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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."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Are you getting what you paid for? Part 2

Now to return to the councillor profiles on the basis of their expense reports.

Ward 6 Nancy Branscombe Total expense- $6,256.48

The third lowest spender, Branscombe's expense report was a joy to read; only one page in length with 16 separate entries. Of those, four were for paying an assistant, one she's had for most of the time she has been in office. That spending accounted for a little over $4,500, leaving less than $2,000 for office supplies and a trip by VIA rail to attend a conference in Toronto which also involved hotel costs. She doesn't bill the city for maintaining a vehicle nor does she claim taxi or parking costs.

Her spending on office supplies is on the high side. As the mother of three young children, she works from home as much as possible and therefore uses few resources supplied to her office at city hall. She keeps in touch with her constituents by email, Twitter and Facebook. After 6 years in office, she has built up a very large contact list; key people in the ward help to get the message out. She attends most community association meetings but they are not as frequently held as in the past. Most of the meetings tend to focus on planning and development issues.

Ward-wide newsletters are a thing of the past although she continues to publish issue specific bulletins using her home printer. Hence, a large paper bill. She delivers them herself with the aid of her assistant.

Branscombe's focus is on dealing with constituent concerns quickly, usually within the same day. She credits her assistant for her ability to do so most of the time.

Branscombe has a website but it is not particularly current; she doesn't bill the city for web hosting or internet service. She has made a few humorous videos but has paid for those out of her own pocket.

Ward 7 Matt Brown Total expense-$10,071.71

The most promising rookie on council, Matt Brown's spending has been moderate, on a par with Baechler's although showing some different priorities, with becoming established in his ward assuming greater prominence. An educator with the Thames Valley Board, his time is valuable. To make the most of it, he uses contract assistance which accounts for over one-third of his overall spending.

An expensive item on his list is the purchase of fridge magnets at a cost in excess of $1,000. These take the form of business cards which he delivers himself when he goes door to door in his ward, along with an information card listing important telephone and email contacts (about $600). Cardboard business cards are provided by the city as part of regular office supplies not counted as an expense against a councillor's account. He also spent nearly $800 on advertising.

Brown spent $1350 on sponsorships for a variety of golf tournaments and other activities in support of organizations in his community: MADD, the Hyde Park Santa Claus Parade, the local Optimist Club, Canada Day celebrations. He also spent just over $650 for tickets to various community events.

The other major area of spending is the purchase of an iPad and its accoutrements. He maintains a very professional looking website which incurs web hosting charges. It includes a News section which provides a listing of articles in London Community News. He also maintains a Twitter account and has a presence on Facebook.

He holds townhall meetings at a very modest cost and spends about $250 for gifts and souvenirs.

His travel costs are low, generally limited to out of pocket parking costs. He does not bill the taxpayer for fuel or maintenance of his vehicle.

Ward 8 Paul Hubert Total expense- $7,920.36

Sponsorships for community projects and organizations, tickets to community events, and souvenir and gifts are among the main ways in which Paul Hubert engages with his community. Like Matt Brown, he supports golf tournaments, Canada Day events and the Santa Claus Parade. He also sponsored the Hyde Park Business Association, a summer festival organized by the Glen Cairn Community Resource Centre, and the London Multicultural Community Association (at the request of Sandy White); he co-hosted a prayer breakfast with Bud Polhill. The souvenirs and gifts he purchases are used predominately for donating to local nonprofit organizations to assist with their fundraising efforts.

Hubert maintains an up to date website which he uses to keep in touch with his constituents. To become more proficient in managing it, he underwent technical training. He uses Survey Monkey, an online opinion polling program, to get feedback on contentious issues facing council. It was the subject of much derision at the Harmony Grand Buffet last year but it has increased public awareness of budget matters and allowed public input into the discussion. He also purchased an iPad last year.

Hubert used to produce a hard copy newsletter for his ward but found that the costs of production and distribution outweighed any benefit to the community. Electronic communications seem to fit the bill in his ward.

