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Lack of limits can slant local elections

It may be eight months away, but local politicians are already preparing for the upcoming municipal elections.

It may be eight months away, but local politicians are already preparing for the upcoming municipal elections. New faces are starting to fill out the ranks of council watchers at the Sechelt and Gibsons council meetings I cover, a sign that some may be getting ready to join the election rumble in November. But will they all have an equal chance to win a seat as councillor or mayor? Not likely, as long as the current campaign spending limits - or lack thereof - remain in effect.

Campaign spending is a serious matter on the national stage, as local MP Blair Wilson found out last October. But the allegations Wilson faces, of improper documentation of campaign spending, highlight the fact that there were at least limits in place. Not so on the local level - by provincial statute, political candidates for any local government position on the Coast (except within the Sechelt Indian Government District) face no campaign spending limits, and no cap on how much an individual or business can donate to them.

This means a hypothetical Gibsons council candidate could spend as much money as they have on signs, advertisements, and any other marketing aimed at winning them the seat. And advertising works, no matter what it is you're selling - if in doubt, just ask businesses across the Coast who choose to spend money placing ads in this newspaper.

Formulae involving population density and the consumer price index are used to determine the limits in federal and provincial ridings. Wilson's West Vancouver- Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky federal riding was subject to a $93,260 spending limit in the last election, while his backers, whether citizens or businesses, were limited to donations of $5,200. (Though that can be overcome from beyond the grave - a quirky federal rule allows the deceased to will unlimited amounts to a candidate.)

MLA Nicholas Simons' Powell River-Sunshine Coast provincial riding had a spending limit of $76,784 in the last election, and no cap on how much an individual or business can donate - though the limits could change drastically next election as a result of the B.C. electoral boundaries commission findings.

Why are limits on campaign spending considered a matter of good democracy at provincial and federal levels, but not at the local level? Municipal politicians in Calgary and Saskatoon have asked this question recently, and seems like something Minister of Community Services Ida Chong should be doing as Bill 7 - the Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008 - whizzes through B.C.'s parliament.

The bill will mean some positive changes for municipal elections, such as extending mail ballot voting privileges to snowbirds and those on vacation during the election. But these changes are petty when compared to the problems raised by unlimited campaign spending. Yet last week, Chong said campaign spending limits won't be addressed by Bill 7, under the guise that candidates could only be priced out of the running in a Vancouver election.

"It's hard to impose rules for the entire province because just one city is experiencing this," she told the Vancouver Sun. "I'm not hearing this from all the Lower Mainland cities. So obviously it's just one city."

Using the 2005 election as a baseline, and considering Simons' riding contains about 60,000 residents, a proportional spending limit for candidates in Sechelt, with about 9,000 residents, would be about $11,500. In Gibsons, with about 4,000 people, a proportional limit would be about $5,100.

I'd say it's time to level the playing field, no matter how big or small the political arena.