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Developer campaign funding questions dog Calgary city councillors ahead of 11 community vote

  • with reporting/data from Omar Sherif

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series tied to Calgary municipal election funding.

Of the roughly $3.5 million in disclosed 2017 municipal election contributions to the campaigns of current members of Calgary city council, 31 per cent comes from the city’s development community.

But, the actual share could be higher.

A LiveWire Calgary analysis of the publicly available 2017 disclosures showed that these contributions were made to all city council members, but the ratio varied from as low as four per cent to as high as 72 per cent.  The average among councillors was 35 per cent.

As Calgary city council grapples with the prospect of approving 11 community business cases – including three new communities, the perception of influence has been raised.  Even in a recent Globe and Mail editorial that refers to this debate, there’s a line: “But councillors, supported by developers, are leaning toward approval.”

In 2018, councillors approved 14 new communities by a vote of 12-2. Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Coun. Druh Farrell were opposed. Coun. Ray Jones was absent.

Councillors dispute the idea that cash campaign donations have pressured their vote on past development matters.

Elected members, both past and present, say that the development industry participates in the democratic process just like typical citizens and they’re backing candidates that have a vision they support.

(What our analysis revealed, that’s perhaps more troublesome for some, is the lack of oversight on campaign disclosures.)

In our ongoing reporting this upcoming week, we’re going to look at 2017 finance disclosures, changes to campaign financing and what that means, the rise of political action committees (PAC) and ideas on changing municipal finance rules to encourage new candidates and more widespread citizen support.

The 2017 disclosure data

We’ll be straight up on the data: It doesn’t show the full picture.  It’s important to contextualize the information that we’ve put together:

  • No two disclosure statements are tallied the same. Some include all contributions – regardless of whether they were made as a result of a fundraising event. Others do not. It’s impossible to say of Coun. Joe Magliocca’s $319,139 raised from fundraising activities, how much may have been from Calgary’s development community. Though, we can say that four per cent of total net campaign revenue was from documented developer contributions.  
  • The data goes back to 2014 in some cases, at a time when municipal campaign finance rules allowed greater fundraising in the years leading up to an election.
  • Not all homebuilding / development entities are easily identifiable. There are obvious ones and we searched the origin of others to come up with a generally complete account.
  • The amounts DO NOT include any personal donations from those in the city’s development industry. These contributions would be allowed under the province’s revised campaign finance rules.  We tallied the disclosure of corporate funds only.  
  • The gross revenue among city councillors includes any amount they carried over from previous campaigns.
  • Some disclosures included the “cost” of fundraising. That was considered in determining the ratio of some councillors that included it. Most, however, only included the net fundraising revenue and didn’t account for all fundraising donors. 

The results were calculated based on the best information we had from each councillor’s disclosures. Some disclosed precise amounts, others were considerably less detailed.

If you remove the top campaign earner – Mayor Naheed Nenshi – who had a full disclosure, raised the most money and had the highest base of individual contributors – the ratio of developer funding jumps to 36 per cent overall.  

NOTES: There is a WIDE variance in disclosure reporting, affecting the outcome of each councillor’s developer-funded ratio. Our calculations are based on the available information from each councillor’s disclosure. COMPILED BY OMAR SHERIF

No surprise to councillors

Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating had the highest ratio among Calgary city councillors. Of the $192,061.50 disclosed in the 2017 campaign, 72 per cent ($138,300) came from development industry coffers.

Keating accounted for all contributions in his disclosure – including those made through campaign fundraising activities.

He said much of that’s done through fundraising activities over a few years, which councillors could do prior to recent provincial changes. Now they can only fundraise in the calendar year prior to a municipal election.

Keating said that after winning his first campaign in 2010, he learned a lot about the campaign itself. He brought on people to help with subsequent campaigns and their job was to organize things, including driving contributions. In this case, they held an annual fundraiser.

“Typically, when you’re an incumbent, you have one little activity every year,” he said, noting it would be something like a golf tournament. That would often attract similar crowds annually. Thus, similar donors.  

Coun. Druh Farrell, who had 31 per cent of her campaign funds from Calgary’s development community, said without it, a candidate can’t compete.

“You can still run a campaign without big donors, but it certainly makes it harder,” Farrell said.

When running in the last civic election, Coun. Jyoti Gondek said oftentimes the only businesses that would entertain a meeting would be those in the development community.

