CITY COUNCILLORS USE EXPENSE BUDGETS ON (gasp!) EXPENSES

It probably says something that Rob Ford is being more restrained and thoughtful than even the Toronto Star these days.  Pressed by the Post for comment on Adam Giambrone’s taxi bill, he told Natalie Alcoba that “it’s not fair to single anyone out.” (The media similarly tried to extract a nutzoid soundbite from Ford following Giambrone’s pulling-out press conference, but he refused to indulge them then, too.)  It’s one thing for the Toronto Sun to gleefully slap together cover stories about meaningless things, but (let’s be honest) we all hold the Star to a much higher standard.

“Councillor expensed chipmunk costume” is a wonderful phrase, to be sure, but do you know what the proper medium for it is?  A tweet.  Not a headline on the front page of a daily newspaper.  Oh my goodness, Star, you came across something quirky on the City’s website!  Good for you! *clap* *clap* *clap* *clap* *clap*

There’s indeed lots of fascinating stuff among the receipts posted online, and everyone should be encouraged to browse them (if only for the insight they offer into what the job of being a city councillor actually involves).  That’s how I stumbled across the Karen Stintz lunch bill that became the subject of my complaint to the Lobbyist Registrar and subsequent investigation into the dubious path that one particular billboard took on its road into existence.  Perhaps the dailies might have come upon that story, too, if they were less enthralled by animal suits.

The Star employs very many good, dedicated people, and I’m sure they’re as embarrassed by this as anyone else. And I imagine that one of those people is Laurie Monsebraaten, the author of the “Chipmunk” article who usually does wonderful work as the paper’s “Social Justice Reporter” (a title which mercifully did not appear under her byline on this particular story). As Spacing contributor (and School Board candidate) Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler commented on Facebook, “To take Laurie off [her usual beat] for a day to write a petty ‘gotcha’ story is, in a nutshell, what’s wrong with journalism today.”

16 comments

  1. Jonathan
    You regularly write pieces that are worth reading.
    Thanks,
    GMD

  2. Amazing how the Toronto Star has morphed into Fox News so slowly no one noticed. First, they let the ex-girlfriend take down the only left-leaning councillor with a shot at replacing Miller with a story that any first year journalism student knows should not have made it to press. Then they give the Giambrone cab ride non-story prominence. To ignore a blatant conflict of interest lunch the uber right wing nut Stintz has seals the deal in my book. The Star has jumped the Shark.

  3. I agree the Star was at one time my fav paper. Now when i read it i feel my IQ lowering and find myself checking the top of the page in case i accidentally picked up a SUN. Its sad to say the only left leaning fairly un-biased daily paper left is Metro

  4. Wow Spacing, usually you have content that is topical and worth reading. However this post was nearly as bad as The Star’s ‘chipmunk’ headline.

  5. I am often confused by the Star these days. When you read that story it turns out that the biggest spender on community donations spent around 4000, hardly enough to sway the votes of an entire riding. In Parkdale in the late 90’s I was involved in a community initiative and the councilor donated money to pay for some printing; nobody knew and nobody cared who paid for it. If these small donations actually worked then one could easily spend 5,000 and win every time instead of the 80,000 it takes to run a modest campaign with signs and brochures.

    In terms of cab bills I would have thought that with all the events and meetings that Adam goes to the bill would have been much higher. I personally have had years where my cab bill was almost 4,000 for my work. I dont really car if Adam heads the TTC, when as a citizen I go to a Community Council meeting, or there is a Railpath opening, or a community safety audit I want him there on time. If he does it by cab instead of owning a car, great. I dont mind paying for his cabs.

    I should point out that the Star doesnt bother to mention the unbelievable number of ways that business people like me can deduct everything under the sun as a business expense reducing our taxable income and paying less tax. Its just too easy to complain about politicians spending under 100,000 total in their communities.

  6. I agree. The Star tried to make this story into a sensational blow-up about taxpayer’s money, but it’s ridiculous. The Councillor used part of his Council-approved expense account to pay for things at a community event. That’s part of what the account exists for! It’s not like he bought something for his sole use or benefit. Regardless of whether one agrees with Councillor Heaps’ stance on issues x,y, or z, this is a legitimate expenditure. If he had spent the same amount on coffee and cookies, or a performer, would people complain? It’s the fact that “chipmunk costume” sounds inherently silly, and that The Star had a photo to run, that somehow propelled this to the front page.

