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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Trash and trinkets galore

Anyone observing last Monday’s Committee of the Whole and Council meeting could be forgiven for thinking that there must have been a full moon.

First came the fiasco of replacing a commissioner on London Transit Commission as described in the previous blog. Fortunately, that embarrassment is not likely to repeat itself since, starting next spring, a Striking Committee composed of members of the community will be making recommendations for Council’s consideration. It is to be hoped that the new committee will be politically more neutral and more conversant with the information in the files of the applicants.

The new Striking Committee was a recommendation of the Governance Task Force in 2009. Not all of its recommendations have made it into practice. A few, which were endorsed by Council, still need some follow up to be fully incorporated into the appropriate Council policies and procedures. That was to have been dealt with by the Governance Working Group which was established by a previous Council meeting. Seven councillors, including original Governance Task Force members Baechler, Hubert and Polhill, as well as the two Browns, Swan and Usher expressed interest in this and were recommended for appointment to serve.

At the Committee of the Whole, however, an eighth member expressed interest, Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson.

This was intriguing on two accounts. First, why would the majority of Council serve on a committee to recommend to itself how governance might be further improved? Second, wasn’t it only last week that Henderson was complaining that he needed more money and assistance to cope with the workload? In any event, the issue was resolved when Denise Brown volunteered to step down in favour of Henderson.

Following an intermission, Councillors re-assembled for the formal Council meeting.

On the Finance and Administration Report, two items caught the eye of members of Council for comment.

First came the report from the Council Compensation Review Task Force which recommended no change in compensation to Councillors.

Although expense accounts were not addressed by the Task Force, Ward 2 Councillor Bill Armstrong wanted to know if the Mayor’s $750 per month in car allowance is included as part of total compensation (It is not.).

Ward 1 Councillor Bud Polhill then used the occasion to complain that it is much too onerous for Councillors to provide details on the trips they make in their personal vehicles on city business in order to get reimbursed; they should just get a flat rate. Much easier. (Note: Local travel expenses are not deducted from the $7,000 per year expense account.

This concern is new. The requirement for members of Council to provide details on travel within the city came about last August. Until then, records requested by the public revealed that about half of the members of Council used little or no taxpayer funds for local mileage. The remainder used $2,000 per year or more!

During my first three years on Council I did not request reimbursement, but last year I did, detailing all my trips on behalf of the city and since as a controller I had many engagements throughout the city, not just my own ward, I would have suspected that my claims might be on the high side. But, in fact, they turned out to be less than $500 for 11 months. Interesting.

Ward 4 Councillor Steve Orser then began to bemoan the inadequacy of the “Trash and Trinkets” account, an expense account of $7,000 yearly to cover the costs of conventions, conferences, local constituency work, etc. He indicated that he likes to buy little souvenirs such as watches and umbrellas to give out to his constituents. It’s hard, he suggested, to do that and go to conferences too. He suggested that handing out fridge magnets is a good way to communicate with the community.

The Mayor objected to the expression “Trash and Trinkets” to which Orser replied “It was said in a loving way.”

Staff pointed out that the Governance Task Force had recommended that up to $5,000 per Councillor be earmarked for the purpose of communicating with constituents via newsletters, websites, town hall meetings, etc. Currently these expenses come from the Councillors’ $7,000 expense accounts. Although I was not a ward councillor, I tended to have similar expenses for initiatives like the Age-Friendly London initiative which required the printing and distribution of questionnaires. The mailing costs can run up quickly. In any event, the $70,000 dollar expenditure to cover this new item is included in the proposed budget. Apparently, a number of councillors had not studied the budget closely enough to be aware of that.

Then the matter of preferred parking came up once again. It was suggested that senior staff could through retirements over time vacate the spaces available in favour of councillors. In the meantime, a system could be devised to allocate the spaces vacated by Board of Control. It was suggested that the issue was one of security, not convenience, since Councillors may sometimes make unpopular decisions,although how one would decide which councillors are in greatest need of protection escapes me.

And so went the evening. There were many spectators in the gallery because the Mayor’s Honour list was being unveiled just prior to the dinner hour. I must confess that I cringed at some of the comments our elected representatives were making. It was more than a little embarrassing.

There were also a couple of confusing moments.

One came from Councillor Orser who wanted to know how we could help get money to the Aeolian Hall for fixing the roof. Orser has generally not been a fan of the Aeolian Hall, its owner Clark Bryan, or the Old East Business Improvement Association of which it is a part. In fact, when appointments to that BIA were being made in December, Orser was heard to mutter that it should be disbanded.

Another first came when Councillor Henderson wanted to know if the Glen Cairn Community Resource Centre which had received a capital grant for purchasing a building rather than continuing to rent is a legally constituted not-for-profit group and whether it is democratic. The names of the executive director and the Board of Directors were included with the report from staff along with the legal agreement from our solicitor. Henderson expressed the concern that there were organizations out there with just one member and he hoped this wasn’t one of them.

But perhaps the strangest remark of the evening came from Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White. In commenting on the background report on housing and homelessness and the London Community Housing Strategy, White suggested that similar concerns were detailed in the Book of Kells and she hoped that with the adopted strategy things would move forward a bit faster.

She didn’t speak clearly into the microphone and it was hard to hear. I thought she said Book of Kilts, a natural mistake since it was on the eve of Robbie Burns Day. And probably just as relevant.


Anonymous said...

The inmates are in charge of the asylum. Wasn't it only 10 years ago that then Councillor Hume got his way an instituted the mileage reimbursement? The purpose of the tax exempt allowance is (was?) to pay for those sort of expenses. But I guess running things like a business means getting perks.

Gridhead said...

Interesting how any tax savings can be realized by this group. Before any such cuts are even considered the current council is more concerned with:

1. Adding councilor assistants, a new budget line.
2. Getting better free parking spaces for themselves.
3. Jumping to get on the governance (or should we say self - governance)committee so quickly that some forgot that they has just finished complaining about their current work load.
4. Unlike any other business, an experienced councilor wants to operate City expense disbursements in a vacuum, and eliminate the need of council to report on tax free monies disbursed by tax payers to cover councilor expenses.
5. Some seem to resent the work of our more than 1000 non profit groups in London, so much that some make disparaging remarks about established and respected community organizations. Most of these same organizations are important partners in delivering provincial and national program benefits to Londoners. If this council cared to investigate, they would find that these non profits are a lot more focused on community issues than our elected assembly at City Hall.
6.. It amazes me that councilors who were so interested in the city finances that they put their names forward to sit on finance committees, but failed to understand, or maybe even read, the proposed budget. It makes me ponder their motives.

Anonymous said...

You're doing a top drawer job with your blogs, Gina.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the LFP should consider hiring Gina to write a weekly column for them about the goings on at Council meetings. Or maybe she could freelance. Way to go Gina. Keep it coming. You've got us rolling in the aisles with laughter!

Anonymous said...

Oh please no that is a horrible suggestion.I think the Free Press and City hall has facilitated enough to Gina`s whimsical rants and post election blues ramblings.The Free Press has a hard enough time holding its readership numbers with the garbage they consider journalism.Giving Gina anymore voice will reduce the Free Press even more into the Super Market tabloid that it can be compared to.