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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Are you getting what you paid for? Part 3

This concludes the three-part series on councillors' expenses.

Ward 11 Denise Brown Total expenses- $7,328.32

Ward 11's Denise Brown was the fourth lowest spender, using less than half of her $15,000 allocation. She was one of several councillors who, earlier in the year, voted against increasing the expense allowance and apparently practices what she preaches.

One thing that she does not bill the taxpayer for is money to run her vehicle, apart from the occasional parking expense. Neither does she attend out of town conferences, nor indeed, any conferences that require registration fees. Nevertheless, she did manage to recover more than $7,000 of expenses incurred as part of her duties as a ward councillor.

During the month of September, she retained two assistants on contract for a total of just under $1,000 but appears not to have ongoing help with research or constituency concerns. She does, however, seem to meet regularly with her constituents, spending small amounts on rental venues such as the Landon Library and refreshments. Her spending on “gifts” approaches the maximum of $1,000 with nearly $700 of that used for water bottles to give out at various events. She inadvertently purchased twice as many as planned, but will probably be able to find homes for them over the next year and a half at various events which she frequently attends as indicated by ticket purchases.

Sponsorships also make up a significant portion of her spending, $2420 in 2012, most of which went to Reforest London for tree-planting by Mountsfield Public School. A member of the board of directors of the Canadian Club, she sponsored a table at a luncheon by the club featuring a victim of a land mine in Afghanistan as guest speaker. Finally, she contributed $200 to the Old South Community Organization for its village fair and parade.

Other expenditures include $1,000 for the production and delivery of flyers, $630 in advertising and $488 for office supplies, specifically toner cartridges. Although she has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, neither are used extensively for communicating with constituents apart from occasional tweets about her attendance at events and the odd budget update. She does not maintain a website.

Ward 12 Harold Usher Total expense- $13,688.19

Harold “Sensational” Usher was the fourth highest spender on council in 2012, not counting the expenses incurred as a council representative on the board of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).

His single biggest expense was the printing and distribution of flyers in his ward at a cost of $3,900 to the taxpayer. Interestingly, the flyer itself was produced by the Aylmer Express although there are undoubtedly printers in London who would have been delighted to take on the job. The distribution was done through the post office.

The second highest expense Usher incurred was for contract assistance at just under $3,637.50, followed by car allowance, including maintenance and snow tire removal, at $1,600 and advertising (also referred to as sponsorship) at just under $1,200. Sponsorships which didn't include advertising came in at $470 and tickets to events at $355. Trinkets and trash, in the form of umbrellas, polo shirts, brief cases and watches, cost another $735. These he tends to give away as a goodwill gesture, especially when travelling to other cities on behalf of the council.

Usher also maintains a home office for which he purchased furniture and office supplies at a cost of $783 and a tablet for $700. He maintains a website.

Since he chaired a committee in 2012, he also had a little gathering for members and staff at the end of his term, spending about $318, just over half of what Polhill's bash cost the taxpayers.

In addition, Usher was approved for more than $7,000 to represent council on FCM on the board and at committees, positions which involve significant out of town travel. That expenditure, approved separately by a vote of council, is not counted as part of his expense account.

Ward 13 Judy Bryant Total expense- $12,531.58

When it comes to spending, Bryant is middle of the road. She does bill for use of her vehicle, but very modestly, only $500 for the entire year. She does no advertising, nor does she “sponsor” organizations or events but she does attend community gatherings. The tickets for these came to less than $300, however. Likewise, her spending on “gifts” is average, less than $500.

For Bryant, the big expenditures are twofold: contract assistance and ward flyers and their distribution. The former cost $5,232.50 to pay for the services of five different assistants over the course of the year; the latter, $3,760 for production and distribution. It's a hefty price tag.

Bryant was a very vocal defender of a “hands off” approach at the corporate Services Committee meeting and again at council when the issue of placing limits on certain categories of spending was raised by Nancy Branscombe. Branscombe had stated that she was appalled at the spending on DaleTV by Councillor Henderson, that the taxpayers ought to be outraged. If councillors couldn't show better judgement than that, perhaps they needed to place more limits on spending in various categories or the total amount available ought to be reduced.