Hubert does little advertising and his spending on travel, including fuel for his vehicle, was under $120 last year. He did attend a rather expensive conference—almost $900—on the Creative Economy. It's unfortunate that the Fontana 8 did not take such commitment and preparation into account when they refused to appoint him to the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee later that year, preferring instead to approve Dale Henderson, Paul VanMeerbergen, Joe Swan and Stephen Orser to be the leading economic lights of council

Ward 9 Dale Henderson- Total expense- $14,571.12


What can I say that hasn't already been said?

First, I need to disclose my own situation. I am a resident of ward 9 and Henderson beat me by a couple of hundred votes in the 2010 election. He ran on a “business” platform and lower taxes. He portrayed me as a big tax and spend candidate. Quite unfairly, I believe.

Henderson sees himself as an ideas guy, someone who can set the town on its ear. His big problem, as he sees it, is that the media is not carrying his message properly. He needs to be able to communicate directly with his constituents. To that end, he has invested in setting up a website and his own channel on YouTube. He calls it DaleTV. He has 9 or 10 episodes, each lasting 10 to 20 minutes, in which he rants about media, politics, economy, etc. The monologues are fairly free form although he does have a piece of paper with some points written on it.

The price tag for this was high: over $2,000 for a website with nothing on it but the YouTube channel. Additionally, he bought a lot of fancy equipment to film and produce his videos—about $5,600—for a total cost of nearly $8,000. When asked about what would happen to the equipment when he was no longer in office, he speculated that he would be keeping it.

For comparison, I created this blog at no cost. It's a free service. I have a camera that can easily take videos and my computer has a built in camcorder. I haven't done any videos of myself since I assume my followers are able to read, but I doubt it can be all that difficult since most third graders seem to be able to do it.

When Branscombe raised the issue at the Corporate Services Committee last week, there were a number of responses. Most took a hands off approach. Branscombe was furious. She thought the taxpayers ought to be outraged. Almost $8,000 on a series of rants that didn't deal with ward issues and didn't even allow for feedback from viewers. If councillors couldn't use common sense, perhaps they should review the criteria or cut back the funds.

Henderson is unrepentant. He thinks his ponderings and grandstanding are breaking important new ground.

Ultimately, as Joe Swan argued, it will be up to the voters in Ward 9 to determine whether they are getting good value for money. But one can only hope that Henderson's future spending will be on script writers. As it is, his musings and pontificating lack coherence and consistency. You be the judge.

The remainder of Henderson's expenses are interesting too. Over $4,000 for car expenses, not surprising since he doesn't live in London. $500 for a Youth for Christ banquet. A ticket to the Stratford Festival. A couple of out of town conferences. Some office paper and printer ink. Despite his complaints about the heavy workload, he did not engage a contract assistant to give him some help. 

Ward 10 Paul VanMeerbergen Total expense- $209.17

As you would expect from the total listed, Paul VanMeerbergen's report is a very short one, only seven entries: three tickets, one of which was for the aforementioned prayer breakfast; an ad in a promotion for a school play; some refreshments and small sponsorships.

He's not called Dr. No for nothing. Or maybe he is. In any case, not only is no his favourite word at council when it comes to spending on anything other than roads, no is also his watchword in how he perceives his job as councillor: no assistant, no conferences; no website, no townhalls, no newsletters, no office supplies.

He also doesn't charge the taxpayers for use of his car. Whether that's because he doesn't use it to engage in ward business or because he absorbs the cost himself is difficult to tell. In any case, his parsimonious approach is in keeping with his ideological bent. He is consistent.


I want to end this post with a question. I have difficulty with using city money for religious purposes. It strikes me as a violation of the separation of church and state. If councillors want to go to a prayer meeting, fine. But taxpayers shouldn't be asked to pick up the tab. Similarly, if Henderson wants to donate to Youth for Christ, he should do so out of his own pay cheque, not the citizen's pocket. On the other hand, churches are important community organizations fulfilling many social functions.

