Spending caps a good idea: North Cowichan mayoral rivals

A provincial push to limit elections spending by municipal candidates is a good idea, but any regulations need to be carefully thought through.

That’s the view of John Koury, who topped the spending in last fall’s municipal elections in the Valley, shelling out $24,361 in his attempt to reach the mayor’s chair in North Cowichan. In the official disclosures published by Elections BC this week, the successful mayoralty candidate, Jon Lefebure, said he spent $21,975 on his campaign.

Even third-place Damir Wallener spent $8,519 on his campaign, still more than any other candidate for any office in the Cowichan Valley.

Meanwhile, Duncan Mayor Phil Kent performed his magic with very little money in the smaller community. He only spent $995 while runner-up Peter Lockhart Gordon shelled out $3,978 trying to get elected.

According to Black Press reporter, Tom Fletcher, a Legislature committee on local election spending has suggested "candidates for a council seat in a small community should be able to spend no more than $10,000 to run for mayor and $5,000 for a council or school board seat."

There’s more, Fletcher said. "For larger communities, a population-based formula would limit a mayoral campaign for a city of 150,000 residents to just under $90,000, with other municipal candidates limited to half that. The formula would limit a candidate for mayor of Victoria, population 80,000, to just over $50,000, while Surrey’s population of 470,000 would mean a cap of $180,000 to run for mayor.

"The small-town limits apply to communities up to 10,000 residents. For larger ones, mayoral candidates would be limited to $1 per capita for the first 15,000 people, 55 cents per capita up to 150,000, 60 cents per capita for 150,000 to 200,000 and only 15 cents for communities larger than that."

The idea is to make running for office accessible and affordable no matter the size of the community.

The spending limits still have to be endorsed by the legislature, but so far the B.C. Liberal and NDP members of the committee have endorsed them unanimously, Fletcher said.

More specific limits for thirdparty advertisers might also be on the way.

Koury, who followed a stint on North Cowichan council with his run at the mayor’s chair, said that he likes the idea of limiting spending.

He said the Canadian federal

government "probably has one of the most robust election expense regimes in the world. I think we should follow the lead of the feds and look at a formula that limits municipal election spending. It’s different from the federal situation, of course, because from one municipality to the next you have different-sized populations. Federal ridings are basically 100,000 people per riding; we have 308 seats to reflect about 30 million people. They have what works out to be about a $1 a person figure. I like that figure."

When Koury ran federally in 2011, his spending cap in 2011 worked out to about $1 per resident – not voter, but resident. Koury agreed that the provincial committee’s idea was "quite a bit less" than his idea, and doesn’t recognize that some costs are built in everywhere.

"It doesn’t seem appropriate.

Coming up with the formula will require care and consideration. My advertising costs wouldn’t be any different if I were trying to promote my mayoral advocacy in the City of Duncan or North Cowichan. Obviously there’s a huge difference in population between the two but the cost of advertising is the same."

There’s a lot to be considered when it comes to spreading the word about a candidate.

"You’ve got newspaper advertising, and different things like direct mail and rack cards: it doesn’t matter from one jurisdiction to the next, these costs are roughly the same. Then, in a tighter market, where there’s radio and all kinds of different media, all of that needs to be explored, too. To a point.

"If you make it fair by putting in some kind of formula that caps it, that forces campaign teams into wise spending. A cap means more attention to detail."

Koury said that his campaign expenses in the 2014 municipal election "worked out to about $1 a constituent.

"There are about 27,000 residents in North Cowichan and I spent about $25,000. And the mayor who won spent roughly the same," he pointed out.

"We prove to ourselves, Jon Lefebure and I, that this is the cost it takes to run an effective campaign as a front runner in the race. Anyone can run but if you want to be in the game, you need to be able to resource your campaign to meet the efforts of your closest competitor."

Provincial officials have been thinking it might be time to limit third-party spending, too, and Koury said that’s certainly worth a look.

"I completely agree that that can get carried away

when special interests start to get involved. For instance, if unions or the corporate world start donating large amounts of money, it could easily run into a disproportionate amount of spending for the community that you are trying to serve," he said.

"I do believe there has to be an examination on what the working formula is. I think a $1 per citizen formula is a good place to start from."

Lefebure said that had the recommended spending limits been in place for the fall’s elections would have been unlikely to have cut his spending.

"It sounds to me like that number off the top of my head works out to about $22,000. The number which was originally put in the paper was higher than we actually spent. We put in a bunch of money of our own but it wasn’t all spent. We spent about $19,000," he said.

Even that was higher than expected because of a social media campaign, according to Lefebure.

The mayor said he has no problem at all with the limits "as long as we have everybody playing under the same rules."

It could also benefit some candidates, he said.

"There are people, obviously, who can’t afford to spend anywhere near that kind of money so I’m very comfortable with there being limits on spending."

Lefebure said it’s time for such a move.

"Things have gotten more aggressive at the local government level. The numbers have been getting higher, including mine."

However, he’s not sure about all the details.

"They got a little crazy over having to have your name on all the signs and all the myriad details and having to place some kind of a value on your old signs but maybe in some of the bigger markets that was a bigger factor. The limits to campaign funding, I can understand, though."

Third party advertisers have not been a big factor locally but Lefebure ran into a situation in his campaign.

"One of our supporters wanted to put an ad in the paper just on her own and mention me. That was all of a sudden a third party ad and she had to fill out forms and so on. I guess if you are looking at the bigger cities, it could be something really significant. I haven’t seen much need for it here but maybe as a precaution if you didn’t take note of it there would be an opportunity for a candidate to use that as a way to bypass a cap on expenditures."

With files from Tom Fletcher

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