She didn't get a lot of support from her colleagues, especially not from the mayor or Joe Swan, both of whom argued that it was up to the voters to decide whether they got good value for the money used by councillors, not other councillors.

Judy Bryant agreed. She had done a mailing of flyers through her ward; another one or two like that and she would quickly exceed the $7,500 for which Henderson was being criticized. It was up to each councillor to figure out how to best engage the community; the method would vary with the councillor and the constituency he or she served.

She's right, of course, but it doesn't change the fact that methods of communication are rapidly changing, and one of the factors to take into account is their relative costs. Hard copy flyers delivered door-to-door by hand or via the post office is a very expensive way to go when there are electronic methods available: websites, email lists, twitter.

Bryant is no stranger to these. She has kept abreast of technological change. In fact, I believe she was the first member of council to get a Twitter account. She maintains an extensive list of email contacts, has a significant presence on Facebook, sports nearly 500 contacts on LinkedIn and maintains a snazzy website. And while a printed newsletter may be appropriate for some situations, it lacks the immediacy and cost effectiveness of electronic communications. Nevertheless, Bryant stands by her contention that no one should question how councillors spend their allotments. She, along with Henderson, Polhill, Swan, Orser and Armstrong voted against Branscombe's motion to hold a review of the rules governing expense accounts. It passed nonetheless.

The other distinctive aspect of Bryant's expenditures is with respect to meetings with constituents. Room rentals and refreshments cost more than $500, not a large amount, but significantly more than what any other councillors spent on community meetings.

For the rest, Bryant spent in the range of $200 to $300 for website maintenance, communication devices, office supplies and conference fees. It's good to know that despite the fact that this is her third term on council, she still believes in being educated for the role.

Ward 14 Sandy White Total expenses- $14,542.90

Sandy White wasn't present when the issue of councillors' expenditures were dealt with at council. Despite the fact that it was the evening that she was to make her apology to council for her offensive language at the previous council, and despite the fact that she was seen at city hall earlier in the day, she was reported to be unavailable as a result of work commitments.

White works for the Children's Aid Society. No doubt her behaviour at the previous council meeting had embarrassed them. In fact a week or so earlier, White's city hall assistant had sent out a message on her behalf requesting that members of the media not reference her place of work when reporting on her activities, given the sensitive nature of her position. Not being a member of the media, I was not included in the request.

White was the third highest spender on council, right behind Armstrong and Henderson. The actual amount that she billed was $15,181.95 but, given that the city is reimbursed for part of the HST, the smaller amount is what the taxpayers actually forked out. So, like Armstrong and Henderson, she came in under the $15,000.

The same cannot be said for her spending on trinkets and trash, euphemistically known as “gifts”. These accounted for $1,494.52, nearly 50% over the $1,000 limit set by a resolution of council. So much for oversight.

White's report is not easy to analyze, being comprised of 3 pages with 123 separate line entries.

One thing that White did not bill to the taxpayer was her vehicle expenses. She was reimbursed for only $61, mostly for the cost of parking and one taxi ride to city hall. Nor did she spend on a website—she does have one but there has been only one update since January of 2012, it would appear—or on newsletters. On the other hand, she did pay for professional help to prepare a newsletter to be published in a local paper.

She does, however, spend on advertising, $2667.39 last year, more than twice as much as any other councillor. Add a few dollars to that figure and you get the total that she spent on “informational magnets” and their distribution. And the final big item is the $2,825 that she spent on sponsorships for a variety of groups and events in the ward she represents.

Not only does she sponsor events, she also recruits other members of council to contribute to her pet projects. In 2013, four other councillors were encouraged to contribute $250 each to the 1st annual gala of the London Multicultural Community Association which she had been championing to obtain grants from the city. Indeed, we learned at the last Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee (IEPC) meeting that her press agent, Deeq Abdi, who had stood at her side when she made her apology for racist language at a press conference that she had called, had been unceremoniously dropped as executive director of that organization and his request for $25,000 from the taxpayers withdrawn by the group.

White, of course, had not been present when that occurred. But she certainly had lobbied hard at the previous council meeting to have the city match the $25,000 grant that Trillium had already promised the group for a feasibility study to create an Immigrant Incubator Centre.

