New expense rules: “Harmonious community” no more

Doug Holyday’s new guidelines for councillor expenses were revealed today as part of the agenda for the upcoming executive committee meeting, which means we got a lot of silly articles like this one, from the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat:

Spend that office budget now if you’ve got it, councillors.

Deputy mayor Doug Holyday’s new rules aimed at tightening up city council office budgets were unveiled Wednesday and will go to executive committee next week.

If the rules were in effect last year, Councillor Raymond Cho wouldn’t have been able to buy a chainsaw, Councillor Joe Mihevc couldn’t have popped for a popcorn machine and several councillors wouldn’t have been allowed to rent bouncy castles for community events.

via Squeeze put on councillors’ office budgets | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

The worst part about this kind of reporting — and every media outlet is guilty of this — is that it reports the what and not the why. With few exceptions, councillors didn’t spend their office budget on random things just for the hell of it. Raymond Cho spent $60 on an electric chainsaw as part of a community clean-up day in his ward. Popcorn machines and bouncy castles were rented as contributions to community events.

If you want to ask questions about this kind of stuff, the question shouldn’t be “Was Joe Mihevc right to pay for a popcorn machine with his office budget?” but rather “Should councillors support community events with their office budget?” That’s the issue before us. The specific purchases are largely irrelevant. (But, sure, sometimes funny.)

For the most part, Holyday’s proposed changes seem to make sense. I don’t expect council to fight this too hard, though we’ll see a few amendments. The concern with any kind of reform like this is that it will handcuff councillors, removing all discretion. Not only does this risk stifling potentially innovative practices, it also means bad councillors have less rope to hang themselves with. Sometimes we need to let incumbents screw up so voters have good reason to vote them out of office.

Final note on this, as I think it’s slightly telling: the current policy lists five items under ‘purpose’ —  these are the major areas in which councillors are directed to spend their office budget — but in Holyday’s revised policy there are only four items. Removed from the list is a directive that councillors use these dollars to “enhance and promote a harmonious community in their wards.”

That kind of thing is, I guess, no longer part of the job description.

Attached to Holyday’s agenda item is a side-by-side comparison of the current policy versus the proposed new one.

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