City of Toronto offers portal to aid election campaign finance reform

The City of Toronto is providing candidates in next fall’s municipal election the chance to be more transparent about their campaign finances through a filing system that will post contributions to the Internet.

Training sessions are already being devised to help councillors and their staff to understand and use the Electronic Financial Filing System (EFFS), which was developed by the city Clerk’s Office in partnership with the Information and Technology division. The system will allow candidates to track campaign contribution receipts and contributors, and post a financial statement to the city. These statements will then be available for searching and viewing by the general public. A demo of the app has been posted to the city’s Web site for comments and feedback.

The city’s IT staff built the EFFS from scratch using Java 2 Enterprise Edition and tying the content back to an Oracle database hosted within Toronto’s infrastructure, said Stephen Wong, the city’s director of applications and professional services. Candidates or their staff will be given a random 10-digit user ID but will choose their own passwords, very similar to how users register for Internet banking, he said. The financial statements will be indexed and published once the clerk’s office has determined they are ready for disclosure. Since the next municipal election is in November, they will likely be available in March, Wong added.

“You will be able find information much more quickly than current process, which requires you to come into the clerk’s office and see the paper copies,” he said. “There has been a lot of discussions about transparency.”

The city started the project last December in response to recommendations from a task force on election campaign finance reform. In its report, the task force pointed to the City of New York’s Web site as a model for the kinds of information that should be made available to the public.

“It should be possible to include such information in a timely fashion after candidates have filed their reports, especially if provision is made for electronic filing,” the report said. “Elections financing information, including information concerning individual candidates’ contributors, revenues and expenses, should be available to the public in different formats including online.”

Although city council made a number of reforms in late 2004 – including a ban on corporate and trade union contributions, and an end to the practice of campaign surpluses being carried over into the next election – use of EFFS will not be mandatory, Wong said.

“This will be an alternative to candidates. They can still do things the old-fashioned way,” he said. “It will likely save them some time.”

Liss Jeffrey, director of the McLuhan Global Research Network at the University of Toronto, said the EFFS shouldn’t necessarily be obligatory in order to become a useful tool.

“Typically in such circumstances, a great deal depends on some of those running for office taking some leadership and showing up those who don’t participate,” she said, adding that the media and volunteer activists may be required to make the filing system a standard part of the election process. “The tools don’t make the rules here. You need good people to plug that democratic deficit.”

City council will still have to pass a bylaw authorizing the use of EFFS, but if it does, it will become the first municipality in Canada to offer such a service, Wong said.

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