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Long after 2021 election, city releases names of donors to third party advertisers

Third party advertisers (TPAs) promote or oppose candidates or highlight specific issues in an election and are required to register and to later disclose financial information on their donations and spending. For Calgary's last municipal election, that financial disclosure was to be filed with the city by March 1, 2022.   (Mike Symington/CBC - image credit)

The City of Calgary has released the names of donors who gave money to third party advertisers in the 2021 municipal election as directed by Alberta's privacy commissioner.

Third party advertisers (TPAs) promote or oppose candidates or highlight specific issues in an election.

They are required to register and to later disclose financial information on their donations and spending. For the last municipal election, that financial disclosure was to be filed with the city by March 1, 2022.

The City of Calgary did release disclosure reports from TPAs on their spending but it redacted the names of their donors.

In total, there were 176 donors to the eight registered TPAs.

CBC News filed a request under Alberta's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy legislation (FOIP) to obtain the donor information.

But in May 2022, the City of Calgary again refused to provide that information.

It stated that releasing those details would be harmful to "the business interests" of third parties and that it would be "harmful to personal privacy."

In June 2022, CBC News filed an appeal of that decision to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC).

In its recent decision, the OIPC determined that the donor information is not confidential and that releasing the details would not cause any harm as defined in the FOIP legislation.

The OIPC agreed that in line with provincial law, the City of Calgary could redact any personal information and exempted all donor information regarding those who gave less than $250.

It directed the city to reprocess the original FOIP request and the city complied.

Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University, said voters could use this information before they cast their ballot.

She expressed disappointment that it took more than two years after the election to get this information, even though provincial law states it must be disclosed soon after the votes are tallied.

Lori Williams is a political science professor with Mount Royal University in Calgary. She says the city's secrecy regarding the report does a disservice to elected officials who were not subjects in the investigation.
Lori Williams is a political science professor with Mount Royal University in Calgary. She says the city's secrecy regarding the report does a disservice to elected officials who were not subjects in the investigation.

Lori Williams is an associate professor in the department of policy studies at Mount Royal University. She says financial information surrounding campaigns could be useful to Calgary voters before they cast their ballot. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

"To have to first of all apply for the information through a FOIP request and then have to appeal it in order to get the information really interferes with the importance of full disclosure of what's going on, in terms of the finances that are funding campaigns," said Williams.

She pointed out that Calgary is now closer to the next municipal election than the last one but financial information like this is only becoming available now.

"That is really quite unacceptable."

When asked for a comment about the delay in providing the TPA donor information, the provincial government referred the matter to Dale Nally, the minister for Service Alberta and Red Tape Reduction.

In a statement, his spokesman Nicky Gocuan said the government is reviewing the rules regarding third party advertisers.

"Balancing the protection of personal information and Albertans' right to know is critical, which is why Municipal Affairs is currently looking into improvements to the Local Authority Election Act to be in place prior to next year's municipal elections," stated Gocuan.

'Shouldn't be this difficult'

NDP MLA Irfan Sabir said this is information that citizens deserve in a healthy democracy and it should be available in a timely way.

He said the government should consult with Albertans on ways of improving financial reporting for municipal elections.

"It shouldn't be this difficult for anyone accessing that information," said Sabir.

While candidates in the election were limited to accepting donations of $5,000 or less from individuals, TPAs could collect donations up to $30,000 from corporations, unions and individuals.

Two of the TPAs, Calgarians for a Progressive Future (known as Calgary's Future) and Fluoride Yes, had earlier voluntarily released their donor information.

Calgary's Future received $1,708,826 in the years leading up to the 2021 election. There were six contributions, all from civic unions like the Amalgamated Transit Union and two locals with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Calgary's Future endorsed numerous candidates in the election, including Jyoti Gondek, who was elected as mayor, as well as several now serving councillors.

Much of its money was spent on Facebook and social media advertising during the 2021 election period, although it also spent large sums on pro-union TV and radio ads in the year prior to that period.

The other major TPA in the election was Calgary Tomorrow, which backed the candidacy of former councillor Jeff Davison, who was running for mayor. He finished third in that race.

Calgary Tomorrow raised $422,158 in donations from 176 donors. Many of those contributions come from the corporate sector, including numerous companies connected to the property development industry and the oilpatch.

Major donors to Calgary Tomorrow included Heritage Pointe Golf Revitalization ($22,700), Primus Developments ($20,000), Exploron Corporation ($20,000), 1994864 Alberta Ltd. ($20,000) Prairie Birch Royalties ($15,000) and Prairie Boys Capital Corporation ($15,000).