SUNDRE — Although council decided not to immediately pursue collecting fines levied against municipal election candidates who missed a deadline to file a financial disclosure statement, officials did not outright forgive the penalty.
Chris Albert, director of corporate services, provided an update on the matter that had been discussed during the meeting earlier in March.
He told council on March 28 that administration had since sought out and obtained legal advice for clarification about the campaign disclosure statement and financial statement, more simply known as Form 26, that is bound by sections outlined in the Local Authorities Election Act.
Following the most recent municipal election in October of 2021, several candidates failed to file their statements by the March 1 deadline, after which a $500 late filing penalty was applied, he said, adding a number of letters from those individuals who requested the fee be waived were subsequently received.
“Hence why we solicited some legal advice in this case,” he said.
“The act is very clear and very specific, that the $500 fee must be charged. The only option that is available, is to not pursue the collection process with Court of Queen’s Bench,” explained Albert.
“Council does not have the option to waive the fee. It is just a case of not pursuing collections.”
Should council choose not to pursue collection of the fines, he said the outstanding amount would fall under what he called “accounting rules.”
“If the $500 is not paid by December 2022, under accounting standards, we would create an allowance for the bad debt,” he said. “However, the outstanding amount would remain on the books and it would still show as a balance owing to the town.”
Administration did not recommend any motions, leaving council to consider the information presented and to determine a course of action.
Debt would bar candidates from running again
Coun. Owen Petersen wanted to know how the individuals involved might be impacted in future dealings with the municipality should council decide not to pursue collection and left the debt on the books as being owed to the town.
“Would it just be on their account as a debt to us that would affect say, if they wanted to run (for council) again? You can’t owe anything to the town when you run,” he said.
“That would be correct,” replied Albert. “So, for most transactions it would not affect them. But yes, should they choose to run again, there is a stipulation that you cannot owe any money to the town. So, it would have to be paid before that.”
Seeking clarification, Coun. Jaime Marr wanted to confirm the balance owing would in most instances not negatively impact the individuals.
“It’s not going to collections, (so) there’d be no effect on their own personal credit rating?” asked Marr.
“Correct, we don’t report to credit rating agencies,” answered Albert, adding the amount also wouldn’t impact their property tax or utility payments.
“It is a separate amount,” he said.
Responsibility to file clearly outlined
Mayor Richard Warnock said council’s hand is bound by the Municipal Government Act and thus responsible to collect the penalty.
“So, we cannot waive the fee,” the mayor said.
Coun. Chris Vardas argued that most of the candidates who ran had, as per expectations, filed their statements on time.
“This is where I’m having a little bit of an issue,” said Vardas. “If you take on a responsibility and you read the package saying this is what’s going to happen, then you got to follow it to the letter. It shows that you’re serious about the position you’re running for, in my opinion.”
The councillor also expressed a concern about potentially setting a precedent should council decide not to pursue collections, as candidates in future elections might not take seriously the requirement to file the disclosure statement.
“Doesn’t matter if you’re in a city, or a small town or a hamlet. It’s a responsibility you’re taking on for the taxpayer,” he said. “When you swear and you say you’ve read it from top to bottom, there’s no excuses.”
Coun. Todd Dalke agreed.
“Part of the rule of running for council or mayor is the responsibility that we got in those forms. It was made really easy for us,” said Dalke.
“It’s part of the responsibility, it’s part of taking it seriously,” he said. “It’s due, I’m sorry. The bill gets sent out, it needs to get paid. I won’t right it off to bad debt. I won’t agree to that.”
The mayor also seemed to be on the same page.
“It is a responsibility that we signed up for. And a lot of us took it seriously,” he said.
“We all swore under oath that we read and understood the documents, and signed on the dotted line,” he said. “So, I don’t know where you can get more clear than that.”
Some leniency warranted
That being said, however, the mayor also felt there was no rush.
“I’m of the opinion that we’re not going to make them pay it in the next two weeks,” he said.
Coun. Marr agreed that running for public office is a serious endeavour.
“You sit and think about it, hopefully,” she said.
But Sundre is a small town, she added.
“We know these people individually. I don’t believe that this will affect our coffers. I don’t believe that not having compassion is good. It was a rough couple of years,” she said, arguing in favour of not ever pursuing collections.
Coun. Petersen moved that council does not choose to pursue collection of the fines at this time, but that a date be set for repayment within a year.
Speaking in favour of the motion, Vardas felt providing upwards of a year to settle the amount owed was reasonable.
Petersen said he did not make the motion lightly because putting one’s self out there to run for public office is no small feat.
“It’s hard to penalize them in a way. So, it pains me a little bit,” he said.
Even so, the rules were made abundantly clear in advance, he added.
“It was all very clear to us, and a full year should be enough time for people to come up with the monies.”
Speaking against the motion, Marr said she understood her colleagues’ perspectives and didn’t disagree with the points raised.
“However, as a new councillor, it is a steep learning curve,” she said, adding the rules for filing disclosure statements had just changed for the last municipal election.
Offering clarification, Albert said, “The only thing that changed for this most recent election, is that even if you had no expenses — if you were self-funded — you had to file. Everything else was in place in prior elections, where you had to file your expense reports by the deadline. There was a penalty in place, all of that did exist.”
Marr pointed out some of the candidates in Sundre’s election were self-funded with zero contributions.
“I wouldn’t support sending this to collections,” she said, urging her council colleagues to reconsider.
Vardas asked if any precautions are in place in the event the balance owed is not paid up after a year.
“Based on this motion, after a year, it would go to the Court of Queen’s Bench,” said Albert.
The motion carried with Marr opposed. Coun. Paul Isaac was not present.