Muddle-headed editorial palaver

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There’s a muddle-headed editorial in this weekend’s Collingwood Connection titled “Citizens, not rich developers should drive political ship” (sic*) that shows (again) how little the chain’s editorial writers understand municipal politics and the laws that govern it. It opens:

Money talks and, in the case of municipal elections, one could argue that all of those cheques, banknotes and e-transfers going toward funding the war chests of various candidates have the potential to speak very loudly.

The writer clearly has never read the Ontario Municipal Elections Act which says in Section 71:

A contributor shall not make contributions exceeding a total of $750 to any one candidate in an election.

No one, whether they are the oh-so-scary “rich developer,” corporation, union or simply your retired neighbour, can contribute more than $750. That’s LESS than the cost of an iPhone. It’s less than the cost of winter tires. It’s much less than the cost of a good ukulele. And it’s a lot less than even the slimiest candidate would sell his or her soul for.

And in my experience through five campaigns, most of the donations are under that limit, be they from private citizens or developers.

Put it another way: to send a campaign flyer through unaddressed ad mail to every household in Collingwood costs about $3,500. Add in the cost to print 10,000+ colour flyers and you easily double that. Then add in taxes. A single $750 contribution covers about one tenth the cost of that single effort.

Sure money talks, but $750 just mumbles a bit under its breath.

Not that candidates don’t appreciate the support, but the law already doesn’t allow anyone to contribute a significant amount to a municipal campaign. Developers have no advantage over anyone else.

This notion that developers as a group – ooh, scary: rich developers even – are evil and corrupting politicians is a sorry, leftist misconception; a faded remnant of the pseudo-Marxist mumbo-jumbo from the Sixties. It demonizes a whole group.

Why would a $750 contribution from a developer be any more influential than the same amount from a firefighter? A downtown business owner? A property owner? A franchise operator? A teacher? A veterinarian? Everyone of them has a vested interest in their community. Developers are not special in that.

It’s only $750, tops, and even then it’s donated only once in four years.

The editorial adds:

…there exists a relationship between high election contributions from developers and councils that push for more growth. Another related finding is that higher developer contributions were seen in areas with more development activity going on, whereas development industry funding was lower in municipalities with the lowest building permit totals. With much of this money flowing in from outside a given municipality, the report warns decisions are being made to the benefit of corporate donors, which may not line up with what’s best for the community.

This is a bunch of malarkey and logical fallacies wrapped up in puerile ideological piffle. Let’s break it down:

…a relationship between high election contributions from developers and councils that push for more growth.

Growth fuels municipal economies. Every council pushes for growth because it feeds municipal coffers. Growth means more jobs, taxes, user fees. Growth means more customers for local businesses, more demand for commercial and retail space. Growth means better opportunities for federal and provincial funding. $750 won’t change that.

Sure, sprawl is bad growth and there are smarter, more efficient ways to manage growth, but there isn’t a single municipality in the province that doesn’t want growth.

Not to grow is to become stagnant and stale, while you watch costs and expenses outrun income. You keep raising taxes to keep pace. Which makes your municipality less and less attractive, so growth falters even more. People start looking elsewhere to locate their homes and businesses.

Who develops private lands? Who builds factories? Malls? Shopping centres? Subdivisions? Private homes? Not your municipal government. Not your retired neighbour. Developers do. Of course they have a vested interest in growth: it’s their business. Smart councils work with them to develop properly, intelligently.

But growth and development are also controlled by legislation like the Planning Act, the Places to Grow Act and others, and by provincial policy statements. There is at least some oversight on growth by the province. It may be initiated at the municipal level, but it isn’t done in a vacuüm. $750 won’t make the Planning Act any less restrictive, won’t buy a vote at the Ontario Municipal Board or convince the local conservation authority to change its rules.

Another related finding is that higher developer contributions were seen in areas with more development activity going on, whereas development industry funding was lower in municipalities with the lowest building permit totals.

Areas with more development likely have more developers. Therefore there are more potential developers who can contribute. Municipalities with lower building permits mean fewer developers. Isn’t that obvious? Duh… this is like saying you found more ants in an anthill than away from it.

Logically, it doesn’t make sense that developers would try harder to influence areas where they are already successful. Places where there is already a lot of development don’t need to be influenced. It’s the slow ones where they should be focused on, where there is less competition and greater potential for profit. These are the places where red tape, sluggish bureaucracy, stodgy councils may be holding back growth. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put more effort into them than in places where it’s already easy going?

Think of it like this: do you oil the rusty, squeaky bike wheel or the one that’s already turning smoothly? But how much influence can $750 really buy?

With much of this money flowing in from outside a given municipality, the report warns decisions are being made to the benefit of corporate donors, which may not line up with what’s best for the community.

Crap, both from a logical and editorial perspective. What money is flowing from outside? Suitcases bulging with $750 in rolls of quarters, sent around once every four years?

Or is the author suggesting there’s something wrong with money coming in from outsiders to pay development charges, service fees, taxes, creating jobs? Is the author suggesting it’s better for the taxpayer to pay these?

If the community has already zoned the land, then it can be developed for that purpose. Someone will do so. It’s inevitable.

Yes, there are questions about zoning too much agricultural land for residential, about losing green spaces and creating sprawl, about smart growth and intensification. Serious considerations, all of them. But these are not linked to election spending. These have to be controlled through other regulations and laws.

Corporate donors? Look around you. Look at the retail chains, the big box stores, the franchise businesses and restaurants in your community. The car dealerships, gas stations, building supply stores, phone and cable companies, the grocery stores. Look at your local neighbourhood businesses: many of them are small corporations, too. Corporations aren’t evil per se: they are simply a business framework.

Every one of them can contribute the same amount to a municipal election campaign: $750, maximum. But then, so can your neighbours, friends, and supporters.

And then, consider that donations to municipal campaigns are not tax deductible, as they are with provincial and federal campaigns. There’s already no tax incentive for donors, corporate or otherwise, to contribute to municipal campaigns.

Plus, there is the cap on how much money any candidate can spend in a campaign. Section 76.4 of the Act describes the formula. It’s based on the number of electors in your riding (or community, if at large). I don’t recall the exact numbers, but for councillors, I believe it’s under $2 per elector. In Collingwood, the threshold was, I recall, about $18,000.

And if you spent the maximum, no single donor, developer or otherwise, could contribute even as much as 5%. It’s hard to sell your soul for such a paltry sum. You know what happens if you taken in more donations than you spend? You have to give the rest back! Yes, that’s in the Act, too. So it’s use it or lose it.

Then there’s the idea that “citizens, not developers (sic*) should drive the political ship.” Since when were developers not citizens? Are they foreigners, illegal immigrants, offshore bankers? Why is the citizenship of everyone else somehow purer or more protected than that of developers?

To paraphrase Shylock, “Hath not a developer eyes? hath not a developer hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a citizen is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?”

This childish developers-versus-everyone else philosophy only fuels the politics of divisiveness. We should not try to make them into second-class citizens simply for donating to an election campaign. Maybe the next time this author decides to pen a political piece, he or she will read the relevant legislation before writing.

~~~~~

* There should be a comma after the word developers. An editor would have noticed that.

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