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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Downloading duties: How much should citizen appointees be paid?

At its first meeting last December, council selected its appointees to the various agencies, boards and commissions. Its hard to understand how council arrived at its decisions; often its seemed that personal relationships carried more weight than individual qualifications. The individuals were picked from a long list of those who responded to the call for applications. What the notice didn't specify was whether there was some remuneration for the position and how much. And not everyone who applies is even aware that there is a stipend.

Last night it was time to update those stipends which are designed to recognize the time, effort and expenses incurred in performing the duties of the relevant positions. That resulted in an interesting little vignette from the council meeting.

Item 5 of the recommendations from the Finance and Administration Committee dealt with the remuneration paid to members of a number of Boards and Commissions.

Not all appointees to Boards and Commissions are paid, nor do all Boards and Commissions have paid employees. Generally, Boards and Commission which provide a stipend are those which meet frequently and/or which meet during normal business hours thereby requiring absence from work pursuits. I am not sure of all the Boards and Commissions which involve a stipend, but certainly the Police Services Board, the London Transit Commission, the Water Boards, London Hydro and the Committee of Adjustment do. The remuneration is generally modest, about $5,000 or $6,000 per year, although there is some variation. No council members who are appointed to any of these commissions receive a stipend. Advisory committee members and the London Public Library Board do not receive any remuneration. There may be others.

The normal practice has been to pass a by-law each year to raise the remuneration by the cost of living index or the average labour increase, whichever is lower. This is the same by-law that has characterized council raises in the past. At the FAC meeting last week, the committee approved the staff recommendation to do so again this year.

At last night’s meeting, this item was lumped in with several others. Ward 9 Councillor Henderson, who does not often speak to issues at council, took issue with giving a raise to these community members. Citing the determination of council to have a tax freeze, he suggested an amendment that would stipulate that no increase be given. This was immediately seconded by Ward 10 Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen. The mayor advised him that the amendment would be contrary to the motion; if he wanted to eliminate the increase, he should vote it down.

This scenario was interesting on two accounts.

First, it was Henderson who, a month or so into the job, complained to the media about his heavy workload and announced that he would be seeking a $10,000 a year increase for all councillors to hire assistants to help out. A wave of public backlash put paid to that suggestion.

Second, council is currently examining ways of reducing its workload by handing over some of the more mundane tasks to committees made up of members of the community. A case In point is the dog muzzling appeals which can take an hour or two of meeting time. Referring such activities to an appointed body of citizens would free councillors to focus on policy matters and, by holding the meetings in the daytime, would reduce the need for overtime for staff. Such proceedings do require a certain amount of knowledge and homework, reviewing facts and relevant policies so as to appropriately implement the policies of council.

Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler spoke in favour of the original recommendation to provide the increase, noting the valuable work done by the volunteers for what is a fairly small consideration.  Ward 6 councillor Nancy Branscombe wanted to know just how much money was being talked about; what would be the cost of the 2.3% increase? Staff informed her that this would be about $5,000 all told for the year.

This prompted Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher to exclaim, “Goodness gracious! What are we doing?” Noting that the appointees are intelligent, hardworking people whose special expertise is obtained at a modest cost, he suggested that council should say yes to the increase or “just take the whole thing away from them.”

A recorded vote revealed that only Henderson, VanMeerbergen, and Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown voted against the recommended increase. All the remainder voted in favour except for Ward 3 Councillor Joe Swan who was absent, and Ward 1 Councillor Bud Polhill who declared a conflict since his son serves on the Committee of Adjustment.

As do I, so I too will declare a conflict. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t have a seat on council so I can still comment on the issue. There are benefits to not having a vote.

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