A suggestion that Halifax councillors who accept money from developers should stop voting on their proposed buildings has rekindled a debate over whether such campaign contributions could amount to a conflict of interest.
At last week's Halifax regional council meeting, a residents' group urged several Halifax councillors who have accepted campaign donations from developer Armco Capital Inc. to excuse themselves from discussions about a proposed condo tower overlooking the Halifax Common.
Janet Stevenson – a member of the Willow Tree Group, named for a nearby intersection – said she's concerned by the practice of accepting donations from developers. She said even a perceived conflict of interest erodes the public's confidence and trust.
"I think if they weren't accepting donations, no one would be questioning their integrity. It's a very easy fix – don't accept donations," Ms. Stevenson said. Council voted Tuesday to send the 20-storey building to a public hearing.
There are currently no rules surrounding corporate or union campaign donations in the Halifax Regional Municipality, which is experiencing a condo building boom. However, council is currently reviewing its campaign finance regulations.
Elsewhere in the country, there are a patchwork of regulations. Ontario moved last year to ban corporate and union contributions in that province's municipalities, while there are no limitations in British Columbia.
Only individual donations are allowed in federal campaigns and they are capped at $1,550, although candidates are allowed to give a maximum of $5,000 to themselves.
Andrew Sancton, a retired political science professor from Western University in London, Ont., said it's a complicated issue because it's more difficult for municipal politicians – especially those without a political party and those in smaller cities and towns – to raise money for their campaigns.
"They need money to run a campaign and where are they going to get it from? If there were a whole bunch of spirited citizens, ordinary people who wanted to give money, fine," Mr. Sancton said.
"But people that own taxi cab companies, that are involved in the outside advertising business, and developers, these are people who have an interest in municipal politics. So it's not surprising they are more willing to give money than the ordinary people. Once you cut off those people, where would the money would come from?"
Mr. Sancton said individuals would have more incentive to donate to municipal politicians if they received a tax credit, as they do at the provincial and federal levels.
Christopher Cotton, a professor of economics at Queen's University in Kingston, said the public is generally not as informed about campaign contributions at the municipal level, so regulations have been slow to change. He believes local governments should look at bringing in more restrictive rules.
Halifax Councillor Steve Streatch, who has accepted corporate campaign contributions since entering politics two decades ago, said he does not see it as problematic. He received $1,000 from Armco Capital Inc. in last year's election – one of the largest donations to his $8,150 campaign.
Mr. Streatch said the Willow Group's assertion that he should excuse himself from the Armco tower debate was insulting.
"It was an insult not only to my integrity but to that of my colleagues and to the process," he said.
Halifax Councillor Waye Mason said development has accelerated in Halifax, and that has brought the issue of corporate campaign contributions to the forefront.
"People feel like they've lost control over how their neighbourhood is being developed and it doesn't help to see elected officials during an election taking money from those corporations," said Mr. Mason, who vowed during last year's election to only accept donations from individuals and raised more than $20,000 – the most of any councillor.
"I respect that when you're a smaller municipality, the rules can be looser because there's a big difference between being a full-time or part-time councillor or representing a couple hundred or a couple thousand people … But for us, this city has grown to a point that I feel we need to have rules more like other larger cities that are more aligned with what you see provincially and federally."