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Why is Woodbridge a hot spot for Toronto campaign donations?

Woodbridge, Ont., may be about 40 kilometres north of Toronto’s City Hall, but its residents – like many Ontarians outside Toronto – were heavily invested in the city’s past mayoral election.


Woodbridge, Ont., may be about 40 kilometres north of Toronto's City Hall, but its residents – like many Ontarians outside Toronto – were heavily invested in the city's past mayoral election. That financial backing, however, is raising questions about a program that provides rebates to out-of-towners for their campaign donations.

According to data collected through the city's contribution rebate program, people within the L4L postal code donated about $82,672 for Rob Ford's run, an amount that trumps the $60,985 he raised in M9W – North Etobicoke – and the $57,850 to George Smitherman's campaign for mayor.

Why is Woodbridge such a contribution hot spot? According to veteran political fundraiser Ralph Lean, a lot of people in Woodbridge have a stake in who is running Toronto.

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"You take a look and a lot of developers that do major work in Toronto, many have a home or office in Woodbridge. They have a lot of business interests in Toronto and are an affluent community," said Mr. Lean, who co-chaired the fundraising team for Mr. Smitherman and was a fundraiser for mayor David Miller in 2006.

Ontarians, both outside and inside Toronto, who write cheques from $25 to $2,500 for municipal candidates are eligible for the city's contribution rebate program, which returns to contributors up to 75 per cent of their donation. The city believes the program will cost $4.8-million in the 2014 election.

But the practice of rebating those who live outside the city is currently under fire. In May, Councillor Joe Mihevc put forward a motion to end the rebate for out-of-towners: Anyone who doesn't live or own property in Toronto would not be eligible for the rebate, starting with the 2018 election. The issue heads to the executive committee on July 2.

"If we, as Canadians, donate to an election in another country without being citizens, I think most of us would say that's not fair." said Mr. Mihevc.

"That's why I put forward the motion to recognize that this is our business as Torontonians."

The motion didn't name Rob Ford outright, but it did note that one candidate did manage to raise more than $600,000 from outside the city in 2010. In the 2010 election, Mr. Ford raised $623,971.73 from contributions that came from outside of Toronto, or about a third of the $1,862,711.84 tallied in the contribution rebate data (the issue was first publicized in a report by Press Progress).

Mr. Smitherman, who raised $2,141,168 in total, saw $716,576 come from beyond Toronto, which works out to about a third of the total as well.

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While Woodbridge proved to be fertile fundraising grounds in 2010, it was not alone. Several of Toronto's bedroom communities are home to plenty of individuals willing to donate to politicians who won't, technically, be their mayor. Mr. Ford's first fundraiser was scheduled to take place in Vaughan but was postponed when he entered rehab. And the practice isn't limited to the 905 – funds came in from as far away as Bracebridge, Ottawa and Windsor in 2010.

Mr. Lean said his teams never scrutinized where the donation money was coming from.

"It was never, in my experience, that much of a bonus to focus on the rebate. People that were giving, were giving. I never looked to see if it was someone from out of town," he said.

"If you own a business in Toronto or work in Toronto, I can see how you're affected by things like transportation or garbage collection and other issues, and you might want to make a contribution."

Funds from outside the 416 were less pronounced in the 2006 campaign. Mr. Miller amassed $1,029,300.50 in total, according to the rebate data, with about $199,784, or 19 per cent, coming from outside the city. Mr. Lean said it's harder to raise the funds following the 2009 move to outlaw donations from unions and corporations. Mayoral hopefuls can only collect from individuals who can give up to $2,500 each. He also believes the nearly 10-month-long campaign for mayor makes fundraising more of a challenge.

"The longer you have a campaign, the more money it costs," he said.

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While mayoral candidate Olivia Chow has pledged to shorten the mayoral campaign period if elected, David Soknacki, also a candidate in the current race, disagrees. Mr. Soknacki has said candidates without celebrity power would not be able to get their message out and fundraise adequately if the time frame were to be shortened. Mr. Soknacki is supportive of Mr. Mihevc's motion, given its implications for Toronto taxpayers.

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