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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, March 27, 2012

Wouldn't that be interesting?

It was a bit of a surreal moment, hearing the members of the Financial and Administrative Committee (FAC) discuss wage increases for councillors at the meeting this week. Wasn’t it only a few weeks ago that they were calling on all departments, boards and commissions to do more with less? That property taxes had to be frozen?

And wasn’t this the day before the Ontario Government would be bringing down its budget with its austerity measures? Is this really the time to start speculating about a major pay hike?

But that’s what happened last Monday.

In all fairness, council did not request a pay increase. That was an automatic provision of the citizen’s taskforce that was established to make a recommendation on councillors’ stipends. It had recommended no increase for councillors at that time (2011) but that the pay be increased by the amount of the Consumer Price Index or the Labour Index, whichever is lower. In this case, the lower was the CPI of 3.1%.

So there shouldn’t have been anything unusual in the recommendation, except that there was another clause: if non-union staff did not receive a wage increase, neither would councillors. That was the agreement.

Because of the freeze on property taxes, it might reasonably be assumed that staff pay had also been frozen. That certainly seemed to be the assumption of the committee and there was nothing in the report before them to suggest otherwise.

But before the meeting had even begun, a couple of councillors had already decided where they were going with this, and they made no secret of their positions, at least not where the mainstream media were concerned.

Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown was adamantly opposed to any increase while staff salaries were being frozen. Good for her; that's what the council by-law indicated.

Ward 8 Councillor Paul Hubert tended to agree; his only concern was the inadequate pay for the mayor. It was paltry compared to that of other cities of somewhat similar size, he suggested. In fact, he had been promoting this view to the print and auditory media earlier in the day. It had nothing to do with the current mayor, he pointed out. It was the role of the mayor that he was concerned about. Someone in charge of nearly  an $800 million budget not making as much as, say, an MPP? It was the only full-time job for an elected official in the city. Hubert had had a look at the Sunshine List of public employees earning over $100,000 and our mayor  didn’t look good compared to some other  municipalities. Other communities were paying more. It didn’t speak well of the respect for the office.

It was a great opening for a few other councillors who, although not having a vote on this committee, had considered it worth their while to put an oar in on this issue.

Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher took pains to point out that, not only had the previous council  not had a pay increase, it had taken a 5% cut in 2009, so the pay was effectively the same as it had been three years ago.

"We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves," he argued. The workload had increased tremendously. The work councillors do for the community needed to be taken seriously . He had attended meetings of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities; many councillors from cities of the same size got a lot more money, maybe double. It was just not right to not accept this just because councillors were afraid of the community. His workload had quadrupled since he got on council 10 years ago.

Ward 4 Councillor Steve Orser, also not a member of this committee, repeated the refrain. He wasn’t afraid of public opinion. During the 2010 election he had stated he would support a pay raise and he had gotten a stronger vote than in 2006. His constituents wanted somebody full-time. For him, a pay raise was not the issue. A councillor should be full time and act full time. There were a multitude of issues to deal with. For some councillors, it might mean they’d have to quit their other job. So be it. He wanted the public to weigh in, bring it to a public vote, have a plebiscite.

For Mayor Fontana, however, that was too far away. Not for another two and a half years. He wanted something done now.

Councillors Baechler and Branscombe (Wards 5 and 6 respectively) had a different take on the issue. For them, it was not a matter of full-time or part-time, it was a matter of getting the job done, a matter of public service.

Baechler in particular wondered why the issue was before them. They had adopted the recommendations of the citizen’s taskforce on remuneration. Wasn’t the decision just a rubber-stamping of that by-law? Her concern was more with inequalities in workload. Some councillors were doing the heavy lifting, reading, researching, attending meetings, responding to constituents concerns; others frequently didn't  even bother to  show up. She wondered if more appropriate compensation might attract a larger pool of qualified contenders to do the work.

But that brought the issue back to question: Were they simply affirming an existing policy? Were staff paycheques frozen?

The latter question brought some hurried discussion and confusion. Staff got merit pay; that varies with the degree of merit, some getting more than others. They moved up the grid on the anniversary of their hiring, for a while, at least, until they hit the pay ceiling. So their salaries weren’t actually frozen.

