Ottawa votes: Municipal candidate throws down gauntlet on campaign-donor transparency

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This was published in the Ottawa Citizen on Sept. 27.

A municipal candidate has made the rare decision to make public her campaign donors before the election and she’s encouraging more council hopefuls across the city to do the same.

Raylene Lang-Dion, who’s vying for the council seat for Alta Vista ward, published on Wednesday her donations received as of that point in the campaign.

Dion was actually preempting an expected move by Alta Vista incumbent Jean Cloutier, who vowed to post his donors on Oct. 17. He made the promise after cancelling a fundraising lunch at a steakhouse. Members of the development industry were asked to come to the lunch and were invited to make personal donations to Cloutier.

According to Dion, she wanted to “get ahead of things” after Cloutier challenged other Alta Vista candidates to also release donor identities on Oct. 17.

“I kind of thought, ‘What’s the wait for?’ I’d have no trouble with doing things in real time, to be honest,” Dion said. “It’s information that’s going to be in the public realm down the road, but why not do it sooner than later?”

Corporate and union donations are now banned in all Ontario municipal elections. People can still make up to $1,200 in personal donations to a single candidate, no matter what their corporate affiliations are. There’s a maximum of $5,000 in total donations to candidates running for council.

Lang-Dion said she’s hearing more questions from residents about influence on decision-makers at city hall.

“I just think the straighter you can be with people, the better off democracy is, the better off campaigns’ expectations are,” Lang-Dion said. “Just be honest. Lay it on out on the table.”

“I just think the straighter you can be with people, the better off democracy is.

Nothing compels election candidates to publish their donations before the vote.

Provincial law says municipal election campaigns end on Dec. 31, 2018. That means all candidates can continue receiving donations after the Oct. 22 election, and even after the first day of the council term on Dec. 1. Candidates with campaign deficits at the end of December can extend their campaign until July 2, 2019.

Residents won’t get a full picture of campaign contributions until long after the election. Candidates don’t have to submit their financial forms until March 29, 2019, and those who have extended their campaigns don’t have to file a supplementary form until Sept. 27, 2019.

Lang-Dion disclosed $26,400 in individual donations worth $100 or more, plus another $6,170 in donations not exceeding $100 per donor. The individual donations of $100 or more must come with details of the donor and value of donations.

Lang-Dion said she hasn’t yet considered the timelines under which she would disclose more of her donors, but that more names would be published ahead of Oct. 17 and potentially for the rest of the campaign period.

“If I didn’t, I’d only be taking the race halfway. I wouldn’t be going the full length. So, why not?” she said.

(Lang-Dion’s husband, Patrick Dion, is a consultant who represents clients who do business with city hall. She has committed to not knowingly accepting campaign donations from his clients or their industry “peers,” such as developers).

While rare, an Ottawa municipal’s candidate’s decision to release his or her donors isn’t unprecedented. Former councillor Alex Cullen released his donor list before his 2010 re-election bid in Bay ward. He lost to the current councillor, Mark Taylor.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and adjunct political science and law professor at the University of Ottawa, said disclosing the source of donations should be required of candidates ahead of municipal elections, especially since it’s not difficult to do.

“It’s a key part of deciding whether you want to support someone or not, knowing who has supported them and may have given a big enough donation to buy influence with them,” Conacher said.

Being transparent about campaign donations can also be a good marketing for candidates before an election, Conacher said.

“It’s a good thing to do, especially if you’re only supported by small donations and your opponent is supported by big money,” he said.

The new provincewide ban on corporate and union donations in municipal elections is a “charade” because corporate and union connections to donors are masked, Conacher said.

He suggested knocking down the maximum individual donation to $100 to prevent several individuals tied to one organization from making a major financial impact on a campaign.

“The changes that the Ontario government made both at the provincial level and the municipal level have just obscured big money,” Conacher said. “They haven’t stopped big money.”