Ontario’s municipal elections need an independent organization to operate and oversee them.
The current system is a broken hodge-podge of local officials appointed by their local councillors, who become the candidates they oversee, and local Election Compliance Audit Committees who are also appointed by local councillors.
This system may work in some municipalities, but it is not a robust system that ensure that even the appearance of a conflict is prevented.
It’s time for the province to amend the Municipal Elections Act to standardize Ontario’s municipal elections by having a non-partisan body above reproach or accusation of political interference oversee them.
Elections Ontario should run our municipal elections.
Elections Ontario is a non-partisan entity. The appointment of the Chief Electoral Officer is done by the unanimous consent of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and the independence of the office is guaranteed. No single party can fire the CEO and pressuring them is strictly forbidden - it is taboo.
Elections is what Elections Ontario does, it's in the name. No matter where you live in Ontario, during a provincial election, you know what to expect -a consistent professionally run voting experience.
At the municipal level, it is not consistent.
Each municipal Clerk operates their elections differently, and have different standards of accountability for enforcement of election laws.
The municipality’s Clerk has many roles that are not related to elections. and they serve at the pleasure of the councillors who become candidates every four years.
The structure of the system is not robust and not above the appearance of possible interference.
Hamilton Falling Short
In Hamilton, the City Clerk does not enforce Municipal Election Act requirements for complete finance returns and caps on maximum contributions to multiple candidates.
Instead, private individuals are required to enforce our election rules, at their own cost, applying to the Election Compliance Audit Committee for a hearing.
We’ve seen in Hamilton that the committee is not effective, and hesitant to fulfil its mandate:
“We are not corporate sheriffs. We cannot stop company A from contributing $10,000 even though the limit under the municipal act says $5000, to a particular total, and a $750 maximum per candidate,” declared Hamilton’s Election Compliance Audit Committee Ross Anderson in response to evidence of a possible violation of the rules.
Later in the same meeting, when presented undisputable evidence that a candidate spending over $10,000 is required to submit audited statements, Chair Anderson stated he was not familiar with the Municipal Elections Act.
The whole purpose of his committee is to enforce the requirements of the Act, it was a stunning statement.
Section 78 of the MEA is clear that candidates are required to submit audits, Chair Anderson suggested it was only meant to apply to successful candidates.
Candidates Not Well Served by Weak Process
It is a glaring indication that the ECAC is incapable of following proper process to render a decision - much to the determent of both candidates and citizens.
Candidates who are found to be in compliance by ECAC will continue to have a cloud of doubt surrounding them because citizens cannot have full confidence in the findings.
Citizens are not well served because the entire elections oversight process must be robust and decisions of ECAC must be above reproach.
Clerks Should Verify for Completion
In Hamilton, two unsuccessful candidates failed to complete audits. Both were genuine in their regrets for not meeting the requirement and offered to submit audits, putting themselves at the mercy of the committee, which reserved a decision to a later date.
Other municipalities are more effective at their electoral oversight, including verifying the completion of election returns - which in the case of the two candidates who filed to include auditor’s statements for their over $10,000 campaigns would have avoided the need for ECAC.
Both candidates filed their returns prior to the deadline, and the check for completion takes minutes, and could be done before City Clerks sign off on the candidate’s declaration of truthful return. Clerks could’ve flagged the error and granted a deadline extension for both to complete their audits.
Municipal Government Is Important, It’s Time We Treated Its Election As Such
Municipalities have varying resources, some can afford to operate professional full-time elections offices, others cannot. Some municipalities fund voter information campaigns, others do not.
Municipal government is important, when it fails, people can die. Every morning, you turn on your tap water - that’s a municipal responsibility.
Yet, we don’t take electing that government as seriously as we could. We, somehow, accept 34% voter turnout in Hamilton.
It’s time for the province to step in, fund Elections Ontario to operate our municipal elections, and for serious action to be taken to increase voter knowledge and turnout before the 2018 elections.
Submit your feedback and ideas for changes to our municipal elections before July 27 to the provincial review of the Municipal Elections Act. More info on the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing website here: http://www.mah.gov.on.ca/Page11112.aspx