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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, October 22, 2013

Council to task force: Thanks but no thanks

He tried to put it politely, respectfully. It was a delicate matter, and he really didn't want to cause any hurt feelings. But, as chair of the 2013 Council Compensation Review Task Force, Brian Orr had a job to do and tonight was the night to do it.Tonight was the night that the task force reported its findings and recommendations to the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee (SPPC), previously known as Committee of the Whole, and the report would not necessarily be good news.

Mayor Fontana, chair of the SPPC, wasn't looking forward to it. He wasn't feeling well and warned committee members, i.e. all councillors, that he would be cranky. Over the next few weeks there would be a lot of important stuff to go through and he was prepared to crack the whip. Time's a-wasting.

From my vantage point in the public gallery, it was an auspicious beginning. I had hoped to be home in time for dinner which usually isn't all that early. But there were a number of items on the agenda that I was interested in and, considering I was already at city hall on another matter, a two or three hour meeting starting at four would fit in quite nicely.

And things did start out well. The civic administration had brought forward a report on how things were progressing on the Strategic Plan for the term of the current council. Given that the term expires in a little over a year, a report on how the city was doing with the more than 100 services it provides in meeting the objectives of the Strategic Plan should prove quite helpful when councillors are planning their promotional brochures in anticipation of the election to be called in a couple of months.

The 10-page report was packed with information about how things are coming along. Questions were few; after all, councillors were expected merely to receive the report, not endorse it. Joe Swan wanted to know, not where they were now, but where would they be in three to five years. He was reminded that setting the direction is council's responsibility: it would be up to him. The report was received unanimously in about 15 or 20 minutes. On to the next item, the 2013 Council Compensation Task Force Report.

Fontana had a word of caution for the committee members. They didn't have to debate this report tonight, they could just receive it and digest it later. It could wait until November 18th.

The details of the report, especially the recommendations, had been all over the news and it had not been music to some councillors' ears. No huge increase in pay, no recognition of the fantastic service they were providing for the community, no salaries to rival those of Toronto councillors or Queen's Park legislators. Instead, the task force had recommended eliminating the tax free portion of the salary and replacing it with actual taxed dollars, just like any other working stiff, adding enough money to ensure no one's take home pay was reduced, and adding to that $1249 for each councillor, an amount that currently is only given to committee chairs. There should be no more extra financial reward for committee chairs.

Although they had been aware of the recommendations, that didn't remove the sting for many of them. For years now, they have been telling each other about how they are getting the short end of the stick, people don't value them because they are paid so poorly, they should be “full-time” and getting pay in the hundred grand per year range, that until we raise the pay, we won't attract good candidates for election, themselves excepted of course.

Orr wasn't interested in presenting the recommendations. They were there, on the agenda, and everyone had heard about them one way or another. What he did want to talk about was the context.

They had surveyed over 1400 citizens for this report. The last time this was done, only 170 people had participated in the exercise. And the main message that these respondents had was that they were dubious, even cynical, about the value of council and its contributions. People don't understand how councillors are compensated and they don't appreciate the value they contribute to the city. Add to that that people are struggling themselves—they've lost jobs, they haven't seen any annual raises, and more than half of them make less than a councillor—and you have a public relations challenge. As well, voting to give yourself a raise every year doesn't help. Who has that kind of luxury?

Matt Brown was the first to speak. He thanked the chair and suggested that the mayor send a letter to all the task force members who had gotten together 11 times for several hours at a time and had received no compensation for their contribution. He was happy to support the recommendations of the task force.

Had he stopped there, things might have gone differently, but maybe not. In any case, he suggested that for 2014, councillors should not receive their usual cost of living raise as provided by the current policy. That would save them from having to vote on their own raises. At the appropriate time, he would move that.

Them's fightin' words. No raise? No increase for the rest of the term? This was no longer hypothetical. A few began to pile on.

Stephen Full-time Orser questioned the legitimacy of the committee. He had heard that there wasn't always full attendance (Orser himself wasn't in attendance after the dinner break) and not everyone was there for the final recommendations which, Orr assured him, were unanimous. The only bone of contention had been discontinuing the tax free status of part of the stipend. Orr himself had broken the tie, opting for transparency over cost.

Bill Armstrong had problems with not getting a raise in 2014. That had already been recommended prior to people running for office; it was part of their expectations.

But it was Fontana who directly attacked Matt Brown, suggesting that his motion to take away the 2014 increase was “disingenuous”, a word that he used more than once.

The mayor may be right; I recall all too well when councillors got into a pi**ing contest, cutting our stipends by five per cent, just to show who was most concerned about the hardship taxpayers were experiencing. And now we are on the eve of an election year.

In any case, the mayor went into a well-worn theme: nobody understands how hard councillors work. He was not asking for a raise for himself, but for his 14 beleaguered colleagues who work “seven two four”, giving up their weekends at the expense of their families. Surely, they deserved 50 to 60 percent of what he was making. He wasn't asking for any increase for himself although he works 90 hours per week and has attended 2000 events since taking office. The Toronto councillors have money coming out of their ying-yang! He thought London councillors were undervaluing themselves by not demanding and giving themselves more. And removing the special payment to committee chairs! Didn't the task force understand how hard the committee chairs worked?

