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City Hall Shocker - But Maybe Not Really

For about twelve years, I’ve wanted to discuss the idea overhauling of the way we finance municipal political campaigns but haven’t found my fellow Councillors very interested. It’s not that they don’t want fair elections, but it’s human nature to think in terms of ‘what would be most fair to me, and by extension, everyone else?’ as opposed to ‘what would make things most fair in the race between me and my challengers?’.

We have fiddled around the edges under the powers vested in us by the City of Toronto Act but the same old rebate system for donations still exists. We never discuss it with you, our community whose right to a fair election is most important, because it seems awkward and self-interested. In an election year when people turn their minds to these matters, we are not allowed to talk about such things in a Councillor newsletter. It never seems to be the right time even though the funding of campaigns can have a greater impact on your democracy than any other part of our election system. After the shocking removal from office of a Councillor last week for campaign expenditure infractions, we’ve got to talk about it.

In Ontario, municipal elections are governed under the Provincial legislation known as the Municipal Elections Act (MEA). The MEA has been reviewed regularly but no reviews has ever truly leveled the playing field in local politics. There is a ban on donations from corporations and unions and the period of time in which fundraising can be done has been reduced. These tweaks make for a more stringent set of election practices but they do little to ease the steep hill to climb for first-time candidates. One could argue that shortening the time frame has made things even harder for those candidates.

Currently, if you donated $100 to any candidate in the 2018 City Hall election, you’ve had 2019 to sign a rebate form and will finally receive your $75 rebate check in January 2020. But what if we flipped that system so that you only had to donate $25 to the candidate of your choice and then s/he gave documented proof of your donation to the City Clerk to receive a grant for $75 up front to invest in the campaign? The math is the same, but how does it change fairness and democracy.

In Toronto’s rebate system, you need to raise the whole cost of your campaign from donors in six months. Some go after the largest donors wherever they can, particularly now that wards are twice the size. An incumbent or experienced candidate will have a much easier time doing this. In a grant system, candidates can focus on local supporters with small donations and end up with the same amount of money once they have received their grants from the Clerk. This forces big money out of what should be very local races fought based on local interested, ward by ward.

You are always going to be better represented if your local politician is more beholden to the local community members who paid $25 to go to a fundraising Bowl-A-Thon than s/he would be to the attendees of a swanky downtown steakhouse dinner costing $1200. Moreover, the candidates you will have to choose from changes radically once potential candidates know that they can enter municipal politics with nothing but very local, grassroots support.

While federal politics in the United States may be struggling because of the big money amassed in fundraising ‘Super Pacs’, something different is happening at the local level in 27 different US counties, towns and cities, including New York City. Over the past couple of decades, they have moved over to campaign grant financing. In most of these jurisdictions, the much easier grant fundraising scheme comes with strict conditions such as pre-election day audits of your books and pre-election public disclosure of campaign donors.

In New York City, multiple audits during the campaign year give all candidates regular exposure to the local campaign finance authority board. Because they receive guidance throughout the election year from this Board, few candidates find themselves in an awkward Campaign Compliance investigation after the election, as happens with shocking regularity in Toronto. The unfortunate situation that happened to Councillor Karygiannis last week wouldn’t be likely to happen in the NYC model: an Authority Auditor would take another look at his filings shortly after the election and the exact limit of further, post-election spending would have been handed to his auditor.


An excerpt from the website of the New York City Campaign Finance Board

The Campaign Finance Board is a nonpartisan, independent city agency that empowers New Yorkers to make a greater impact on their elections.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) administers one of the strongest, most effective campaign finance systems in the country. NYC’s matching funds program amplifies the voice of average New Yorkers in city elections by matching their small contributions with public funds. By increasing the value of small-dollar contributions, the program reduces the possibility and perception of corruption from large contributions and unlimited campaign spending, and encourages citizens from all walks of life to run for office. Through its rigorous oversight and enforcement efforts, the CFB holds candidates accountable for using public funds responsibly.


Recently, at a meeting of the City of Toronto Special Committee on Governance, I moved a motion that staff study the NYC model and others to see if this would make a more fair municipal election now that we have 25 super-sized Wards. The motion failed on a tie, as did my additional motion on moving to a system of ranked ballots. Councillors don’t like change any more than the rest of the human race.

I’ve been honoured to be a Councillor for a long time. I strongly believe that it is incumbent upon me, as a senior Councillor, to do everything I can to make local elections more transparent, more fair to all candidates and able to deliver the best government possible to you. I’ll try those motions again at full Council at the end of the month.

A Footnote on Havenbrook Park:

Recently, we have received a lot of questions about the possibility of an off-leash Dog Park in a portion of Havenbrook Park. City Staff are still reviewing the location. In the meantime, I have prepared an update page for my website. You can have a look at


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