It looked a lot like double-dipping. Councillor Harold Usher had not been supportive of previous requests by the group. He was unsure of who they were, given that the executive director was also the executive director of the African Community Council. Was there any difference between the two, he wondered.

That's when Abdi suggested that Usher wasn't “black enough” to appreciate the need for the incubator. It was an explosive statement and one that certainly embarrassed the association. They quickly distanced themselves from him.

White also spent nearly $2,000 on contract assistance, getting help with specific tasks such as preparation of ads and newsletters, and another $500 on attending conferences, renting facilities for community meetings and communication devices.

So that's the list. I haven't included the mayor's expenses as they weren't included in the line by line reports. Suffice it to know that most of his expenses, about $50,000 worth, were for paying Susan McElroy and Associates for purchased services and communications like state of the city addresses, virtual town hall meetings and his personal website.

Are you getting what you paid for?


Taxpayer said...

Good rundown on the spending habits of our esteemed city fathers and mothers, Gina.

I just have one question: who paid for the lunch at Billy T's?

And did they all chip in for the 20% tip?

Vicki Van Linden said...

I regret that Nancy Branscombe did not get more support for her motion to have restrictions placed on use of the expense accounts. This oft-repeated excuse that we voters will have a say when the next election comes along is a cop-out. This constant excuse used for all kinds of things means that council members have a full four years to play fast and loose. Enough already.

Using money to truly engage with citizens by renting space for community meetings makes a lot of sense. This is two-way communication unlike Dale TV. As well, it is great if council members attend conferences and meetings that help them to broaden their skill set. It is not just about who spent most, but who spent on what.

Using money in ways that seem to be a top-up for income, such as the very high car expenses that Dale Henderson charged is inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

In the old days, there was no car allowance - that is what the one - third tax free portion of the pay cheque was for. Now they have gone over the top by charging repair bills to taxpayers. Pigs at the trough.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I live smack in the middle of Sandy White's ward and while it seems like she spends on constituent engagement we have NEVER received anything from her in any way shape or form.

Weird. Right?

R. Cain said...

Ditto Ward 11
I've never received a flyer or event notice from Ms Brown, except prior to the election.
(Was aware of public meeting re methadone clinic from the newspaper.)
Email subscription would be an efficient way to communicate with interested citizens.

The former Ward 11 councillor has a point when he told me 'What do you expect from the little they pay me?'

BTW, where can I buy a Forest City umbrella?

Kathy Clee said...

I am as dismayed as anyone at Dale Henderson putting his stream-of-consciousness-stupidity on full and useless display at our expense and yet am leery of putting too many restrictions on councillors' expenses. Creative use for various kinds of citizen engagement is to be applauded and encouraged, I think.

I am even more concerned that Paul Vanmeerbergen spent almost nothing. Far from being laudable thrift, it appears that he doesn't do much, and there's the real waste of our money.

I have a lot of sympathy for the councillors who still feel they need to expensively distribute paper newsletters and notices. Too many people will proudly tell you what luddites they are, and refuse to learn to use electronic technology (for which this gigantic eyeroll is for you!), others don't have easy access for economic reasons. I agree that this method is on its way out but we're not there yet.

Dianne Fortney said...

What a sordid state of affairs .There is so much to be said , but there are two specific issues I would like to comment on.
I was mortified on many different levels by Ms. White's press conference on the steps of City Hall. AS a feminist I was appalled that she felt the need to surround herself with a group of men who were to do the talking for her. Can't she speak for herself ? Where were the women whose well being she was supposedly trying to protect? As a mixed race person, whose ancestors , including my late parents suffered racism , I was equally appalled that Mr. Abdi thought it appropriate to provide a group of black men to offer what appeared to be protection to Ms. White. When I telephoned Mr. Abdi to express my concern he was very clear that he was not interested in my opinion , in fact very early into the conversation he asked me if I was black. When I asked what the point of my race was, Mr. Abdi hung up on me.

I am very involved in improving animal welfare in out City . London has many volunteer Rescue Groups who work tirelessly to help strays. These group's efforts significantly decrease the number of animals who end up at the municipally funded pound, thereby saving the City thousands of dollars every year. These people do this work on their own time and with their own financial resources. It infuriates me that we are paying for councilors car repairs , so that they can promote their own political agenda.