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Why a lobbyist registry is a good idea – and other questions

In Adjala-Tosorontio
Sep 19th, 2014

One of the questions on the questionnaire AWARE Simcoe has sent out to candidate is: If elected, will you support the creation of a lobby registry for local and County government?

Some candidates – those new to the workings of municipal government –  have asked for more information about what we mean by this question. Here’s some background:

The idea behind a lobbyist registry is so that the we the public can know who our political representatives and senior municipal officials are meeting with to discuss the disposition of public resources – be it a change in designated land use, or a contract, or purchase of a public asset.

It’s not to stop these meetings, in fact there’s nothing wrong with such meetings.

Where there’s a problem is when the meetings are kept secret. Full transparency puts everyone on a level playing field and there are no surprises.

Under the present system, there has often been extensive discussion and even agreement on a plan of action on some matter involving public funds or resources before anything is brought forward to a public meeting of council. In the case of development, this can leave residents blind-sided and struggling to play catchup on something that’s been in the works for a while.

Toronto has a lobbyist registry. So does Ottawa. Toronto’s was brought in after the MFP computer leasing scandal that cost city taxpayers some $40 million.

Toronto’s bylaw requires that lobbyists – people who lobby for a course of action that would benefit a business or organization, or consultants or other professionals who represent them – be registered in order to have meetings with members of council or senior staff. And they must log in and out when they have the meetings.

The Toronto bylaw also restricts former senior public office holders from lobbying their former colleagues for 12 months after leaving public office.

As far as Simcoe County and second-tier municipalities are concerned, the newly elected members of council could instruct staff could look at what Toronto and Ottawa have done and bring forward a plan for an easy-to-use and low-cost system appropriate to a smaller municipality.

If you want to see the questionnaire, go to the Candidates / Election 2014 button on the menu bar and select your municipality. Check out who has answered (note – questionnaires have not yet been sent out in a couple of municipalities, and we have not yet posted the answers that came in over the last two days but we will be up to date soon).

We have heard from some candidates that they choose not to answer because they prefer to interact directly with voters, and will answer questions at all-candidates’ meetings.  The problem with that is that there isn’t time at all-candidates’ meetings to deal with all the issues – and we think that a forum such as the AWARE questionnaire is a useful way for candidates to communicate with voters.

Another comment has been that they don’t answer yes and no surveys. That doesn’t wash – we not only provide space for comments, we express the hope they will make comments. Many candidates have done so, and their comments advance the democratic process. So there is no attempt in the questionnaire to curtail any complexity in candidates’ communication with the voter.

After all,  responding to the interests and concerns of individuals and groups in the community is an important part of holding oneself accountable. And  election time is interview time – that’s when we get to decide whether we want to retain our present complement of municipal representatives or hire a new lot, and we need a whole lot of information to help us make that decision.

Which brings me to one last point. There’s an increasingly widespread practice at all-candidates’ meetings of requiring electors to submit questions in writing. If you’re lucky, your question will be selected and read out. At the last municipal election I was aware of important questions that had been submitted to the moderator being quietly filed in the wastepaper bin. Justifications for the only-in-writing approach include more efficient use of time and ensuring that not all questions are on the same topics. There are ways of dealing with those matters  without curtailing electors’ right to address the candidates directly in front of an audience of other electors.

This is the one time when people should be able to ask their own questions if they so choose, unmediated by authority figures. The candidates should hear the voice of the people.

Almost forgot about this: The  Southern Georgian Bay Chamber of Commerce imposed a $50 fee for candidates who want to participate in its debates. This seems like it should be illegal. Bodies like the Chamber generally view it as a public duty to provide this service at election time – when as few barriers as possible should be imposed on public engagement.

2 Responses to “Why a lobbyist registry is a good idea – and other questions”

  1. maggie says:

    The Lobby Registry insures transparency and accountability; anything in the public interest should be free and open.

    The Moderator at the All Candidate’s Meetings should keep track of the names of people who want to ask questions, and NOT the questions.

  2. Ray Millar says:

    A Lobbyist Registry may have been helpful in reminding Tiny Township Deputy Mayor George Lawrence who it was that helped him write the Wind Turbine Bylaw (see Ombudsman comments).

    With respect to the Chamber of Commerce and the fee charged to candidates to appear at an all candidates meeting, I see the problem but as is often the case, there are opposing points of view. It costs time and money to host an all candidates meeting, a fact that AWARE is more than familiar with. Is it fair that AWARE members or other public interest groups are required to spend not only their time but their money to give candidates a forum from which to put their position forward?
    When I was a candidate for elected office, I saw the fee charged by organizers of all candidates meetings as a real bargain. The organizing bodies go to a great deal of effort in organizing these events and for $50.00 (or whatever the cost may be),they provide candidates access to a large group of engaged, civic minded voters. I know we could get into a great discussion on campaign financing and probably should given what is happening at all levels of government when it comes to that matter, but the simple truth is that campaigns cost money and in my humble opinion, all candidates meetings offer a good bang for the candidates buck. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    Ray Millar

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