transparent, taxpayer-friendly, lobbyists
It's time for windows at city hall
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Municipal reform is taking shape across Canada, but don't look to the country's largest city for leadership. One implemented and one likely-to-be implemented law in Toronto are anything but accountable, transparent or above all, taxpayer-friendly.
Public opinion polls show that accountability and transparency in government are top priorities for the electorate. The Federal Accountability Act (FAA) is case in point. Yet it appears Toronto missed that memo. Most recent was a deal to purchase 234 new subway cars. The Toronto Transit Corporation (TTC) sole-sourced the contract to Bombardier at a price tag of $674-million. German-based Siemens claimed they could have undercut that price by $100-million but were left out in the cold by Mayor David Miller. Why pay the higher price? Only Mayor Miller and his inner circle in council can answer.
Yet without shame, Mayor Miller will introduce legislation to create a lobbyist registry later this month. While the mayor's plan throws around terms like accountability and transparency it lacks on the deliverables. Mr. Miller is proposing that when councillors and senior staff leave their role at city hall they would not be allowed to lobby their former colleagues for a cooling off period of one year. This is hardly a "cooling off" period compared to the 5-year prohibition mandated by the FAA.
Beyond the one year so called cooling off period, the mayor wants to exempt certain groups from the nasty umbrella term "lobbyists": namely individuals representing unions. By exempting union lobbyists the mayor has completely gutted one of the principals behind accountability and transparency: equity. Under his plan, only union representatives could deliver unmarked briefcases without registering that a meeting occurred!
Why is this weak accountability legislation so important? Toronto has been a trailblazer in expanding the role of municipalities in the day-to-day lives of Canadians. Most recently, the province of Ontario enacted the City of Toronto Act giving the mayor new taxing powers. The possibility of new taxing levers has other major metropolitan mayors chomping at the bit.
But behind Toronto's veil of whining for more taxing authority is a fiscal track record that is nothing to look up to. In the preceding term, Mayor Miller and his council grew the cities debt to $1.9-billion and have shown no commitment to balance the budget this term. At the same time, spending on non- essential services has gotten out of control. Currently, the city spends less than third of its budget on core services like policing, transit and waste management. Instead of tackling the issue of overspending, Mayor Miller dangles the idea of a new city parking tax.
Predictably, municipalities around the country are asking for similar taxing powers to solve their fiscal woes. Don't be surprised if local lobbyist registries also pop up on the radar screen, following -- surprise, surprise -- Toronto's model. But if local ratepayers are looking for reforms that are accountable, transparent and taxpayer friendly -- these models are anything but!
Is it any wonder that mighty Ontario is the only province outside of tiny PEI that is projected to run a deficit in 2007? The premier needs to be reminded what got him his current position: his 2003 campaign promise to manage government in an efficient manner -- including balanced budgets -- and not raise taxes. He even signed a pledge!
A good starting point? Demonstrate that he's serious about respecting Ontarians' tax dollars. The two twins: high taxes and deficits are caused by wasteful spending. A worthwhile New Year's Resolution for the premier to focus on as he heads into an election year.
(Neil Desai is Ontario Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation).