TORONTO -- Some political activists say Ontario should only allow individuals to donate to municipal politicians in order to reduce what they claim is an unfair influence by real estate developers in local election campaigns.

"Just as it would be a distortion of democratic principals to let corporations and unions vote in elections, it is equally a distortion to allow them to influence -- and in many jurisdictions determine the outcome of an election," said Robert Eisenberg, founder of Campaign Fairness.

Campaign Fairness believes developers have too much sway in municipal elections because they provide the majority of funding for many candidates, especially in areas within commuting distance of Toronto.

"By far the development industry is the most important financier of the majority of winning candidates in all municipalities in the GTA with the exception of Toronto and Ajax," said Eisenberg.

"As long as developers are aided and abetted by local politicians who view Simcoe, Durham and York counties as one vast redevelopment site, new powers will be crafted to skirt the powers of the (Lake Simcoe Protection) Act."

Allan Elgar, an Oakville town councillor and a member of Halton Region council who is running for re-election this month, said he discovered an "underbelly" of developer funding of municipal candidates when he was first elected in 2000.

"I was shocked by the level of development community funding of our candidates and council," said Elgar.

"Everyone please wake up and make sure we push the province to change the legislation because today it's perfectly legal. It shouldn't be, but it is."

The Ontario Home Builders Association said its members are doing nothing wrong by donating to local candidates, and if municipal councils don't want their money they can follow Toronto's lead and ban contributions from unions and corporations.

"The reality is that the industry is playing by the rules ... participating in the democratic process," said OHBA chief operating officer Joe Vacarro. "If municipalities want to take a different approach, as Toronto has, then so be it."

Letting corporations fund candidates allows a few wealthy individuals to direct contributions through their companies, "translating economic inequality into political inequality," said York University professor Robert MacDermid in a 2006 study.

"This surely gives a privileged position in municipal politics to the wealthy individuals who control corporations."

MacDermid's study found contributions from developers and related companies accounted for at least 65 per cent of all money given by companies to municipal candidates, while no other group of corporate contributors made up as much as five per cent in any municipality.

"Development industry contributions are an extraordinary concentration of money from a single set of interests... far out of proportion to any measure of their economic significance," he concluded.

The York study shows there is a relationship between the rapid, low-density development in southern Ontario and the "vast amount" of campaign funding provided by the development industry, said Claire Malcolmson of Campaign Fairness.

"Candidates who take developer money are more likely than those who do not to get elected, and that's not fair," she said. "A candidate's ability to attract money from corporations and from the development industry in particular should not determine election outcomes."

Banning corporate and union donations would "level the playing field" for all candidates, added Malcolmson.

Candidates who get most of their funding from developers keep their contributors' interests in mind once they get elected, said Jim Keenan, a political activist and candidate for council in Georgina township.

"They almost feel it's a moral obligation to defend the economic interests of various developers as opposed to the public interest, and there are real differences," said Keenan.

"With the contributions that are being received by key players in the current administration, the focus has been continual development and even a push to move into green space because that's where developers presumably can make more money."

Municipal Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin said none of the four dozen local councils he's met with so far has raised the issue of changing the funding rules for municipal elections or expressed concerns about the influence of developers.

"That's not one I've heard from any of the councillors or mayors, but I'm certainly open as a minister to look at things," McMeekin said in an interview.

In his annual report last week, Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller criticized the Liberal government for allowing lower density developments than called for in Ontario's 2006 Growth Plan, which was supposed to reverse the pattern of unsustainable urban sprawl.

"Continuing on the same trajectory only aggravates existing problems and puts pressure on municipalities to open more land for development," warned Miller.