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Candidate funding from Burl’s Creek owners raises lobbying concerns in Oro-Medonte

In Council Watch
Jun 20th, 2019
Mayor Harry Hughes

Mayor Harry Hughes

Citizen makes official request for township to institute a registry of lobbyists; ‘My choice was to either be at a significant disadvantage or to accept donations,’ says mayor

By Jessica Owen Orillia Matters

Does money equal influence?

A concerned citizen in Oro-Medonte Township has made an official request of the township to institute a registry of lobbyists after discovering that a large share of campaign funding from the municipal election in October came from parties with a vested interest in Burl’s Creek Event Grounds.

Paul Sanderson – who himself donated $500 to the campaign of mayoral candidate Sandy Agnew – takes issue with Mayor Harry Hughes, Ward 4 Coun. Shawn Scott and Ward 3 Coun. Cathy Keane, as well as mayoral and council candidates John Crawford and Errin Dickens as well as others, taking donations from members of the Dunford family, who own Burl’s Creek Event Grounds in Oro-Medonte Township and Republic Live.

“In Oro-Medonte, the lack of such a registry is another sign of no real transparency as to who comes to council for favours,” wrote Sanderson in an email to township clerk Karen Way that was shared with OrilliaMatters. “Such donations clearly demonstrate a common interest between the donation source and the candidates. Such a common interest cannot be exempted or ignored.”

While the Election Act prevents corporations from donating to election campaigns, individuals are allowed to donate.

Stan Dunford, Eva Dunford and Brooke Dunford all made donations to various Oro-Medonte campaigns. Each made a donation of $1,200 to Hughes’ campaign, totalling $3,600.

Scott took $2,200 from Eva and Brooke Dunford.

Todd Jenereaux, executive vice president of Republic Live, also made donations to Scott ($800), Hughes ($1,200) and Keane ($500).

According to Mayor Harry Hughes, although he has prided himself on running self-funded election campaigns in the past, this time around he felt he had no choice but to accept donations.

New rules under the provincial Elections Act under Bill 181 state that while he was allowed to spend $22,000 running for the mayor’s seat, only half can come out of his own pocket.

“I think if Mr. Sanderson’s problem were to be addressed, they should change that requirement. It virtually forces somebody who is in a contentious election process to have to take donations. I knew my opponents were spending a lot of money,” said Hughes. “My choice was to either be at a significant disadvantage or to accept donations.”

Hughes adds that in previous elections, he has never taken a donation.

“Quite frankly, the donations that I accepted were ones (where) I didn’t have a lot of decision-making to do. The decisions on the zoning for Burl’s Creek – the contentious ones – were decided by the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board),” he said.

Looking forward, Hughes says he doesn’t see the acceptance of campaign contributions from the Dunfords as being an issue or reason to recuse himself from conversations at the council table concerning Burl’s Creek or Republic Live.

“There certainly were no promises made whatsoever with anyone who made a donation,” he said. “If you look at other candidates, there are members of AWARE Simcoe and the West Oro Ratepayers Association who donated to them. There’s balance here that’s going on.”

“I personally feel the changes in the Election Act should not have been made,” he added.

Coun. Scott says he’s not in a position to comment on the possibility of a lobbying registry as the issue hasn’t yet come before council, but says he doesn’t see a problem with taking campaign contributions from the Dunfords.

“Well, from the onset I campaigned on a number of different platforms. I’ve always been a big supporter of Burl’s Creek, from the position of someone trying to get elected and as an end user,” said Scott.

“I believe what is being alleged is we are incapable of being able to formulate a reasonable and fair decision… as it relates to that particular entity. I can assure you… that I make informed and reasonable decisions based on facts, not on emotion or hyperbole.”

Township Clerk Karen Way says there’s no reason for council members to recuse themselves from discussions unless there is a pecuniary interest, meaning a member stands to lose or gain financially from a decision being made.

Therefore, accepting an election campaign contribution from an individual who then comes before council at a future date with a request does not, in itself, constitute a conflict of interest under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

“Campaign contributions have absolutely nothing to do with a declaration of pecuniary interest made by a member of council,” said Way.

While there are currently no plans for Oro-Medonte council to consider a lobbyist registry at the table, Way says that could change in the future if certain criteria are met.

“Mixed in with Mr. Sanderson’s ask about the lobbyist registry were some other requests of council,” said Way. “If he were to send in a request asking specifically for the Code of Conduct to be reviewed – which he’s alluded to but hasn’t directly made that ask – I would be more than happy to include it on the council agenda.”

To view the financial statements of all candidates that ran in the municipal election in Oro-Medonte, click here.

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