St. Albertans are curious about the anonymous groups trying to influence our city’s municipal election.
At least one group is doing it by spending very significant amounts of money – the actual sum, of course, is known only to them – on newspaper advertising, elaborate signage and other activities.
None of this spending, presumably, will be accounted for under Alberta’s municipal election financing laws – although the intention is clearly to influence the outcome of our city council election.
So an unsurprising question I have heard from time to time on St. Albertans’ doorsteps – before the discussion moves quickly to more substantive topics – is, “Who are those guys, anyway?”
On Friday, blogger Dave Cournoyer took a stab at finding some of the answers about the entity calling itself the St. Albert Think Tank, which is opposed to downtown revitalization and the extension of Light Rail Transit from Edmonton, and came up empty-handed.
“In an October 3rd email sent to Mayor Nolan Crouse and all council candidates, the group’s organizer declared that ‘the full membership list of the Think Tank is of no consequence,’ and, despite continuing to remain completely anonymous, is ‘providing absolute openness and transparency,’” Mr. Cournoyer observed in his Daveberta.ca post.
Saturday, the St. Albert Gazette weighed in, stating that it had concluded the Think Tank is “obviously related” to another anonymous group called the Election Action Committee as well as the St. Albert Taxpayers Association, whose leadership is not a secret.
The Gazette concluded: “…Voters deserve to know who stands behind these organizations. It’s time for them to step forward. Their credibility depends on it.”
There’s no sign, however, that the leaders and financiers of either secretive group intends to do anything of the sort.
This has become an issue for candidates like me because the St. Albert Think Tank has organized a public all-candidates’ forum at the Arden Theatre for Wednesday, Oct. 16.
Many candidates, myself included, strongly disapprove of the secrecy surrounding the membership and finances of these groups. As a consequence, several candidates, including Mayor Crouse, have made a considered decision not to attend the Oct. 16 forum.
I personally find this situation arising from the Think Tank’s secrecy quite troubling.
There is absolutely no way I want to appear to endorse the group’s irresponsible and completely inappropriate decision to run an expensive intrusion into a municipal election campaign in total secrecy.
They’ve even used a U.S. based “domain privacy” service to prevent St. Albertans from finding out who registered their website’s name!
Knowing the identity of people advocating polices is important because it helps the public understand their motives, and therefore the worthiness of their positions, even if we disagree. Do they genuinely represent the interests of a group of St. Albert citizens, or are they just another “Astro-Turf” group, set up by someone with money to appear to be a grassroots campaign? Are they even from St. Albert?
In this, Mr. Cournoyer and the Gazette are quite right: if you want anyone to take you seriously, you need to stand up publicly for what you believe in!
Mayor Crouse is right as well when he says that the brouhaha over the secrecy of these groups and their paymasters has become a distraction that is keeping us from dealing with the issues St. Albertans really want to talk about.
Given all this, one would hope the Alberta provincial government would take note and pass legislation requiring purchasers of political advertising during municipal election campaigns to reveal their identities.
After all, it’s not unreasonable to suspect this U.S.-style playbook will be copied elsewhere if it proves to be even marginally effective, and it is clearly not in the spirit of the current Local Authorities Election Act, which requires candidates to submit thorough and timely expense reports.
At the same time, I realize that for many St. Albertans, the Oct. 16 forum may be their only opportunity to ask questions of candidates. Nor am I afraid to state my sincerely held beliefs before a hostile audience.
As I have said in this space before: the best course for St. Albert is balancing fiscal discipline with maintaining the qualities and services that make our city a great place to live – a list that includes efficient public transit, long-term regional planning, and cultural and recreational services and activities. “Radical tax cutting is a false hope that will hurt all of us all in the short term and hurt us even more in the longer term.”
That view needs to be expressed on Oct. 16 as on every other night leading up to the election on Oct. 21.
That is why I lean toward attending this forum, despite my strong disapproval for the tactics of its organizers.
Nevertheless, I would be very interested in the thoughts of my readers on this conundrum.