He didn't mention how he, with the aid of Bud Polhill, managed to get his special friends appointed to all the chair positions in the last round of appointments.

He had his doubts about the legitimacy of the survey.

Then Orr responded with the definitive statement of the evening. The public, he pointed out, was not interested in the “inputs” but rather the “outputs” of collective leadership. It wasn't interested in how hard councillors worked, but what as a group they accomplished. It was a telling moment.

Sandy White didn't like it. There were two union members on the committee, she pointed out. They should be “called out” if they supported the recommendations. She's a union member herself, don't you know?

Then Henderson got into it, alleging that LTC drivers were paid four times as much as he. A bargain, some might suggest, but later he was gently taken to task by the mayor for that bit of disinformation. In the meantime, he wanted the best councillors money could buy.

And Usher, who has generally felt under-respected on many fronts, noted that comparing councillors to the overall workforce, including people working for minimum wage, well, really, they should get a different comparator, not the median wage. He was worth more than that. He could quit, of course, he acknowledged, but he loves his job.

Fortunately, Joe Swan pointed out, they were not there to just rubber-stamp. It was their responsibility to make decisions. For himself, he didn't like eliminating the tax-free allowance as it would cost local taxpayers more. It was not a good time for doing that. They should have better benefits but he could live with the status quo.

Others were more supportive of the report and Matt Brown's motion.

Denise Brown liked it. She felt that voting on one's own raises was a conflict of interest. It would be better just to live with what was in place a the beginning of the term.

It was Nancy Branscombe who addressed the issue of the tax free allowance most directly. Although eliminating it would cost a few more dollars, she supported it pointing out that originally this had been put in place to recognize the costs that could be incurred by serving the public. But that was years ago. Now they had expense accounts worth $15,000 per year to deal with that. She wasn't sneezing at the prospect of getting $80,000 per year (an amount some councillors had suggested), but she believed holding the line for the next four years was a wise course of action. You shouldn't be in it for the money, it should be about public service. That's why she thought term limits would be a good idea; otherwise people got a sense of entitlement.

As far as undervaluing themselves, she suggested people do this more by their words and actions, rather than by the amount of pay they demand. And as far as stipends for chairs of committees were concerned, it wasn't all that hard. You get a lot of help from staff. Everybody should take a turn. Rotate the positions.

Joni Baechler agreed. She has been chair of various committees over the years. Staff goes over everything with you; you acquire a better understanding. Everyone should have the opportunity. She had not been in favour of eliminating the tax free portion since she doesn't like to give a nickel to other levels of government, but was prepared to sacrifice that position in favour of transparency.

But her biggest concern was public perception. “The public is embarrassed by us,” she acknowledged. “We have to earn respect. Perhaps the public might be more agreeable [to a raise] if we had term limits.”

That was probably not easy for Bud Polhill, currently the longest serving member on council, to hear. He had little to say, other than trying to align himself with a member of the task force, former Councillor Sandy Levin, although not to the point of supporting the recommendations.

In the end, it was, of course, all for nought. Although the vote to thank the task force was unanimous, it was thanks, but no thanks. None of the substantive recommendations were endorsed by SPPC with only Branscombe, Baechler, Matt Brown, and Denise Brown in favour, usually joined by Armstrong, Bryant and Usher. The latter two feel that the work that councillors do is undervalued.

The task force didn't disagree but pointed to their mandate. It had been asked to review the council positions by looking at the available data on comparable positions, to seek public input and input from members of council, and to make recommendations in light of those. This they had done, using council-approved guiding principles of public service, transparency, local market conditions, and effectiveness in attracting quality candidates.

What they had found was that London councillors are in the middle of the pack when it comes to pay, and although councillors think they deserve a lot more, the public doesn't see it that way. It doesn't value the product.

The events of this evening provided a perfect example. I sat close to a number of people, some of whom were new to the experience. They couldn't believe it. Nearly two and a half hours spent by councillors on talking about their own pay and only fifteen minutes on how the city was doing.

Then it was time for supper break. Councillors went off to eat at taxpayers' expense. Those in the gallery left hungry.


Anonymous said...

The public has spoken and the mayor and councillors should not be getting raises because the people of London do not see that they are doing a good job, but a bad job. Too bad the mayor and councillors do not realize this rather than sitting in their ivory towers and crying "Woe is me, people of London do not understand all the hard work we are doing." Yes, we do and the people have spoken, no raises because the mayor and council do not deserve raises. If they only worked for the Londoners and not themselves maybe they would be more in line for raises. Too bad they have not clued in. Maybe come election time a lot of them will get clued in the hard way by being voted out of office and that includes the Mayor.

Anonymous said...

Too bad some councillors did not read the report.

Sandy levin said...

There was only one labour rep on the task force (from the labour council as per the terms of reference set by council)