We are nine months away from the municipal elections but already candidates are declaring themselves and thinking how they are going to finance their campaigns.

The Mayor of Newmarket, Tony Van Bynen, was quick off the mark, taking a half page ad in the Era Banner on 16 January 2014 telling us he was seeking re-election. (See page 13 here)

Underneath an impressive roll call of supporters we read

“This advertisement was paid for by the Committee to Re-elect Tony Van Bynen.”

Phew! No developers in that list. At least I hope not.

All Council candidates, without exception, must ensure that not a single penny of their campaign spending comes from developers who are planning to build in the town.

Money from developers is tainted. The sums may be modest but the donation comes at a high price.

Professor Robert MacDermid of York University has studied in detail the nexus between developers and politicians both in Toronto and in the GTA and his findings are disconcerting. He explains his concerns here.

Developers don’t help finance everyone running for election. They are not interested in promoting a healthy democracy where all views get an airing. No. They pick and choose, most often supporting those seen as sympathetic or influential, preferably both.

Sometimes they will just back the candidates running for the big jobs.

According to Toronto’s Integrity Commissioner (whom I take as an authority on such matters)

 “At present, the receipt of campaign contributions does not in itself give rise to a conflict of interest for Members when the donor subsequently has a matter before Council or one of its committees.”

Here in Newmarket, the publicly available returns on election expenses show that at the last election Regional Councillor John Taylor received a campaign contribution of $750 from Dwight Slessor Holdings Ltd.

In 2010 Dwight Slessor Holdings gave the Committee to re-elect Tony Van Bynen $750.

In neither case did the Mayor or John Taylor declare an interest before voting on the Slessor application for the huge development opposite Upper Canada Mall. They were not required to. 

In any event, no-one in their right mind would suggest a politician could be bought for a mere $750 (and I am sure Tony Van Bynen and John Taylor could not be bought at any price) but donations –even very modest ones – transmit below-the-radar signals to politicians that the developer is supportive and on-side.

Long before the Slessors made their millions from Slessor Square they were oiling the wheels of local political machines. The Slessors gave the Newmarket Aurora Progressive Conservative Association $1,000 in 2010. And they allowed Frank Klees to use their old car showroom property as his election HQ in the last provincial election (having donated $1,120 to his previous election campaign).

Campaign contributions from developers are not crude bribes. It is altogether more subtle.

The developers’ unstated aim is to build a relationship and foster mutual understanding.

It is in everyone’s interests to have squeaky clean politics in Newmarket and I think, in general, we do. But accepting campaign contributions from people who stand to make millions out of the Town’s planning decisions undermines trust in the system, and in politicians.

Candidates should not take money from developers. And if they take money from friends who subsequently become developers they should hand it back, publicly explaining why.

Or, at the very least, they should declare an interest.