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Mixed Reception To Transparency Rules

“I know that many of you are thinking, ‘Contributions? People actually spend money on campaigns?’”

– DON REID

New legislation extending conflict-of-interest, campaign-financing and code-of-conduct rules to municipal level politicians was met with mixed sentiments at the annual AMM convention.

The implications of Bill 35, which was recently passed by the Manitoba legislature in early October, were spelled out by government officials in a presentation to delegates last week.

The amendments to existing laws require that council members disclose public statements of their assets and interests prior to Nov. 30 each year, be more accountable in their campaign financing, and pass code-of-conduct rules governing municipal employees.

All municipalities must enact the relevent bylaws by May 1, 2010 at the latest.

The assets and interests declaration rules apply only to land or property within the boundary of the rural municipality, and business interests held by themselves or their dependants with a greater than five per cent share no matter where they are located.

The rules do not apply to term deposits, pension plans, or RRSPs, and no dollar values need be disclosed.

The new campaign-financing rules are similar to those that have been in place for the City of Winnipeg and provincial-level politicians for years.

Candidates must register their intent to campaign prior to receiving contributions.

Municipalities will be free to set their own campaign funding limits, but individual donations must not exceed $1,500 per individual for head-of-council contenders and councillors, and $750 for ward elections. Union, corporate and anonymous donations are not allowed. Tax rebates or credits could be offered by municipalities to encourage donors to support the democratic process.

Don Reid, an official with the Manitoba government who explained the new rules, said that while the intent is not to make municipal candidates “bookkeepers,” the new campaign finance rules will require those running to keep track of their contributions and expenditures.

Candidates must use a dedicated bank account for their campaign finances, pay all expenses by cheque, and keep track of the names and addresses of donors and their contributions whether in cash or in kind over $250 for at least two years after the election.

Surplus campaign funds are held by the municipality until the next election. Candidates who choose not to run forfeit their leftover cash to the municipality.

Failure to disclose campaign finance details will result in disqualification for elected officials. Failed candidates must also file statements, or risk being banned from running again until after the next general election.

“I know that many of you are thinking, ‘Contributions? People actually spend money on campaigns?’” he said to laughter from the audience.

“In that case, it becomes pretty simple to fill out a report that says I collected nothing and I spent nothing.”

The amendment to the Municipal Act requiring a code of conduct for employees be adopted by each municipality, he added, is necessary to prevent abuses.

“It could be about employees accepting gifts for certain kinds of operations, or utilizing municipal facilities and equipment for their own personal needs,” he said. “This could be as simple as using the photocopier or taking the backhoe home to dig a tree out of your backyard.”

For all intents and purposes, volunteers will be considered “employees” under the rules governing standards of behaviour, he added.

Tom Campbell, reeve of the R. M. of Albert, condemned the new rules as interference in municipal level affairs and ridiculed the disclosure requirements.

“It’s sure fine for you folks in Winnipeg to sit and tell us how to run things and how to wipe our nose out here. You’re always interfering with us out here,” he said, to a round of applause. “Please stay out of our affairs.”

Duane Nicol, a councillor for the City of Selkirk, expressed appreciation for the legislation.

While he noted that in small, rural R. M. s where election by acclamation is the rule rather than the exception, the legislation may seem excessive. On the other hand, in smaller cities, more accountability is needed, he said.

“I think it’s important for a democratically elected government to be accountable to the people in a way that we’re not right now.” [email protected]

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