    I don’t want to make too big a leap between this story and the state of The Star in general but I agree with others who are concerned about its decline in quality. They still have some great journalists, but overall the paper has taken a serious dive in the past few years. The stances, the quality of writing, the stories it chooses to run, to say nothing of the dreadful web re-design, are all disappointing.

  7. Thanks for writing this, people need to keep reminding the public that this is not news and try to push journalism back in the right direction. All the old media outlets in this city are starting to resemble the Onion piece “Some Bullsh*t Happening Somewhere:

    *caution swearing*

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9U4Ha9HQvMo

  8. In addition to these fine examples, they’ve had some really terrible tabloidy stories in the last few months. Lots of ‘research by Facebook’. The recent story that was most ridiculous (although the chipmunk costume is close) was a couple weeks ago. They obviously had Google in overdrive and did a story on how the Sarnia doctor who did the unwarranted mastectomies apparently enjoys making jewelry. There a bunch of quotes of posts she had made on message boards or something about the joys of making jewelry. That was the entire story. Not sure if it made the print edition, but it was a sizeable story featured prominently on their website.

  9. I am *so* not offended by my tax dollars being spent on a little bit of fun. Three hundred friggin’ dollars so some kids laugh more as they learn to skate? I do not want to live in a world so miserly that any bit of fun is nickel and dimed to death.

  10. First, they let the ex-girlfriend take down the only left-leaning councillor with a shot at replacing Miller… Then they give the Giambrone cab ride non-story prominence.

    And now, in something I can only describe as genius, they’ve managed to combine the two.

    Just to be clear, though, I’m not accusing anyone of ignoring the Stintz story. (That there was anything fishy about that particular receipt was something that very few people might have noticed.) Rather, I’m just disappointed that the Star and the other papers frequently go for the blatant and funny things, when just a little more digging might result in something genuinely scandalous and meaty.

  11. @Allan – the girlfriend didn’t take Giambrone down. He did that all by himself by how he reacted to Enzo di Matteo’s idiot piece in NOW, which caused a chain reaction of best-laid-plans unravelling of a sort one normally only sees in Trailer Park Boys or at Leaf games.

  12. The taxi bill thing – even Denzil Minnan-Wong, who goes on about “efficiencies” almost as much as Ford and Holiday, racked up almost $2000 in taxi receipts.

  13. @joe – Minnan-Wong’s ward is a bit further out and has not the same level of streetcar/subway as a downtown ward.

  14. Cab rides for legitimate City business are a legitimate expense. On that score, Councillor Giambrone has nothing to feel ashamed of. The only reason the item about his cab fares is a story is because it, once again, seems (and I stress “seems”) to suggest a certain level of disconnect (even hypocrisy) between the image he seems to want to project and the “facts”. Also, given all the other recent stories that have put his credibility, trustworthiness, and competence into question (no need to re-hash those here), it is not surprising that the item received the level of play that it did. Unfair perhaps…but not surprising.

    As for expensing cab fares for “ward visits” (which seems to be today’s story about City Council’s Wonder Boy), that is another matter entirely. If the suggestions in the story in today’s Star are true, I think that’s a very serious matter.

    http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/782084–giambrone-expensed-cab-ride-for-date

  15. It seems the Toronto Star has slowly been morphing into a tabloid, especially when it comes to reporting of city issues. There is a fine line between seeking accountability and going on a witch hunt of city councillors considering their expense accounts are a drop in the bucket compare the city’s multi-billion dollar budget…

  16. Having expenses posted for public review accomplishes two things — it allows the public to review whether they believe councillors are spending their office budgets wisely (e.g. is a bunny costume rental an appropriate expense), and it allows the public to review whether councillors are spending the budgets ethically (e.g. are you expensing a lunch with a lobbyist that could put you in a conflict of interest). The Star is focusing more on the easy pickings (the former) when there might be more value in focusing on the latter, even if more effort is involved.

    It’s not the first year that the Star has gone for this route — recall last year’s outrage over Sandra Bussin’s expense for renting a bunny costume in the Beach Easter parade. (I am sensing an animal costume theme.) In fact, this year’s article refers to last year’s “exposé”.

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