Ontario Gov Looking at Changes to Municipal Elections

Even as the provincial government tries to scramble to reform their own fundraising activities, they will be considering changes to how municipal elections will be run in 2018. Queen’s Park has announced today proposed changes to the Municipal Elections Act (MEA), that will, if passed, “modernize municipal elections and provide the option of using ranked ballots in future municipal elections.”

In a press release earlier today, Ted McMeekin, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, announced a series of amendments to the act, culled from 3,400 submissions submitted to the ministry last year about how to change the way local elections are run. “These proposals clarify the rules for voters and allow for more choice in how to run elections, including the option of using ranked ballots,” McMeekin said.

The allowance of municipalities to use ranked ballots is the biggest amongst the proposed changes. Another big change is that the time period for municipal elections will also be significantly shortened with nominations opening May 1 instead of January 2 if the new legislation is passed. The amendments will also see a framework to regulate third party advertising, including contribution and spending limits, clearer campaign finance rules, allowing the option to ban corporate and union donations, the removal of barriers that could affect electors and candidates with disabilities, and improvements to the way electors can add or change information on the voters’ list.

For the people that will have to implement the proposed changes to local elections, they are now patiently waiting to read the full text of what McMeekin proposed today. “Currently I am waiting for the bill (Bill 181) text to be posted to the Legislature’s website to get a more full some understanding of what specifically is being proposed,” said Guelph’s city clerk Stephen O’Brien. “I suspect that much of the specifics will not come with the bill but rather under regulation. These regulations will come after passage of the bill and so we may need to wait further to have a full and complete understanding of what is being proposed.”

O’Brien also points out that the amended legislation will just be giving the city more options in regards to how elections will be held municipally, the details will have to be sorted out by council. “It is my understanding from the information put out by the Ministry today that the choice to implement ranked balloting will rest with Council and will likely require passage of a by-law to that effect,” he explained. “As such, Council could opt to do so. We however would want to ensure that Council has all the information they require to make such a decision and therefore will likely need to wait and analyze the legislation and associated regulations in full before coming forward to committee and Council with recommendations.”

For those looking for changes in the way that Municipal Elections are run though, this a pretty good step in the right direction.

“I’m pretty thrilled with what seems to be coming down the pipeline, and I feel that it’s a vindication of the importance of the issues that were central to the audit,” said Susan Watson, an advocate for electoral reform. Watson is concerned about “third party” advocacy groups who currently have no obligation to report donation and fundraising totals.

Last year, Watson requested an audit of the campaign donations of Ward 6 council candidate Glen Tolhurst, specifically $400 donated to Tolhurst from GrassRoots Guelph, who also endorsed Tolhurst in a newspaper ad. Tolhurst was not charged with any wrongdoing as a result of the audit, but Watson said it did bring to light important issues that needed addressed. “Now it means that third parties will need to register and my assumption is they will need to submit financial filings like candidates,” Watson said of the changes. “There will be limits as to how much people can donate, who will be eligible, and there will also be limits on what the third parties themselves can spend.”

For a Guelph group that’s been pushing for ranked ballots, today’s announcement also sounded like good news. “We are very pleased with the Provincial Government’s introduction of proposed legislative changes to allow municipalities the option to use Ranked Ballots. Hopefully these changes will be passed by Queen’s Park,” said Kevin Bowman, of 123Guelph.

Still, the news wasn’t all happy, but that’s not the province’s fault. Bowman pointed out that his group was pushing for the planned Council Composition and Employment Status Review/Ward Boundary Review, but the money for it in the 2016 Budget was cut. Bowman explained that the work of that review is a critical first step in implementing democratic reform before the 2018 Municipal Election.

“How City Council is structured, how much time/work Councillors are expected to commit, how Councillors are compensated, how many and which constituents they represent, and how Councillors are elected are all very important questions,” he said. “Our answers will have an extensive ripple effect on the integrity, legitimacy and effectiveness of our City Government. Apparently City Council does not agree and decided that dedicating the necessary resources to these important questions was not a priority.”

Watson thinks there’s still room for improvement in the proposed legislation though, the need for more oversight on the implementation of rules of the act. “I actually don’t think it should be left up to citizens to enforce the Municipal Elections Act,” she explained. “We need some sort of municipal equivalent of Elections Canada, or Elections Ontario. Right now, nobody other than citizens is responsible for reviewing election financing for municipal candidates. So I think there should be some sort of provincial body that maybe does random audits of campaign filings just to make sure everyone’s complying.”

There’s no date yet for when the changes to the Act will come before the legislature, but it will be up to each of the 444 municipalities in Ontario to figure out how to enact them.

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