The Ford administration is poised to take another crack at reforming council’s office expense policy, a topic that has been discussed at length with councillors privately with no resolution.
Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday told The Globe and Mail that a new set of proposed rules is expected to be tabled at the June executive committee meeting.
One of Mayor Rob Ford’s first signature moves was to cut councillor office budgets from $50,445 to $30,000 to stop spending on outlays such as lavish retirement parties, newsletters and other frills like rented bunny suits.
But instead of imposing further cuts, Mr. Holyday said the new rules would allow councillors to offload various costs, such as smartphone bills and office renovations, onto the general council budget – in effect freeing up more funds for other councillor office expenses.
“Some councillors thought [cellphones]should be a piece of office equipment and shouldn’t be expensed to individual councillors,” said Mr. Holyday. As for renovations and new furnishings, he added that if such improvements “are needed, it should be the city paying for it as opposed to the councillor office budget.”
After council approved the reduction in office budgets in December, 2010, Mr. Holyday was assigned to come up with further ways to control expenses deemed unnecessary, such as business travel and constituency offices.
But that process, which involved a lengthy series of closed-door consultations with councillors, has dragged out for more than a year. Attempts to win support for additional restrictions – such as having the mayor’s office approve all councillor travel requests – failed.
According to Councillor Gord Perks, there was never a solid group of 23 councillors – the number needed to pass the reforms – who were prepared to back the sorts of restrictions being proposed by the Ford administration. “You just can’t get consensus around it.”
Councillor Shelley Carroll said the new $30,000 threshold – which led to a 43-per-cent reduction in councillor spending between 2010 and 2011 – has meant the end of unnecessary outlays so no more reforms are needed. “We have saved the money that the community wanted us to. Sensational expenses have been curtailed.”
Mr. Holyday said elements of the council expense policy that are not up for renegotiation are the transparency rules regarding office expenses paid for with personal funds. In theory, councillors are required to publicly disclose all out-of-pocket expenses to ensure that wealthy politicians aren’t exceeding the $30,000 spending limit, or allowing third parties to cover political expenses.
Mayor Ford and his brother Doug, councillor for Etobicoke North, have both paid expenses out of pocket. In the 2011 year-end expense report, released in March, Councillor Ford declared that he had paid $2,016 for office expenses. (Since then, he has also disclosed spending $1,485 of his own funds on the Cut the Waist campaign website and banner.)
The disclosure rules for expenses paid with personal funds – which pre-date the current administration and rely on an honour system – also treat some outlays (e.g. mileage, parking fees) quite differently than the rules governing those paid for with public funds. For example, councillors who expense business meals must post all receipts on the city’s website. But a councillor who pays for a business meal out of pocket is not required to publicly disclose the bill.
Ms. Carroll said such transparency policies aren’t just about controlling costs; they also provide the public with insights into the way their elected officials do business. But, she added, many councillors want to be able to meet informally with constituents or individuals who have some stake in the city’s business (e.g., architects) without being forced to disclose those encounters.
“That was the one we talked about the longest,” she said. “There’s a lot of grey area in there.”
2011 Councillor Expenses
Councillor’s office expenses: $952,867 (2010: $1.76-million)
Expenses paid for with personal funds: $2,016.68
Staff salaries/benefits: $9.7-million
Councillor salaries: $5.5-million
Total council cost (including mayor’s office): $16.4-million
Special to The Globe and Mail