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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 19, 2013

Are you getting what you paid for?

As I said a few days ago, you can learn some interesting things when perusing people's expense accounts. How councillors spend the money entrusted to them by the taxpayers says a lot about how they approach their responsibilities. What follows is the profiles than can be drawn from the spending of our current council.

Bud Polhill Ward 1 Expense total $9637.79

The longest serving member of council, he argued strenuously for a flat rate for car maintenance. At the Corporate Services Committee on Tuesday, he bemoaned the fact that he was being short-changed since, as an auto mechanic, he can't really charge the city for doing maintenance on his car (as Orser, Usher and Henderson have done). In spite of that, he managed to claim $2800 for use of his car and parking, the third highest of the councillors.

Polhill and Armstrong have long sparred over who “owns” the Veterans Memorial Parkway. To that end, Polhill contributed $2,500 for planting trees along there, over half of his total sponsorships.

Polhill does not attend conferences (except for one that he attended on behalf of the mayor and which was covered by the mayor's budget) and rarely buys tickets for community events. He did, however, co-host a table with Paul Hubert at a Prayer Breakfast meeting which he deemed appropriate for reimbursement.

Surprisingly Polhill also purchased a Blackberry playbook; it wasn't that long ago that he indicated that he doesn't use email or a computer, despite access to both.

Finally, Polhill has delighted in being appointed chair of the Planning Committee for the past three years. He celebrated the end of the last term by throwing a party for his committee at a cost of $600, courtesy of the taxpayers.

Bill Armstrong Ward 2 Expense total $14798.74

The biggest spender of the councillors, Armstrong has realized his dream of being able to establish an office in his ward. Despite having been assigned to the nicest office of any councillor—spacious with windows on two sides—he enters it only briefly before and after meetings at city hall.

A recent council change in the rules governing expense accounts has allowed him to rent space in the Argyle Business Improvement Area office. So now he has to pay rent and, having installed a land line despite the fact that he has a blackberry that he can carry with him, ongoing telephone service bills. He too is now charging for use of his car, a new development, although his invoices for doing so are about one-third of that of Polhill.. He pays for help with his office, devoting more than one-third of his total spending on contract assistance.

Armstrong does not attend conferences nor does he purchase tickets for events but he is an avid supporter of local events, frequently sponsoring them. He purchased an iPad but he does not have a website, not does he seem to participate in social media. He spent almost the maximum allowed on souvenirs and a similar amount on advertising.

Joe Swan Ward 3 Expense total $4881.61

Swan is a modest spender, the second lowest among the councillors. Like his colleagues in the east, Armstrong and Polhill, he rarely purchases tickets for events and he does not participate in conferences or seminars. Despite being new on council this term, he spent several terms on council as a councillor and a controller and has a good handle on what the job requires. Besides, his full-time job as executive director of Orchestra London will keep him busy trying to secure its future financial  viability.

His biggest expense, accounting for nearly half of his total, is the cost of running his vehicle. He doesn't live near ward 3 so it's not hard to rack up the miles. Most of the rest was spent on a few sponsorships—the Jack Richardson awards, a tent for the Scout troop that would be planting trees along the Veterans Memorial Parkway, a fundraiser for Merrymount Children's Centre where the former chairperson of the Orchestra board is executive director. His spending on gifts, office supplies and communications devices is restrained. He doesn't have a website but does maintain a Facebook page and has more than 500 connections on LinkedIn.

Like Armstrong and Polhill, he doesn't rent space for community meetings nor does he send out a hard copy newsletter.

He has been chair of the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee for a couple of terms but shows no signs of throwing a party at the expense of the taxpayers.

Stephen Orser Ward 4 Expense total-$13511.68

Orser is on council for a second term, having handily defeated several challengers. His style is in your face and he makes no apologies for using his expense account to maximize his chances of re-election. This year, he was the fifth highest spender, having been reined in by the thousand dollar limit on trinkets and trash. Still, he managed to order 72 baseball hats and 25 umbrellas carrying the city logo.

