An article in the local paper this week followed up on a comment that I had raised in a previous posting, when I suggested that perhaps one way of reducing costs at City Hall would be to stop providing a meal to councillors and administrative staff during the break between our internal meeting, which starts at 4 p.m., and council meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. Thanks to the research of the reporter, who once again had to go through the hoops of Freedom of Information, we now know that the price of feeding us before council meetings is about $5,000 annually. Almost as much is spent on meals for committees and for meetings in the mayor’s office.
I’m not suggesting that this is a massive amount of money, in the full scheme of things. But I am an advocate of being able to justify and account for every thing that the city pays for, both big and small, and for not spending more than we have to, because it isn’t our money.
A couple of principles need to be established here. Is it appropriate for taxpayers to be paying for the meals of council, and of staff who are required, as part of their jobs, to attend council or committee meetings, or other meetings in the mayor’s office?
If it is, then we need to establish some policy and budgeting rules around when this happens. Right now, there is no budget line for these meals – I don’t know how the payment for meals for committees can be approved if there is no budget allocated to this expenditure. And there should be some guidelines for when meals are provided, and when they aren’t.
Checking out how other cities and governments do this might provide some guidance. My wife works for the provincial government – if she has to travel to a meeting, and is gone over certain times of the day, she gets a meal allowance. If she is attending a meeting in Prince Albert, which is her headquarters, she doesn’t. For example, a couple of weeks ago she had to attend training which was held in a hotel in Prince Albert. At lunch, some co-workers went to the hotel restaurant, and paid for their own meals. A couple of co-workers went home for lunch; a couple more went back to the office because they had brought their lunches from home. Those are the rules, and they have been communicated to everyone, along with the rationalization.
The practice of providing meals to council has been going on for as long as I’ve been a councillor, and no doubt long before that. Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean that we can’t review the practice, and decide if it is still the best way to go, particularly considering our tight financial situation. If we do decide that it’s still appropriate, let’s set out the ground rules and be open about why we’ve decided to continue to do this. That way, everyone, including the taxpayers who are footing the bill, will know what’s going on – once again, it’s part of being open and accountable.
"When more of the people’s sustenance is exacted through the form of taxation than is necessary to meet the just obligations of government and expenses of its economical administration, such exaction becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of the fundamental principles of a free government." – Grover Cleveland