Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

OK, Stop Councilor!

After reading Thursday morning’s Cape Breton Post, I have an overwhelming urge to speak directly to District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie (In fact, I was speaking to him but I don’t think he heard me). I don’t think he’ll read this either, but for the sake of my own sanity, I’m going to put this out there.

Gillespie had what sounds like a small melt down over the federal government’s decision to tax the third of his councilor’s salary that has, until now, been tax free:

“They (the feds) just got greedy and it just doesn’t seem right — they’re forcing municipalities into a situation where they are going to have to pay their elected officials less money than they were making or they’re going to have to top it up so they’re making the same amount of money but at greater cost to the taxpayer,” said Gillespie, one of a minority of CBRM councillors who also holds down a full-time job.

OK, stop! (I’m starting to enjoy this game. Oh, who am I kidding, I’ve always enjoyed this game — I just didn’t know what it was called.)

First of all,  I would really like to know how much money we’re talking here, but I can’t judge the extent of Gillespie’s loss because I don’t know how much he makes at his day job.

And secondly, does he not realize that we cover his tax break? His tax break represents a loss in federal revenue and a loss in federal revenue affects anyone who uses federal services. So we are already covering his entire salary, whether he knows it or not. Okay, roll tape:

“My personal opinion is that I have no intention of taking home less money tomorrow than I do today to do the same job — I don’t believe that anyone else should, or anyone would want to do that, I just don’t believe there is anyone out there who would take home less money to do the same job.”

OK, stop!

A lot of people take home less money one year than they did the year before, even though they’ve done basically the same amount of (if not more) work. Freelancers, people who work on commission, service industry workers, the self-employed — all can see their remuneration fluctuate wildly.

Take a waitress, for example. She could serve exactly the same number of customers over exactly the same number of hours putting in exactly the same amount of effort on two subsequent nights and walk away with two completely different sums of money, depending on how generous her customers were. Salespeople can put as much work into a sale that falls through as a sale that goes through, but they only get rewarded for the deals they seal (has Gillespie never seen “Glengarry Glen Ross?).

Okay, continue, Councilor:

There’s always going to be people out there who believe that we’re giving ourselves a huge raise even when you explain to them that we’re just making changes to the way we’re being paid because the federal government is taking away the only incentive they’ve given us to put our names on the ballot and run for public office.

And I’ll even allow Councilor Gillespie another word — here’s what he said on Facebook, after clearly taking some flak over the Post article:

I was asked several times today of the “only incentive” quote in todays [sic] paper. It was not accurate. It should have said the only incentive the federal government offered is now gone. Its [sic] the feds that offered it and now they took it away. And I represent district 4 not 5.

OK, stop!

Shouldn’t you at least be telling us you ran for office out of a sense of civic duty? A desire to serve your fellow citizens? To make your community a better place? Are you really telling the people of the CBRM that the possibility of earning $40,246 a year (on top of your salary from your day job) and only paying tax on two-thirds of it tipped the balance for you in favor of running for council? I suppose I should applaud your honesty, but I’m kind of appalled by it.

I am not saying councilors don’t work hard, but do you know who else works hard? A lot of other people in the CBRM. And do you know how much of their salary is taxable? All of it.

Let’s keep it real, councilor.

 

Travel allowance

Nevertheless, I have some good news for Gillespie –and for District 9 Councilor George MacDonald who also took to the Post on Thursday to express concerns about having to pay full tax on his councilor’s salary (which he receives on top of his teacher’s pension): you still have your $140 per week travel allowance. You know, the allowance mayor and council can take without submitting mileage or receipts (although the mayor has opted to submit mileage and receipts, about which, more later). Mind you, it’s kind of ironic you still have it because Councilor Gillespie was once very anxious to do away with it.

Repealing it was actually part of Gillespie’s election platform in 2016, one he lost little time acting on once elected. In January 2017, Gillespie introduced a motion at a general committee meeting to abolish the travel allowance as of 1 April 2017. He further recommended that council go to a per-kilometer compensation system, that all CBRM employees (plus the mayor and council) be required to publish their expenses online and that CBRM staff should produce an Issue Paper for them on municipal compensation.

Citizen Joe Ward did a nice job summarizing the hoo-ha that ensued at this meeting and at a subsequent meeting — on 7 March 2017 — when that staff Issue Paper was presented. The Issue Paper looked like this:

Issue_Paper_Comp

Don’t waste too much time over it — council didn’t. It voted to remove the expense policy issue from the agenda and “bring it back another day,” as Mayor Clarke put it in his post-vote summation, then basically forgot about it.

But again, I must allow Gillespie a followup, this is also from Facebook:

Also for those of you who asked, I do not take the travel allowance and never have, nor have I ever submitted travel expenses. I do not like the current expense system and refuse to participate in it until its [sic] fixed. I don’t pretend to know everything, unlike others, and I am open to learning something new or shown a better idea.  If you have a question about what I said, feel free to contact me.

Yes, well, Council has supposedly been looking for “a better idea” — at Gillespie’s request — since January 2017 with no luck. But if Gillespie’s cri de coeur in the Post doesn’t cause the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to change its mind about the taxation policy, Council is obviously going to have look harder.

So it’s worth remembering how then-Chief Financial Officer now CAO Marie Walsh explained their dilemma back in January 2017, when Gillespie first introduced his motion:

 

Rewriting the CBRM policy is not rocket science. Other municipalities manage it. (Personally, I think a per-kilometer system that required them to present receipts, put an upper limit on how much they could expense each month, and included a requirement to publish those expenses online would be a step in the right direction.)

But while they’re revamping the policy, I have a figure it wouldn’t hurt for them to bear in mind: according to 2016 Census figures from Stats Canada, the median total income in a one-person household in Cape Breton in 2015 was $25,157 — $24,046 after taxes.

