Accountability breeds response-ability

Source: https://mailchi.mp/toronto/accountability

If you've been near any kind of media this week, you'll know there has been a lot of discussion around accountability and integrity in government.

It was fitting that my meeting with the TTC Board yesterday was greatly informed by Toronto's Accountability Officers. The City has four Accountability Officers who help ensure our government remains open and transparent. Those Officers are the Integrity Commissioner, the Auditor General, the Lobbyist Registrar and the Ombudsman.

The TTC meeting began with a presentation from the Integrity Commissioner, who explained how she can provide comment on the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act to both Councillors and Citizen Board Members.

Later, we watched a video on the exhaustive investigation carried out by Toronto's Auditor General (AG) on TTC fare evasions. It turns out revenues lost may total a whopping $65 million in a year – previously, TTC staff estimated it at approximately $20 million.

The AG's video on fare evasion. I’ll be writing about the City's crackdown on this in a later e-blast.


A brief history

Accountability Officers play a vital role in keeping City Hall honest. Toronto became the first Canadian city to employ an independent Auditor General, shortly after the MFP Computer Leasing Scandal came to light (for those of you too young to remember – you can read it about that here).

A few years later, a new Mayor and a new Premier – David Miller and Dalton McGuinty – created a unique piece of legislation called The City of Toronto Act. In exchange for certain enhanced powers, Toronto agreed to create our full suite of Accountability Officers.

The AG brings savings to the City through reviews of City services, City staff and how public funds are used. Consequently, when the AG requests an increase to their budget so they can conduct more investigations, Council approves it. It’s a different story when the other three officers, who are sometimes called upon to speak about councillors’ actions, come looking for a budget increase.

The key players in the MFP Scandal

The key players in the MFP Scandal

As they have done a number of times since 2010, the Ombudsman, the Integrity Commissioner and the Lobbyist Registrar requested increases in their 2019 budgets due to increased demand for their work. And, as always, they have been denied. These three Accountability Officers have had a rough time getting the resources they need or even the respect they deserve dating back to when Rob Ford became mayor in 2010.

A slippery slope

This time, their combined request of a $612,000 increase was removed from the City’s Budget by the Budget Chair, Gary Crawford, to make room for his favourite expenses in the arts.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I am a firm believer and supporter of public investment in the arts. I have supported initiatives to enhance our service to the arts every year, but this year feels different to me. The Budget that the Chair has proposed is only balanced through artful dodging, and may require Accountability Officers to keep an eye on our future.

At my Budget Town Hall this week, I highlighted that we are compromising our 10-year Capital and State of Good Repair Plan by reducing the amount cash we usually set aside for it. Historically, we have maintained discipline and good credit by requiring every division at City Hall to designate 10 per cent of their budget request to their capital repair program. The Budget I have been asked to support this year reduces this designation to 7 per cent, which results in a $46 million loss of investment in capital repairs.

When I called this a financial slippery slope, I was talking about the future. To my surprise, Chair Crawford chose to demonstrate just how slippery it is this year. As he wrapped up our Budget Committee’s review, he moved a motion to further increase the arts and slashed all requested increases made by the Accountability Officers, topping it off with slashing another $1.4 million from capital state of good repair funding.

Suddenly, an already troubling reduction of investment in repairs has crept up to $47.4 million. Neglecting capital needs will cost us all – drive down any road in the city and you’ll agree it already is.

My view

In order to serve over 3 million people, Toronto needs to be maintained with constant renewals and repairs. Now that councillors represent 25 huge jurisdictions, we need scrutiny and accountability more than ever. Unless there are some last-minute changes to the Budget made before it is finalized on March 7th, I cannot support it.

My detractors on Council will say I am not supporting this Budget simply because I don't want to save money. On the contrary – it is precisely because I want to save money that I will vote against it.

I want to be held to account. I want to be on the record as having fought for our City's future. And I want to be found to have stood for savings that are real, not notional, and achieved through prudent investments that guarantee deeper savings over the long haul.

Ani Dergalstanian