By Arend Kersten
Flamborough Chamber of Commerce
Near the end of a marathon meeting last Thursday (September 4), Hamilton Council – meeting as the General Issues Committee (GIC) – decided unanimously to create a new ‘lobbyist registry’ (Mayor Bob Bratina and Councillors Brad Clark, Scott Duvall and Bob Morrow were not present when the vote was taken). If the decision is ratified at Wednesday’s (September 10) Council meeting, the new lobbyist registry will come into effect in early summer, 2015.
In very general terms, it means that if anybody wants to address any member of the senior management team or Council (other than their ward councillor), they must first notify the lobbyist registrar, indicating who they intend to talk to and what the subject of the discussion will be. This information will then be posted on the internet for anyone to review. Proponents argue that the registry will go a long way to promoting ‘open and transparent’ government.
Those concerned about establishing a lobbyist registry in Hamilton (including the Flamborough and Hamilton Chambers of Commerce and the Hamilton-Halton Home Builders Association) argue its creation will negatively impact economic development in Hamilton (complete with its new jobs and property tax revenues). They argue that absolute confidentiality is a ‘sacred trust’ between potential investors and a municipality – especially within the realities of a highly competitive global economy. They fear that any business interested in expanding will simply bypass Hamilton as an option because of the lobbyist registry. Of the 440 municipalities in Ontario, only Toronto and Ottawa currently have such a registry.
But proponents of the registry argue that the proposed rules will allow the appointed ‘lobbyist registrar’ to impose a ‘blackout period’ of confidentiality if a potential investor is interested in locating a business in Hamilton.
Currently, some 86 percent of property taxes in Hamilton comes from residential taxpayers. And since amalgamation, property taxes have skyrocketed. Many argue that residential taxpayers are ‘maxed out.’
The simple answer to Hamilton’s very significant fiscal challenges is to have increased commercial and industrial property taxes. That makes the creation of a lobbyist registry the wrong decision at the wrong time. Our competitors in neighbouring communities such as Burlington, Brantford and Kitchener-Waterloo (not to mention New York State with its 10-year tax holiday) must be laughing all the way to the bank.
What follows are some other aspects of the debate that may be of interest:
- A number of members of Council privately said that they shared our concerns. But in the end, the vote to create the registry was unanimous. Most were enthusiastic supporters (especially Westdale Councillor Brian McHattie and East Flamborough Councillor Judi Partridge). However, some members of Council urged caution and expressed reservations. They included Councillors Tom Jackson (East Mountain), Terry Whitehead (West Mountain), Lloyd Ferguson (Ancaster) and Robert Pasuta (West Flamborough).
- Any member of the public can review the lobbyist registry information on the internet … but privacy laws will prevent them from being identified.
- In addressing the ‘blackout period’ provision regarding temporary confidentiality, President Nando de Caria of the Hamilton-Halton Home Builders Association pointed out that such a decision rests entirely with the appointed ‘lobbyist registrar’ – an unelected and independent individual accountable to nobody but his/her conscience.
- Councillor Lloyd Ferguson (Ancaster) noted that the lobbyist registry in Toronto costs taxpayers $1 million annually – or a total of $7 million since it was created seven years ago. During that time, it has successfully prosecuted one violation, resulting in a fine of $750. That’s not a good return on investment, Ferguson argued. He also asked what problem the lobbyist registry is supposed to address and resolve (other than a ‘perception’). But admitting he could ‘see where this is going,’ Ferguson then voted with the rest of his colleagues.
- Noting the ‘fiascos’ of the appointment of an integrity commissioner and the creation of ‘bus only’ traffic lanes, some – most notably East Mountain Councillor Tom Jackson – suggested creating the lobbyist registry could be a decision Council may come to regret in the future. The registry will be reviewed two years after it is created.
- While members of the public will be required to register, members of Council won’t have to. Even the most casual of observers in Hamilton know that the real politicking goes on behind locked doors in the bunker at city hall where councillors have their offices. If one believes that ‘what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander’ doesn’t consistency demand that members of Council must also detail on the internet who they talk to … and about what?
- It is estimated that the annual cost of the lobbyist registry will be in the $115,000 range – plus $100,000 to set it up. Your tax dollars at work.
Click here to read a CBC Hamilton news article detailing the GIC decision.