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Concerns raised about rules that saw Calgary election advertising donations redacted

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More than $2 million was raised by third-party advertisers ahead of Calgary's municipal election. As Adam MacVicar reports, city officials have redacted the names of the donors behind that money – May 30, 2022

Millions of dollars were spent on Calgary’s last municipal election, and a select few people know exactly where that money came from.

That’s after Elections Calgary redacted the names of donors to third-party advertisers (TPA) for a freedom of information request for the TPA election finances.

But changes could be coming as part of the election review process.

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Global News received election finance statements for eight of the nine TPAs registered for last fall’s election. Only one did not have donor information redacted.

A statement said the city requested consent from the TPAs before releasing the financial records, as part of their obligations under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

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“The city was advised by the TPAs that their individual contributors were not advised their information could be publicly disclosed. As such, third-party, personal and business information was redacted,” the statement said.

One Calgary political scientist said the lack of transparency of who is donating to produce election advertising for or against candidates and issues is a problem for the state of local democracy.

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“Democracy is about being at least able to understand what those influences might be, and to some degree, to curtail them,” Mount Royal University policy studies associate professor Lori Williams said.

“This seems to go against the spirit of the law, which was meant to provide disclosure that would be available to the public.”

During the municipal election, candidates had to disclose their donors’ names and amounts after votes were cast, as required by the Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA).

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And for TPAs operating at a provincial level, their donors are disclosed to the public by Elections Alberta every quarter.

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Mayor Jyoti Gondek was flummoxed by the lack of donor transparency.

“All of us that ran in the election had to disclose who our donors were,” she told reporters on Monday. “I find it very odd that third-party advertisers don’t have to do the same.

“Seems like a big mistake.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs said if information is not routinely reported by municipalities, FOIP requests can be made under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“There is no mandatory requirement that registered third-party advertisers be publicly disclosed or listed on a municipality’s website,” Scott Johnston said in an email.

Elections Calgary to recommend LAEA amendment

Late Monday afternoon, Elections Calgary said it would raise concerns about TPA donor disclosure with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs as part of a post-election review.

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“When this engagement occurs, Elections Calgary will recommend that the LAEA be amended to provide that TPA registration and disclosure statements be made routinely available to the public, mirroring the provisions in place for public access to candidate nomination papers and candidate disclosure statements,” the statement read.

Johnston said the ministry was preparing for the post-election review.

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“Although there are no plans for major changes to third-party advertising rules, one item under consideration relates to the possibility of requiring third-party advertisers that are focused on an issue (rather than one or more candidates) to follow the same rules as other third-party advertisers,” Johnston said in a Monday afternoon statement.

“We will be seeking feedback on this and other issues from Albertans and Alberta municipalities over the next several weeks.”

Williams laid out the scenario where an individual could donate the maximum personal donation amount of $5,000 and then also funnel up to $30,000 to anyone TPA for advertising in support of their favoured candidate, or against unwanted candidates.

“In other words, things that are happening to make the playing field uneven or to make it unfair for those who don’t have the advantage of deep-pocketed donors, the public doesn’t know about that unfairness and cannot make decisions based on that knowledge.”

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Calgary-Buffalo MLA Joe Ceci wants to see the TPA donation limits — which were raised in 2020 under the UCP government — lowered.

“If people are putting their money up, it should be clear who those people are, organizations are or businesses are,” Ceci said, adding it’s a “basic tenet” of democracy. “We should know who’s funding campaigns and hiding behind a third-party advertiser is not transparent and it’s not democratic.”

With a provincial election a year away, the former Calgary alderman said TPAs are an undeniable part of the election landscape in the province.

“I think third-party advertisers are here to stay. I think we can only regulate them, and I think we can do a better job of regulating them, though the UCP is not interested in that.”

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Ward 6 Coun. Richard Pootmans said the campaign finance system for TPAs is a “tremendously serious problem.”

“I think that the rules are in kindergarten, and I think we have to move to high school very, very quickly with this,” Pootmans told The Drive on 770 CHQR. “We’re nowhere, and I think that we’ve helped import the very worst of the American system and trying it locally.

“We’re paying a price for that and the price is public confidence in our elections.”

Behind the numbers

According to Global News calculations of TPA finance documents, $2.3 million was donated to the advertisers and they spent $2.1 million on the election.

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The median amount raised was $43,525 and the median TPA spend was $34,167.

Calgary’s Future raised and spent the most money, surpassing $1.6 million, with donations from unions representing City of Calgary workers. That was the only TPA to have its donors released, but no individual’s names were made public.

ABC PAC didn’t even meet the $1,000 threshold of having to register as a TPA under the Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA), raising and spending $625.

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While some TPAs like Look Forward spent $108,246 in support of a collection of candidates, Calgary Tomorrow supported only Jeff Davison in his bid for mayor, to the tune of around $275,000 after raising more than $422,000.

Williams said the fact more money was spent directly and indirectly on Davison’s campaign did not net him the mayorship — echoes of elections’ past — does not mean that money doesn’t talk during an election.

“There’s not a direct connection between donations and electoral success. But it does make a difference, it does have an influence, it can raise the profile of a candidate, it can give a very different impression of a candidate or just put them on the radar — whereas those with less money don’t have that same opportunity.”

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According to Global News calculations, Facebook netted more than one in six advertising dollars spent during the campaign period. Other expenses included print advertising and website costs.

Williams said transparency on the flow of dollars during an election is a vital part of fairness in Canadian democracy.

“It’s important for voters to know where the donations are coming from and where they are going so that they can make informed choices and decisions about how to vote,” Williams said. “Or for that matter, we can watch the decisions they make on council and ask questions about whether they are unduly influenced by a particular group or industry or individual.”

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