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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."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A tired council expense policy

So far this has been a rather snowy winter. Fortunately, some of the members who left city council last fall, voluntarily or otherwise, will be well equipped to deal with it. Thanks to the largesse of the taxpayers, they have new tires for their cars.

That’s part of the takeaway from the final quarter report of councillors’ expenses released last week.

The quarterly posting was part of an overall strategy for increasing transparency and accountability. Having to put your expenses online in a timely fashion for all the world to see would act as a deterrence to profligate spending. Much better than creating strict policy and guidelines. At least that was the thinking of the majority on council at the time.

It seems that view has been echoed by the current council as well. Only two weeks into their jobs last year, they decided that they needed to have yet another review of the councillors’ expenses policy. They overwhelmingly endorsed the motion that “the City Clerk BE DIRECTED to review the Council Members’ Expense Policy and report back on what changes might be in order in keeping with best practices, with a view to streamlining the process; it being noted that accountability and openness is accomplished through the regular posting of expenditures”.

Only Ward 9 Councillor Anna Hopkins opposed the motion. A review of the policy was fine with her, especially with respect to identifying best practices. But she had her doubts about what “streamlining the process” really meant and while she had no objection to the posting of expenditures, she was not convinced that doing so really achieved accountability or that it would affect behaviour. She had wanted those references removed from the motion. Just stick to best practices.

The proof is in the pudding, of course. A couple of years ago, I did a relatively detailed analysis of councillor spending which can be found on this blog. Check the postings for March 18, 2013, March 19, 2013 March 19, 2013, March 24, 2013, April 2 2013.

What motivated the council to address this issue so early in their term—it was after all their very first meeting following the inaugural—was a letter from a constituent. He had been perusing through the posted expenses and noted that his councillor had been charging the taxpayers more than $400 per month for automobile expenses. That’s a significant chunk of cash for running around to city meetings even in a city as sprawling as London.

And there was no explanation for the expenses. Where had the councillor gone and why? Why couldn’t he just fill out an expense claim giving those details? Everyone else who travels on the company’s time and dime is required to do so.

But not council members for the city of London. When it comes to the use of one’s personal vehicle there seem to be no rules. It’s up to each member’s perception and conscience to determine what is a legitimate expense. And who ever bothers to look up these expenditures, anyway?

Last year was a short one for most council members; only four of them returned to finish the last month of the year. So one would have expected that those not returning would have saved us a few dollars, leaving a bit for those who replaced them to settle in.

For the most part that was true. Overall, councillors spent just under $2400 less in 2014 than in 2012 when expense claims averaged just under $10,000 per councillor. But, just like in 2012, there was much variance.

The four councillors who came back for another term—Bill Armstrong, Matt Brown, Paul Hubert and Harold Usher all underspent their budgets in 2014. Armstrong, who had been among the top spenders in 2012 spent less than half of that last year and Brown cut his spending by two-thirds.

But even a couple of those who didn’t secure another term reduced their spending. Stephen Orser cut his spending in half and Sandy White cut hers by a third.

Why? one wonders.

Perhaps it’s because of the limits imposed on “gifts and souvenirs”, the fridge magnets and umbrellas that had been so freely distributed in earlier years. Perhaps it was the fact that, once a councillor declares intention to stand for re-election, advertising in community papers and event programmes is prohibited. Whatever the reason, it saved the taxpayers a few dollars.

Despite these limitations on claims, four councillors who sought to be elected in 2014 increased their spending. Chief among these was Joe Swan. In 2012 he had been a modest spender, but the services of an assistant, among other things, became important to him in an election year. Also increasing their claims were Denise Brown, who had been thrifty in the past, Paul VanMeerbergen, who has never been a big spender, and Bud Polhill, who claimed a few dollars more than previously.

Also increasing her spending was Nancy Branscombe, almost exclusively on a contract assistant. No doubt running in the provincial election last summer increased those costs. She had taken an unpaid leave during that time but the work of the constituency still needed to be done. An assistant would have been essential. Branscombe has never been a big spender while in office. No trinkets and trash, no advertising, no automobile expenses.

But to get back to the question of the citizen who wanted to see some accountability in the billing for automobile expenses. Just what is the policy and how did it play out in this final quarterly report?

The previous council changed the rules by which members would be reimbursed for expenses related to moving about the city as part of their duties going to meetings and connecting with constituents. Following some suspected abuses of a rather lax reporting system, the requirements had been tightened to including details of the expenditure for a claim of 50 cents per kilometre for the use of a private vehicle.

But several councillors were opposed to such rigorous reporting and they found support among those elected in 2010. Just provide proof of expense and you would be reimbursed.

So that’s the current policy; “expenses relating to normal ‘wear and tear’ of the primary vehicle used for City business such as: gas receipts, oil changes, tires, brakes, parking and other fluid changes/fills” are eligible for reimbursement. There’s apparently no need to justify what proportion of the overall cost is for city business and what is personal use. It’s a generous policy which councillors created for themselves.

It’s clear that interpretations of the policy vary. In 2014, the actual claims for use of a personal vehicle ranged from a low of $0 (Joni Baechler) to a high of $4447.56 (Dale Henderson) with an average of $1522. Those substantially below the average were (in addition to Baechler) Branscombe, Matt Brown, Bryant, Hubert and VanMeerbergen. The remainder had thirsty cars in need of repairs and tires. With only a week or two left in their mandates, Swan, Orser, White and Polhill all discovered that they needed new tires. Denise Brown managed to retrieve a year’s worth of fuel and maintenance bills.

As for Henderson, he had decided to not run again so he planned ahead, getting new tires in July. However, in the fall, with only a month and a half left in his term, he discovered a need for some gifts and souvenirs—coaster sets and hats totalling $825.50. A bit of early Christmas shopping.

And, perhaps as he was arranging the return of the Dale TV video cameras, he suddenly remembered another purchase he had made: 2 Samsung digital cameras for which he had paid $815.60. He had bought them in April. He needed them for his constituency work. Two days after he left office, he submitted the bill for those.

It’s all there, on the city website. Anyone can have a gander. You can find it here.

But how many people know where to look?

And how helpful is it to make people accountable once every four years?


Vicki Van Linden said...

If one recalls that Dale Henderson ran on a platform of keeping taxes down, it is pretty much unforgivable that he decided to buy these cameras 'for constituency business.'

Anonymous said...

In the old days, the 1/3rd tax free was suppose to pay for incidental expenses like driving around town. It is really shameful how they have figured out a way to keep their salaries in line but milk us through a larger and larger "expense" allowance with a wider and wider scope for how it is used. And please Gina, after looking at the report, why not share with us who used tax money to pay for tickets to events?? I assume some got tax receipts for using other people's money? While it is a small time expense, Joey F got convicted for small time breach of trust which, is actually a big deal. Without trust, people stop voting and stop caring if their rights get taken away.