Cities Secretive On Spending

Municipalities remain the least transparent level of government in the country, says the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. The group yesterday said it must resort to Access To Information requests to obtain basic records on municipal spending.

“One of the biggest challenges is that system is different for every city,” said Aaron Wudrick, the Federation’s federal director. “Once you learn the federal Access To Information system you can use it for every provincial system, but cities don’t work that way. There are often different rules. We would like to see the same rules applied everywhere, all the time.”

The Federation yesterday issued its annual Teddy Awards for government waste, including a citation for the City of Montréal for a $34 million subsidy to a 2017 electric car race. Only 25,000 tickets were sold for the so-called Formula-E event.

“There is just less attention paid to that level of government and there’s not as much interest from media,” said Wudrick. “We’re a non-profit organization; we don’t have the bandwidth to watch every single city council in the country the way we do provincial and federal governments.”

Other citations for municipal waste included the City of Calgary over six-figure grants for municipal art projects, including $221,000 for a “large metal ball located behind a fence at the Calgary fire department’s repair and maintenance facility”; and $246,000 to install decorate lighting at a wastewater station.

The Toronto Transit Commission was cited for a $1.9 million Light Spell program allowing riders to submit eight-character messages to be displayed in lighting at subway stations: “When the new stations opened in December, Light Spell remained offline as the Commission was concerned about ‘hate speech and the potential for the installation to be misused by some’.”

The Government of Canada is subject to mandatory disclosure of program spending, labour costs, out-of-court settlements, loss due to theft or negligence and the value of contracts over $10,000. No similar legislation forces disclosure of municipal spending.

“It’s important to remember that municipalities are creatures of the provinces, and so normally we hold the provinces to account because they’re the ones overseeing them,” said Wudrick. “When the federal government gives money directly to municipalities, there is the possibility that the lines of accountability aren’t clear.”

“We’re increasingly finding that we have to do a lot of digging, sometimes for years and years, to find this information,” said Wudrick; “We have to drag the information out of them. It’s actually better for them if they proactively release information.”

The Federation’s top award for public misspending went to the Department of Canadian Heritage, for spending $8.2 million to erect a temporary hockey rink with Zamboni shed on Parliament Hill. Costs averaged $10,000 a day, said Wudrick: “Any temporary rink costing millions of dollars is a project that should have been put on ice from the get-go.”

By Jason Unrau

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