When city councillors voted this week to turn down an annual raise, it seemed like a sensible concession to the spirit of the time.
Mayor Rob Ford is pushing for big cuts in spending. He is asking all departments to cut back and has made it clear he will be playing hard ball with city unions. Many councillors felt they could not accept an increase while the city is asking others for restraint.
"We do have structural deficits here at the city," said budget chief Mike Del Grande. "That is never going to be corrected until we make some tough decisions, and they have to start with us first." The vote to turn down the 2.6-per-cent cost-of-living increase sailed through 39-3.
But look a little harder at this decision and second thoughts creep in. Councillors' pay has been an issue in Toronto for years. Every time councillors try to adjust their pay, someone accuses them of lining their own pockets with taxpayers' money. Yet councillors, like everyone else, need a raise from time to time, if only to keep up with the rising cost of living.
A few years ago, they settled on a reasonable way to get one without making it a political football. They would ask independent consultants to report periodically on how their salaries compared to what politicians make in other Canadian municipalities. Their pay would be set accordingly, based on a set formula. In the years in between consultants reports, they would get a nominal increase matching the rise in the consumer price index.
The virtue of that system is that councillors would never be put in the awkward position of having to vote themselves a raise. Impartial experts would do the math and the raise would come automatically.
This week's decision effectively throws that system out the window. By debating, then turning down, this year's raise they have repoliticized the issue, setting themselves up for an annual go-round on the salary issue. If it was wrong to accept a raise this year, how about next year, when Mr. Ford has promised an even tougher cost-cutting campaign? How about the year after that?
Freshman Councillor Josh Matlow of Ward 22, St. Paul's, is dismayed at the idea of councillors debating their own compensation. As he puts it, "there will never be a right time" for that. Some councillor or other will always be willing to stand up on his hind legs and accuse his fellows of hypocrisy. Mr. Matlow would like to see an independent body take over the whole process of setting councillors' pay.
John Filion of Ward 23, Willowdale, was one of the three councillors brave enough to vote this week against turning down the annual raise. "I'm just so sick of the demeaning of politicians by other politicians for political gain," he says. "They're afraid of their own shadow in the current political atmosphere. It's kind of sad and pathetic to watch."
After an election campaign in which Mr. Ford attacked his fellow councillors for their supposed perks and privileges, it is tough indeed for any of them to stand up and say they deserve more. But Toronto councillors are not living in the lap of luxury.
Councillors get $99,619, less than many school principals or senior police officers. Many voluntarily gave up their annual increases during the past few years of hard times.
"They work long hours, they take a lot of abuse and their profession should be honoured and respected the same way a police officer or a street sweeper is," argues Joe Mihevc of Ward 21, St. Paul's, another member of the trio who voted nay this week.
Councillors like Mr. Mihevc are not crying poor. All they ask for is a fair and impartial system for setting their compensation - one that doesn't require them to go through the unseemly process of debating what they are worth. Thanks to this week's vote, they are back to doing just that.