Analysis

Councillors who swan around on your dime

In the past three years, taxpayers have spent $3,500 paying for more than 20 evenings out — and the odd golf game —for Coun. Tim Tierney and his wife, but it was Coun. Michael Qaqish who spent the most public money on tickets to "special events."

From galas with guests to business lunches, some councillors dine out at taxpayers' expense

Coun. Michael Qaqish (right) has spent the most money attending special events, while Coun. Tim Tierney has spent the most bringing his spouse to them. (Instagram)

In the past three years, taxpayers have spent $3,500 on more than 20 evenings out — and the odd golf game —for Coun. Tim Tierney and his wife.

These "special events" that they attended? All worthy causes, and buying those tickets falls within council expense rules. The question, though, is whether we should be on the hook not just for the councillor, who makes about $100,000 in base salary, but also for his guest.

On the pro side of this argument are the councillors who use their office budgets to buy tickets for their partners or other family members. 

"Elected officials spend an awful lot of time out of the house, and sometimes it's nice to be able to include your partner in that," said Bay ward Coun. Mark Taylor, who's paid for his spouse to accompany him on about five occasions.

"They're not thinking, 'Wonderful, this will be a fun time out for the both of us.' They're thinking, 'I'm going to be with you all night, while other people are talking to you, sometimes lobbying you, but I will get to be with you, and that's nice.'"

I love my wife. I spend a tremendous amount of time with her doing this job.- Coun . Tim Tierney  

On the con side is the majority of council. Most members, including Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, don't pay for their guests.

"If there's a charity event or a gala or that sort of thing, and I'm going with my spouse, I won't buy both tickets out of my office budget," he said. "If it's date night with my wife, then I'm going to pay for that ticket myself."

According to data compiled by the CBC, Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury took his spouse to about a dozen events at a cost of $2,500, while College ward Coun. Rick Chiarelli spent $1,000 to take his wife to fewer than 10.

Tierney said for him, being a councillor is a family affair. As well, politicians attending charity events are expected to cough up their own cash, whether it's buying 50-50 tickets or bidding on auction items. 

"I love my wife. I spend a tremendous amount of time with her doing this job," he said. "When I go to an event, do I prefer to have a staff member come with me to certain ones, or someone who is actually taking part in this with me as well, my wife? That option is there and I definitely exercise it."

Councillors spent $100K going out 

While Tierney spent the most on his spouse, he's barely in the top third of spenders on "special events," a category that generally refers to events where a councillor attends as a guest and usually needs to buy a ticket.

The Beacon Hill-Cyrville councillor spent about $5,000 on special events as of last November — above the median of $3,689, but nowhere near the top. That spot belongs to Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Michael Qaqish (of bus shelter ad fame), who spent more than $13,000, more than 10 per cent of the $106,000 total spent by all 23 councillors.

Second-place Chiarelli, who spent $11,300, said many in the community want politicians to spend less money generally, but not when it comes to their own events. In fact, Chiarelli posted the single largest expense for a special event: $1,000 for a table at a fundraiser for the Queensway-Carleton Hospital's acute care for the elderly unit.

Supporting charities with our money

And that brings up a whole other dilemma: should politicians be using taxpayers' money to support charities? Supporting the Queensway-Carleton Hospital, or any other hospital, is obviously worthwhile, but individuals are free to make personal donations to them. Should our councillors be donating our money on our behalf?

Some councillors argue they should. As a public official, Chiarelli said it was up to him and other councillors to get the ball rolling on raising the $3 million needed for the elderly care unit. (The dinner generated more than $16,000.)

And Coun. Jan Harder thinks so too. In the past, she's made no apologies for fronting events to raise money for charities, especially Queensway-Carleton. In fact, councillors spent $700 of taxpayer money at a roast celebrating Harder's 20 years as a councillor.

