TODAY’S REPORT #978: At least one member of city council believes the only rule that should be applied to elected officials is their conscience, and if voters don’t like the way it leads then they should say so – once every four years at election time. What do you think?
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 – London
It has been my experience in a long career observing politicians that they enjoy creating rules that apply to other people far more than they accept rules that apply to them.
The most recent example comes from Tuesday’s short meeting of city council’s corporate services committee.
On the agenda was a letter, signed by Paul Hubert and Harold Usher, seeking a redefinition of rules that apply to the way their $15,000 personal expense account can be spent.
Each wants to be able to claim for tickets purchased to take groups of people to non-profit events – in Councillor Hubert’s case for taking people to the recent London X conference sponsored by Emerging Leaders; in Councillor Usher’s case for extra tickets to the Black History Month gala.
Chapter 28, Travel and Conventions, Section 2, Part C(x) of the City Council Policy Manual – which you can find here – says a the expense allocation “may be used by members of council for community event sponsorship and ticket purchases.” Cathy Saunders, the city clerk, has decreed that means tickets for the council member only.
By the way, most of the 28 chapters of the policy manual apply to the civic administration, not council. Council does have a chapter that deals with its own Code of Conduct – which you can find here; scroll down to Section 30. It does not deal with expenses.
Committee member Joe Swan, for one, thinks the only rule that should govern city council members is their conscience. And that, in turn, should only be judged by the voters at the ballot box, once every four years.
“City councillors have been provided with a certain amount of money to do their jobs,” he told the committee Tuesday. “Some members believe we need to be very specific about what is eligible and what isn’t, and what we’re seeing here is the difficulty in drawing the definition on everything from fridge magnets to video cameras.
“A city councillor feels the best use of the money, so give them each enough rope to hang themselves. A councillor has to be responsible to their constituents. Leave it to the public to judge whether they are using the funds appropriately.”
Or as Bud Polhill, acting mayor while Joe Fontana is on vacation, added: “When you knock on peoples’ doors and ask them to vote for you, if you’ve used that $15,000 inappropriately they will let you know. Let councillors make the decisions because they are the ones that will be held accountable at election time.
The committee bought that argument 3-1, with only Judy Bryant disagreeing – and that because, as the representative for the downtown ward, she thinks her expense allotment should be larger.
But what do voters think?
My guess is that many Londoners will feel four years is a long time to remember whether their elected representative shaded the expenses a little here and there. And certainly at present it isn’t easy to even find out.
Currently expenses are given public airing once a year, but only in summary. If you want to discover the details you have to secure an appointment with an official in the city clerk’s department and pour through mounds of paperwork.
Sometime this year expense accounts are supposed to go online every three months. But will this be in detail? Would we ever know, for example, just who it was Councillor Usher took to the Black History Month gala?
The good councillor for Ward 12 says we need to trust him to do the right thing.
“The taxpayers gave the money to me to perform certain functions and I think I do so with integrity,” he said.
However, as we know from the activities of this very council, one person’s idea of integrity or following the rules is another person’s lunch at Billy T’s. If we let our city council members do whatever they want, you can be pretty darn sure some of them will.