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French campaign statement sent for audit

In AWARE News Network
Jul 26th, 2015
Mayor Bill French

Bill French maclean-175x170 Colin McLarty

Mayor Bill French, Dan McLean and Colin McLarty

By Kate Harries AWARE News Network

Springwater Mayor Bill French’s election campaign expenses will be audited following an application filed by former deputy mayor Dan McLean.

The stakes could be high. The penalties under the Municipal Elections Act range from being required to step down and not being eligible to run until after the next election for the most serious contravention to no penalty for an inadvertent offence.

Ultimately, a number of the allegations made by McLean were shown at a hearing last week to be without foundation.

His complaint appeared to boil down to whether French had used some wooden stakes from the 2010 election without declaring their value, and the fact that a $250 campaign contribution was improperly listed. French explained that was an oversight.

The three-member compliance audit committee, however, voted 2-1 to grant the application and appoint the firm Grant Thornton to do the audit.

Committee chair Robert Barlow, QC, in a minority decision, disagreed with his fellow committee members, characterizing many of McLean’s comments as conjecture and concluding that he did not have “reasonable grounds” to support his application.

“What is reasonableness?” Barlow asked, drawing on case law to define it as “a practical, non-technical and common sense probability as to the existence of the facts and inferences asserted.’’

Barlow said he did not find that a contravention of the Municipal Elections Act had been proven by McLean. “I reject the application,” he said.

But the other two members of the compliance committee, appointed jointly by Oro-Medonte and Springwater councils before the last municipal election, said a full investigation was warranted.

George Wodoslawsky of Oro-Medonte, who described himself as an “internal auditor,” said he was concerned by a statement in the audit French commissioned (French was the only Springwater candidate required to file an audit of his expenses due to spending more than $10,000).

Smith and Lassaline stated that their opinion was qualified because, “due to the inherent nature of the transactions of an election campaign, the completeness of the income and expenses is not subject to satisfactory audit verification.”

Similar boilerplate wording can be found in the audits filed by other candidates across the county, but for Wodoslawsky, it was a “red flag.”

Colin McLarty of Springwater, a certified management accountant, said the improper reporting of the name of a contributor showed a lack of attention to detail and raised issues of credibility of all French’s information.

“We need to remove any doubts that may exist,” McLarty said.

Around 30 members of the public attended the July 20 hearing, and some made brief submissions. One, Roy Monk, challenged McLarty’s membership of the committee on the grounds that he actively supported McLean in the municipal election. “He should recuse himself,” Monk said. But Barlow told Monk he was not entitled to raise the matter, although he could do so “in another forum.”

Jack Siegel, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in election law, represented McLean at the hearing. French represented himself.

The following are the claims raised by Siegel on behalf of Mclean, and French’s responses:

– OFFICE EXPENSES French’s office expenses, reported at $589.91, did not reflect the market rent for his Elmvale campaign office and should have exceeded $1,250. In response to a question from Barlow, Siegel conceded that McLean is not an expert but he had talked to “a couple of real estate people.”

“In my view, his comments were conjecture,” Barlow said.

French provided an MLS listing showing that the 2,000 square-foot space – vacant for two years – was on offer at $10 a square foot with no heat, hydro or phone. He rented 300 square feet from Sept. 17 to Oct. 31 so he could use it as a sign location.

– ELECTION BROCHURES French under-reported the cost of his election brochures because he had not declared all his material. Siegel submitted signed statements from four residents, including former councillor Dan Clement, stating they had received two or more printed documents from French. McLean’s calculations of the cost of several specialty items, including door-knocker cards, was that the total cost should have been $2,600 to $3,000.

French said he had only one brochure, which cost him $1,394.44, that was printed in two versions, black and white and colour, for a total of 11,400 copies. He said the printing was done at Staples and Express Printing for no special consideration, and he kept the cost low by using standard 8 1/2 by 11 paper, rather than custom-sized flyers. He used no door-knockers or postcards. “I was very frugal, very efficient in managing my money, as I always am,” he said.

– WEBSITE & INTERNET In reporting $430.39, French did not declare the true cost of his “elaborate website and social media campaign.” Siegel told the committee that French’s website contained “an awful lot of copy” and was “professionally laid out, certainly not the kind of thing you do by the seat of your pants.” He presented the committee with a quote of $2,000 for comparable web services from Heart of Business, a Springwater-based firm headed by Brenda Stanley.

French said he had no professional help and that, with some application, anyone can put together a “fairly good-looking website” in a matter of hours. He said he has managed three websites and a blog since 2009 and added: “I’ve spent a little time learning this and I don’t think I should be penalized.”

– SIGNS French had re-used signs from the 2010 election that looked “similar” to the 2014 version, and failed to declare the inventory, worth a possible $2,000.

“Mr Siegel suggested it was ”reasonable” he would use them in future campaigns,” said Barlow in his decision. “However there was nothing provided to the committee indicating that he did. Conjecture again is not acceptable to me on a matter of this nature.”

French said he did not re-use his 2010 sign and showed the committee how much it differed in colour and design from the 2014 sign. “My campaign committee said it (the 2010 sign) was awful, and I agree,” he said. A member of his campaign team, John Hawthorne, confirmed this, and another candidate, Connie Spek, said she had picked up signs for all candidates and none were French’s old signs.

– REPORTING OF CONTRIBUTIONS Siegel cited a listing of a contributor called Genesis 2 as a violation of the act which allows contributions only from individuals, businesses incorporated in Ontario and trade unions. “How serious a contravention are we looking at?” Siegel asked. “Is it an illegal contribution from ‘none of the above?’”

French said the gift in kind of 10 signs and 26 hats from Midhurst resident Vern Martin, valued at $250, was listed incorrectly. He apologized for the unintentional oversight.

While McLean’s written complaint referred to possible impropriety in the relationship between French and Springwater News publisher Mike Jacobs, Siegel did not raise that issue and it was not addressed by the committee.

McLean filed the application on June 24, 2015. The deadline for filing was June 25. If the audit finds no contravention has occurred, McLean could be on the hook for the cost.

Violations of the Municipal Elections Act are more likely to come to public attention because of overspending by a candidate. That’s not the issue here, with French’s eligible expenditure of $16,293.36 coming in at $6,000 below his allowable limit.

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