When Toronto budget chief Mike Del Grande imagined what he might pick up on the city’s recent trade mission to Chicago, he probably wasn’t thinking about blood-sucking parasites.
“How do I feel about it?” Mr. Del Grande said when asked about the trip Monday. “I didn’t want to go and I went and, you know, I’ve got to say, I got nice bed bug bites,” he said, showing off the small red welts on his wrists.
Despite his itchy souvenirs, Mr. Del Grande said he thought the Chicago trade mission was “interesting” and “informative,” a positive message that was overshadowed, in part, by a question nobody could seem to answer during the junket: Who, exactly, was footing the bill?
The mayor’s office now has a clearer answer, one that backs up Rob Ford’s assertion that it will not cost the taxpayers “one dime” to dispatch 62 business people, five employees of the mayor’s office, three city staffers and eight councillors to the Windy City for two days.
“At the end of the day, it should be a break-even trip,” George Christopoulos, the mayor’s press secretary, said Monday.
As the mayor’s office explained it, the business leaders on the mission paid a “delegate fee” of just under $2,000 to the trip’s official organizer, Invest Toronto, an arms-length city agency whose purpose is attracting new businesses to Toronto.
The fee covered airfare, hotels, events and overhead, including paying the way for the city and mayor’s office employees supporting the mission and for two or three councillors.
The trouble arose when eight councillors wound up joining the mission.
With the invoices and sponsorship totals yet to be tallied, it was too early to determine on the ground in Chicago whether Invest could pay for so many councillors and still break even on the junket.
That led to the spectacle of Mr. Ford – a vocal opponent of taxpayer-funded travel in his councillor days – being contradicted in Chicago by his own council allies, some of whom say they simply could not get a straight answer from the mayor’s office or Councillor Doug Ford, the trip’s biggest booster, about who was paying.
“On the one hand, I heard everybody has to pay their own way. This is verbally I hear this. And on the other hand [I hear] ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get this paid for,’” said Peter Milczyn, a member of the mayor’s executive.
“Frankly, they [the mayor’s office and Councillor Ford] were all driving me nuts for weeks before this … I said, ‘You know what? You want me on this? It’s a legitimate business trip. I have an office budget. It’s going through the office budget. End of story.’”
Councillor Doug Ford said Monday night that he did not lean hard on any of his colleagues to attend.
“By no means did I ever pressure anyone to come. I think everyone enjoyed the trip and they went for the right reasons, to create jobs for the city,” he said, adding he had “no comment” on the number of councillors initially included in the mission’s budget.
Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who shared a room with fellow councillor Jaye Robinson to cut costs, said she was invited on the trip by the mayor’s office and was told Invest Toronto would be covering costs. Now, she is waiting to hear if she will be asked to pay part of the bill. “It is so confusing,” she said. “I think Invest Toronto is trying to figure it out.”
If she does get charged, Ms. Berardinetti said she has concerns about the precedent that will set for future travel on city business. Representing the city, she argues, should not be based on an elected official’s personal wealth.
“Are we going to say this councillor can go because he can afford it and that councillor can’t?” she said. “That’s where you start running into problems.”
Mr. Christopoulos said Monday that Invest Toronto would cover any overruns. Although it is a city agency, Invest receives its funding from the Toronto Port Lands Company, which raises its money from rental leases in the Port Lands, not directly from taxpayers.
Invest did not return a call Monday seeking clarification.
“From my understanding, if there are any shortfalls, however small, Invest would pick up the tab as they were responsible for budgeting the trip,” Mr. Christopoulos said.
Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said he was not formally asked to join the mission, but that he would not have attended in any case. Like the mayor, Mr. Holyday has spent years chastising large groups of councillors for taking trips when only one or two needed to attend. “I just couldn’t bring myself to be a part of something I’ve been so critical of,” Mr. Holyday said.