How city councillors are spending your money
Deep dive into councillor office budgets shows big difference in spending public money
When we think about how the city spends our money, what comes to mind are light rail, snow removal and garbage collection, not what councillors pay for brochures or cellphones.
But over a four-year term, councillors have sole discretion over how to spend $23 million running their offices. And how they decide to use that substantial budget is surprisingly different from office to office.
From the time they were sworn in Dec. 1, 2014, you've paid more than $750,000 for councillors to advertise themselves to you, $50,000 for them to serve you coffee, doughnuts and, in many cases, take their staff to lunch, and $168,000 for their parking.
Zooming in even closer, you've paid $380 for Coun. Jody Mitic's blender, and $600 for "embroidery" on Coun. Mark Taylor's deputy mayor jacket.
- TUESDAY: Who eats, golfs and generally swans about town on your dime
- WEDNESDAY: Consultations or community events? How councillors decided to spend your money
Councillors are naturally a bit defensive when asked about how they spend their office budgets. Coun. Keith Egli most succinctly represented his colleagues' convictions when he said, "I take very seriously that the money we get in our budget is not our money."
But the issue isn't whether councillors believe they're trying to spend wisely. It's whether taxpayers, if they knew the details, would agree with them.
So exactly how do councillors spend your money?
20,000 lines of data shows wildly divergent priorities
It's no simple task to figure out exactly where those millions go.
Still, there's at least a place to start. Under groundbreaking new rules brought in by Mayor Jim Watson, council agreed in 2012 to post monthly expenses on the city's website for the first time ever. The rules compel councillors to disclose some purchases individually, but not everything is made clear.
Items such as tickets to events, donations and buying staff lunches are listed there. That's how we discovered, for instance, that four councillors spent $1,700 on NHL outdoor classic tickets.
But other expenses are posted under wide-ranging categories, making it impossible to see exactly what councillors bought with our money.
We've taken more than 20,000 lines of data, all individual expenses by the 24 members of council, and organized them into narrow spending categories. We've totalled them and ranked them by spending.
We've looked at itemized expenditures from January 2015 to November 2017, and the line-by-line expenses in those wider categories run from December 2014 to August 2017. While we've included Watson's expenditures for information, we excluded them in our comparison of how ward councillors spend, as his role is different.
We discovered that councillors have wildly different priorities for their wards.
Advertising: Engagement or self-promotion?
Councillors need to reach out to their constituents to let them know how to get in touch and encourage them to call or write with their problems. But at what point does valid engagement start to look like mere self-promotion?
Spending on advertising and promotional items — think councillor-branded mugs, ice scrapers and fridge magnets — varies wildly among council members. And after staff compensation, which accounts for more than half of councillor office spending, advertising is where politicians put most of our money.
Our analysis shows Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Michael Qaqish spent more than $90,000 on advertising and promotional items as of last August — more than three times the median among councillors, and more than the mayor.
The money was spent on ads in community newspapers, various bulletins and directories, but he also spent thousands on toques, blankets, scarves and mugs.
At the other end of the spectrum, Capital ward Coun. David Chernushenko shelled out less than $8,000 for ads and branded tchotchkes.
Most councillors buy similar items, especially ads in community papers. And while Qaqish spent more than $2,000 on a branded tent to use at community events, a few other councillors — including Tobi Nussbaum, George Darouze and Catherine McKenney — also bought less-expensive tents, and listed theirs under "office supplies" instead of advertising.
Still, no one comes close to Qaqish's promotional outlays. And he's unique in one area of advertisement: OC Transpo bus shelters. The Gloucester-South Nepean councillor has spent more than $6,500 to plaster his smiling face on shelters in his ward.
"Transit is a big issue," Qaqish said in an interview, pointing out there was a recent public meeting about busing in Barrhaven. The shelter ads are "a great way for people who use public transit, who care about public transit to know how to get in touch with me if they have issues, if they have complaints."
'Does not strike me as fundamentally informational'
Former Ottawa city councillor Stéphane Émard-Chabot isn't buying it.
"Is it appropriate to advertise an upcoming event? Yes, more than likely," said the University of Ottawa municipal law professor. "Is it appropriate to hand out mugs and key chains with your name on it? That's probably more in a grey zone for a lot of people."
And a bus-shelter ad?
"That strikes me as self-promotional," said Émard-Chabot, who was a councillor in the 1990s. "That does not strike me as fundamentally informational."
Qaqish contends he needs to get his name out there because "as a new councillor, not everybody knows who I am."
But some other first-time councillors, including Nussbaum, McKenney and Jeff Leiper, are getting by spending less than $20,000 on ads.
Qaqish also points out he doesn't take the car allowance, which is worth $6,900 a year. (Leiper also declined the car allowance and Chernushenko takes only half.)
