The president of the Non-Partisan Association is demanding the municipal affairs minister apologize for accusing the civic party of looking for ways to skirt new campaign finance rules that ban union and corporate donations.
Gregory Baker was making reference to a remark Selina Robinson made to the CBC this week in which she said she was "disappointed to hear there's an electoral organization that's looking for a way to skirt that legislation."
The legislation in question is the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act, which Robinson's government brought in to ban corporate and union donations and limit individual donations to $1,200 to a party or candidate in an election campaign.
The Act, however, does not limit donations or restrict the source of donations for a party's expenses required to rent an office, pay for staff, insurance, supplies and other costs to keep an office running between and during elections.
"[The minister's] comments are completely inaccurate and it's a serious mischaracterization of our organization and its name," said Baker, noting the party sent a letter to Robinson's office Wednesday demanding an apology. "We are not trying to skirt the system. This is a document that they produced and it's an Act that they produced."
Robinson's remark was in reaction to media reports suggesting the NPA planned to continue to accept donations from corporations to pay for operational expenses.
Baker pointed out the party has not accepted any corporate donations since the legislation was enacted last fall. But he acknowledged that doesn't mean the party won't accept such donations in the future to keep the office open.
"The spirit of the Act is to remove the corporate and union donations and, in my view, it actually does that," he said. "It limits fundraising to eligible individuals in the campaign period. If the ministry wants to expand it [to include operational expenses], then they should draft their legislation correctly. That's not the way it's drafted."
He said the party has spent about $150,000 per year for the last four years to keep its office open on Pender Street. Since the legislation was enacted, Baker said, the party has relied on personal donations.
Andrew Watson, manager of communications for Elections BC, confirmed in an email Wednesday that "there are no limits or source restrictions on money raised for operational purposes in either the election period or campaign period."
The election period runs from Jan. 1 to Sept. 21. The campaign period is Sept. 22 to Oct. 20, which is election day. It will be the first election in Vancouver's history with restrictions on donations.
Asked how Elections BC will ensure corporate or union donations will not be used for campaigns, Watson said staff conducts "thorough compliance reviews" of all disclosure statements after elections.
"It is an offence under [the new legislation] to file a false or misleading disclosure report," he said. "There are significant penalties under the Act for individuals or organizations that commit such an offence."
The Courier contacted Robinson's office for comment Wednesday. An emailed response from the minister did not address the NPA's letter but provided a similar comment to the one she gave CBC earlier in the week.
"It's disappointing that some parties are looking for ways to bring big money back into local politics," Robinson said. "This government believes that people should be at the heart of politics, not big money. The legislation we brought in last fall was designed to create a level playing field."
Added Robinson: "We have staff looking into what changes may be needed to ensure that we are able to give British Columbians the fair elections they want, free of the influence of donors with deep pockets."
Meanwhile, Mayor Gregor Robertson's Vision Vancouver party also sent a letter to Robinson and demanded her office close what they said was a "loophole" in the new campaign finance rules.
"We believe that all expenditures incurred by political parties, whether during election cycle or outside of it, are done with an intention of winning elections," said the letter signed by Michael Haack, the party's co-chairperson. "Our view is that only individual contributions should fund political parties at all times."
At Vision Vancouver's annual general meeting in January, the party released financial documents to its members that showed it raised $1,075,499 in 2017 and spent $1,104,169. The party did not disclose the sources of the money.
The Courier left messages for Haack Tuesday and Wednesday but a call was not returned before the posting of this story Thursday morning. In the 2014 election, Vision spent $3.4 million, with the bulk of its money coming from corporations and more than $360,000 from unions.