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 I get that communication is a critical part of being a city councillor — and I’d never advocate they use something as outdated as a GoldsbiePhone — but the number of times the city got stuck with huge data and roaming overages is crazy.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.