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The business of ballots: How money influences municipal elections

When Bev Fournier wanted to run for mayor in Tumbler Ridge, joining what would become a hard-fought three-person race for an open seat, she wanted to make a splash. So she opened an office downtown.

When Bev Fournier wanted to run for mayor in Tumbler Ridge, joining what would become a hard-fought three-person race for an open seat, she wanted to make a splash.

So she opened an office downtown.

“I wanted everyone to know I had a functioning campaign,” Fournier told the Alaska Highway News. “I was serious about the race … and I’m not originally from up here. Where I come from down south, you have to do things like that to be taken seriously.”

Fournier spent about $1,100 on her office, and just under $3,700 total on her campaign, more than her two challengers combined. She bought advertising in the local newspaper, and campaign signs that sparkled “like stop signs” so folks driving through the district could see them at night.

Unfortunately, her big expenditures — the fifth-highest of any candidate in any local race in the Northeast — didn’t do much to put her in the mayor’s chair on Nov. 15. She finished a distant third. The winner, former councillor Don McPherson, had only about $2,200 of campaign expenses; Garret Golhof, a relatively close runner-up, spent about $1,200.

All told, the dozens of candidates in Northeast B.C.’s local municipal elections spent a total of about $115,000 on campaign expenses. For context, that’s only slightly more than the local MLAs, Liberals Pat Pimm and Mike Bernier, spent on each of their campaigns in the 2013 election.

However, the individual financial reports of candidates throughout Northeast B.C., recently released to the public, tell stories about last year’s local elections that the lacklustre voter turnout and low turnover do not. Some contests saw more locals get more involved with their own wallets than others, and some races had a favourite backed by residents facing off against a business-backed hopeful.

But it’s unclear, looking at the big picture, whether money talked.

Take the case of Northern Rockies Mayor Bill Streeper: he won his third term last fall with an almost entirely self-financed war chest of over $20,000, of which he spent a little over $17,000. That’s twice as much as anyone else in the Northeast, even counting candidates in Fort St. John and Dawson Creek.

Streeper, who was out of country and did not respond to calls seeking comment, also spent the most per potential voter: according to Elections BC estimates, if every eligible person in the NRRM voted in November, and voted for him, he would have paid about $4 for each of those votes.

Only a few other candidates spent even $1 per voter in the Northeast; most candidates’ campaign expenses amounted to a few pennies per constituent.

Streeper spent an average of $20.55 for each of his 840 votes, compared to about $4 per vote for Kim Eglinski, his challenger, who spent a little under $3,000 total and finished with exactly 700 votes.

Eglinski said she was “shocked” after hearing the campaign spending numbers for the first time. “I would not do that … I think he took me running seriously, but I had no idea he spent that much.”

But did it make the difference in the race? Eglinski said she didn’t think so, and further added that she didn’t think it would scare off anyone else who might want to run for mayor against Streeper next time.

“Four years is a long time,” she said. “I don’t think what he spent now will really be a barrier to others by then.”

Still, because Fort Nelson is big compared to some other Northeast towns, Streeper’s $20-per-actual-vote figure is not the most expensive throughout all the races. For instance, Fournier spent almost $28 for each of the 138 votes she received in Tumbler Ridge.

Kimeal Cooke spent almost $2,200 on her mayoral campaign in Pouce Coupe. Like Fournier, she placed third in a fierce and occasionally bitter three-way mayor’s race, receiving only 48 votes — an average of $46 per vote.

The most extreme case appears to be that of Wayne Wilmot, who also placed last in a three-way mayor’s race. He spent over $1,700 on his campaign, and was selected by only 26 citizens of Taylor, which works out to $66 a vote.

By contrast, the elected mayors of Pouce and Taylor — Bill Plowright and Rob Fraser, respectively — actually spent less than both of their competitors in each race.

Plowright said he was able to keep his costs down because he was an incumbent, and able to reuse campaign signs and the like, but also that he knocked on every door in the village, “and was turned away from a few.”

“I don’t think money makes too much of a difference,” he told the Alaska Highway News. “I think if you can engage with the community, so they know where you’re going, money is much less important.”

Out of the Northeast’s 13 local-government elections last November, counting mayor and council races separately, the person who spent the most in their race won a seat in eight of them — but the person who spent the least also won their seat eight times out of 13.

Several candidates even triumphed without spending a dime on their campaigns, according to records. A number of incumbents kept their seats “by acclamation” because no one challenged them. But others, such as Terry McFadyen in Dawson Creek and Doug McKee in the NRRM, won competitive races in some of the Northeast’s larger towns without breaking the bank even once.

Looking at entire races, the financial reports show a wider gap between some Northeast towns than the election results would imply.

The Northern Rockies contests, for instance, saw candidates receive healthy donations from local residents and businesses, and most hopefuls spent close to $1,000 on sign-making, advertising and the like.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that the municipality had the second-highest voter turnout in the election, after Pouce Coupe — another set of races that had active donors and healthy campaign spending.

On the other hand, only two of the eight candidates who ran in Hudson’s Hope — Nicole Gilliss and Heather Middleton — reported any campaign expenses at all.

That also isn’t surprising, as seven of those eight candidates won seats, and Mayor Gwen Johansson was acclaimed. Still, it’s not a stretch to say the lack of advertising and an uncompetitive race may have played off each other in reducing the district’s voter turnout from 71 per cent in 2008 to just 28.7 per cent last year.

Not much was out of the ordinary about the expenses themselves. The vast majority of money was spent on campaign signs and mailers, as well as local radio, TV and print advertising.

Fournier’s office, as mentioned earlier, was one of the more unique expenses on the books from the 2014 elections, but reelected Pouce Coupe Councillor Andre Lavoie wins the award for the most unique, and most honestly reported, campaign spending of all.

Lavoie reported having “breakfast with wife to celebrate being elected” on Nov. 25, and then “dinner with wife to celebrate being elected” on Dec. 2, which cost a combined $76.28. Lavoie spent a total of about $750 on his campaign. (For the record, Don Main of Elections BC confirmed that candidates have fairly wide latitude on campaign spending, and there is nothing illegal or prohibited about this specific expense.)

The councillor told the Alaska Highway News that the dinner, at the village’s Doc Hollies Eatery, was important because it was a “thank you” to his No. 1 campaign worker.

“I absolutely would not have run without her support,” Lavoie said. “No question about that.”

editor@ahnfsj.ca