Monday, December 04, 2006

This week's City Journal column

I got an e-mail the other day from John Manley and Marion Dewar, asking me for $100,000 to help young Alex Munter pay for his campaign.
Hmmm… right before Christmas. Wife’s back at school. Nortel stocks aren’t exactly leaping like dolphins. A hundred grand may be tough to scrape up. But I have an idea of where they can get it.
Serious earners? Job security? Well-honed senses of public service? Ottawa’s city council is the type of demographic that Munter’s fundraisers, along with American Express marketers and Holt Renfrew ad buyers, dream of.
Golly. Maybe if we had known the money was so good, more of us would have run for council. The idea of doing a little door-knocking and arguing a few times with Harry the Hippy and Bobo the Dancing Clown for a guaranteed return of $440,000 over four years, with severance if it doesn’t work out, now seems workable.
Get re-elected, and it’s $880,000 over eight years, plus whatever raises council slips through in 2010, just before the next election.
The previous council accepted the recommendations of a task force that looked at the salaries of councilors in other cities and at the wages of senior staff. Remarkably, the study found Ottawa councilors should be paid better than many of the country’s best academics, people who put their lives on the line to run into burning buildings, and entry-level hockey referees.
Gone are the days when tweedy Uncle Fred was on council because he was a pesky codger with some wild ideas about snow removal. Ottawa city council may not be run like a business, but sure pays like one. And the chances of getting fired? Well, ask Shawn Little.
Some would, at this point, mention the fact that this is not permanent work. I doubt, however, that there are many businesses in town with a turnover as low as Ottawa council. And I doubt there are any that would hire its entire workforce back every four years if there was a hassle-free chance to cull the herd.
So, very quietly, council has improved its pay package, to take effect when the new council is sworn in. You may have trouble telling the old council from the new council. The new blood is measurable in pints. The new councilors can fit into a Volvo, and, with that car allowance, they can each afford to lease one.
The full remuneration package has $10,000-$12,000 in benefits plus that $6,000 annual car allowance. The full pay, cash and goodies, is about $110,000 a year. I’m waiting to hear back from City Hall to find out if an OC Transpo pass is one of those
Munter may want to put the bite on Larry O'Brien. His salary stands to jump 23% from $140,000 to $172,000, and about $21,000 in benefits, but he'd decided not to take it.
Funny thing. A lot of people I know who’ve changed jobs recently have been called into the office of the new boss to be told: “There’s been a change in your salary. We were off by about $30,000 when we told you the starting salary. And, yes, our earlier estimate was low.”
Our incumbent councilors were terribly modest, some would say also ungrateful, during the election campaign. I don’t remember them saying they were the only person in the race who was worth the salary, nor did any of them thank the rest of us for putting them into the earning leagues of corporate lawyers. Mayor O’Brien didn’t say he was in it for the money. In fact, a lot of people spent a lot of time during the campaign telling us how much dough Larry has.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is making hay on this, as are the spittle-flecked codgers at CFRA, the hungry young editors at the Ottawa Sun, and the rest of the usual suspects. I mean, perhaps you can lump me in with them. I’m old, I’ve got a potato head, I don’t make $193,000 a year in cash and benefits, and I am jealous.
But I do believe city councilors and mayors should be paid fairly.
This, however, isn’t fair.

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