Mayor John Tory had a lot to say Monday after Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean’s announcement that she would be leaving at the end of her term, in part because her office had been denied five of the six new positions she said were needed to properly do her job.
But here's the core of it:
“I can only say that my objective in the coming year, helped along by this objective examination of the resources they need, will be to make sure that that accountability office — and the others — has the resources it needs to do the job. But I think that, you know, six [positions] wasn’t necessarily the right number, nor was zero [positions] for sure, and one [position] was the best that I could do in the circumstances because otherwise, if I tried for anything other than that the answer might have been zero [positions].”
Here's what all that means: Early in the budget process, Crean requested six new staff positions at a cost of $360,000. Her reasoning? Increased workload. Complaints received by her office increased by 129 per cent between 2009 and 2014, and in May 2014 council voted 34-3 to bring all city-owned corporations under the jurisdiction of the ombudsman’s office.
But councillors on the budget committee balked at the request for more staff. Coun. Michelle Berardinetti, who had supported expanding the ombudsman’s jurisdiction last year, moved to nix the request for more staff. Her fellow members agreed.
After some push back, Tory moved an amendment at council's final budget debate that added one new position — of the six requested — to the ombudsman’s 2015 budget. The motion passed 39-4.
That single position, Tory's argument went, was the absolute best he could do. To hear him tell it, getting councillors to approve the ombudsman’s original budget request would have been impossible. Had he pushed to give Crean a full staff complement, councillors would have rejected him and given her no new positions.
Tory is a popular new mayor, riding an approval rating of about 65 per cent. His main job as the guy in the big office is winning council votes. If he isn’t able to do that, he won’t be able to do much — just ask Rob Ford.
And yet, here's a situation where Tory suggests he wouldn’t have been able to win what amounts to a minor budget amendment, one that would have had virtually no tax or service impact. Heck, the money for the six staff was included in the original staff-recommended budget, signed off by the city manager. But the best he could do was one?
To accept that, we'd have to believe a majority of councillors have such a profound antipathy for the ombudsman that they could not be moved to support her staff request, even with a popular mayor urging them to do so. That doesn’t entirely square with the council record over the last four years. Crean has her detractors, but she has her supporters, too.
Or, we could believe Tory doesn’t have the grip on council that he should have. That wouldn’t bode well for the rest of his term. If he couldn’t win a vote that would give $360,000 to the ombudsman’s office, he’s going to find it really hard to win votes on multi-billion dollar projects.
The more cynical explanation is this wasn't a battle the mayor wanted to fight.
That last possibility is the most concerning, because having an effective ombudsman — and an effective integrity commissioner, lobbyist registrar and auditor general — is critical and worth fighting for. Think of the MFP scandal, improper eviction of community housing tenants, massive casino lobbying, or, you know, most of the past four years.
After his explanation Monday, Tory noted that his job is to “go forward and get better.” Let's hope he means it. More than anything else, Crean's exit highlights the need for serious reforms to the way our accountability offices build their budgets. It makes no sense to make accountability offices beg the politicians they’re supposed to be overseeing for the funding and staff they need to do the job.
Council should consider creating formula-based budgets for these offices. Let the ombudsman’s budget be determined based on the number of complaints received in the last year. Ditto for the integrity commissioner. And give the lobbyist registrar funding based on lobbying activity. Above all, don’t let councillors mess with them.
If he really wants to “go forward and get better,” Tory needs to push reforms that prove he believes in the importance of oversight. This week's news suggests he doesn’t see such reform — or accountability — as a priority.
This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/torys-toronto-matt-elliott/2015/03/25/could-tory-not-convince-council-on-ombudsman-funding-or-does-he-just-not-care.html on 2015-03-25T00:00:00.000Z