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To save money in Chicago, Toronto councillor Jaye Robinson shared a room at a mid-priced hotel with councillor Michelle Berardinetti. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
To save money in Chicago, Toronto councillor Jaye Robinson shared a room at a mid-priced hotel with councillor Michelle Berardinetti. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

MARCUS GEE

Councillors didn’t travel to Chicago by gravy train Add to ...

Another day, another controversy. On Day One of his Chicago trip, Mayor Rob Ford sparred with reporters over his use of city staff to help him coach football.

On Day Two, he tripped himself up by saying taxpayers would not be spending “one red cent” for the Team Toronto business mission. “I don’t believe we should bring down 200 people and put it on the backs of taxpayers,” he told Newstalk1010 radio.

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In fact, the Toronto delegation numbers less than 80. And it’s not entirely true that no public money is going into the trip. While the business people paid their own way, the handful of city staff who came along were naturally paid out of the public purse. Most of the eight city councillors who went said they did not intend to pay out of their own pockets either.

And why should they? There is no reason city councillors should have to cover their own flights and hotel rooms on a trip that the mayor invited them to join as representatives of the city. The expense of sending public officials on a public mission should be borne by the public.

The cost to Mr. Ford’s sainted taxpayer is fairly modest – councillors Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson were sharing a room at a down-at-heel mid-price hotel to save money – and the potential gains are impressive.

It’s easy to dismiss trips like these as wasteful junkets that produce little more than happy talk and bland communiqués. That is certainly what Mr. Ford did throughout his 10 years as a cranky suburban councillor, dismissing every trip outside the city as yet another example of “gravy.”

A cursory look at this brief Chicago trip and its light agenda would show little of substance achieved. No big business deals. No startling new innovation in government. In an agreement signed by Mr. Ford and his Chicago counterpart, Rahm Emanuel, Chicago and Toronto “reaffirm their mutual aspiration to work in unison for the benefit of each city.” Oh good.

Still, business is about relationships and the Toronto business people who trooped to Chicago were clearly relishing the chance to hand out cards and build contacts under the umbrella of a mayoral visit.

Robert Deluce, the head of Porter Airlines, pushed the benefits for Chicago businesses of flying into an airport right in Toronto’s downtown. Keith Ford was drumming up business for his Electronics Recycling Services company as he expands into Chicago.

Shaun McKaigue of FER-PAL Infrastructure was trying to break through in Illinois with his system for building new pipes inside of old ones that otherwise would need replacing. A mission such as this one, he said “gives someone like me confidence to say you will be well received, a little bit of an entree and an opportunity to meet some people.”

“It’s all about getting Toronto on the map and getting jobs for Toronto,” said Mr. Ford, clearly energized by the trip. “I’m from a business background and you have to be a mover and shaker, going out and knocking on doors.”

For city staff and councillors, too, there was value in the visit. Toronto has a lot to learn from Chicago, with its spectacular waterfront, meticulous city planning and well-maintained streets.

On Wednesday afternoon a group of councillors huddled around a litter bin that incorporates a solar-powered compactor. Compacting the trash means it needs to be emptied less often, cutting costs.

Ms. Robinson, a freshman councillor, came back “inspired” after an afternoon boat tour of the waterfront. There may be lessons there as Toronto develops its derelict Port Lands.

Peter Milczyn, the level-headed Etobicoke councillor who heads the planning committee, argued the trip was well worthwhile. “There are a lot of connections that are happening business to business, leads that are being generated and lessons to be learned about how Chicago deals with development issues, infrastructure issues and planning and architecture.”

He said he would not be paying his own way. “It’s a legitimate business trip. It’s not a junket. It’s not a vacation. It supports city business.”

Quite so. It’s good for the men and women who govern Toronto to get out in the world and see how other cities do things. It’s even better for a famously parochial mayor to broaden his horizons through travel. Instead of quibbling over who pays, they should be doing more of it.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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