Posts Tagged: expenses

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?

Jun 11

Of expenses and Halifax trips: micromanaging the ‘gravy train’

The Toronto Star’s David Rider:

Facing revolt from councillors of all political stripes, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday is willing to give only a little ground in his plan to clamp down on their office expenses.

He has agreed to minor changes, for example rewording a section to allow a councillor to order in a pizza dinner for late-working staff.

“But no pricey meals at fancy restaurants across the street, like some have done in the past,” adds Holyday,

via ‘Micromanaging’ Holyday faces revolt over councillor expenses –

Doug Holyday’s been banging the drum for expense reform for a while now, and increasingly my reaction is simply this: Who cares?

Who cares? Who cares? Who cares?

The most important reform to councillor expenses already happened. They’re posted online, quarterly, with receipts. The public can view them themselves or, more likely, read the nineteen articles the Toronto Sun will run the very next day questioning every item that isn’t straight-up office supplies.

Any further reforms should be geared toward ensuring councillors are getting the best deal possible on common items like newspaper printing, and helping our elected reps better work with technology, so they’re not doing moronic things like running up massive international data bills.

Maybe I’m idealistic, but I think we elect councillors to be innovative in the way they do their job and meet their constituents’ collective needs. If a councillor decides that they’ll better serve their ward by going to XYZ conference or even buying their staff pizza with literal flakes of gold as toppings, then let them do it. If the voters decide that a councillor is not being responsible or effective with their office budget, then the recourse is clear: vote the bastard out.

Holyday also criticized the twelve Toronto councillors who attended the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference this past weekend in Halifax, as if conferences for professional development and/or networking aren’t an incredibly common and worthwhile thing in the private sector.

Ford also skipped the FCM conference. When asked why, his director of policy and strategic planning Mark Towhey told the Globe’s Elizabeth Church: “Toronto is a pretty big city. People know where it is.” As he understands it, the FCM Conference is mostly about speculative geography. Also, apparently the city’s relationship with the federal government is now strong enough that no collective advocacy on the part of Canadian municipalities is necessary.

Related: Over at Spacing, John Lorinc makes the push for an argument that says it’s a good thing for Toronto’s reputation that Ford didn’t attend. Silver linings.

Apr 11

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.

Apr 11

Solving all our problems through councillor expense reforms

Surprising no one and keeping to the idea that you can solve most of the city’s budget problems by improving public perception, Doug Holyday will propose some new restriction on councillors’ office budgets at the next Executive Committee meeting. They’ll then go to Council in May.

According to the Star’s Daniel Dale, the new restrictions will prohibit spending public money on personal improvement services, parties, costumes, donations to community groups and sponsorships of sports teams. I hope there’s not an explicit restriction on “costumes” because that seems like something future historians will find hilarious.

Dale also reports on some of Holyday’s other proposed reforms:

The proposal would require councillors to have their newsletters produced by the city’s printing operation, Holyday said, unless they prove they’ve found a cheaper alternative. It would force them to use website developers from a city-approved short list. And to the chagrin of critics of Mayor Rob Ford, it would grant committee chairs sole authority to decide which councillors could take trips to conferences.

via New rules proposed for controversial council expenses – (Emphasis added.)

That last point is interesting, as it feels like an attempt to further centralize powers within the Executive Committee. With the way things work these days, that would essentially mean that council expenditures related to travel would be entirely at the whim of the mayor’s office.