Coun. Gondek’s developer-funded amount sat at 47 per cent ($85,700 out of $181,131 raised).

“From the point of view, as someone who campaigned to talk to Calgarians, both residents and businesses, it was incredibly frustrating that so many businesses just didn’t want to engage,” she said.

The perception of influence

Despite the funding amount, Coun. Gondek said it doesn’t offer influence.

“Absolutely not. In no way does it buy influence with me,” she said.

“I like to make reasoned decisions that are based on all the evidence presented. For me to weigh in, before I even looked at the business cases, to make a decision, would be incredibly unfortunate for Calgarians.”

Both Farrell and Keating recounted situations where they’d met with donor developers and simply had to say no. Farrell said she makes that clear to developers when they make contributions that it’s just a gesture of support.  She points to her voting track record for evidence.

“They’re supporting a good councillor. They know it doesn’t buy them influence,” she said.

Farrell admitted that it might give some in the development community the perception they have a right to a councillor’s support.

Coun. Keating said it’s a difficult thing for some citizens to accept: Developer funding doesn’t equal unfettered support for their endeavors.

“Well, I think it’s a farce, actually,” he said.

“The reason is, if you don’t like something, you automatically assume the worst.”

Keating acknowledged that his ward is development intensive. That might lead people to a specific conclusion. But, he said he’s supported several established area projects, along with suburban ones. They all have cases to be presented and decisions to be made.

“People who want to find fault will never look at the actual facts, they’ll just look at their own opinion and throw it out there.”

Name recognition – at the least

Former Ward 11 councillor, Brian Pincott, has a slightly different take. He said at a very base level, it does leverage something: One’s name.

Pincott, who in 2013 took 30 per cent of documented contributions from the development industry, said quite often developers are hedging their bets.

“The developers are playing within the system,” Pincott said.

“Honestly, when you take a look across the board, developers are giving to everybody. It doesn’t matter whether they like them or not, or whether they’re pro-development or not, the developers are giving money to them.”

And developer backing doesn’t ensure victory. Pincott’s 2013 opponent, James Maxim, tallied roughly $130,000 in developer contributions. That’s 56 per cent of his total campaign period revenue.

While Pincott said that Calgarians needs to examine the voting records of respective councillors, that’s only a part of it.

“I think it’s naïve to say that it doesn’t have influence. I think it depends on the councillor,” Pincott said.

“At the very least, (developers) are buying name recognition. You remember they’re on your donor list. But, it’s a matter of hedging your bets here.”

Wide range of support

As Pincott mentioned, donors are often supporting multiple candidates in multiple wards. He said they’re hedging their bets.

We contacted two major developer donors who supported a variety of candidates in many wards. One declined to comment. The other didn’t respond.

BILD Calgary, the advocacy group for the city’s homebuilding and development industry, said they’re participating in municipal elections just like other Calgarians.

“A robust political process is important to the economy and our community,” an email statement from BILD Calgary read.

“It takes time, resources and a lot of effort for good quality candidates to put forth a campaign. Donations from Calgarians and businesses have long been a legal part of that process – and that helps create effective political discourse.

“As Calgarians, we all the right to exercise support for candidates we fee share similar ideologies and viewpoints.”

The landscape will change somewhat with the 2021 municipal election. Changes have been made barring both corporate and labour union donations. Limits have been put on donations to individual candidates, but citizens can donate the maximum ($5,000) to any number of candidates.

(We’ll explore this in an upcoming story the week of Nov.2.)

Donor intention

Coun. Gondek said it’s difficult to tie a donation to intent. She said not everyone has the same motive.

“We have assumed that the reason people donate to candidates is because they want them to vote in a particular way,” said Gondek.

“Maybe I’m being very Pollyanna, but I would hope that people that supported me wanted me to come in here and make sure I was making strong policy decisions.”

She said she’s told voters and supporters that while they may not agree with her, what they can count on is that the homework is done and she’s making the best decision she can.

Farrell believes many funders make the choice to be responsible when they support candidates.

“The system opens it up to influence. I don’t blame individual councillors. The system has created, whether it’s influence, or the perception of influence – and that’s a problem,” she said.

“Calgarians need to know their elected officials are approaching each topic based on its own value.”

Be sure to stay tuned for our upcoming stories on:

  • Municipal campaign disclosure reporting and oversight
  • The rise of Political Action Committees in municipal politics
  • Further changes to campaign finance rules to level the playing field

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