Cheery yellow coupons offering children free admission to the Brampton Fall Fair have been sent to Ontario Provincial Police for an investigation into a possible breach of municipal campaign laws.
Ten candidates running for election in Caledon and Peel Regional Council signed a letter alleging that incumbent councillor Johanna Downey broke Ontario election rules by giving potential voters the free-admission coupons stapled to her campaign literature.
Downey said she did nothing wrong because the vouchers “have no cash value. They sometimes go home from school, you can get them at the grocery store or the hardware store.”
In an interview, Downey said the Brampton Fair Board (run by the non-profit Region of Peel Agricultural Society) agreed to let her distribute the coupons. Calling herself a long-time supporter of the agricultural community, Downey said she was trying to help the fair attract urban residents so they could learn about the rural life of Caledon.
On its website, the Brampton Fall Fair says it charges $5 for each “single day pass” for children aged 5 to 12, while children under 4 are “always free.”
Kevin Corrigan, who is running against Downey for the job of Peel regional councillor representing Caledon’s Ward 2, said he was surprised to see pictures of Downey and her campaign volunteers holding up the vouchers stapled to campaign material, after being alerted by another candidate.
“It’s like stapling a $5 bill to campaign literature,” said Corrigan, a long-time automobile journalist.
Corrigan said that “even one of my own supporters said that the vouchers are a nice gesture for children.” That shows, he said, that the coupons are giving Downey an unfair advantage in the election.
A Sept. 24 letter sent to the Region of Peel’s clerk was signed by Corrigan and nine others, including regional councillor Barb Shaughnessy, who is now running for the Caledon mayor’s job.
The letter said the “discount coupons were stapled to Regional Councillor Downey’s campaign brochures which were then distributed widely throughout the ward.”
The 10 candidates asked that Downey be investigated under Section 90 of the Municipal Elections Act, which says that “no person shall directly or indirectly … offer, give, lend or promise or agree to give or lend any valuable consideration, in connection with the exercise or non-exercise of an elector’s vote.”
Downey and Corrigan both said they asked for legal advice.
Downey said her lawyer, from the downtown Toronto law firm of Aird and Berlis, told her she did not break any campaign laws.
“I have a very sound legal opinion on the municipal act and where that falls in line,” she said. “As it is not a corporate resource nor is there a monetary value, it is a non issue.”
Corrigan said he consulted a lawyer who told him the vouchers were a breach of the municipal act.
Two days after the letter was sent, Peel responded, saying it was forwarding the complaint to the Town of Caledon, which oversees the election of regional councillors. Corrigan said Caledon staff told him to take the complaint to police.
In an email, a Caledon spokesperson told the Star that the Municipal Elections Act falls under provincial laws and as a result, “any potential contravention of (the act) needs to be dealt with through the court system.
“The onus is on the individual that believes there is a contravention of the (act.) While the town is aware of the situation, the town has no role in investigating it,” the email said.
Corrigan said he followed the town’s direction and went to the Caledon OPP detachment to file a complaint. After a discussion, he said a senior officer told him it would likely be sent to a detachment outside the area for investigation.
An OPP spokesperson confirmed that the complaint went to the Nottawasaga OPP major crime unit on Friday.
Shaughnessy, elected as a regional councillor in 2014, said she wants an investigation done in order to ensure fairness.
“What worries me is, if this goes unchallenged, what will the next candidate do?” Shaughnessy said.
Moira Welsh is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @moirawelsh