But his big expense this year was fridge magnets. It's not clear how many he ordered but they were large, containing his name and contact information and the contact information for city departments. It could be seen as a useful sort of thing, but definitely a promotional item. It will save his 2014 campaign about $7,000 which is what you the taxpayer paid to have these produced and delivered because, although he claims he knocks on doors every day of the week, he charged the city $1650 for their delivery. We don't know who got the contract; the cheque was made out to Orser himself.

Orser's second highest expense was $3600 dollars for use of his car: gas, oil changes, transmission repairs. Again, the cheques for these were made out to him so we don't know who actually did the work on his vehicle. Where he takes that car is hard to say. He doesn't attend conferences and rarely attends events. He held no community meetings as far as I can tell. He must be visiting constituents at their home all day every day. Too bad he couldn't take some magnets with him.

His office supply needs were minor, limited primarily to ink cartridges for his printer. He maintains a rudimentary website and a Facebook page which has, from time to time gotten him into trouble when he uses them late at night.

He does some advertising but provides little in terms of sponsorships—only one for $250 last year at the request of Sandy White, a frequent ally.

Joni Baechler Ward 5 Expense total- $10034.38

Having worked closely with Baechler, I have to acknowledge that I am biased in her favour. It's hard to think of someone more hardworking, intelligent and generous with her time and knowledge than she is.

Her expense claims reflect how she does her work. Seventy per cent of her claims went to paying for the work done by a student intern. It's job creation that benefits not only the student, but also the city. It leaves her free to pursue the information that she requires to analyze issues and make informed decisions.

Other major expenses are for her home office—a chair, paper, toner, etc. She purchased a Blackberry playbook but is not convinced it was a good investment. Last year she got a website up and running, updating it on a weekly basis noting what issues are coming before committees and council. She is an avid user of Facebook and Twitter to connect to the community and keep it informed. She holds town hall meetings with low rental costs at a local school or  library. Notices are provided electronically. There is always an excellent turnout.

Her passion is trees, and most of her $951.38 in sponsorships is for the planting of them through Reforest London and the Upper Thames Recreational Conservation Authority which she chairs. She doesn't buy tickets for many social events and her spending on “gifts” is minimal.

In addition to her work in the city and her participation in local conferences, she represents council at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Those expenses are in addition to her expense account as they necessitate fairly high registration fees and travel and accommodations.

That's it for wards 1 through 5. Tomorrow I'll write a summary of the spending of the councillors for wards 6 through 10. Stay tuned.


Taxpayer said...

Can anyone explain why the city should pay for the car repairs of councillors?

Is there a reason why this is not a ripoff of taxpayers?

Anonymous said...

We live in Stephen Orser's ward and he has never knocked on our door handing out magnets and if he did we would kick him off our property. Have no use for this arrogant, self serving baffoon who thinks he is so entitled and could not care less about his ward consituents. He is nothing but a Fontana butt kisser who thinks he will go places if he kissed but. Will never vote for this arrogant man. I could say more, but will stop here.

Vicki Van Linden said...

We really have to find a way t tighten up these rules. It may be acceptable to allow for car expenses, but how is is acceptable for us to be charged for oil changes and transmission repairs when there are no receipts, but only cheques

And, I am mad as heck that we have all been stung with Dale Henderson's Ego-Follies in the form of Dale TV.

We truly are the laughing stock of this province.

And to the hard-working and sensible councillors who are trying to keep things on track, please do not give up. We need you more than ever, and we do see how difficult things have become for you.

Al Goodhall said...

Nothing screams out the need for an integrity commissioner greater than a blog post such as this.

An engaged electorate that exercised their right to vote would be even better.

Anonymous said...

Some of this is truly sickening (car repairs? What next, part of their mortgage payment because they work at home from time to time??). Makes me wonder if there are also kickbacks involved for some.

I think the CRA should check into their charitable tax receipts too. I wouldn't put it past the sneaky ones that they are claiming the charitable receipt on their taxes, when you and I paid for the "sponsorship." After all, the Mayor has this down to a science through Trinity Global.