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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."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Capping trinkets and trash

Last week’s blogs were taken up with the budget which was finally put to rest at the council meeting last Tuesday. But before the issue of the budget came forward at 7 p.m., council conducted its usual business, dealing with recommendations from it various and ever-increasing number of committees.

The first committee to report was the Finance and Administration Committee (FAC). Its recommendations came from its February 6 2012 meeting which had included some significant issues:  a $2M plus for insurance, the Mayor’s trip to China, a year-end report on development charges, and the upcoming provincial budget. All pretty weighty stuff.

But those were not what brought Ward 4 Councillor Stephen Orser to his feet as the report was placed before the members of council. No indeed. His concern was with a motion that had been put forward by Councillor Joni Baechler regarding the appropriate use of council members’ expense accounts.

The issue of expense accounts has been ongoing with this council. Within a month or two of taking office, Ward 9 rookie Dale Henderson announced that the workload was much too heavy and he would be seeking the support of his colleagues to add $10,000 to each of their expense accounts to hire part-time personal assistants. Although, in the face of significant public reaction he dropped that idea quickly, others on council have also put forward a variety of suggestions and schemes related to expense accounts. Orser and Bud Polhill, for example, resented having to detail their use of mileage allowance for conducting business within the city. They preferred a flat payment. Bill Armstrong wanted the right to use his expense account for maintaining an office in his ward, an idea that was supported by his colleagues. And some members were already using their accounts to hire additional help during vacations or throughout the year. That matter had been decided while I was still on council, over the objections of several members at that time. Joni Baechler, Judy Bryant, Susan Eagle, and Harold Usher had all used part of their expense accounts for this purpose over the years.

The issue of how expenses should be calculated and accounted for has, therefore, come before council a number of times, each time being sent back for further refinement and clarification. This was one more iteration.

One annoyance for the mayor is the popular term used by councillors for expense accounts—the “Trinkets and Trash” account. The label refers to the fact that, in addition to attendance at conferences and conventions, communications with constituents in the form of mailings and meetings, educational course and seminars, and office equipment for home use, members may use their accounts to purchase “gifts and souvenirs for City of London promotional purposes.” I always had a few City of London lapel pins on hand for visitors or when meeting with small community groups.

But there are other things with the city logo on them as well. I recall one December when a shipment of small teddy bears wearing a logo emblazoned T-shirt arrived for a councillor. I don’t know how many there were; it was a large box crammed full of them. They must have been destined for some children’s event. And then there are watches, umbrellas, golf shirts, mugs and glasses, and other items. Some councillors love them; others give them a wide berth.

The underlying principle of the expense account, however, is that the purchases should be directly related to the councillor’s ability to serve the community effectively. If doing so results in re-election, fine, but the reason for the purchase should not be for electoral advantage, but to do the job better.
On this occasion, staff had brought back some changes to the policy that would acknowledge the councillors’ concern that they have some autonomy over how the expense money is used. Not everyone has the same needs in their wards or the same skills to meet those needs. Rookies probably need to spend some money on education; some wards generate a lot of emails, others phone calls that need to be answered. Websites may be a useful means of communicating in some wards; in others meetings work better.

Additionally, the draft provided for a limit of $8570 per councillor. That may seem like a raise, but in fact it includes any travel within the city which previously had been counted separately, over and above the $7,000 limit. Those who had lobbied for not having to provide details of trips within the city were no doubt disappointed; some had been claiming in excess of $2,000 for this purpose although, when I was on council about half of the members claimed little or nothing in the way of local mileage allowance.

Then Baechler suggested another change. She recommended that the members’ autonomy not extend to gifts and souvenirs. She asked staff to bring back wording that would place “a cap on the purchase of souvenirs and other such purchases, based upon the annual average spent on such items by Council Members in the last few years, less the highest and lowest expenditures.” The committee agreed.

Orser was incensed. He loves trinkets and trash. He keeps a stash of them so that he can always be prepared to hand out a watch, an umbrella or a teddy bear. He proudly opened the trunk of his car for television reporters to document for their viewers.

Where did this come from, he wanted to know, this cap on souvenirs. Why not a cap on councillors’ assistants? He wanted to hear from Baechler.

