Municipal election: Rules on use of city resources and social media need to be clarified and updated

Municipal election: Rules on use of city resources and social media need to be clarified and updated
Posted on September 12, 2014 | Catherine Fortin LeFaivre | Written on September 12, 2014
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Municipal election: Rules on use of city resources and social media need to be clarified and updated It is well understood that incumbents have a tremendous advantage over challengers, especially in a municipal election where there are no parties at play. Among many other advantages, an incumbent benefits from name recognition and the ability to raise funds more easily due to widespread community connections. That’s fair. However, there is presently ambiguity regarding two matters that lean heavily in the favour of incumbents: the ability to campaign while being paid a full councillor’s salary over nearly a year and the use of social media platforms for both city business use and campaign use. Long-term taxpayer-funded campaigning According to the Municipal Act, 1996, section 69 (4), municipalities are not allowed to make campaign contributions to any candidate in the form of money, goods or services. In other words, incumbents cannot use city resources for the purpose of their re-election efforts. A logical question would then be: can sitting councilors campaign at will during the workday while receiving their salary? A search for clarity online regarding this matter reveals little. After a few calls and emails to the city, I received an email from the City Clerk and Solicitor, Rick O’Connor, which seemed to say that a salary does not count as a “contribution” (Mr. O’Connor also mentioned that he is prohibited in providing a legal opinion on the interpretation of the Municipal Elections Act, 1996.) This begs the question: is the municipal campaign period too long? Should councillors be paid a full salary to campaign without limitations as soon as they declare their intentions for reelection, which can be as early as January 1st—almost 10 months before the election? Of course, they still have the responsibility to carry out city business, but a quick look on incumbents’ Twitter feeds some time in the past few months reveals that they were definitely spending a large portion of their days on reelection efforts. If we truly want an interesting and qualified bunch of challengers to come forward, we must level the playing field a bit more. As it stands, challengers need to campaign while holding another job or take an unpaid leave of absence. Realistically, few challengers are able to juggle or afford that proposition while having a real shot at winning an election. So, are the rules in place (or lack of) in favour of a diverse decision making table and of regular turnover, as a true democratic system should champion? Or is the exact opposite? Social media use for campaigning One could argue that the value of a social media account, say a Twitter account, is greatly increased by an office holder. The perception by constituents is that by “following” a certain elected official, he or she will obtain official information about their ward and city, in addition to perhaps some commentary. The account could become a perceived official channel of communication with constituents—especially if other channels are lacking or rarely updated. As a result, when election time rolls around, said office holder has access to a great number of voters to which he or she could solicit campaign donations and votes. The lines between information concerning official duties and campaigning can easily become blurred. I applaud what a few councillors have done by creating an office holder Twitter account named after the ward, and a separate account for more personal use. Recognizing that this is an emerging yet important issue, the City of Mississauga’s Integrity commissioner Robert Swayze recently suggested that councilors running for re-election should create new social media accounts to advertise their campaign. What should be done to improve the status quo? Firstly, any kind of election-related rules need to be clear and easily accessible. Obviously, the lack of information on acceptable campaign practices by incumbents is troubling as the current Election Related Resource Policy (ERRP) does not address social media use nor does it address how much time an incumbent is allowed to campaign while being paid by the tax-payer. Secondly, we must look at shortening the campaign period and adopting a clear time frame in which incumbents can campaign. We should also evaluate whether or not it is really fair for them to be paid during this period. According to Elections Canada, participation, fairness and transparency are three fundamental principals associated with elections. With this in mind, I think we can do much better in Ottawa. I will soon be unveiling more steps to make Ottawa more transparent and inclusive.

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Catherine has launched CFL Communications as its principal consultant, working with like-minded bilingual communications experts to provide strategic public affairs advice and products.

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