‘A cautionary tale’: What this Ontario town can teach us about lobbyists

Last week, a judicial inquiry released a report on transactions in Collingwood — and highlighted serious issues with lobbying. Should more municipalities establish registries?
By Mary Baxter - Published on Nov 12, 2020
Collingwood is the smallest Ontario municipality to have adopted a lobbyist registry. (Flickr/cmh2315fl)

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Between 2010 and 2014, Paul Bonwick earned more than $1 million for his involvement in deals made by Collingwood city council — almost half of what the town of about 22,000 paid in salaries in 2012 for its full-time staff.

The problem? Bonwick is the brother of then-mayor Sandra Cooper.

That’s just one of the issues covered in a report, released last week, that was produced by a judicial inquiry into business dealings in the town. The 20-month-long inquiry focused on two transactions — the sale of a 50 per cent share of the town's electrical utility and a decision to award a contract to expand recreational facilities to one builder without considering other bids — and identified the lack of transparency about lobbying as a key issue.

Of the 306 inquiry recommendations from Justice Frank Marrocco, 29 relate to establishing and operating a lobbyist registry — something the town introduced this July, making it only the seventh of Ontario's 444 municipalities to have done so. “There’s nothing wrong with [lobbying],” says Collingwood mayor Brian Saunderson. “But we need to understand who these people are and whose interests they are advancing.”

In the wake of the report’s release, some experts say that more municipalities should follow suit and introduce their own registries.

These registries require lobbyists to record their interactions with public officials, and are available to the public. They are intended to promote accountability and transparency in government activities. Lobbyists who do not disclose their activities can face fines or other penalties. Every province has a registry, as does the federal government. In Ontario, however, municipalities can choose whether to have one. (Toronto is the lone exception; provincial legislation requires it to maintain one.)

Saunderson acknowledges that a registry might not have been able to curb all the actions detailed in the report. However, he says, “It might have addressed the issue about the conflict of interests that were never declared. In other words, the community would have been aware that the mayor's brother was involved. And I think that would have set off a whole bunch of red lights.”

Bonwick, a former Liberal MP for Simcoe–Grey and a former town councillor, advised his sister, Cooper, in her first term of mayor, and also regularly networked with his friends Deputy Mayor Rick Lloyd and Ed Houghton, the report says. (Houghton was, among other things, the town’s executive director of engineering and public works, president and CEO of Collus Power Corporation — the municipality’s electric utility — and, for a year from April 2012, acting chief administrative officer.) Bonwick obtained and passed along “sensitive information” to his client, PowerStream Incorporated, about other bidders and share-sale deliberations. According to the report, he was less than forthcoming” with officials about his connection with the business.

Indeed, the reports say that, when council affirmed a deal with PowerStream in January 2012, five of the town’s eight councillors had not known that Bonwick had served as the company’s consultant.

Bonwick would later lobby on behalf of another company and access sensitive information. Only two town officials knew of his involvement; neither of them told the others.

Although Marrocco at a press conference emphasized that these are not findings “of criminal or civil liability,” he did conclude in the report that, had council and staff known Bonwick was lobbying in this latter case, “they very well may have changed their respective approaches to researching, recommending, voting on, or negotiating” the project.

Bonwick disagrees with Marroco’s conclusions about how he handled his lobbying activities: “I don’t think the evidence supported that,” he tells TVO.org.

Andrew Sancton, a political scientist at Western University, says Marrocco’s report doesn’t explain how measures such as a lobbyist registry would have helped, and questions whether it would have solved the problem in this case: “Would Bonwick have signed up for it? It's conceivable that he wouldn't have because he had very close friendships with these people; he could talk to them anytime he wanted.”

Nevertheless, Sancton does think larger communities should establish registries. “The thing about lobbyist registries is it's not so much finding out what the councillors are up to — you find out who is actually trying to affect municipal policies,” he explains. “That’s useful information to have.”

For the more than half of the province’s municipalities that employ fewer than 10 full-time staff, he says, maintaining a registry may place too large a burden on finances and resources: “You do have to think about the cost-benefit analysis here.” (Collingwood, which employs 168 people full time and is the smallest Ontario municipality to have adopted a lobbyist registry, has 83 parties registered.) 

Suzanne Craig, the lobbyist registrar and integrity commissioner for Vaughan, says that officials in her city had similar concerns when they set out to establish a registry four years ago, on her recommendation. But they found ways to cope, she says: for example, different accountability responsibilities were combined in one role — hers. “It does not have to be an expensive process — and there is a tie-in to trust and how governments spend money, use money, and how contracts are awarded,” she says, adding that smaller municipalities could pool resources, perhaps by establishing a lobbyist registrar at a county-government level.

Saunderson says that, although the approach isn’t perfect, without it, other municipalities could end up like Collingwood — which, in his estimation, has faced tens of millions of dollars in lost opportunity costs and negative impacts.

Among the inquiry’s other recommendations are asking the province to change the definition of mayor in the Municipal Act — to clarify that the office must act with council’s approval and agreement — and to revise the Conflict of Interest Act, and requiring members of council to disclose their financial interests annually. A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing tells TVO.org by email that the provincial government "will review any recommendations made that may relate to provincial laws for future consideration."

“These recommendations are so critical,” says Saunderson, who notes that the town is reviewing the report and will seek legal advice on next steps. “That, to me, is why other municipalities should take great interest in this report — because it is a cautionary tale.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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