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City campaign rules favour incumbents

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Trust in civic officials is low following the fire hall fiasco. It is therefore smart politics for former councillor Gord Steeves to enter the race at this time and give voters an early glimpse of a credible alternative. His campaign launch at the Qualico Family Centre was nicely polished. There is only one problem: he is about half-a-year too early to the party.

Coun. Paula Havixbeck correctly pointed out that Winnipeg election rules prohibit incurring election expenses until the campaign officially begins. Steeves, who probably should know better, was quoted by CBC News as saying "I don't think I broke any rules. But if I did, the rules are antiquated and they should be changed."

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Steeves is correct. In fact, in addition to calling the rules antiquated, he should have called them "unfair." In every respect, city election law stacks the deck in favour of incumbents and handicaps new entrants.

Under Part 3, Division 2 of the City of Winnipeg Charter, general elections are held every four years in October. The mayoral campaign periods are tightly defined as beginning on "May 1 in the year of the election and ending on March 31" in the following year. For councillors, the campaign period begins two months later on June 30.

Let's dive into this a little deeper. The charter also provides that candidates cannot formally register until the campaign period begins. And it also says that "no individual, other than a registered candidate, and no person acting on the individual's behalf, shall, for the purposes of electing the individual, (a) solicit or accept a contribution; (b) borrow money; or (c) incur an expense."

Oddly, there does not appear to be any rule that strictly prohibits campaigning prior to election period, in of itself. But in reality, there is no practical way to campaign without spending some money (blogging or Facebook sites aside).

The rules place newcomers at a distinct disadvantage. Unlike politicians from registered federal or provincial parties, civic politicians are on their own. They cannot perpetually fundraise or campaign meaningfully year-round. They cannot effectively organize or build their brand until six months before an election (four months in the case of a councillor). These things take a lot of time and money.

By comparison, incumbents are laughing. They get to actively make political announcements and dominate the headlines as civic leaders. They can spend and advertise freely in their ward, apparently without any meaningful rules, using a well-padded annual expense account. They can also count on incumbency to give them a head-start in building a brand and attracting donations.

Incumbents also get the most generous of head-starts: they can, after October, once re-elected, continue to fundraise until March 31 of the following year.

Newly elected, they can take advantage of their secured positions of power and replenish their war chest for use in the next general election. Then, maybe instead of David vs. Goliath, the story will be about Gord vs. Sam.

 

Winnipegger Andrew Moreau specializes in board governance and regulatory compliance.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2013 A13

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Updated on Friday, November 1, 2013 at 11:56 AM CDT: Column mug removed.

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