TCHC spending scandal distracts from important issues

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Just as people were starting to ask the tough questions about the city’s finances going into 2012, the mayor’s office received a gift in the form of a well-publicized Auditor General’s report detailing mismanagement, including abuse of funds, at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.

Ford doesn’t really seem to enjoy being the mayor most days, but he clearly enjoys dealing with things like this. He gets to hold press conferences and get angry. But it’s a good kind of angry. The kind people like. (Not the kind of angry he gets when people keep asking him questions in council.)

Daniel Dale, Robyn Doolitte & Donovan Vincent surely bonded while writing this story together for the Toronto Star:

Mayor Rob Ford called for the resignation of members of the Toronto Community Housing Corp. board on Monday, hours after the city’s auditor-general blasted the housing agency for wasting millions in untendered contracts and lavish employee expenses.

via Ford to clean house at TCHC after spending spree exposed – thestar.com.

Since this broke, most city councillors have made a big show of demonstrating just how outraged they are. Councillor Josh Matlow actually did a good job getting in front of the story, appearing on Metro Morning Monday and calling for TCHC to be put under “direct city supervision.”

Matlow’s move was a good one because, as a councillor who generally supports public housing, he kept the story from drifting too far toward calls for the elimination of TCHC.

Ford moved during the election that perhaps housing services could be more effectively delivered with rent subsidies. (Google “Section Eight Housing” for more information on this kind of program — my quick read is that it sure isn’t any kind of silver bullet.)

Okay. So. Let’s get it out there: TCHC made a ton of mistakes. A boatload of mistakes. This kind of behaviour is not acceptable. Yes, these kinds of abuses happen in the private sector — don’t let anyone tell you they don’t happen in the private sector; they’re lying — but the reality is that organizations that do the kind of work that TCHC does should be held to a higher standard. They must be held to a higher standard.

The other thing to note here is that, ultimately, this is an example of the system working as it should. The auditor uncovered these abuses, has made recommendations and now action will be taken, both by management at TCHC and by the Mayor and Council.

Quick aside: The auditor’s report is actually quite good, though there’s some odd design choices. Give it a read. It even includes a bit of humour on page four:

We have been advised by certain staff that some of the expenses were necessary and contributed to “team building” and to an improvement in employee morale. While this may be the case, it is inconceivable that staff would view the expenditure of public funds, for example, on a visit to a spa as appropriate no matter the justification. In this context, a more appropriate use of public funds would be a training program on ethics so that staff are more able to recognize inappropriate expenses.

Oh snap.

The point I’m trying to make is this: it’s unlikely any policies will change as a result of this scandal. There is no systemic failure here. Nor can this be chalked up, really, to some epidemic of fat public sector employees with a culture of entitlement or whatever. It’s just a shitty situation that, thankfully, was caught and will be addressed thanks to the kinds of checks and redundancies that must be part of any giant, bureaucratic organization.

The best that can happen going forward is that this is resolved quickly. Fire the people that need to be fired. Make things better for the people served by TCHC. And move the hell on.

The civilian members of the TCHC board made a show today of announcing that they would not step down, as the mayor sort of requested they should on Monday. (He requested it to the media, apparently, but his office made no attempt to contact the board members.) I don’t necessarily agree that the board members have any kind of obligation to step down, but they probably should just do so. This story is bigger than any of them, and it would likely be better for TCHC if they would step out of the way.

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