After months of controversy over the individual funds Greater Sudbury city councillors can spend in their wards, the new policy concerning the so-called “Health Community Initiative” funds, introduced by council last week, promises a bit more oversight of how that money is spent.
That policy now rests with Auditor General Brian Bigger for review, and council will not move to adopt it until the city’s top accountant reports back to them in August.
Council has been roundly criticized over the funds, both for the funds themselves (which give each councillor $50,000 per year to spend in their ward with virtually no accountability) and for resisting suggestions that HCI spending be more transparent.
Councillors insist the funds are, in the words of Martha Stewart, “a good thing.”
That may very well be true. Certainly the 12 councillors seem to think so, as not one has criticized the HCI funds, and certainly those groups and organizations that have benefited would agree.
But then why the foot-dragging over a more formalized spending policy and greater transparency for how and where the money is spent? Why the reticence?
The new policy would limit to $1,000 the amount a councillor could dole out without prior approval of the finance committee. It would also formalize into four categories where the money could be spent.
Councils would also be asked to provide a list at budget time of the projects they would like to undertake in their wards each year.
What’s more, the new policy lays out where the money could not be spent, namely for personal expenses, political contributions, donations to groups or individuals outside city boundaries and election-related expenses.
These are all good things. Perhaps councillors followed similar guidelines before the policy. But then again, perhaps not. The point is, the public had no way of knowing.
And since it is taxpayers’ money that feeds the annual $600,000 HCI-fund budget ($2.4 million over council’s four-year term), the public must know that a process is in place to ensure their money is being spent for the benefit of each ward.
Quarterly spending reports for both the HCI funds and the mayor’s and councillors’ expenses will at least let taxpayers know where the money went.
Are the new guidelines a bit anaemic?
Do they lack teeth? Yes, in many ways they do, but they are a good start, and certainly better than what preceded them. And now that they are in place, nothing is stopping this council or any of its successors from making improvements.
The Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association argues that the ward funds really amount to grants, not expenditures. There is merit to their contention that the HCIs give incumbents an unfair advantage over challengers come election time.
With voter turnout so low, the sitting councillor does not have to please too many voters to secure a win necessarily, and so the funds, it can be reasonably argued, do allow them to curry favour with voters — especially when councillors have all the power, and lack of accountability, to dole it out to whom they see fit.
Posted by Vivian Scinto