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Journalists can be a council watchdog

Media jobs are evaporating like water puddles on a hot tin roof, but journalists don’t garner much sympathy. Reporters, auto workers, Bay Street traders — the economic carnage is everywhere so complaints about cutbacks at newspapers and broadcast outlets are generally dismissed as self-indulgent whining.

Media jobs are evaporating like water puddles on a hot tin roof, but journalists don’t garner much sympathy. Reporters, auto workers, Bay Street traders — the economic carnage is everywhere so complaints about cutbacks at newspapers and broadcast outlets are generally dismissed as self-indulgent whining.

Then somebody like York University professor Robert MacDermid comes along with a powerful reminder of why dwindling media scrutiny matters. MacDermid, an expert in political campaign financing, recently released his latest analysis of corporate contributions to municipal election campaigns in the Greater Toronto Area. Once again, his research suggests the development industry — most obviously in the suburbs — picks its candidates, co-ordinates financial support for the chosen and usually ends up with friendly faces on council.

Developers’ reasons for doing this are no mystery. A council decision to provide water and sewer services to raw land or to rezone it for residential use increases property values exponentially.

“One change in an official plan can give … a developer millions of dollars,” MacDermid notes.

In Vaughan, for instance, the development industry regularly accounts for the bulk of campaign contributions — 57 per cent in the 2006 municipal election. Also in Vaughan, councillors passed 35 of the 40 official plan amendments before them between 2004 and 2006. Since no councillor asked for a recorded vote, there is no public record of who supported and who opposed each initiative.

It’s not illegal for companies to make campaign contributions. And it’s not illegal for a councillor to vote on official plan amendments involving a campaign contributor. But it should be.

The provincial government should ban corporate and union contributions to municipal campaigns. MacDermid acknowledges this is unlikely to happen for entirely venal reasons: A similar ban already exists at the federal level. Provincial politicians don’t want to be the last ones left drooling at the corporate trough.

Which brings us back to the role of journalists. Reporters covering council meetings witness those unrecorded votes on development-related issues. They can ask councillors to explain their vote. And they can cross-check who received financial support from the applicant company.

We, the media, haven’t done our job in places like Vaughan. While no one paid much attention, developer-friendly councils OK’d hectares of unsustainable urban sprawl. It’s not a record to be proud of. But it’s one that can be improved — if there’s anyone left working in newsrooms to do the job.

 
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