BY Michele Lawson, STAFF   March 18, 2010 06:03

BARRIE – Municipal election contributions by developers, corporations and unions should be banned, according to a report from a coalition of environmentalist groups and individuals interested in the preservation of Lake Simcoe.
“Why should those not permitted to vote in a municipality be permitted to influence an election outcome?” said Bob Eisenberg, founding chair and director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, and co-chair of Campaign Lake Simcoe.
“As long as candidates who distinguish between optimum growth and maximum growth find it relatively difficult to attract campaign financing, we will not control urban sprawl or stop the impoverishment of our environmental heritage.”
The report Money and Politics in Simcoe County: Shining a Light on Municipal Election Financing, was released March 17 by the Toronto-based Environmental Defence on behalf of Campaign Lake Simcoe, an alliance it serves in conjunction with the non-profit Ontario Nature and the Rescue lake Simcoe Coalition.
The development industry, including contractors, law firms and planning consultants working for developers, gave 43 per cent of all contributions to elected councillors, said the report, citing election statistics in five area municipalities.
More than half those contributions (58 per cent) came from outside the municipalities in which they were applied.
“The biggest problem with this is that it looks bad and leads the public to question the decisions (of elected officials),” said Dr. Michael Johns, a Laurentian University assistant professor of political science at Georgian College.
He also said those wanting to manipulate the system will do so despite imposed restrictions.
Instead, he suggests candidates increase the transparency of their funding relationships, and municipalities publicize contribution details sooner (it now takes months), so voters can judge for themselves before the election.
“With access to the Internet, we could have this information in five minutes,” he said.
“Council almost never makes decisions that can directly benefit one company or another, with the exception of decisions on development approvals,” said Ward 2 Coun. Jeff Lehman. He said he refrained from accepting developer dollars in his 2006 campaign and is continuing that policy in his current run for mayor.
“I think it creates a public perception of conflict when a large portion of a candidate’s funding comes from the development community, particularly from developers who are not from Barrie.
“I also think that with the decisions that the next council is going to make concerning growth in the annexation area, this is doubly important in this election.”
Barrie Mayor Dave Aspden did accept donations for his successful 2006 mayoral campaign. And in 2007, he also took a secretive trip to China with landowners/developers with extensive property holdings in Barrie and Innisfil, who also contributed to his election campaign.
An OPP investigation into the matter at the request of city council, did not lead to criminal charges.
The report also recommends campaign donations be restricted to qualified electors, as well as in number and value. It also urges the value of paid volunteer labour be included as an employer contribution.
“The sprawling pattern of development in the 905-region should make us think hard about the influence of development dollars,” said York University’s Robert MacDermid, a well-known municipal election financing expert and a contributor to the report.
The full report is available here.