

Bronconnier, in a 2007 FFWD piece written by Klaszus, explained these types of donations were a long-standing tradition. Developers gave cash to almost all candidates, especially incumbents. Bronconnier was also quoted saying, “The development industry is interested in what happens at city hall.”

This quote is chilling in the context of what occurred over the weekend. Fundamentally, there are few rules when it comes to campaign donations. City council members, including the mayor, can legally receive campaign contributions at any time. There are no caps on donations either. Candidates need only disclose these contributions come election time. In other words, Calgarians won’t know who gave money to whom until the fall 2010 election. Even then, candidates do not have to disclose the exact date of these contributions, just who gave it and how much.

Klaszus explained in the 2007 piece how vague and inconsistent the reporting is, too. Mayor Bronconnier received a donation from “Graham” — just Graham, that’s it — while former Ward 6 Alderman Craig Burrows received a donation from “Brichwood Prop” (sic).

This is troublesome in and of itself. What’s even more problematic is a very simple thing which has some real worrisome consequences — if an alderman chooses to not run again, they can pocket whatever campaign funds they have left. That’s right: from a single dollar to 25 grand, a municipal candidate can keep whatever they’ve raised for their personal use if they so chose.

Calgary is the only city in Canada to have that particular rule about surplus campaign funds.

It’s important to reiterate last weekend’s meeting was closed to the public. As Farrell explained, no citizens were involved. There was absolutely no transparency in this at all. Calgarians cannot, and should not, say there was a payoff or bribery to kill off the less developer-friendly aspects of Plan It. We also cannot say definitively that this decision was done on the up-and-up either. There is the potential for shenanigans and this is the problem Calgarians will continue to face without campaign finance reform.

It’s simple. City council needs to enact bylaws which bring greater transparency to the process. The spectre of payoff is great when council negotiates legislation in closed-door meetings with deep-pocketed parties. With some simple reporting consistency guidelines, as well as a more restricted donation time frame, these issues can be put on the back burner. Until then, the worrying taint of municipal corruption is a very real possibility.


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