Nov 11

Nothing noble about paying for your own office expenses

“Rob Ford buys golden business cards from family firm” is a tempting headline, but I’m going to be the model of restraint and come at this from a slightly different angle.

Let’s start here: third quarter office expenses for councillors and the mayor were posted this past Friday. Office expenses are mostly boring — all toner and Blackberrys — but there’s always a story or two that emerges after they get released. For this round, that story was this: Rob Ford bought some business cards.

On the surface, this shouldn’t be a big deal. Ford loves business cards. Handing out his card is the first thing he does when he meets someone. It’s like his super awkward version of the fist bump. And it even makes sense that he’d look to an outside printer for his stock of cards, as the city’s in-house business cards are kind of cheap looking.

But here’s the problem: When Rob Ford went to buy his business cards, he decided to buy them from Deco Labels. Deco Labels is the printing business started by his father. The mayor still has a title there, and when elected he said he would still be doing some work for the firm. A released version of his schedule from earlier this year showed him devoting full days to work at the company. So by buying these cards — a premium product with some nice gold embossing — Rob Ford essentially did business with himself.

That’s not a good idea.

Chris MacDonald at BusinessWeek dismissed Councillor Josh Matlow’s opinion that this incident amounts to a “perceived conflict of interest,” writing instead that, actually, it’s a “bona fide conflict of interest.” No bones about it: politicians should shy away from doing business with companies that they have a stake in.

Yesterday, of course, we got the requisite backtracking. Ford’s office told the Toronto Sun that the mayor will pony up the cash for the business cards out of his own pocket. And to really sweeten the deal, he’ll also pay for the newspaper subscriptions his office bought in April. (The mayor’s team gets them all, even the one whose reporters they won’t talk to.)

This is a ridiculous response that totally misses the point. There’s nothing noble about paying for office expenses out of your own pocket. All it demonstrates is that certain politicians are, in fact, rather wealthy and can afford to put their money forward for things that should rightly be provided by the organizations they work for. By holding this kind of thing up as virtuous, we’re aggrandizing personal wealth and turning it into a political tool.

Suddenly the candidate who inherited his father’s successful printing business is preferable to the other guy, who wasn’t so lucky. Because the first guy will be paying for his own damn staples while the second will be billing you, the taxpayer, for the cost.

This is, ultimately, a news item with a small price tag attached to it. A $1600 bill for mayoral business cards is not a thing that should be commanding our attention, especially when items like a broken transit plan and looming labour strife are bubbling under the surface, but there’s a troubling precedent here. Rob Ford may have respect for taxpayers, but how about respecting the rules in place to protect taxpayers from corruption and shady dealings?

Mar 11

Bless this mess

Earlier this week, OpenFile did the thing that media outlets do where you spend some time going through the public expense records of councillors trying to find things that look like wasteful spending. (I did it too.) They hit upon a good one with Councillor Michael Thompson, reporting that he spent $300 to have his office blessed Pastor Dr. Tai Adeboboye, who in addition to doing office blessings also owns a spectacularly great suit.

Anyway, a lot of shock and horror and reaction about this supposedly improper use of funds followed. It all led to this, as reported by David Rider:

Councillor Michael Thompson is refunding taxpayers the $300 he charged to his office budget to have his office blessed by a Baptist pastor.

“I will provide the city with a cheque for the $300 and at the same time ask the integrity commissioner to take a look at this and rule on it,” Thompson (Ward 37 Scarborough Centre) said in an interview Friday.

via Councillor Thompson refunds Baptist blessing expense – thestar.com.

This was a giant waste of everyone’s time.

The angle from the left is that Thompson is a hypocrite, supporting Ford’s stop-the-gravy-train message while at the same time dealing “gravy” himself in the form of office blessings for $300. The angle from the right is the same as it always is: the ideal councillor would work in a cave and never do anything that costs money. Respect for taxpayers.

Joe Mihevc actually did a nice job coming to Thompson’s defense in the original Star article. He said that this was “an ‘interesting and creative and dynamic’ way of making a community donation.”

If we want to debate anything about this, it should be that last part: should councillors be allowed to make donations to community groups like churches, charities, youth programs and neighbourhood associations out of their office budget? Some, like Doug Holyday, would like to see councillors banned from making community donations. He says they should pay those bills themselves. Which seems like a great way to encourage residents to vote for millionaire candidates who, if elected, will donate to the local sports team.

Some clarification on this is probably a good idea (particularly with regard to whether councillors should be able to publicize the donation), but it would be a shame to eliminate the practice altogether. Sometimes a couple of hundred bucks given to a group so they can hold a barbecue can have a significant impact on a community.

Mostly, though, I think people just need to stop losing their heads over this stuff.

Mar 11

Memo to Councillors: Stop the gravy train, turn off data roaming

Councillor expense reports for 2010 were posted online yesterday, which of course immediately led to no less than four articles in the Toronto Sun by Reporter Don Peat. All of them are boring. Kelly Grant at the Globe & Mail at least has a bit of fun with it, noting the handwritten outrage on Mayor Ford’s staff cellphone bill which I found hilarious last night. The Toronto Star’s David Rider gets points for actually uncovering something newsworthy in this whole exercise, pointing out that Case Ootes’ office paid for another candidate’s election expenses. I move that we dissolve the TCHC board in light of these allegations.

The item that most concerned me looking through these numbers, however, was just how much of the city pays to Rogers, Bell and Telus through ever-escalating smartphone bills. I get that communication is a critical part of being a city councillor — and I’d never advocate they use something as outdated as a GoldsbiePhone — but the number of times the city got stuck with huge data and roaming overages is crazy.

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti's office paid more than $1500 in charges for international data roaming last year. Above is a section from his March 2010 invoice.

For example: Giorgio Mammoliti, who is the worst offender, spent $16,140.50 in ‘Telecom charges’ over the course of the year. This represents nearly half of all his office expenses in 2010. (For comparison’s sake, the average councillor seemed to spend about $2,000 on Telecom charges  last year.)

In March, Councillor Mammoliti used 7MB of cellular data while roaming in the U.S. This cost $234.60. In December, he used 6.7MB of data, costing another $202. His former Executive Assistant, Anthony Cesario, used 13.4MB of international data in January and 20.7MB in May. These two overages cost a combined $1,021.65.

For those not well-versed in the language of nerd, these are very small amounts of data — representing a few emails or webpages in most cases. Yes, this is insane. The absurdly high rates we pay for international data both here and in the United States has been called legal theft.

Mammoliti wasn’t the only councillor to face these kinds of ridiculous fees. Peter Milczyn was billed $77.92 for 9MB of data use in January. Mark Grimes was dinged $81.08 in fees in September. (He also spent $50 on Picture & Video Messages.) Shelley Carroll saw a $279 data charge in December, while Ron Moeser faced a $153 data roaming fee the same month.

Several councillors also paid per-text-message fees, instead of signing up for a bundle plan, which is significantly cheaper.

This doesn’t add up to a ton of money when you look a things in terms of a ten billion dollar operating budget, but it is probably something the city could stand to look into. At the very least, ensuring that councillors are on sensible monthly billing plans that don’t result in continued overages would be a worthwhile move. There’s not a lot the city can do in terms of the high cost of US/international data, but a quick workshop explaining how damn expensive those rates are and showing councillors how to disable data roaming might help.

Another fun IT-type note on councillor expenses, illustrating if nothing else the eclectic nature of this political body: Someone in Denzil Minnan-Wong’s office has a 3G-enabled iPad, while Anthony Peruzza still bills the city five bucks a month so his assistant can have a pager.