He even managed to appear in a community paper holding a giant novelty cheque made out to the city for $27,600 to show how he was forgoing the four-year value of the car allowance.
Even taking into account the money Qaqish saved the city by forgoing the car allowance, he still spent more than Orléans Coun. Bob Monette (the second-highest spender in this category), who laid out $60,000 on ads and promo gear.
Qaqish also charged as an expense the $35 it cost to print the giant cheque to taxpayers.
Printing, postage: Christmas cards cost more than $38K
In this digital era, you might think City Hall would be moving toward a paperless system. Maybe. But councillors still managed to spend $583,498 to print stuff and mail it to you.
Some of them argue many of their constituents — particularly seniors — want to stay informed via paper flyers and brochures, which are sure to have the councillor's photo on them. (To be fair, emailed newsletters also sport a councillor's picture, but at least they're cheaper to produce.)
Printed material also includes notices distributed for community meetings, such as public consultations on proposed developments.
All councillors do some printing, but once again, there's a wide range.
While the middle of the council pack spent $17,000 on printing and postage combined, Qaqish tops the list in this category as well, having spent more than $61,500 as of last August. Chernushenko spent the least, coming in at a startlingly low $385. Brockington comes in second, having spent more than $49,000 on printing and postage.
He said his costliest expense is a four-page publication he sends out twice a year, at $2,500 each, which focuses on what's happening in the ward, upcoming events and includes a profile of a city official and space for community associations.
'I'm proud of what I spend my money on'
"I'm proud of what I spend taxpayer money on, it's not frivolous stuff," said Brockington, pointing to three communiqués he sent to 3,000 residents about the controversial Canoe Bay park at Mooney's Bay as an example of how printing gets information to specific residents for whom a councillor may not always have email addresses.
On the more frivolous side, Brockington said he sends about 500 Christmas cards to people in the ward with whom he has a "working relationship."
"It's more an old-fashioned way of communicating," he said.
But communicating what? A nice, seasonal sentiment, perhaps, but it's hard to see how a Christmas card conveys important city or ward information.
Holiday cards cost thousands
Not including Christmas "greetings" placed in community newspapers, about half of council sent out cards in this term, which cost more than $24,000.
A couple of councillors, including Alta Vista's Jean Cloutier, paid hundreds to have photos taken for their cards. Add in the mayor's Christmas card spending, and the total rises to $38,000. That total likely doesn't include postage.
Only Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley appears to have specified his postage expenses related to Christmas cards once, in January 2016. It cost $1,212.
I think there's a difference between the flyer for a public meeting and the Christmas card.- Stéphane Émard-Chabot, former councillor
Complaining about Christmas cards might seem Grinch-like, but it does seem odd that taxpayers pay thousands of dollars to have seasonal good-wishes sent to themselves.
"Again, I think there's a difference between the flyer for a public meeting and the Christmas card. And the difference between the flyer and the fridge magnet or the mug," said Émard-Chabot. "Reaching out to provide information is a key part of the job, and if you do a lot of it, of course it builds name recognition, but you're doing your job."
Few rules for how councillors spend
There are surprisingly few rules about how councillors are allowed to spend their office budgets, which in 2017 came in at $257,723.
They aren't allowed to expense alcohol, although they are allowed to buy tickets to events where alcohol might be served. They can't hire family members or buy stuff from them.
But the key message of the "Council Expense Policy" is that councillors are "ultimately accountable" to their constituents for the type and amount of expenses they charge.
What's considered an appropriate type and amount of spending varies from councillor to councillor. Then again, the same goes for members of the public. But how are voters supposed to judge when they don't really know what the expenses are, or whether they qualify as city business?
Why, for example, should the public pay $19 for Hubley to park at Lansdowne to attend a UFC event with Mitic? Or pick up the $22 tab for Hubley, Qaqish and Kanata North Coun. Marianne Wilkinson to attend former planning boss John Moser's retirement party? And yet, we paid the bill for these questionable items — and more.
It's important to remember that all this spending is allowed. Whether it represents good judgment is another matter.
The data used for the analysis in this story were gathered from the itemized expenditures posted by councillors each month on the city's website, from January 2015 to November 2017 (the last month available).
In cases where no itemization category was indicated, we did our best to assign it to an appropriate category. In order to standardize the records, expenses for the year 2014 are excluded. Most councillors were incumbents and therefore had expenditures for each month in 2014, but some began their first terms in early December.
The line-by-line expenses in those wider categories came via an access-for-information request. That means this information isn't as up-to-date, and runs from Dec. 1, 2014, to Aug. 31, 2017. Both these databases will be updated to the end of 2017 in the coming weeks as the information becomes available.
The CBC's Jacques Marcoux assembled and arranged the tables and charts accompanying this piece.