Brampton has evolved from a sleepy suburb into Canada's ninth-largest municipality, but it seems city hall hasn't yet received the memo.
The faces on the 11-member council haven't changed much in the past two decades, even though the population it represents has soared from about 260,000 to nearly 600,000 in that same period – two-thirds of them visible minorities. Long tenures have made some on council a little too comfortable, and allowed accountability to fall by the wayside.
Deloitte Canada delivered a searing report last week, calling out Brampton City Council – and especially the mayor – for everything from charging $220 in mobile phone IQ tests to a corporate account to purchasing $128,000 of pricey flight passes on the taxpayer's dime. Brampton, one of Canada's fastest-growing and most diverse cities, has now been thrust into the spotlight with a spending scandal by a council that does not reflect its population.
Residents who are finally tuning in are asking how this could happen.
The current crop of council members has served a collective 238 years on council – an average of 22 years each. A case of continually re-elected incumbents and a disengaged electorate have created the perfect setting for oversight to fall through the cracks. But the magnitude of the current spending scandal has reached even the most apathetic of voters: They're paying attention, plan to vote and may just overhaul council come election day.
Brampton real estate agent Bachittar Saini said he had voted for Mayor Susan Fennell in the past several elections because she was the incumbent. But after learning of her misspending and that of other councillors through the media in the past year, he's become politically active and is trying to encourage his fellow residents to elect a brand new slate of council members.
"I hope they wake up and don't vote for any of these [incumbents]. It's not one guy – the whole council needs to be replaced," he said.
On Oct. 27, Torontonians will head to the polls to elect their mayor in what has been one of the most colourful elections in a while, but just as big a change will be happening next door in Brampton. Political watchers predict voters will show up to polls in higher numbers – beyond the dismal 33 per cent seen in 2010 – eager to shake up what has been status quo for so long.
"Certainly, the mayor is in deep trouble and I imagine many of the councillors will be, too. It's not unheard of in this kind of situation for there to be a kind of tidal wave of throwing out the rascals," said Andrew Sancton, an urban politics professor at Western University in London, Ont. It's the first election when Ms. Fennell will face two serious challengers: former Ontario municipal affairs minister Linda Jeffrey and fellow council member John Sanderson, who is backed by many other councillors.
After completing its $243,000 audit, Deloitte identified the key reason for the many breaches of the city's spending policy by members of council: In 2011, council approved a new expense policy, which eliminated oversight. Previously, the city's finance department approved expense reports, but with one vote, council switched to an honour system – a system that allowed for $172,608 in transactions by the mayor and $46,000 by the rest of council that breached the city's expense policies to go unchecked. The audit report has now been passed along to Peel Regional Police, who may investigate whether the mayor and councillors broke the law.
"I don't know what happens to mayors sometimes in a lot of cities, but they think that after a long period of time, they're like kings or queens. And they don't need to listen," said Paul Palleschi, a 29-year veteran of city council. While he has long been a staunch supporter of the mayor, he said the report proved Ms. Fennell was not "lily-white."
Mr. Palleschi was found to not be "lily-white" either – auditors said he breached city finance rules, too. What's more, he voted in favour of the new expense policy in 2011 because, he says, he thought councillors were mature enough to handle an honour system.
Susan Crawford, the chair of the Brampton Board of Trade, said she was most concerned by how council had removed oversight in the first place.
"That's what led us down this path. I think it's very unfortunate because I think a lot of this could have been avoided if council hadn't made that decision," she said.
Other mechanisms of accountability have also crumbled, or just never came to fruition, in the city.
In 2007, Mr. Sancton was appointed as Brampton's closed meetings investigator. By law, members of municipal councils cannot meet to discuss city business outside of open, public meetings (with a few exceptions). Mr. Sancton, who quit his post earlier this year, said he had not received a single complaint during his seven-year tenure. That may have been because the City of Brampton charges residents $250 to make a complaint.
"I think it probably did have a chilling effect," Mr. Sancton says.
In what initially seemed a promising move on the accountability front, Brampton retained mediator Donald Cameron to serve as its integrity commissioner in 2011. Mr. Cameron investigated and filed a report on Ms. Fennell, clearing her of accusations she had acted improperly when raising money for a private fundraising gala. Unhappy with that and other rulings, councillors voted to fire the integrity commissioner this past spring. A few months later, they hired a new commissioner, who is currently investigating the findings of Deloitte's audit report.
Ontario Ombudsman André Marin says council should not be able to meddle with these offices, which are there to keep them in check.
"You don't hire or fire. You don't suspend. You hire these people on terms. A five-year term is ideal. And you don't interfere – you let them run the show," he said.
Soon, Mr. Marin may have the authority to oversee Brampton and Ontario's 443 other municipalities. Bill 8, the province's Accountability Act, is making its way through the legislative process now and it would grant the Ombudsman the power to investigate municipalities on matters of integrity.
The flaws in the city's government aren't limited to lack of accountability, though. As those who cover politics for ethnic media see it, the city is stuck in another era because, while 66 per cent of Brampton's population are visible minorities, only one member of council is not white.
Incumbents tend to clinch victory term after term, based on their name recognition, says Asma Amanat, a political reporter with South Asian Generation Next, a publication based in Peel Region.
"They have been there forever. They don't even come out in the community," Ms. Amanat says. She saw a bump in councillors attending events following the 2010 election, but believes they were there to win back favour, not actually engage with the community. For Ms. Fennell in particular, Ms. Amanat says she's won over much of Brampton's South Asian community by being a regular fixture at community events.
But at least three new faces will be on council this fall, as two councillors have announced their retirement and another, Mr. Sanderson, is not seeking re-election because he is running for mayor. Manan Gupta, who is running in one of those races, hopes to change that ratio, though establishing name recognition has been a challenge.
"There's no party machine, you know?" he says. "In municipal elections, there is nothing like that. So you are totally dependent upon your own independent credibility, your outreach, your passion."
Yudhvir Jaswal, the editor of South Asian Daily, which is distributed throughout the GTA, and host of several radio and TV programs, says there has been a lack of representation of South Asians on council because little importance is given to local politics in India and that mentality is imported to Canada when immigrants arrive here.
"Municipal-level politics – it's not discussed in the media, it's not discussed in the community that much," he says.
Vicky Dhillon, the lone South Asian on council, was defeated in two municipal elections before he was elected in 2006. When he went door-knocking to meet residents, they'd ask what post he was running for: MP? MPP? "I'm not running for MP or MPP," he told them. "I'm running for panchyat member" – the equivalent of a city councillor in Punjab state, India, where many of Brampton's South Asian residents are from. He would then have to explain what issues local government handled and why they should care to vote.
This campaign won't just be about property taxes or new recreation facilities, Mr. Jaswal predicts – the expense scandal has been widely discussed in the ethnic press.
"This time, the race will be really tough," Mr. Jaswal said. "I think, primarily, the voters are a lot more engaged now."