Political Analyst and Observer, Bill Longworth's, Weekly "Eye on City Hall" Columns, as published in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada's Oshawa Central Newspaper

Monday, March 21, 2011

Where’s the fat?

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and Unfiltered Opinion
Reprinted from Oshawa Central Newspaper

Bill Longworth, City Hall Columnist
March 21, 2011

Where’s the fat? This is a fine question to contemplate as I sit on the best beach in North America, Florida’s Panama City Beach, where I have "March breaked" with my family since the early 70’s. Unfortunately, I’ll be back home before you read this!

So if the column seems a little disjointed---blame it on the beach!

So where’s the fat? What are you going to cut out of the budget? Those were questions I was asked dozens of times during the last election campaign when I pledged to cut taxes by 3%.

Where’s the fat? That’s the million dollar question because it is covered up by bureaucrats, elected officials, and public appointees whose interest it is to not let us know.

They’ll not voluntarily inform taxpayers of this any more than a crook will tell us what they’ve robbed and where they’ve hidden the stash.

Just rest assured, though, that in the city’s $115M+ budget, there is plenty of waste, fat, excess, inefficiency, and even some corporate fraud if Oshawa’s City Government is typical of other governments at all levels in the country.

As an example of criminal excess, It has recently come to light, as a result of an $1800 Freedom of Information request by the Globe and Mail, that a Niagara Parks Commission Executive racked up $400,000 on his corporate credit card over three years, and this kind of irresponsibility runs wild in the public service.

Further stories of public agency and government official’s waste, graft, partying, and drunkenness at your expense would curl your hair.

While we read of these stories frequently in the national press, many members of the public continue to deny excess and wastage in Oshawa City Government. These people must believe we have the only clean government in the nation!

Equally frustrating is the public’s inability to access the information with high costs, redacted and heavily edited releases, stonewalling, and government’s outright refusal, despite Freedom of Information Legislation, to release requested information.

In terms of the Niagara Parks Commission’s big time partying on the public dime, the real question is how this was allowed to occur without any kind of internal or external oversight....unless, of course, they had a “gentleman’s agreement” that all members of the commission’s executive board should, as a matter of common practice, run wild with public monies.

I reported in a past column of being hosted to a fancy dinner by an appointed member of the Oshawa Harbour Commission and being counselled to order from the right hand “price” column, this Harbour Commissioner explaining the culture of excess that he’d learned from the Chairman of the Commission while generously entertaining themselves with wine, women, and song on the many distant conventions and conferences they’d attended doing “business” (or holidaying and partying) on behalf of the city’s harbour.

While taxpayers will often complain of the high political salaries and expenses and will even complain about the high bureaucratic wages listed on Ontario’s Public Sector Salary Disclosure, these taxpayer costs are only a small fraction of the highway robbery being perpetrated on city taxpayers.

Taxpayers have a right to complain about municipal politicians, not only about their handsome salaries, perks, and benefits, but more about the ineffective and sloppy job they do in overseeing the functions of city hall, and the waste, graft, inefficiencies, and questionable spending that goes on there.

While political salaries and some political expenses are disclosed on the city website, and high bureaucratic salaries beyond $100,000 earned by about 80 city employees are disclosed on the Ontario Public Employee Disclosure, charges on credit cards issued to various departments and officials are not publicly disclosed.

City Council does not monitor or approve bureaucratic expenses charged to city charge cards and thus they are not providing oversight on the most potentially blatant misuse of taxpayer cash.

If some official in the small Niagara Parks Board can rack up over $400,000 in credit card purchases over three years, what are the charges being racked up on the dozens of city charge cards issued to senior city bureaucrats?

Obviously, it is in taxpayer’s interests to “hire” astute questioning individuals as trustees of the public purse.

During the election, I was calling for a 3% tax cut without an ounce of service cuts as the only way to cut out waste and excess from public spending.

Interestingly, one astute voter pointed out that I’d just lost the election when I announced that policy, since city hall staffers and their extended families were all voters, probably representing in excess of 20% of the pathetically low voter turnout, and none of them would want to see any cuts in city hall budgets.

City hall staff interests are best served with the election of docile and accepting politicians who are afraid to rock the boat. At present, there is so little debate or discussion at city hall that the Mayor brags that city council meetings are lasting just over an hour.

To me, these short meetings demonstrate a real problem---when bureaucrats learn that nothing is being questioned, discussed, or debated, they will ramp up their indiscriminate spending.

In my March 7th column, I reported that 10.5% of all occupational fraud was government related and that one in six of these cases resulted in losses exceeding $1M. Without strong and effective political oversight, these cases are bound to increase.

A strong councillor would present a motion for periodic forensic audits of all city hall financial systems to insure iron-tight controls over city hall spending. They would also call for time/efficiency studies to reduce costs of city hall operations.

These are the roles played by Canada’s and Ontario’s Auditors General, both of whom independently investigate any area they please, and whose public reports have the power to muster public pressures to embarrass governments into calling independent Royal Commissions to fully expose inefficiencies and oversights, and criminal and unethical activity in public spending. The investigations often lead to departmental re-organizations and procedures to implement recommendations, and in serious cases, firings and criminal prosecutions.

Unfortunately the investigative freedoms and right to subpoena records and take evidence under oath is not included in the contract of Oshawa’s Auditor General whose power is limited to being a political hack in a charade to provide political support for all bureaucratic actions at city hall.

If Oshawa’s auditor general had real teeth to expose wrongdoing and questionable spending, he would have brought the MBA tuition funding to public attention, for example, instead of providing comment only upon direction of city council after the expenditure was exposed by a member of the public.

The city of Oshawa publishes lists of cheques issued every month but only the recipient of the cheque, often a numbered company, is listed and not the reason or rationale for the expense. Unethical spending can be easily hidden in a few cheques of the thousands listed and will not alert any political oversight unless they are unusually large in the tens of millions of dollars. Anything less escapes all political scrutiny.

I’d like to see every cheque issued by the city and every charge card bill, accompanied by their detailed invoices, go through the office of Oshawa’s Auditor General who would sign off on expenditures only after they had passed the scrutiny of the department head and the city manager. All this prior to the detailed information reaching the politicians for their final approval.

It’s not that public workers are any more dishonest than other workers on the planet---it’s just that lax supervision systems of the spending habits of managers creates opportunity that spawns excesses. It’s like dropping a $100 bill in the middle of the floor. It won’t be long before it’s picked up by even the most honest of citizens.

There are enough examples of public employee spending excesses regularly in the big city newspapers to justify closing all floodgates of unethical or criminal opportunity.

It is obvious every government at every level needs Rob Ford and his strong leadership to derail the gravy train!

Where is Oshawa's Rob Ford?

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

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