By Liz Benneian, A Better Niagara
When is a flyer, created for a Regional Councillor and paid for and distributed at public expense, simply communication with constituents and when is it self-promoting election material?
That is a crucial question that needs to be answered after Niagara Regional Councillors Sandy Annunziata (Fort Erie), Councillor David Barrick (Port Colborne) and Tony Quirk (Grimsby) all recently sent out flyers to their community that contain what media stories have described as “campaign-style”, “self-congratulatory” messaging.
Barrick and Annunziata’s flyers contained the Niagara Region logo and were paid for by taxpayers through their Councillor expense funds. Quirk, who is a board member of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, expensed his fliers through that largely taxpayer-funded organization. The flyers have received widespread criticism. When Quirk’s was brought to the attention of Mark Brickell, CAO of the NPCA, said he “had questions” about the flyers. The flyers also raised the ire of Port Colborne’s City Council where Barrick’s flyer was called “offensive” and condemned as touting Regional achievements while casting his own local Council in a poor light. Several Regional Councillors also weighed in on the flyers, calling them distasteful, promotional material with two thirds of them supporting Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn’s motion to disallow promotional material being claimed through Regional expense policy.
Augustyn’s motion has been sent to the corporate services committee for further discussion where A Better Niagara fears it will die an ignoble death. A Better Niagara believes these kinds of self-promotional materials, paid for at public expense, should not be allowed, especially during an election year.
Aside from the obvious financial implications for taxpayers, and the ethical concerns about using their position to promote themselves, there is also the simple unfairness of it for other potential candidates. Incumbents already have clear advantages over rivals: name and sometimes facial recognition; connections to community powerbrokers and groups; the experience of having already run and won; and the apathy of a public who know that without term limits, the same people keep getting elected to office again and again, whether fresh faces and fresh ideas are desperately needed or not.
The incumbent advantage is especially large in what Fair Vote Canada calls “candidate-centred” elections where you are voting for an individual rather than a party. So, municipal elections tend to favour incumbents even more than Provincial or Federal elections do.
In an opinion piece in The Voice, a Pelham-based newspaper, Barrick, Annunziata and Quirk tried to pretend the flyers were simply information for their constituents and had nothing to do with politics, but they belied their own argument with the viciousness with which they attacked Augustyn, at Council, and in their article.
Local governments and politicians do need to keep in touch with their constituents about matters of local import, but there are many ways to do that without blatant self-promotion. Some Councils set priorities at the beginning of each year of their term and then issue quarterly reports to citizens on their progress. They do this as a Council, not as individual touting their own accomplishments.
Regional Council should put a moratorium on the kind of self-promotional, taxpayer-funded flyers produced by Barrick, Annunziata and Quirk — at least in an election year. If Councillors want to blow their own horn, it shouldn’t be on the public dime.