Once every four years, they add an extra day to February, and once every four years, the City of Guelph adds an extra committee meeting to the calendar. Oh yes, the Municipal Election Compliance Audit Committee met for the first time in four years this week, but the quadrennial excitement was somewhat tempered with some important lessons I took away for the next election.
To recap, a committee meeting was called to request an audit of the financial statements belonging to Thai Mac. The Guelph businessman and promoter was one of the candidates in Ward 1 during last fall’s municipal election, and there was some concern about the fact that he had no campaign donors according to his submitted forms while also clearly having what looked like a well-funded campaign.
The committee decided that suspicion alone wasn’t enough to refer the matter to a third-party auditor, but I’m not sure that let’s Mac off the hook ethically. I’m also not sure that it let’s the city clerks office off the hook either because those suspicions about Mac were birthed, in part, by a big glaring grey area in election rules.
At the heart of the request for an audit brought by community member Amanda Turner were concerns about the Caught in Guelph Facebook page, which Mac runs. The group is meant to be a community page that fosters discussion between Guelphites while also offering advertising opportunities for local businesses and groups to its 40,000 members.
You might already see the problem when the administrator for such a group decides to run for office.
“Given the purported value of the ‘Caught in Guelph (and Area)’ group as an advertising platform, and the fact that the candidate utilized this platform at least seven times throughout the campaign, it is implausible that this expense amounts to $1,375.70 or less,” Turner wrote in her submission.
In his submission, Mac said that he decided to keep Caught in Guelph neutral by not accepting any political advertising, and thus it did not satisfy any definition in the Municipal Elections Act to identify Caught in Guelph posts as paid advertising, or to identify the page itself as a third-party advertiser. Of course that didn’t stop Mac from posting about his own campaign on the page.
The committee’s decision, I think, was based on the fact that there was no evidence that Mac contravened the act, or that he didn’t report all his expenses. All Turner had were suspicions, and that might be enough to initiate a proverbial wild goose chase, but it’s not enough to start an audit.
Mac may be justified in the righteousness he expressed on Monday, but here’s the thing: He could have avoided all of this by turning over administration duties for Caught in Guelph to someone else during the course of the election.
To look at this another way, I’m a volunteer at CFRU, and so is Chetna Robinson who ran for Ward 6 in last fall’s election. So long as she was on the campaign trail, she was not on the radio because CFRU has rules about not promoting candidates during a campaign. Never mind that Robinson hosted a music show, her mere presence on the radio could be taken as an endorsement.
That may be an obvious example, and this could be where the accepted rules of the old media need to be adapted for the new. Even Mac understood that in his prepared response to the audit request.
“Also at the meeting I had with Stephen O’Brien and Jennifer Slater on Wednesday August 10th, 2022 at 3:30pm, we had discussions about Social Media and it was in agreement that the (then) current Municipal Elections Act, 1996 v26 may need an update to address current trends and technologies,” he wrote.
So let’s address them.
First, if you’re an administrator of a social media page, I don’t care if it’s a subreddit about generation one Transformer toys, you’re going to have to hand over your responsibilities for the duration of the campaign.
Being an administrator of a social media page is a lot like being a publisher in that administrators get the final say about what can get posted. You can’t have a community promotions page that you say is apolitical and then exclusively promote your own election campaign and only your campaign. I believe that’s called a “bait and switch.”
Second, the city needs to establish official social media accounts for elected councillors, and those accounts need some kind of regulation that bars incumbent councillors from using their official city accounts for campaigning.
Now let me preface this by saying that no one broke any rules in the last election, but at one point Mayor Cam Guthrie decided to use the same Twitter account he uses to share mayor business for campaigning, which gave him a pretty unfair advantage.
People may follow Guthrie as mayor, but not follow Guthrie as candidate, and people need to understand with some immediacy that a campaign statement is different from an official one from the city’s mayor.
Third, the city’s elections expenses form needs to do better than the catch-all term “advertising”.
It already splits off flyers and election signs, so why not Facebook ads? Or radio ads? Or website costs? Mac correctly pointed out that he may have been unfairly dinged for not including the bill for his website in his expenses while so many others did the same because there’s nothing there to say that a candidate must disclose website hosting expenses.
And for that matter, where do those website hosting costs go? Is it advertising? Is it phone or internet expenses? Is it “other”? How did we get this far into the 21st century with expense forms that do not reflect the realities of a modern, digital campaign?
The city carefully regulates how you can use physical assets in the midst of the campaign, but it’s the Wild West in terms of digital, and that’s just silly given current realities.
Now I imagine that some of these things probably require an amendment or two to the Municipal Elections Act, which is technically the Province’s job, but if there’s ever a time to look at these issues, it’s now, at the longest possible point before the next municipal election. I would hate to come to the next meeting of the Municipal Election Compliance Audit Committee with the same unanswered questions.