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The municipal candidate had a question for Brian Patterson: Can someone running for city council get his hands on party computer programs that incorporate federal or provincial voters lists?

Specifically, the candidate wanted to know if he could get access to massive databases, called CIMS (constituent information/issue management system), that the federal and provincial parties use to store information about voters, including lists of electors that are protected by law.

"CIMS is a copyrighted computer program of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party and the party can't give it out because we have a contractual obligation with a guy in British Columbia," Mr. Patterson replied.

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"But if someone gives you a copy of CIMS in your local campaign, we can't stop you from calling up your local guys that you work [with]on the executives of [riding associations]if you can get it off them. You know, 'Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,' " he said. "... you never heard me say this - and I'll deny it in a room full of lawyers - that if you can somehow get it, you know, we don't care."

With the vote to elect Ontario's civic leaders just two months away, Conservatives at both upper levels of government are doing their best to help what the campaign-college brochure calls "conservative-minded individuals" get into the chairs around municipal council tables.

The effort can pay dividends to the candidates and to the political parties that win friends and earn favours from people with influence in their communities.

Municipal elections in Ontario - unlike those in British Columbia or Quebec - are officially non-partisan. But politics in this country is never truly free of party influence.

The candidate school, which was co-chaired by Progressive Conservative MPP Steve Clark and Conservative MP Patrick Brown, was held at a Toronto hotel on a Saturday morning in July.

It was an invitation-only affair. But someone in the room secretly taped the speakers and passed the recordings along to the federal Liberals, who shared them with The Globe and Mail.

The event attracted some high-profile speakers, including federal Trade Minister Peter Van Loan and his chief of staff, Sandra Buckler, who was once the communications director for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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Federal and provincial parties are not legally permitted to contribute, either money or any other type of benefit, to an Ontario municipal campaign.

But there is nothing wrong with offering a little advice. And the Progressive Conservatives say they have a long history of running campaign colleges for people who share their commitment to fiscal responsibility and accountability.

In this case, Mr. Patterson's advice was a little too free-wheeling for the provincial party.

"We absolutely do not share our lists," said Alan Sakach, a spokesman for the Ontario PCs. "In fact, we wouldn't hesitate to consult with legal counsel if there were ever a potential of someone who was trying to misuse the list."

While Mr. Patterson was clear that the parties cannot and will not provide any lists, Mr. Sakach said, "he has been strongly advised that any comments suggesting otherwise, even in jest, were inappropriate."

Marlene Jennings, a Liberal MP, said she was "taken aback" by Mr. Patterson's statements.

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"It was basically him giving the carte blanche to the candidates to try to get their hands on the voter tracking lists which [are compiled by]Elections Canada and saying 'You're not allowed to have it but, if you get it, use it,' " she said.

As for the campaign school itself, Ms. Jennings said that is something that, to her knowledge, the Liberals never do.

But providing assistance to municipal candidates can pay off in the long run for provincial and federal parties.

Andrew Sancton, an expert in municipal politics who teaches at the University of Western Ontario, said reciprocity is a given. Municipal candidates and their network of friends will help during provincial and federal campaigns if they get assistance when cities go to the polls.

Mr. Van Loan sees the co-operation as a sort of farm-team system.

"We know we have to turn around this province and we will of course do the next step, which will be looking for good candidates, a lot of whom will be from municipal councils," he told the campaign- school participants.

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Mr. Clark, a former mayor of Brockville, Ont., said he believes the assistance offered to candidates at the campaign school is an invaluable learning experience.

One of the participants asked Ms. Buckler what he should do when his local newspaper will not accept letters from candidates.

"Have your campaign manager write it," she replied. "You have your wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, child, next door neighbour, treasurer .... And I'm a fan of letters to the editor, it's good to have them printed, because then you can send them out as a campaign piece."

Ms. Jennings points out that this approach did not work very well for Helena Guergis.

Ms. Guergis, who was kicked out of the federal cabinet and the Conservative Party earlier this year, was heavily criticized because letters to a newspaper singing her praises were sent by riding association workers who did not identify themselves as such.

But, possible bad advice aside, Dr. Sancton said nothing is wrong with the federal and provincial parties helping municipal candidates. "That's the way political parties hold themselves together."

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