I want to make it immediately clear that I take no issue with city councillors travelling to conferences. I firmly believe that there is value in this in terms of the information gathered and the experience gained. That said, it’s high time two of our local councils looked north for some guidance.
In Waterloo, a policy has been adopted that sends no more than two councillors plus the mayor to any one conference. While on a council of 8 this represents almost half, it seems to me a reasonable guideline. Those who attend a conference can surely bring back information to share with the rest. Plus, over a four-year term, there is ample opportunity for all councillors to attend an annual conference of note.
In accordance with this policy, I am told that Waterloo council spends about $30,000 per year on travel and expenses for the entire council. If that number seems high to you, so be it. I find it a reasonable figure for seven councillors plus a mayor to travel to conferences or attend meetings.
Here’s the rub. The City of Kitchener, at this weekend’s annual conference of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, spent an estimated $20,000. That was for this weekend only as Kitchener sent 8 of its 11-member council to Halifax. For the same conference.
To be fair, according to remuneration figures provided by the city, Kitchener spent about $30,500 on travel and expenses for council last year. Of course, that was also a 7-person council compared to the 11-member unit this term. So while I maintain that the approximately $30,000 expenditure is reasonable, I question spending a full two-thirds of that budget on a single weekend. Surely to goodness a delegation can attend and bring back information to share with the rest. And, as with the policy in Waterloo, those Kitchener councillors who could not attend this year can simply attend next.
Cambridge fares no better in this analysis. Of its 9-person council, seven members were in Halifax this weekend. I’m still asking myself, relative to both Kitchener and Cambridge, who the 4th, 5th, 6th (and so on) councillors were to sign up to attend this event and, after learning there were so many before them, did they stop to think this may not be right? Even for the sake of appearances, one would hope a councillor paused for thought. Sadly, if they did, they still made the wrong choice in the end. Whether the conference is in Halifax, Edmonton, or Guelph, there is no logical reason so many from the same team need attend. None.
When I spoke to Cambridge mayor Doug Craig about this conference, he was understandably defensive. He talked about the lobbying that goes on, the chance for new councillors to meet colleagues from across the country (which is an even stronger argument in Kitchener where there are 7 new councillors compared to the 3 new faces in Cambridge) and the ideas that these conferences generate to help attendees make their own communities better. I take no issue with any of these arguments but Craig completely misses the point when it comes to the cost of attending.
When I asked about the cost, he said it costs far less in dollars than it returns in value. He then went on to say that unless the conference happens down the street, people will complain about the cost. This is where we really have a difference of opinion and perspective. I don’t care if the conference is in Halifax or Timbuktu; I understand the value in being there. What I fail to understand is having 7 of 9 or 8 of 11 council members in the same place. I’m sorry but, for me, that math doesn’t add up.
Is a face-to-face meeting better than an electronic one? It sure is. But if that face-to-face meeting doesn’t happen this year, will the relationship suffer? Certainly not. Regular contact through e-mail, telephone, perhaps even Skype can only enrich the in-person conversation once the connection is made. I don’t believe for a minute that any municipal councillor would ignore a request from a colleague in another city, no matter how that request is made. Relationships can be built and fostered from afar, especially in this high-tech age.
In Cambridge, councillor Ben Tucci seems to understand this. He says he takes pride in having the lowest expenses on council. While I think this is noble, I don’t think it’s entirely the point. Again, there is value in looking and travelling beyond the borders of your own municipality. But Tucci is on the money when he says he sees no benefit in having so many councillors attend the same conference. Tucci and Rick Cowsill were the only members of Cambridge council who did not attend the FCM conference this past weekend.
In Kitchener, newcomer Frank Etherington finds the number of his fellow councillors in Halifax to be excessive. Etherington, fellow newbie Yvonne Fernandes and veteran John Gazzola were the only councillors who chose not to attend FCM this year. And like Tucci in Cambridge, Etherington has tried — unsuccessfully — to pass a motion around travel and expenses. I suggest both look to Waterloo’s policy as fodder for bringing such a motion forward again.
You may recall some years ago in Kitchener, there was an uproar over the number of free tickets councillors were entitled to for a concert in the city. That uproar led to a change in policy. I would suspect that if enough noise were to be made around the issue of travel — not so much the cost but the number who attend at any one time — a similar result could be achieved. After the new Kitchener councillors made budget deliberations painful this year as they pored over every penny and cut in every place they could, it shocks me that so many willingly leapt at the opportunity to travel to the same conference to hear the same speakers share the same messages and best practices.
Perhaps even more shocking is the fact those one of those best practices, in this case the number of councillors who attend a given conference, is being used right now in Waterloo. And you sure don’t have to travel very far to learn about that.
Mike Farwell is a local broadcaster and you can read more of his Writings at