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It's time to do away with councillor slush funds

Waye Mason puts forward a half-measure, which is about all he can do at present.

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Councillor Waye Mason
  • Councillor Waye Mason
This is interesting. Councillor Waye Mason this morning announced a "participatory budgeting process to distribute $92,000 in capital funding to the community."

Mason is referring here to the money budgeted to each council district for discretionary spending on capital projects in the district. Traditionally, the councillors themselves have decided where the money goes. Before the reduction in the number of council seats, each councillor had control of $65,000, but with fewer seats and (nearly) the same total budget figure, each councillor now controls $92,000.

What are "capital projects"? As Mason explains in his press release:

The money can be used for things like: installing benches, bike racks, public art; renovating a park or playground; signage, public washrooms, bleachers, and other capital projects that provide a public good.
The theory behind the capital district funds—at least, the theory as told to us by councillors—is that councillors are closest to the ground, know the districts intimately and can therefore respond quickly to pressing needs. This way, the story goes, these pressing needs don't need to go through the usual cumbersome and time-consuming bureaucratic system that takes care of the bulk of the city's capital needs.

This theory is nonsense. Here's why.

First, if the bureaucratic system in unwieldy, it needs to be fixed so it works properly. But generally speaking, it's not unwieldy. Sure, there are exceptions, but city workers do a pretty good job of taking care of the basic infrastructure needs of the city, and the granting process for non-profits to buy equipment and so forth has been streamlined and works pretty well.

Second, even if the district discretionary capital funds work as advertised, the money will be spent the way those residents best-connected to the councillor want it to be spent. A well organized group, or a friend or campaign contributor is going to have more access to the money than will someone working two jobs and with little time to schmooze politicians. The bureaucratic system should answer this objection, and be a neutral assessor of needs.

Third, and more to the point, the money is used for political purposes. It is a political slush fund. Councillors spread the money around in ways that they think will bring the most votes.

After last year's election, one citizen gave me a credible and detailed account of how one councillor running for reelection was piqued that the citizen I talked to took down a yard sign for the councillor and put up a yard sign for the councillor's opponent. I was told that the councillor then contacted a group the citizen was involved with—a group that had received capital district funds in past years from the councillor—and was told that that group would not receive those funds in the future if the citizen with the wrong yard sign continued to be associated with the group. Not wanting to cause the group grief, the citizen left the group. I've confirmed this story with both the citizen and the group, but neither will allow their names to be used because they fear doing so would result in retribution to the group.

I am certain this anecdote is not unique. I'm told repeatedly about capital district funds being used by some councillors as both a carrot and a stick, to curry favour and to punish. I have no idea how pervasive this behaviour is, and I know that some councillors try their best to keep politics out of the district fund award process. Still, the improper use of the district capital funds is a fact.

Which brings us to Mason's announcement that he'll use a "participatory budgeting process" to divvy up the district funds. He details the process as follows:

The first meeting will take June 5th and determine, “What are our priorities in this community?” Participants will learn more about the process and help set community priorities and develop strategies for spending.

The second meeting will take place June 19th, where participants will be asked to present projects and decide.

For more information about the process, click here.

If our primary goal is to stop the use of district capital funds as an overt political slush fund, then Mason's solution goes a long way to achieving that goal.

I haven't spoken to him today, but in the past, Mason has told me that he'd like an overhaul of the entire capital fund system, but that will take time and the agreement of a council majority. In the meanwhile, he offers up participatory budgeting as a partial solution. Fair enough.

So Mason gets kudos for doing something to address the problematic capital funds, which is more than any other councillor is doing. But clearly, while Mason's short-term solution is welcome, even that has its problems.

And that's my second objection above: even with the participatory process, those residents who have the time to attend two separate meetings, and who possess the oratory and persuasive skills to successfully navigate those meetings, will do better than those who do not.

To his credit, Mason is providing child care at the meetings. (Well, presumably he personally won't be changing diapers and wiping snotty noses, but someone will.) And, there's no reason to believe that Mason won't attempt to make the meetings as welcoming as possible, without marginalizing the timid. Still, there's no way to reach those who can't or won't attend, and so even this vast improvement falls short.

It's a good half-measure. But it's time to do away with the political slush funds entirely.

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