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A question of influence

Alouette Estates owns 40.4-hectare (100 acres) along Harris Road near Airport Way. The property is designated for a light industrial development in the city
Alouette Estates owns 40.4-hectare (100 acres) along Harris Road near Airport Way. The property is designated for a light industrial development in the city's official community plan and Metro Vancouver's regional growth strategy.
— image credit: Google Maps

For now, the expanse of land near Ken Joyner's home is verdant.

In spring, it was home to a family of coyotes, who moved on after bulldozers tore down a stand of trees.

Designated for light industrial or business park development in Pitt Meadows' official community plan, the property, historically known as Cardiff Farms, is destined to change.

Joyner understands the parcel along Airport Way, between Harris and Bonson roads, won't stay green forever.

In fact, there's talk in the neighbourhood about plans recently floated by the land owners, Alouette Estates and Mosaic Homes, for a residential and commercial development on the site.

Joyner, though, has questions about Mosaic, the company that built nearby Osprey Village but has yet to complete key features, such as a chapel and pub, that were promised.

What galls him further is that Mosaic and a slew of people connected to the Cardiff Farms property donated a considerable amount of money to three people on council during the last municipal election campaign.

Should they entertain and listen to people involved in property development in Pitt Meadows after taking campaign money from them, asks Joyner.

"Or should elected officials excuse themselves from meetings and discussions involving developers and their associates who gave money to a candidate for mayor or council."

"Our valued democratic system is only protected by the integrity of our elected government and the involvement of informed citizens," Joyner added.

Alouette Estates, Mosaic Homes and several individuals associated with both companies, including directors, donated $20,000 to Couns. Gwen O'Connell and Tracy Miyashita, as well as Mayor Deb Walters.

Another $1,750 was given to Michael Hayes, a first-time candidate, who was not elected.

Of the $20,050 in contributions to Walter's campaign, $10,000 came from people connected to the Cardiff development.

Other than $450 from Halo Sawmill, O'Connell's entire campaign was financed by the same group, which also accounted for $5,000 of $8505.36 donated to Miyashita's re-election.

In September, Alouette Estates and Mosaic pitched council a plan for development, offering to build a new outdoor pool if a portion of the Cardiff property is rezoned from industrial to residential.

Rob McCarthy, with Mosaic and a campaign donor to O'Connell, Miyashita and Walters, unveiled three ideas for a mixed "industrial-commercial campus" on the 40.4-hectare (100 acres) property.

Depending on how large it is, the industrial-commercial section would provide 500 to 4,000 jobs.

The property owners need the city's support to pursue a change in zoning at the Metro Vancouver level from industrial to residential. It would also require a change to the city's official community plan, another tedious process.

Jinder Berar, one of seven directors for Alouette Estates Ltd., doubts the donated money will influence any decisions. He assures the donations were made with no caveats.

Naresh Desai, another director, confirmed that.

"This is not a million-dollar donation. It's very small change, right?" said Berar.

"What we have to do is make our presentation and if we can convince council it's a good idea for the community and if the community likes it, then maybe something will happen. At the end of the day, you are not going to get anywhere by trying to influence people. As a matter of fact, it always backfires on you. It always gets you in trouble."

Berar, a realtor, revealed he has contributed to election campaigns in other municipalities, including Richmond and New Westminster. He also supports provincial and federal candidates.

For him, the donations are altruistic, given to "level the playing field" for candidates, who are not rich and don't have a strong financial backing.

"I think everybody should have the opportunity," said Berar.

"If one person has a lot of money, I don't think it's fair because he has the ability to put out the ads. Do we have influence? I don't think so."

The November 2011 election was the first time big money made an appearance in Pitt Meadows – a city where campaigns are mostly self-financed.

In B.C., campaign financing disclosure statements, outlining the contributions candidates received and election expenses incurred, must be filed 120 days after general voting day.

Conflict of interest voting rules in the Community Charter requires that, once in local office, you may not vote on or participate in discussions about any matters in which you have a direct or indirect financial interest.

Walters says campaign donors have no influence on how she votes or what she supports.

"You will see a number of generous people supported my campaign, with no promises or commitments made to anyone who supported me."

With regards to the Cardiff parcel, she noted there is no development application in front of council at this time.

Walters said council has indicated that it would like to have a workshop to discuss future development and that could lead to a land-use study to find out what type of development would be financially successful in this area, much like what was done for the North Lougheed Corridor.

"It is my understanding that the group of owners are exploring what innovative mixed use options are available to develop this site rather than large warehouse style buildings," she added.

"For me, as I have always stated, this is one of our last large parcels available for development and it is important to consider a development that helps balance our tax base and creates local jobs. What that will look like remains to be seen."

Couns. O'Connell and Miyashita did not return calls for comment.

Time for change

In 2010, a provincial government task force examining municipal elections called for major changes to local campaigns. The 31 proposed changes included banning anonymous donations, things like setting expense limits and requiring third party advertisers to register.

Fifteen of the changes required amendments to provincial laws, however, and have yet to be debated in the legislature. They likely won’t be in place in time for the next civic election, November 2014.

Patrick Smith, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, has long argued for municipal campaign reforms and remains frustrated by the lack of action from both civic and provincial politicians.

For him, it’s more than a matter of optics – the lack of rules are an affront to democracy.

“B.C. is the most unregulated system in all of Canada,” says Smith.

“It has no limits on what you can raise or spend and who donates - whether it’s companies or public sector unions.”

The only stipulation: candidates must file disclosures 120 days after general voting day and those forms are not audited. They are taken as fact, adds Smith.

Ontario has had municipal spending limits in place since 1988 and increased them in 2003 to match inflation. Under Ontario’s rules, each person seeking election can spend a base amount — $7,500 for mayoral candidates, $5,000 for council candidates, with an additional 85 cents for each eligible voter.

He reviewed past election spending in Pitt Meadows and noticed one difference in 2011 – developers donated significant amounts to several campaigns.

Smith says the 2011 election was a game changer for Pitt Meadows.

“It’s a beginning of a very slippery slope,” he warns.

“You can’t run for mayor of Vancouver now unless you can raise a couple of million bucks and you can kind of extrapolate that to other municipalities. Is the new order something that might need some regulation? I would say, yes.”

Smith would even be satisfied if the province enacted campaign finance rules similar to those in place for members of the provincial legislature.

He wants campaign financing to be transparent and notes that could be achieved by candidates disclosing campaign donations before voting day.

“I always used to joke that Kim Jong il could make a donation to the mayor of Vancouver and no one would find out until after the election,” he says.

“It’s a local governing mess. It’s democratically embarrassing.”

• You can view campaign disclosure statements on the city's website.

 

CORRECTION

A previous version of the story listed Halo Sawmills contribution to Coun. Gwen O'Connell's election campaign as $50. Halo donated $450. The News apologizes for the error.

 

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