Tierney and Innes Coun. Jody Mitic both took their wives — and charged the $200 to their office budgets. Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans spent $100 on a single ticket. Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley spent $200 from his budget to attend the roast with a staffer. Why he'd need staff support at this sort of an event is unclear, and he did not answer a request for comment.

The issue of using public money for social outings, even though the amounts are miniscule in the face of the city's $3-billion budget, almost always raises the ire of some voters. Take, for example, the outcry over the news earlier this winter that Tierney, Hubley, Qaqish and Mitic spent $1,700 on NHL outdoor classic tickets. Reaction was loud and unequivocal — and led three of those councillors to pay back the money.

The public can relate to splurging on NHL tickets. Or possibly not being able to afford to. Why should councillors spend our money to go to events that would strain many taxpayers' budgets?

Public money on golf

Golf falls into the same category. A half-dozen councillors spent about $4,000 golfing in charity tournaments, courtesy of our dough. Tierney's constituents picked up the $1,100 tab for two rounds — although he says he doesn't actually golf.

Other members of each foursome included Tierney's wife, one of her relatives, his father-in-law and his brother-in-law. 

Coun. Scott Moffatt has spent the most public money on charity golf tournaments this term. (CBC)

But Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt spent the most to go golfing: $1,245 for four tournaments including one for CHEO, an arena expansion in his ward, and for the Harder-fronted "Just Happy Golf Tournament" (supported by developers).

"I guess I just don't see it in the negative light that other people might," said Moffatt of the Just Happy tournament. "Whether I sit in my office and have a developer come and meet with me for four hours, or I'm on a golf course with them for four hours, I have my iPhone with me all the time. I'm always working wherever I go. So whether I'm on a golf course, or sitting in my office, it actually doesn't change a ton about how I do my job."

Kings of the business lunch

It's a four-way tie in the race for the King of the Business Lunch crown. Some familiar names — Chiarelli, Taylor, and Tierney, along with George Darouze — each picked up the tab about 60 times this term of council, far more than any of their council colleagues.

They've treated their staff, community association presidents, business people, and sometimes other city officials to lunch (or breakfast) on our dime.

Hospitality can be an important part of a councillor's job. It includes, for instance, offering refreshment at community events. It's the category under which councillors bill for coffee and (sometimes) water for their ward offices.

Sure, most councillors bill the taxpayer for the occasional staff lunch, and Christmas party. Deans took her staff for a holiday lunch at Riveria in 2016, but has spent only $720 on hospitality for the entire term.

But Taylor, for example, expensed a $65 lunch at the Shore Club that included the former medical officer of health — one of the highest -paid bureaucrats in the city. Chiarelli expensed $71 at Chances R (he must have a regular table there, judging by his expenses) for a lunch that included a city planner. Darouze expensed a breakfast with Harder.

Tierney spent more than $8,000 on hospitality, by far the most on council. About $3,000 of that was to buy pizza for classes that come to visit City Hall, and for end-of-year refreshments for schools in his ward (think ice-cream sandwiches).

Alta Vista Coun. Jean Cloutier went the other extreme — he's spent $6 total on hospitality this entire term of council. In fact, the amount is so tiny that, although included in the data, it's not visible on this pie chart. (The same goes for the special events, a category in which Cloutier spents $125.)

The money is relatively small — council spent just $51,000 on hospitality, and none of it on alcohol — but the symbolism looms large.

Stéphane Émard-Chabot, a municipal law prof at the University of Ottawa and a former councillor, says hospitality is often valid, but "picking up the tab is a problematic zone."

He'd expect most councillors to pay for coffee out of their own pocket (and many surely do). "But anytime you benefit directly—from a meal, from Senators' tickets, whatever the expense might be—that is not part of the job," Émard-Chabot said. "As an individual councillor, where you're getting the meal paid for yourself, I think that's a problem."

Not all councillors agree, or at least not all the time. What matters more, though, is how taxpayers see it, now that the numbers — from surprisingly large to laughably small sums — are there for any taxpayer to consider.

Data for this story compiled by CBC's Jacques Marcoux.