Chris Selley: It’s our money, so we want to know what you’re doing with it
Chris Selley November 5, 2010 – 7:17 pm
Look at this column. Now look at outgoing councillor Sandra Bussin’s website. Now back at this column. Over the past year, that website cost you and your fellow taxpayers $8,960.68 — just for design, development and maintenance. (Over the same period, Ms. Bussin also billed $11,747.80 in unspecified “data entry.”) It’s an OK website, I guess. Pretty basic. There’s a calendar of local events, a few press releases, and an “about Sandra Bussin” page on which Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy, ironically enough, calls her “unstoppable.”
But is it a $9,000 website? Informed opinions I consulted suggested she — which is to say we — could have done considerably better. That doesn’t mean she did anything wrong, obviously. You could reasonably accuse me of nitpicking. But that’s sort of my point: Because it’s our money, it’s our right to nitpick, and our politicians’ responsibility to respond to it. If they think we’re overreacting, they should explain why. Far too often, they won’t. I’ve lost track of the number of unreturned phone calls reported in this week’s news, not least from Ms. Bussin.
Not least from Adam Giambrone, either. In February, after he’d abandoned his mayoral campaign, he billed $2,299.50 for French lessons. And in June, after he’d announced he wouldn’t run for council again, he billed the same amount. That’s not a matter of nitpicking. Certainly in the latter case, it’s flat-out unethical.
More people in Mr. Giambrone’s ward speak Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese than French, but back in the glory days, he justified the lessons by noting he was on the board of a francophone association of Ontario municipalities. Judge that as you will, at least it offered a theoretical benefit to the taxpayer. Once he knew he wasn’t coming back, however, he knew there was no way the taxpayer could possibly benefit from his burgeoning bilingualism … at least until he shows up in federal politics. (Come on. You know it’s going to happen.) As such, we shouldn’t have had to foot the bill. It’s as simple as that.
The timing of these expense reports is terrific, news-wise, because there isn’t all that much to do these days except wait for Rob Ford to take over and find out what he’s capable of. So there is a temptation to go after the low-hanging fruit — Kyle Rae’s $421 donation to cover a permit for Mr. Leatherman Toronto’s “Leather Ball in the Park,” for example, and myriad donations by councillors to all manner of causes that people might or might not agree with: soccer teams, charity marches, the fights against various diseases.
Those expenses add up. In the first nine months of this year, 14 councillors filed expenses under “other” — mostly donations and tickets to charity events — in excess of $2,000. But more than the money, I object to the randomness of it. There is no net detriment when a councillor donates $500 of taxpayer money to a local public school library, but what about all the public schools in the wards where councillors don’t donate anything to anyone? Why should they have $500 less to buy books? It’s like combining government spending with roulette.
There is a whole class of people and pundits who, when confronted with taxpayer outrage that’s based on a few hundred or thousand dollars, will roll their eyes, cluck their tongues and muse aloud about the Tea Party movement spreading north of the border. You can almost taste the disdain: Don’t these Neanderthals understand that the city’s finances are a matter of billions and millions, not hundreds and thousands? Don’t they realize they’re only driving smart people out of politics?
The fact Mr. Ford rode the backlash all the way to the mayor’s office should give those people pause. But personally speaking, it’s not the sums that annoy me at all. I’m not outraged by the cost of Ms. Bussin’s website or Mr. Rae’s permit. It isn’t the cost of Mr. Giambrone’s French lessons that rankles; it’s that he had the temerity to expense it. What I object to is any compromise to my absolute right to information about activities conducted with my money, and to an explanation from the politicians who chose to spend it the way they did.
Why people want to know is irrelevant. It’s their money, and they want to know. So tell them, or prepare to be yelled at.
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Chris Selley: It’s our money, so we want to know what you’re doing with it | Posted Toronto | National PostIn Canada on November 5, 2010 at 20:40