Third party advertisers spent $1.1M on Calgary election efforts

·4 min read
Most of the money spent by third party advertisers in Calgary's last municipal election, was spent by two of the eight registered groups.  (Mike Symington/CBC - image credit)
Most of the money spent by third party advertisers in Calgary's last municipal election, was spent by two of the eight registered groups. (Mike Symington/CBC - image credit)

Third party advertisers spent $1.1 million during Calgary's 2021 municipal election, trying to sway how voters cast their ballot.

Most of that money was spent in 2021 by two of the eight registered third party advertisers (TPAs).

Calgary's Future was funded by several unions representing civic workers, while Calgary Tomorrow spent the money it collected from donors to support former councillor Jeff Davison's campaign for mayor.

Davison finished third in the mayor's race, which was won by Jyoti Gondek.

TPA total spend in Election 2021

Under provincial law, TPAs are allowed to raise money and to advocate for or against candidates in local elections.

The registered TPAs were required to submit their financial disclosures to Elections Calgary by March 1, 2022.

Unlike the financial disclosures submitted by election candidates by that same deadline, the city has refused to release the TPA documents to the public.

CBC News filed a freedom of information request to obtain the disclosures.

City redacted names

The city responded to the request by releasing the documents, but it redacted the names of contributors who gave money to the TPAs during the 2021 campaign.

In a statement, the city said it "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 (as per sections 16 and 17 of the FOIP Act)."

While candidates are limited to accepting donations of $5,000 or less from individuals, TPAs can collect donations up to $30,000 from corporations, unions and individuals.

Several $20,000 donations are noted in the disclosure forms, but beyond the date and hometown of the donor, no other information is available about the donors.

Under rules set by the province in the Local Authorities Election Act, TPAs must provide in their disclosures the donors' name, address, the amount of the donation and when it was given.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the department of municipal affairs, Scott Johnston, said: "While the LAEA does not explicitly prohibit disclosure of the information, there is no mandatory requirement that registered third party advertisers be publicly disclosed or listed on a municipality's website."

When advised that the City of Calgary would not release the information, Johnston said: "If information is not routinely disseminated by a municipality, interested individuals have the ability to make a formal request for information in accordance with requirements of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP)."

Legislation loophole

A political studies professor at Mount Royal University, Lori Williams, said the disclosures show that TPAs raised a significant amount of money that was poured into the city's election.

But, she said the secrecy around who gave that money is a loophole that allows donors to be shielded from public scrutiny in a way that contributors to political candidates are not.

Williams noted that donors to TPAs can also give six times as much money as they can to election candidates.

"It's created a privileged category for those with deep pockets to try to influence election campaigns."

She also said that keeping the names from the public means it will be more challenging to catch anyone who may be violating the rules.

"We now have to trust the City of Calgary and administration to search through, to scrutinize and identify anyone who may have donated more than they ought to have and trust in the system."

The city doesn't investigate complaints about election violations. That job is done by Elections Alberta.

The NDP's municipal affairs critic, Calgary MLA Joe Ceci, said it's difficult to understand why the donors' names have been withheld from the public.

"Voters deserve frankly to know who has the deep pockets or indeed who has given at all to these TPAs," said Ceci.

If the NDP forms government after the next provincial election, Ceci said they would follow up with legislation that would ensure voters know who is donating to TPAs.

Former mayor Naheed Nenshi, an advocate for political fundraising reform, called the lack of disclosure "really upsetting."

"The word used is 'disclosure,' which certainly implies being, well, disclosed," Nenshi wrote on Twitter on Friday.

"Donors I spoke to certainly knew their contributions would be disclosed. Why is this information now redacted?"

Nenshi said there needs to be "much better legislation now."

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