Paul Hubert, who was presenting the report, reminded him that a survey had been sent to all councillors in the previous year asking councillors for their input on expense accounts. The report had come back and the FAC recommended further refinement. He pointed out that this did not include the mayor’s office separate $30,000 expense account.

“This another one of your surveys?” Orser asked disparagingly.

Baechler stepped in. “Taxpayers don’t want us to spend $8,000 on trinkets,” she said, and clarified the procedure. It was just to establish the parameters, Hubert added.

Armstrong worried that the office he is renting in his ward might not be covered by the revised expense policy. He was reassured that it still was; that had been voted on by council and nothing else had changed.

Denise Brown tried to reassure Orser by pointing out that the motion just asked for a report back, nothing was actually being decided. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been giving much attention to the item either. The motion was, in fact, to make the change in the policy.

It passed, with only Judy Bryant and Joe Fontana voting against it but neither of them had actually addressed the issue to give reasons for their opposition.

It will be interesting to learn  what effect this policy will have upon members’ annual expenses which were released at the end of last week. My guess is that Orser will be significantly impacted. In 2011, with a maximum of $7,000 plus mileage, he claimed $10,590.57, the highest of any councillor who did not have additional responsibilities representing the city at the Canadian Federation of Municipalities or the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. Those costs are not subject to the personal limits. I have never known Orser to attend conferences or conventions or to participate in educational seminars. He has been fond of handing out $20 watches at the taxpayers’ expense, however. A breakdown of expenses would be interesting. The taxpayers will save at least $2,000 on his expenses under the revised policy.

There are a couple of other interesting observations. Paul VanMeerbergen, always the lowest spender, broke his own record by claiming just $416.43. No trinkets or trash for him. No conferences or education either. He has learned all he needs. Just say no.

Almost as frugal as VanMeerbergen was Joe Swan, charging the taxpayers only $520.91. His responsibilities with Orchestra London would make it difficult for him to get away for out of town conferences and conventions, cutting down significantly on travel costs. And he is a seasoned veteran; he knows the ropes when it comes to council and likely does not require refresher courses.

Despite his complaints about workload and the need for a paid assistant last year, Henderson did not expend any of his $5,743.62 on help. Perhaps, with the closing of the London Musical Theatre Hall, a business he owned and managed until October, he has more time for reading the agenda and finding creative solutions to London’s economic situation.

Some of the most experienced members of council used most of their expense money for paid help. Joni Baechler, Nancy Branscombe, Judy Bryant and Harold Usher each spent between $2,000 and $4,000 hiring students on contract to assist with clerical help and research. As well as keeping them caught up with their workloads, it no doubt provides students with skills, experience and some money to offset student debt. While it isn’t 10,000 new jobs, it’s not a bad investment for the taxpayer.

At the end of the council meeting, ten hours after it began, Orser, the biggest spender, explained why London wasn't doing better economically. It was because councillors in London are just part-time. Unlike him, who makes it his full-time commitment, most of his colleagues won't give up their day jobs to devote their time to the city. "Let's make council full-time!" he entreated.

A few days later, he used the same analysis to account for the fact that he has the highest expenses. He's full-time, don'cha know. It just shows how committed he is to his constituents. 

A chicken in every backyard and a magnet on every fridge.

The statement of council members' expenses can be found here.


Anonymous said...

So does this mean I can have a chicken in my backyard, as long as it has a Forest City Logo on it?

Secret Admirer in Arva said...

I think you could say that Steve is the complete "retail" politician.

Barry Wells said...

The best and proper use of the high-end City Hall Swag (watches, coats, jackets, umbrellas, golf shirts etc.) is for donations to community groups of volunteers to sell for fundraisers or to honour one of their hardest-working members.

It should not be doled out indiscriminately as appears to be the case with Ward 4 Councillor Orser.

Barry Wells said...

One other thing, Councillor Orser is not promoting the City of London as much as he's trying to promote himself to constituents.

Anonymous said...

Right on Barry. Gina, you were a full time councillor weren't you? What's the correlation between being full time and trinkets and trash?

Anonymous said...

Right on Barry. Gina, weren't you a full time councillor? What's the correlation between full time and trinkets and trash??