Exceeding the spending limit by a few percentage points can mean thousands of extra lawn signs.
So now we know: election spending rules are fuzzy around the edges, and some people can violate them without sanction.
That's what we learned February 25, when the city's Compliance Audit Committee voted that despite dozens of alleged contraventions of the Municipal Elections Act, Mayor Rob Ford's expenditure of $40,000, or 3 per cent more than the limit, was too minor to lead to charges.
But how minor is minor?
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti is facing legal proceedings for overspending by $12,065, or 44 per cent over his limit, so the rules obviously kick in somewhere between the two percentages. But exactly where?
This is important stuff because it touches on Toronto's democratic deficit and the way new contenders can get shut out without a fair hearing.
Councillor Adam Vaughan has asked the city clerk to clarify the meaning of the Audit Committee's decision, since it's now unclear what actual consequences, if any, there are for violating the law. But without further judicial clarification, don't expect a clear answer.
To keep faith with our voting process, and level the playing field, we have to find a way to make the rules enforceable while the offence is occurring. The fact that the regulations aren't enforced in real time means candidates who transgress can reap the rewards of overspending while electioneering, thus shaping the outcome in their favour.
Exceeding the ceiling (for councillors, in the $35,000 range, adjusted for ward population) even by a few percentage points can mean hundreds of new lawn signs or thousands of extra pamphlets. The issue is sometimes not just about total amounts, but about the nitty-gritty details of accounting for expenses.
The same lack of clarity around penalties applies to other violations unrelated to fundraising, like illegally placed signs or removal of opponents' signs. Again, catching the deed in progress is key, but the only force now available is police, who are reluctant to get involved in political fights.
Things don't have to be this way. The city could allocate and train more bylaw enforcement officers and back them up by a structure similar to the Election Audit Committee. A group composed of experienced citizens could rule on violations immediately instead of waiting for a court procedure or criminal charges. This would take some of the heat off bylaw officers worried about alienating the winners, who are their bosses.
But the city could go further. It might be an administrative headache, but imagine a system where all donations and invoices are processed centrally and published online during the election for real-time vetting. (This certainly would have curtailed Ford's overspending.) This is now required in provincial elections in a sense, since political parties must receive and receipt all donations to candidates centrally.
Even more could be accomplished. Toronto is the only city in Ontario that gives donors cash rebates of up to 75 per cent of the value of donations to candidates. While this is a huge help to office-seekers, it does require donors to wait until at least five to six months after an election for their cash, when the candidate's financial records have been filed and accepted.
This is too long a time for cash-strapped people to go without repayment. If we care about equalizing the chances for all comers, this has to be a much faster process. Or what about doing away with the rebates entirely and giving $10,000, or even $15,000, to every candidate who can get, say, 1,000 signatures?
This would allow hardworking hopefuls with community support but less access to fundraising a chance at the prize. They could still raise the remaining money, up to the limit, from contributors.
It's a reform that wouldn't cost substantially more - the city already spends millions on rebates - but would ensure a more diverse and stronger array of hopefuls. Surely any added money would be worth it.
There are enough barriers to those aspiring to office. Let's offer a fair shake at the funding end of things with some bold change-ups.