Developers’ contributions to municipal elections influence political outcomes

Developers’ contributions to municipal election campaigns influence political outcomes and can degrade the quality of suburban life, according to a study by a York University professor, made public yesterday. 

The study examined corporate and union funding of candidates during the 2006 municipal elections in Toronto, Ajax, Brampton, Markham, Mississauga, Oshawa, Pickering, Richmond Hill, Vaughan and Whitby. It found that the development industry was by far the most important financier of the majority of winning candidates’ campaigns in these cities, with the exceptions of Toronto and Ajax. 

"The bottom line is that developers want to elect councils that favour their own development proposal, and they spend accordingly," says study author Robert MacDermid (right), professor of political science at York University. 

When corporations trump citizens, the results are unsustainable urban sprawl, high transportation costs, environmental degradation and a weak sense of community that undermines political organization, MacDermid writes. 

"There’s no question that electoral reform is needed in order to address this imbalance and ensure the interests of citizens are represented," he says. "The City of Toronto has the opportunity to take the lead in municipal campaign finance reform by voting to ban contributions from corporations and unions. But the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing is the only one who can make the radical changes needed in the Municipal Elections Act." 

The study includes a detailed analysis of decision-making in Vaughan, where elected councillors frequently voted on development proposals submitted by corporations who financed their campaigns. Councillors often avoided public accountability by taking advantage of the opportunity for unrecorded votes, MacDermid found. 

The study proposes a number of reforms, including: 

  • a ban on the carrying forward of surpluses;
  • limits on how many campaigns an individual can contribute to;
  • requiring contributors to reside in the municipality and be of voting age;
  • controls for campaign spending by groups other than candidates;
  • removal of a section of the Municipal Elections Act that allows companies and unions to pay campaign volunteers without it being considered a contribution.  

However, MacDermid notes that the deep connections between development and municipal politics require more than campaign finance reforms to undo. 

"Citizen engagement in the political process is an important part of any potential solution. For example, in the City of Toronto, contributions from individuals are the key source of support for municipal politicians, and that’s partly due to higher levels of citizen mobilization," he says. 

MacDermid also believes political parties have an important role to play. "Excluding [parties] creates a David and Goliath scenario of developer versus community. Developers are highly organized, and only political parties have the muscle to organize against them." 

The study is published in partnership with the Centre for Social Justice Foundation for Research & Education, and VoteToronto. For a copy of the study, visit the VoteToronto Web site.