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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

Councillors' expenses 2012 continued

As I noted in the previous post, it is not always easy to compare the use of expense accounts by the various councillors since the descriptions of the items or services purchased tend not to be standardized and the categories may overlap. In this analysis, I've done my best to cover all the basis and not to double count, but slip ups do occur.

Such is the case with a couple of entries I failed to describe yesterday. I had indicated that Branscombe had made no donations out of her expense account but in fact upon closer examination I noted that she had made one for $35. Likewise I has stated that VanMeerbergen purchased no advertising, but he in fact did pay for a $60 ad in a student play programme. In my defence, I must point out that there are 28 pages of spreadsheets to contend with, none of them electronic.

But let me move on.


I love magnets. I have, ever since I was a child and first discovered them. I invariably put magnets of one type or another in my husband's Christmas stocking just because I like to buy them.

Magnets have caught on with some councillors as well. Matt Brown purchased $1059. worth of them to use like business cards when he goes door to door or at meetings along with some information cards. Sandy White paid $1661.10 for her magnets.

Stephen Orser outdid them both. He spent over a third of his account--$5316.71--for larger magnets containing his contact information and that of city hall departments.

But then, there is the problem of getting them distributed. How he did that, we don't know. We only know that he billed the taxpayers $1650 for doing so. And Sandy White paid $1000 of taxpayers' money to someone whom she subsequently nominated for a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal to deliver her magnets.

Somehow the knowledge has made magnets less attractive.

Contract assistance

One of the recurring themes of this council has been the heavy workload for what is considered to be a part-time job. And it's true that the demands of the constituency, the number of documents to be read and the background research required to make good policy decisions is time-consuming., not to mention the time spent in meetings and in community events.

Some councillors have suggested that the answer is to pay people more and to make them full-time councillors. Others have argued that what is needed is more support for dealing with routine constituency enquiries and assisting with research.

The current expense account arrangement gives councillors great latitude in determining how to spend their allotment. A number of councillors—Joni Baechler, Nancy Branscombe, Judy Bryant, Harold Usher—have availed themselves of the opportunity to hire students to assist them with their constituency work. It's great training for the student and, with the right individual, very helpful to the councillor. In fact, several of these paid interns have since embarked on careers in public administration with this opportunity.

Unfortunately, few of the newer persons on council have taken advantage of the opportunity to train an assistant. Last year Joni Baechler again took the lead in this, spending about 70% of her total budget (more than $7,000) to hire a part-time assistant and it shows. Bill Armstrong did likewise, spending more than $5,000 for help. Bryant and Branscombe continued to make substantial use of a part-time assistant ($55232.50 and $3875 respectively) and they were joined by Matt Brown who used $3619.50 for this purpose.

Interestingly, for the first part of the year Brown employed Julie Misener, former constituent assistant to Khalil Ramal, who was and is the public relations director for FinCore, the company that has a $300M application before the city and which needs city land to put that proposal through. It's a small world. Later, he made a replacement.

Harold Usher also continues to make extensive use of contract assistants ($3157.50). Two others, Denise Brown and Sandy White make limited use of a number of contract services for specialized activities, more along the line of hiring consultants. Henderson, despite his early complaints about the heavy workload and his demands for a $10,000 increase in expenses to hire an assistant, has yet to do so even though his spending has gone up significantly as the council voted itself more money.

Conference Fees

While I was on council I always attended one or more conferences, in town or out. It's a good way to acquire additional knowledge and skills and to find out what's happening in other municipalities.

The current council seems not to be that interested. Harold Usher and Joni Baechler do represent the city at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities; those expenditures do not come out of their expense accounts since they have official positions on boards and committees at FCM.

But apparently they are the only attendees at FCM and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, in addition to the mayor of course.

Only six councillors attended conferences during 2012—Baechler (in addition to FCM), Branscombe, Bryant, Henderson, Hubert and White. It's hard to see how our councillors will develop a vision if they never get out of the city or their own ward!

Communicating with the constituents

There are many ways to communicate with constituents: townhall and community meetings, newsletters, email, phone, website, social media,

Ward Meetings

It's hard to tell how many councillors actually hold town hall meetings. Usually, the best indicator is a room rental in a library, church or community centre. Those are quite inexpensive.

On the basis of room rentals, it seems that only a handful of councillors hold such meetings—Baechler, Bryant, Denise Brown, Matt Brown and Sandy White. However, it's possible that others do so at no cost, meeting with residents where they have already gathered so no need to make arrangements for a rental. However, some councillors do a lot of spending on announcing these constituent meetings. White, for example, paid about $1,500 for notices in local papers to advertise two such meetings.


Newsletters seem to be passe; councillors who have used them find the cost of publishing and distributing them are simply prohibitive and there is little bang for the buck. That is, in hard copy. Electronic newsletters are inexpensive providing the councillor has the skills to produce them. White used some of her budget to obtain professional assistance to ensure a good product.

Electronic communications

All councillors are issued a laptop for use in the office and, I believe, another computer for home. However, as more options become available they have been purchasing playbooks, tablets, and iPads. Even Bud Polhill, who claimed only a few months ago that he doesn't respond to email, just phone if you want to talk to him, recently purchased a playbook. Go figure. Spending on communications devices ranged from 0 (Branscombe, Denise Brown and Paul VanMeerbergern) to $1749.25 (Armstrong). The latter is paying for phone service in his ward office in addition to acquiring the latest devices.


More and more councillors are developing and maintaining their own websites. While most elementary school children are quite adept at this, some councillors still have a lot to learn. But they're trying. Some at least.

Joni Baechler, Nancy Branscombe, MattBrown, Judy Bryant, Paul Hubert, Stephen Orser, Harold Usher, SandyWhite. Some are more current than others. They spend between zero and $1,144 to create, maintain and host them. Recently Dale Henderson got in on the action, spending $2,223.25 for his website. It could probably use a bit more work. To check the websites, click on the name.

And the rest

That's pretty much it. There is some money for tickets to events ranging from zero to over $1,000 for social butterflies like White to attend events. Some people rarely go anywhere; others may go but may attend without billing the taxpayers. The same is true for other types of expenditures. There are also office expenses for those who do much of their work from home or a location other than city hall. Branscombe and Armstrong tend to have high expenses relating to offices outside city hall.

Only one expense was common to everyone: a corporate courier express cost of $1.82 to return a gift of beer to Labatt's which had arrived shortly before a vote on the name change to Budweiser Gardens.

It seems that sometimes the optics of an activity becomes clear to everyone. No integrity commissioner needed.


John Swales said...

Good article Gina

Gateful Taxpayer said...

Good job, Gina.

Like Hercules, you have begun the task of cleaning the Augean stables.

Vicki Van Linden said...

What a detailed examination, Gina. Thanks.

Lily Tomlin said...

Perhaps the high Spring waters of the Mighty Thames could be diverted to City Hall.

Anonymous said...

Seems like a bit of a Liberal Cabal at work with Matt Brown, the Liberal, hiring someone who worked for a Liberal, who is now working for a company that had a director on the same board (Trinity Global) as our Liberal mayor.

Marketing guy said...

The beer offer is interesting as Labatt's (AmBev) had little to gain from the name change at the arena (Labatt's/Bud, it's pretty much the same suds). The big winner was a Global Spectrum subsidiary called Front Row Marketing who gets 10% off the top of the naming rights fee. Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of Comcast (the largest cable operator in the US) runs the arena, and another Global subsidiary is Ovation Foods which runs the food services in the arena.


R. Cain said...

Magnets will vapourize the memory of many electronic devices (USB drives, computers, etc).
Perhaps certain Councillors should keep them at arm's length as well.