OK…I’ll stop.

 

Mystery travel

Wait, one more thing about expenses: if council is looking for how NOT to report them, they could do worse than take a gander at Mayor Cecil Clarke’s expenses for the first quarter of the 2018-19 fiscal year (April-June):

MayorExpenses_2018-19

 

Did you know he squeezed in a port development meeting in June? No, me either. I wonder where he went? And who he met with? And what they talked about?

And, come to think of it, why did he have to do any port-related travel, given he said when he announced in February that he was running for the PC leadership that his work on the port was done — that he’d handed the file over to the promoters to handle?

For the answers to these and other questions…dream on, my friends, dream on.

 

Factual information

Catherine Tully, NS Information and Privacy Commissioner

Nova Scotia Information and Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully (Photo via FOIPOP.NS)

And speaking of transparency, here’s an interesting case recently decided by the Information and Privacy Commissioner for Nova Scotia.

An applicant asked the provincial Department of Health and Wellness for records related to the department’s plan to replace equipment sterilization systems between December 2009 and January 2012.

The department responded with 16 pages of documents which “set out cost estimates and rationales for the replacement of sterilization equipment for five health authorities and the Department during the time period in question. The only information withheld from the records were the cost estimates.”

The department withheld the cost estimates on the grounds that their disclosure  a) would reveal “advice or recommendations” to a minister and b) could reasonably be expected to harm the economic interests of the public body. (Both of which are legitimate reasons for withholding information under the province’s Freedom of Information Protection of Privacy Act.)

Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully considered both excuses in some detail and then ruled that:

Canadian courts have made clear that the purpose of the policy advice exemption is to preserve an effective and neutral public service so as to permit public servants to provide full, free and frank advice. In order for the exemption to apply, there must be a deliberative or evaluative process and the withheld advice must involve an evaluative analysis of information. In this case, the public body withheld cost estimates for sterilization equipment replacement. The Commissioner determines that the nature of the withheld information is factual on its face. The nature of the records in which the information is found is likewise factual and not accompanied by options or analysis demonstrating skill or judgement. She recommends that the withheld information be disclosed in full.

I’d celebrate this as a win for transparency and accountability, but the Privacy Commissioner cannot force the Department of Health and Wellness to release the cost estimates, so I’ll leave the champagne in the fridge until we see what happens next.

 

Changing climate

This tweet by reporter Bruce Anderson caught my eye on Thursday:

Anderson links to the Business Council of Canada’s statement on the proposed federal carbon pricing and rebate system (which, you’ll note, it does not refer to as a ” bad, punishing, job-killing carbon tax grab”):

The Business Council of Canada welcomes the federal government’s announcement regarding its plan to implement carbon pricing in Canada. For many years we have advocated for carbon pricing as the most efficient means to contribute to achieving Canada’s climate change goals.

“We support the price mechanism because it provides the economic incentive for consumers to change their behaviour and for businesses to invest in technologies that progressively reduce their emissions over time,” said Goldy Hyder, President and CEO of the Business Council of Canada.

Climate change is a particularly complex and global environmental challenge. While it is difficult to design measures that can achieve universal support across the country, the carbon pricing policy is an important step toward ensuring that Canada makes a responsible contribution to this challenge.

I couldn’t help but note that the board of directors of the Business Council includes a couple of insurance industry mucky-mucks: the CEO of Intact Financial Corporation, Charles Brindamoor, and the President and CEO of Sun Life Financial, Dean Connor. As I’ve noted before in these pages, there are few climate change deniers in the insurance business.

But the board also includes C-level executives from the Royal Bank of Canada, Clearwater Seafoods, Scotiabank, Air Canada, Power Corporation of Canada, TransCanada (the pipeline people) and Suncor Energy (the oil sands people).

As Anderson points out, that’s an odd group of people for Conservatives like Doug Ford, Andrew Scheer and our own Cecil Clarke to take on.

 

Simons says…

Simons sign. Source: Radio-Canada

Source: Radio-Canada

In what has to be one of the boldest responses to date to the “Fight for $15” movement, Québec-based retail store Simons is raising its entry-level wage to $16 an hour.

That’s $4 above the provincial minimum wage of $12 an hour.

Marketing professor Robert Soroka told the CBC the move could pay off for Simons:

Given Quebec’s labour shortage, [Soroka] thinks the wage bump will pay off and perhaps even save Simons money in the long-run.

“Simons has just upped the ante,” said Soroka.

That’s because it takes between six months and two years for an employee to be fully productive, said Soroka. Paying employees more money creates incentive for them to stay.

“You’re creating a retention strategy, and you’re reducing the need for recruitment,” he said. “[It’s a] very good strategy.”

In fact, it’s already made me forgive the retailer for introducing a line of bras named for famous Canadian women — including former Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley MacLachlin, former Tory Cabinet Minister Flora MacDonald and “Famous Five” member Nellie McClung.

Full disclosure: I actually only found out about the bra line this morning, in the course of googling the wage-hike. It seems the retailer launched the line on September 6 and pulled it, with an apology from Simons President and CEO Peter Simons, just 10 days later.

As far as I’m concerned, Simons, all is forgiven.

 

Phrase of the Week

I’ve already mentioned the Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It podcasts (in fact, I’ve referenced them in this very piece by playing Jon Lovett’s “OK, stop!” game with poor Councilor Gillespie).

But I have to mention them one more time because this week, Jon Lovett gave me the best phrase I’ve heard in some time. He used it to describe the people who rush out after US President Donald Trump has said something outrageous to try and clean up the damage:

Intellectual zambonis!

Where do I get me one?

 

 

 

 

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