Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Will Greater Sudbury Be Forced to Hike Taxes to Pay for Legal Challenges Made by Taxpayers Association?

The Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association (GSTA) is at it again, practicing the politics of fear and division within our City. At first, the GSTA’s smear campaign against our locally-elected officials was, for me, an academic interest; something interesting to watch unfold, from an intellectual perspective. However, with the GSTA’s most recent news conference, the actions of this group of neo-liberals in our midst is going to have a direct impact on me, a taxpayer of this City, in a place where it will hurt the most – my wallet.

Yes, it’s extremely ironic that a group which claims to be on a mission to look out for taxpayers financial interests has set its sights on – get this! – potentially contributing to raising the taxes of all municipal residents! But if reports published in the Sudbury Star (online, Monday February 20th, “City councillors face slush fund showdown”, and in print, Tuesday, February 21st, “Slush fund showdown”) are to be believed, it seems that the Taxpayers Association is threatening to take our municipal Councillors to court if the Association doesn’t get its own way.

Who, pray tell, does the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association think is going to be picking up the legal costs for a court challenge? Why, I think that it will end up being me, and all of the other taxpayers in our City, that’s who!

The "Healthy Community Initiative"

Since before its inception as an incorporated entity, members of the GSTA have been speaking out against something called the “Healthy Community Initiative” (HCI), which they (and others) label a “slush fund”. Essentially, each local councillor is allocated $50,000 for leisure spending in their wards each year (although apparently any unspent funds can be used by a Councillor in the following year of their 4 year mandate). This past Monday, the GSTA held a press conference to announce their intention to file lawsuits against Council if the Healthy Community Initiative isn’t reformed to the GSTA’s satisfaction.

Look, the Healthy Community Initiative in its present form is completely indefensible, in my opinion. On that, the GSTA and I agree. That a lot of good ultimately comes out of ward-specific spending on leisure activities is undeniable, but the fact is that all of this spending – now as much as $600,000 a year, is happening in an unaccountable vacuum, at the direction of only the ward Councillor. There is no public oversight, until after the fact, and then only through the media. There is no accountability regarding how funds are spent.

The Healthy Community Initiative is also a boon for incumbent municipal Councillors come election time. Essentially, each Councillor has access to a pool of money, now totalling $200,000 over 4 years, on which they can draw on to promote projects in their ward. At election time, Councillors often refer back to HCI spending that they’ve made within their wards as reasons for re-election, and as reminders to voters that they’ve done some good locally. Of course, the public is rarely advised whether other good projects might have been turned down in preference to other good projects. And since there is no requirement for public oversight, there’s no knowledge being shared as to which proponents might have benefited from HCI spending, and which proponents didn’t.

Accountability, Oversight and a Healthy Democratic Environment

As a resident of the City of Greater Sudbury, I’m happy that the City has expressed an interest in investing in leisure activities at the ward level, to the tune of $600,000 a year. As a taxpayer, however, I’m dismayed by the lack of oversight of this spending. And as a member of the Green Party of Canada, and CEO of the local federal electoral district association, I’m frankly appalled by the abuse of democracy which is occurring at the local level of my municipal government.

Not that I have any particular interest in municipal government in my role as CEO of the Sudbury Federal Green Party Association, as we are focussed only on the federal politics. But as a capital-G partisan Green, I, like thousands of Canadians, share a set of values, which my Party has articulated in its Constitution. But you don’t have to be a partisan Green or a member of my Party to subscribe to these values, as many ordinary Canadians share some or all of these values. I just happen to belong to a political party which has codified these shared values, and which uses these values as a basis for all decision-making. When applied to the Healthy Community Initiative, it’s clear to me that such a program involving government spending isn’t in keeping with those values.

Specifically, Greens believe in breaking down the inequalities of wealth and power that inhibit participation in democracy. We believe that all elected representatives should be committed to the principles of transparency, truthfulness and accountability in government. A spending program which lacks oversight and accountability, with a budget in excess of a half million dollars in any given year, administered by an elected official at their discretion, and seemingly to their electoral advantage, well, that’s just not in keeping with those values. Those are the sorts of undemocratic initiatives which my Party is fighting against at the federal level (google: “Tony Clement” and “Gazebo” to find out more about recent unaccountable spending by the federal government).

There can be no defending how HCI spending is being implemented in this City. So I agree with the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association’s call for reform of the HCI.

Bully Tactics and the Politics of Fear & Division

What I don’t agree with is the GSTA’s threats to bring lawsuits against Council or individual Councillors if they don’t get their way. Look, I understand that with regards to the HCI, Monday’s press conference wasn’t the GSTA’s starting point on this issue. They’ve been making their opinion known about the HCI for some time now. The GSTA has, apparently, hired a lawyer to prepare a 10-page report on HCI spending, and now armed with the findings of the Report, the threats of legal action are flying around fast and furiously.

With this Report in their backpocket, why did the GSTA not first choose to bring the findings of the Report to Council’s attention through a delegation process? Or make the Report available to individual Councillors, as a courtesy, or even simply through a press conference which still could have elicited coverage in our local media? Instead of taking those proactive steps to provide further education to our elected officials, with the hopes that this time they might see the light on the HCI spending issue, what happened instead has escalated this issue into an entirely different political realm.

And if the GSTA was serious about reforming the HCI, they never would have taken the step to threaten law suits. Clearly, there’s another agenda at play here. What the threat of a law suit actually does is to put Council and individual Councillors against a wall. If they decide to reform HCI spending, they’ll be handing a public victory to an organization that has been critical of Council, many individual Councillors, and municipal staff. If Council doesn’t reform the HCI, they’ll continue to have to defend the indefensible, however since that’s the track which our current Council has been on anyway, it seems likely that it will continue to follow suit for the next few years now, rather than hand the GSTA a moral victory.

An opportunity for real reform was lost as a result of issuing the legal threat. In its short history, the GSTA has frequently relied on bully tactics to make its point, such as calling for the resignation of the municipal CAO over his perceived role in the transit ticket scandal, instead of waiting for all of the facts to be exposed. In the case of the HCI, the GSTA’s very real threat of legal action against the municipality can only be considered yet another adversarial bully tactic, intended to intimidate Councillors. Of course, by issuing the threat, the GSTA can’t lose on this issue – unless of course, they follow through on the legal proceedings and fall flat on their faces. Even a legal loss, however, could still likely be spun as a win of some sort for the GSTA.

Political Game-Playing at the Municipal Level

And that’s why it’s pretty clear to me that the GSTA is playing a political game in our City, while claiming to be the champion of taxpayers. The old saying goes, “you get more flies with honey than vinegar”. The GSTA had other options available to it, especially now, armed with a report from a legal expert. The GSTA could have used this opportunity to build bridges with Council, and regain some credibility lost in the community through their use of over-heated rhetoric and bully tactics. Instead of using their Report as an incentive for reform, the GSTA has chosen to wield it as a club.

Backed up against a wall, if Council doesn’t blink, it now seems certain that our taxes are going to have to pay defending lawsuits filed by the so-called Taxpayers Association! Just whose interests is the GSTA really looking out for?

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

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