City councillors have begun to warn community
groups that their ability to donate money from their office budgets to
community events may soon be limited.
Ottawa councillors say Mayor Jim Watson is proposing a cap on how much of their office budget councillors are allowed to donate to community causes.
There is no firm proposal yet, but councillors say Mayor Jim
Watson is proposing a cap on how much of their office budget councillors are
allowed to donate to community causes, as well as limits on how involved municipal
elected officials can be in the financial side of community events.
Donations and sponsorships are allowed under the current
rules and the online office expense disclosure forms include a section for
councillors to list the amount of donations they doled out. Typical donations
include things like membership to the local legion branch, sponsorship of a
winter carnival, donations to food banks and the purchase of gift certificates
as prizes for community events.
“Obviously that’s an area of concern to councillors because
that’s part of our role – to promote events and showcase our communities,” said
Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley. “That said, there are examples, shall we say,
where someone may get the wrong perception of what’s going on … I don’t believe
we should be handling all the money for the events.”
Hubley rarely gives donations from his office budget, he
said, because he doesn’t want his residents to “get the wrong impression” of
the way he spends their tax dollars on their behalf.
The policy would be part of a code of conduct that’s being
developed to build on the work of the city’s new integrity commissioner;
efforts that include the lobbyist registry. The proposal would put more
parameters around how that office budget could be spent.
Each councillor received $234,000 in 2012 to spend on office
supplies and staffing, as well as community events, donations and sponsorships.
“As of right now, there is no definition as to how our
office money should be spent,” said Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt.
Bob Brocklebank of the Federation of Citizens Associations
said anything to make council more transparent is a good thing, but a lack of
flexibility in this case could be detrimental to community involvement.
The availability and use of councillors’ office-budget funds
varies widely across the different wards, but that money is often used to rent
space for community events and more importantly, community meetings,
Allowing flexibility in how councillors spend their
allotment means there are more funds available to encourage community
engagement, Brocklebank said, adding he doesn’t think councillors should be
proud if they make a point of avoiding donations.
“It is on the public consultation side that I am concerned
about the limitations that this might bring,” Brocklebank said. “Sometimes you
go out and fix problems that don’t exist.”
Changing a practice that residents support and no one is
complaining about doesn’t make much sense, Moffatt said.
He keeps his own “mental cap” on spending; he won’t give out
more than $10,000 of his office budget per year to community causes. Supporting
community causes with tax dollars collected from citizens makes sense, Moffatt
The councillor said he tends not to organize or run community
events because there is a large number of active groups in his ward. Instead,
he contributes money to rent space or back community-led events in other ways.
“I like to be able to support them so that they can do
community-oriented events that build community spirit and help bring the
community together,” he said. “That’s what our job is … to support our
communities and make our communities grow.”
Watson’s office budget is $778,000, but Hubley said the
mayor’s budget wasn’t proposed to be subject to the same rules. That concerned
the Kanata South councillor, who said any policy should apply equally to all
members of council, including the mayor.
Watson’s press secretary, Ryan Kennery, said in an email it
would be premature for the mayor to discuss the proposal. The policy proposal
is expected to be announced in March, Kennery said.
With files from Emma