Toronto councillors spent more than $55,000 in taxpayers' money last year on donations to groups including churches, seniors' clubs, ratepayers' associations and minor sports teams that splash politicians names across their jerseys.
And if the past is any guide, the councillors who made these donations last year will do so again as the Oct. 25 election looms, reinforcing their near-insurmountable incumbent advantage.
"I think these kinds of donations are inappropriate," said Myer Siemiatycki, a municipal politics expert at Ryerson University. "When a municipal councillor gives funds to local ratepayer groups - not from their own pocket, but from taxpayers' pockets - it's a way of boosting the popularity and legitimacy of that incumbent that gives them a tremendous advantage over any challenger."
A little-publicized rule in the city's expense policy lets councillors draw from their $53,100 office budgets to donate to local organizations, including those they might solicit for support come election time. The cheque simply has to be cut before Labour Day in a campaign year, when more stringent financing rules kick in.
When city clerk Ulli Watkiss drafted the most recent version of the councillors' expense policy in 2008, she recommended against allowing such donations, arguing the practice left the city and councillors vulnerable to accusations of favouritism and vote-buying. "There is a public perception that councillors use their ability to make donations or sponsorships to generate goodwill with select community groups and garner support for re-election," Ms. Watkiss warned in a report. "This perception may become especially acute during an election year, and may lead to unnecessary complaints or court challenges."
Councillors ignored that advice and voted themselves permission to donate a maximum of $500 per group per year, down from $600 under the old rules.
In 2009, Councillor Raymond Cho (Ward 42 Scarborough-Rouge River) made more taxpayer-funded donations than any of his colleagues: He gave $4,753.52 to 15 different groups. Michael Walker (Ward 22 St. Paul's) came second with $4,575 to 10 groups and Sandra Bussin (Ward 32 Beaches-East York) was third with $4,405.98 to 20 organizations, including the "Bussin's Blizzards" soccer team and the "Bussin's Blue Jays," T-ball squad, teams she has sponsored for years.
Budget chief Shelley Carroll (Ward 33 Don Valley East) - who voted against allowing the donations in 2008 - came fourth, donating $3,700 to 15 organizations
Mr. Cho, Mr. Bussin and Ms. Carroll have already registered for the Oct. 25 race. Mr. Walker is not running again. None could be reached for interviews yesterday.
Other councillors donated less, but in more eyebrow-raising fashion.
Councillor David Shiner (Ward 24 Willowdale) gave $216 to the Jewish National Fund to plant 12 trees in Israel. The saplings are listed as memorial donations, presumably to honour constituents who have passed away, but Mr. Shiner was not available to clarify yesterday.
Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) gave $2,900 last year, including the maximum donation of $500 to five powerful ratepayers' groups. Ms. Stintz knows the influence such groups can wield in a campaign - she knocked off an incumbent in 2003 with the help of the Coalition for Municipal Change, which placed a newspaper want ad for a new councillor. Ms. Stintz said none of the ratepayer groups she donated to last year supported her in 2003 or 2006 and she does not expect to win their support this year.
Councillor and TTC chairman Adam Giambrone tried to use $250 from the TTC portion of his office budget to donate a total $750 to the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line, but the TTC blocked the gambit. Mr. Giambrone donated the maximum of $500 from his regular office budget instead. It was one of seven donations he made for a total of $2,070.62.
"We believe in staying within the rules and when the requests come in we make those decisions appropriately," he said.
Councillors don't generally make donations from their office budgets unprompted; rather, groups approach them with letters or e-mails asking for contributions to fundraising drives, local picnics, street parties and myriad other causes. The cheque must be signed City of Toronto, but councillors are free to send it with a personal letter, said Winnie Li, the director of council and support services.
The donation policy has long been a thorn in the side of penny-pinching councillors like Doug Holyday. The Etobicoke politician is one of 10 councillors who didn't give a cent in donations last year.
"It's blatant vote buying," he said. "If you're going to give to a local organization in your community, what are you going to get? You're certainly going to get their help come election time."
Councillors may be inclined to give less generously of public funds if their $53,100 office budgets are slashed by 5 per cent as the budget committee is recommending. Council votes on the budget next month.
Councillors who donated the most from their office budgets to community groups and events in 2009:
- Raymond Cho (Ward 42 Scarborough-Rouge River) $4,753.52
- Michael Walker (Ward 22 St. Paul's) $4,575
- Sandra Bussin (Ward 32 Beaches-East York) $4,405.98
- Shelley Carroll (Ward 33 Don Valley East) $3,700
- John Parker (Ward 26 Don Valley West) $3,600
- Karen Stintz (Ward 16 Eglinton-Lawrence) $2,900
- Kyle Rae (Ward 27 Toronto Centre-Rosedale) $2,500
- David Shiner (Ward 24 Willowdale) $2,346
- Adam Giambrone (Ward 18 Davenport) $2,070.62
- Frank Di Giorgio (Ward 12 York South Weston) $1,990
Source: Toronto councillors' office expenses, 2009. Donation totals do not include taxpayer-funded tickets to charitable events or memberships fees.