The city has released redacted documents that lay out two complaints about candidate financial disclosures stemming from last fall’s municipal election.
The complaints, one filed April 18 and the other April 19 of this year, have been censored under Section 17 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The names of the complainants and the individuals named in the complaints have been blacked out.
The city also blacked out the names of candidates listed on a photo of an election sign posted by the group St. Albert Think Tank. The photo had been filed as part of one of the complaints.
The Gazette filed an information request in May to access the documents.
The city’s chief legislative officer and returning officer for the election, Chris Belke, is the head of the city’s FOIP program.
He said there are two sides to access-to-information requests: people have the right to request and receive information in the care of public bodies, but there are exceptions, including the disclosure of personal information.
“In this particular case, information that would have been redacted from the document would be information that would identify the complainant or the identities of people he is making suggestions about,” Belke said.
“We don’t want to be creating any kind of stigma or aspersions about these people,” he said, noting there have been no formal charges filed against any of the candidates named in the letters.
Belke did confirm there have been no re-filings of candidates’ financial disclosures since letters were sent out to candidates who were the subject of a complaint.
The two complaints both included multiple candidates.
The letter dated April 18 notes that the letter writer thinks the candidates did not completely or accurately disclose all their information.
The writer states that he or she has met with RCMP Insp. Kevin Murray about the issue.
The letter dated April 19 gives more detail about the nature of the complaint, noting the disclosures “contain no reference to significant donations in kind received by the members of the group of candidates from partly anonymous entities calling themselves the ‘St. Albert Think Tank’ and the ‘St. Albert Election Action Committee.’”
Since both groups are associated with only one St. Albert resident who was spokesperson for both – other members remained anonymous – the two groups should be treated as one, the letter says.
Several candidates were endorsed by those entities. The Think Tank campaign included ads, websites, a booklet and signs placed around St. Albert during the election. The advertising also raised issues in addition to eventually endorsing particular candidates.
The April 19 letter suggests that support should have been counted as in-kind donations.
Belke said the city’s role in addressing the complaints is done.
“My role as returning officer is to receive the submissions that candidates provide … and to make them publicly available and that’s really the extent of our role in this process,” he said.
The city doesn’t have a responsibility to verify the candidate financial disclosures or an enforcement role, he said.
So if the complainants or anybody else believes there are incomplete or inaccurate financial disclosures, they will have to pursue other routes.
Jerry Ward, a spokesperson for Alberta Municipal Affairs, said that next step would not be going to the provincial government.
“They would have to make application to the courts,” Ward said.
Both Ward and Belke pointed out that under the Local Authorities Election Act, there is a statute that, if candidates become newly aware of information that should have been included in their disclosures, they have 30 days to do so. Delaying after that can result in a late filing fee, as well as potentially being found guilty of an offence and fined.
Council candidate Ted Durham made public at a council meeting in late May that he had received notification from the city that two complaints had been filed about his campaign financial disclosure.
Bob Russell, another council candidate, confirmed he did receive a similar letter from the city and is “disturbed about it.”
He notes he did not seek the endorsement, and when the sign went up with the Think Tank’s council recommendations he “was as surprised as anybody” to see his name on there.
The Gazette contacted other candidates who were endorsed by the Think Tank. Some did not return calls while others declined to confirm if they’d received any notification from the city that a complaint was lodged about their campaign finances.
Besides Durham and Russell, the Think Tank publicly endorsed Shelley Biermanski, Sheena Hughes, Cam MacKay and John Goldsmith.
With the names redacted on the complaints, it is impossible to tell if all Think Tank-endorsed candidates were the subject of complaints, whether any of the other municipal candidates were included or if both letters complained about the same candidates.
At the heart of the April 19 complaint is the issue of third party participation in elections.
Council passed a resolution in April to examine the feasibility and legality of bringing in a bylaw aimed at increasing the transparency of third-party election participation, as well as sending a resolution to the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association to consider asking the province to examine the issue.