What do you think?


John said...

To answer your ending question Gina, I agree spending on religous purposes is questionable. But I also think it's questionable to spend any public money on any charitable groups, no matter how worthy. Any donations should be made from the councillor's own pocket and not expenses. Seems like a backhanded way to provide city funding.

Barry Wells said...

Since Ward 9 Coun. Dale Henderson has stiffed taxpayers for the costs of Dale TV, what's he doing with the YouTube ad revenue from the venture?

He has ads on his YouTube channel.

Even though the number of views on his page is unlikely to generate much if any revenue, the question needs to be asked and clarified at council and a policy developed.

R. Cain said...

Someone who doesn't pay taxes in London should not be allowed to make decisions regarding, and spend, our City's money.

Vicki Van Linden said...

The fact that Paul Hubert, who gives every indication that he is a thoughtful person and a hard-working councillor, is not chairing the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee makes it very clear that back-room politics is going on at City Hall.

Many of us remember how Bud Polhill showed up with his list of people who he suggested should be on all the committees, with positions of prominence for Fontana cronies, and people like Beachlear and Hubert (hard-workers who read agendas and come prepared)frozen out. That meeting should not have been allowed to unfold that way. There was no open discussion about who would take what positions. It certainly looked like 'the fix was in.'

This is another reason why politics is supposed to be done in full public view, and not behind the scenes. It appeared that deals had been made long before the actual meeting to assign committee positions.

The idea that Dale Henderson has a position on the Economic Prosperity committee, but Paul Hubert does not is shameful.Contrary to what Councillor Henderson has stated, London is unlikely to become a tourist attraction if we have a 'Gun powder-free cigarette manufacturer' take up shop here. If we don't get better ideas coming forward we are surely doomed.

As for your question about support for religious groups, Gina, you are right that separating church and state is beneficial to democracy. However, churches do play a big role in the cultural and social workings of a city. So, I consider them to be a special interest group in a similar way as any charity or advocacy group as they all present a particular idea of how they think the world should be.

ejhastie said...

Re your final question Gina. I agree that perhaps City money should not be spent on events such as Prayer Meetings. Although, as recall, Ross Fair did attend a Christian Business Men's Breakfast/Lunch but I'm not sure if it was ticketed and if so who paid. As far as churches efforts in the community I can only give them praise. As one of the co-ordinators of the Hunger Relief Action Coalition community meals program I can testify that without the work of local churches the disadvantaged in London would be in much poorer shape. The churches serving meals do not request help from the city but those on Council and other could help by making personal donations to the individual churches. Most can be found on the meal calendar. This is what London Lawyers Feed the Hungry and other prominent Londoners do.

Anonymous said...

The big question is if the donation generates a tax receipt, if the councillor is using that tax receipt on their own tax return is stealing.

Kathy Clee said...

I think councillors invited to events as themselves should pay for the tickets themselves, and councillors who are invited to events as-and-because they are councillors should bill the city for the expenses incurred. Care needs to be taken in selecting events to attend, but I think engaging with the community in a variety of ways is a good thing, and religious events don't necessarily need to be excluded from that mix. I am a godless atheist, by the way.

I realize that requires some good judgment on their part that several of the current batch of councillors haven't proved themselves possessed of, but I still believe that expenses incurred doing a job should be reimbursed by the employer. These expenses should not include travel to and from the job, beyond the cost of a monthly bus pass.

I also have said elsewhere and will say here that incurring almost no expenses smells suspiciously of a councillor doing almost nothing, and shouldn't be mistaken for virtuous thrift.

Taxpayer said...

After serious thought, I've decided that Councillor expense accounts should not be used for:

Religious causes.


Car repairs.

Anonymous said...

Isn't life great when you can raise taxes and buy iPads?