Why fundraising, free parking and recorded votes are about leadership: walking the talk, accountability, grassroots involvement, and an attitude of service

R esidents elect representatives to lead, but you also want to be involved in decisions made on your behalf. You’ve said you’re looking for leaders who are less top-down, and more grassroots, who walk the talk, lead by example, and are there to serve rather than steer residents in a particular direction;  who not only make decisions in the public’s best interest, but are seen to be doing so. You want leaders who can work with others to achieve shared aims, but you also want leaders who are willing to stand up and speak out on issues they believe in, even if they are in the minority. Whether we’re talking about councillors raising funds from developers for their own projects; or incomplete expense reporting; lack of recorded votes (so residents can lobby us and hold us accountable on our decisions); valuing public input (and incorporating it in decisions); or free parking for council members, we have a ways to go to meet this goal.

Grassroots leadership:

The best leaders know they don’t have all the answers, and seek out the expertise and counsel of others, including a wide range of different perspectives. Burlington is blessed with a highly educated community of residents who are experts in their field, and are willing to give their input to the city. But there lingers an attitude of “council knows best” and we just need to “educate the public” rather than listen to you. Burlington performing arts centre

There have been several notable examples where council ignored public input, with negative results for the community. Residents expressed concerns about the viability of the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, and questioned whether the city’s subsidy would be capped at $500,000 as originally stated. The last two years, the city subsidy has been close to $1 million, with an expected subsidy of over $800,000 in 2015 and beyond. Residents also advised council to work with the original contractor on the pier rather than continue with litigation in the hope of resolution and payback from the courts. Typically these things are settled through negotiation, they warned, and in any case mandatory mediation is a required first step.  Mandatory mediation for the pier is scheduled for June of this year. The decision to retender added a year, $5 million and legal costs to the project, with no legal resolution yet.

The road ahead: I will continue to seek resident input on the issues we face, and look for more opportunities to involve you in decision-making. I am here to serve you, not steer you toward  my own agenda. My thinking here has been influenced on movements that aim to reinvent government to “serve not steer.” Visit here for an overview of the various perspectives.

Fundraising by council members:

Burlington fundraising rules requiredThe best leaders know that whenever money is involved, clear policies and accountability are required to protect everyone. Currently councillors can raise money for events or other projects without benefit of any policy or limitations. That effectively allows spending beyond the approved expense limits ($9000 for councillors; $32,000 for the mayor). This fundraising and corresponding spending isn’t recorded as part of the annual expense reporting for how councillors used their budgets.

Recent examples of councillors seeking community donations for their own events include Car Free Sundays, Inspire Series, One Dream and the Mayor’s Cabaret. At issue isn’t the merits of the event itself, but the absence of a policy on donations, and lack of transparency in reporting. There are currently no rules on who donates or how much; donors to some of the events listed above are developers or businesses with current planning or other applications with the city. This is a significant area of risk for councillors and the public, with no policy or required public reporting.

Integrity & Trust:

There is also a reputational risk to fundraising by councillors for their own projects without rules on who can give and how much. The best leaders understand we need to not only make decisions in our community’s best interests, we need to be seen to be doing so. The trust the public place in us to make decisions that serve you is compromised when councillors seek donations from businesses or individuals, then vote on matters involving those same people. That’s one of the reasons I don’t accept campaign donations from developers or any business with current applications with the city.

The Road Ahead: I’ve asked council to consider a policy on fundraising by members of council that would impose donation limits, require reporting as part of the annual public reporting of councillor’s expenses, and forbid donations from people with current business with the city. The City of Toronto has a policy that could be adapted; it sets limits on the amount of fundraising during the term, and in an election year; caps the amount of each donation, and from any one group; forbids donations from anyone with a current development or other application with the city; and requires annual public reporting on money raised and spent (Read that policy here).  We need similar transparency and accountability.

Free parking for council members & city employees:

Currently City Hall employees and members of council receive free parking downtown, and a contribution is made to the parking fund for the value of that parking (worth $217,000 in 2014). Alternatively, City Hall staff can request a free transit pass, instead of parking. The value of those passes, $16,000 in 2014, is transferred to the transit budget. burlington downtown parkingMeanwhile, businesses downtown must pay into a parking “levy” to build future public parking (above or underground); they pay the levy even if they have some on-site parking; they sometimes buy monthly parking passes for their employees; and they pay property taxes, which contributes to funding the transfer amount for free employee parking into the parking fund. The myth is that businesses downtown “don’t pay for parking.” The reality is that they pay as many as four times for parking, through the levy, their own on-site parking, buying parking passes for their own staff, and through property taxes. Customers and residents also pay for parking downtown, whether at the meter, built into the price of their condo, or included in the price of the products and services they buy downtown. Customers and residents also subsidize free City Hall employee parking through their property taxes. On transit, council will be considering a staff recommendation to remove free passes from some of our most needy residents (ARC clients; CNIB members; select Halton students).

The Road Ahead: We need a level playing field, where everyone pays for their own parking and transit, and subsidies, if any, are based on need not entitlement. This is more than a parking issue; it is one of leadership and integrity. This is about walking the talk, leading by example, and making decisions that benefit the people we serve before ourselves. If we want fewer people to drive, we’ve got to walk the talk and get out of our own cars. One of the best ways to discourage driving is to make everyone pay for their own parking. We must lead by example. And instead of making decisions that benefit ourselves first, we should be using the funds for free employee parking and transit to benefit residents first.

I have raised the issue of free parking for city council members and city staff every year at budget during this term of council. My motion to remove this benefit starting in 2015 was defeated this year. However, my motion for staff to report back on the implications of treating this benefit as taxable passed. We will receive more information later this year. My motion to remove free transit passes for city employees, starting in 2015, was also defeated. Since joining council, I have paid the full monthly rate for my own parking. Last year, I gave up my parking space entirely, and continue to pay at the meter on those few occasions I drive downtown. I can tell you that not having a dedicated space has reduced the number of times I drive. When it was easy, I found reasons to drive (rainy; cold; in a hurry; carrying lots of items; etc). Since giving up my space, I’ve looked for ways to work around these challenges. All city councillors are also regional councillors. Parking is provided for us at Halton Regional headquarters, although there is no charge for the parking. It’s free for everyone. That at least provides a benefit the public also enjoys, but it does encourage driving. This year I will be exploring transit and cycling options to get to committee and council meetings at the Region, instead of driving.

Recorded Votes:

Want to know how your elected representative voted on issues this past term? You’re out of luck unless a council member asks for a recorded vote at a council meeting. Votes aren’t recorded at all at standing committees, even though that’s where most of the discussion and debate happens before recommendations proceed to council for ratification. This makes it difficult for residents to hold elected officials accountable for decisions made on your behalf, much less lobby council members between a committee vote and a council decision. That limits your participation in decision-making, and democracy itself. Marianne Meed Ward newsletter

The Road Ahead: Council voted down a motion I brought for recorded votes at committee – some said they didn’t want to be “lobbied” by the public. We’ll have another chance to look at this in the next term of council. Meanwhile, in response to a request from the media, we now have informal tracking of votes at committee, with the chair calling the vote on key items. I’ll continue to advocate for vote-recording technology that will automatically record votes at committee and council, and store them in a searchable online database for residents to check voting records by topic.

I will also continue to provide the “My Take” section on my website and newsletter, where I outline where I stand on an issue, before the vote, allowing you time to contact me with your views and try to change my mind if you disagree. Many of you have told me that “My Take” is one of the most valued aspects of the newsletter, and helps you participate more in decision-making.