But I recalled, somewhat vaguely, that before the end of my term, a new deal had been reached. In light of the 2009 recession, staff salary grids had been frozen; there had been no across the board pay increase. But the overall grid was being adjusted to take effect in a couple of years, maybe January 2012.

And that turned out to be the case. A pay increase for all non-union staff had been granted at the beginning of the year. So there would be no reason that councillors should forfeit their 3.1% pay increase.

It was a moment of relief for some. But Mayor Fontana was not satisfied. It was not about him, but Hubert’s words had got him thinking. Councillors surely deserved more, maybe 50 to 60% of what the mayor gets. After all, they’re on call, 24/7. It’s a commitment, gruelling as heck.

“The public is never happy when politicians ask for anything,” he noted. “It’s a tough job.  In my opinion, you aren’t paid enough. I work 80-90 hours per week.”

He wasn’t complaining, just stating a fact. Although the citizen’s taskforce was to be called on again in 2013 for a review, he felt they couldn’t wait till that long.

“One-third of what a mayor makes is not on for me,” he concluded.  He was in favour of tying the mayor’s salary to that of an MPP and a councillor’s stipend to that of the mayor. ASAP.

But what if councillors got, in addition to their current stipend, merit pay to reflect the contribution they make to the public good?

In the oft-spoken words of Dale Henderson, “Wouldn’t that be interesting?”


Anonymous said...

Since when are city councillors on the job 24/7?
Obviously they must divide their priorities between family and private lives.
Is there someone on council that's kinda like a mom, ever vigilent, always there when you need her, who sleeps with one eye open and never gets a vacation? that's 24/7.

Lily Tomlin said...

Is this the same Mayor Joe of Arva who during the election campaign speculated that he might not collect a salary as mayor, given his gold-plated federal pension.

Just wondering.

Lily Tomlin said...

Is this the same Mayor Joe of Arva who during the election campaign speculated that he might not collect a salary as mayor, given his gold-plated federal pension.

Just wondering.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a lower base Councillor wage with merit honourariums for attendance & contribution at meetings would be in order.

Councillors act somewhat like a Board of Directors to the City. In business there are financial awards for attendance at board meetings.

Interested Party said...

Talk about bad timing.

I agree that councillors deserve more pay. But, this is a strange time to be discussing this. With cut-backs requested from city staff, called: 'efficiencies' now does not seem like a good time to say everybody else has to tighten their belts, but we intend to loosen ours.

As for the Mayor, during the election, didn't Joe Fontana actually mention that he would donate his pay if he got elected, as he gets a generous pension as a retired MP? Guess he has changed his mind.

Being a councillor is a tough job, yet many people seem to want it. If you ran for office, stop complaining about how hard it is once you win. Stick out your four years but don't run in the next election if it seems too unrewarding.

Sandy Levin said...

I was on the task force. We looked at all of the items raised in this blog including comparisons with MPPs (hint: in Ontario, only Ottawa) and does pay attract a different type of candidate (hint: not really). I would be happy to send you a copy of the report if you send me your e-mail address

Sandy Levin s.levin@sympatico.ca

Colin Hendry said...

Politicians cannot win when it comes to their own pay. Seems to me that when you ask your staff to accept no increase, uou are kinda saying the same thing to yourself. Why are we bonusing managers when the rest of the staff, making appreciably less are getting no increase at all.
Councillors choose to run for what the role pays, it seems a bit wierd to me that they get there and bitch about the work and pay.

Veteran observer said...

The Council has just created another optics problem for itself.

It is this: no matter what cuts they make to services, no matter how many people are out of work, our city politicians always take good care of themselves.

Solid Gold Casino said...

Let's not forget Mayor Joe supports a 66% increase in pay for all ward councillors ~ which would bring them up to $50-K annually.

That proposal belongs right up there along with:

1. Selling off a large chunk of London Hydro to Edmonton-based utility giant EPCOR.

2. Imposing a 1% economic development levy (for a de facto slush fund) on all taxpaying Londoners and local businesses.

3. Giving away London city hall, Reg Cooper Square and Centennial Hall to Western for the nominal fee of $2.

4. Building a new city hall for $125-M.

5. Installing an urban beach at the Forks to the tune of $2-M.

6. Moving the Grand Bend sunset to the Forks of the Thames River.